INTERVIEW: Five Minutes with Nico Cartosio
Nico Cartosio is made of music. Inspired by everyday human interactions, Cartosio makes sense of these connections through sound, perceiving the world through melodies. The neo-romantic composer is sought after by music industry professionals and artistic collaborators alike, in pursuit of his musical versatility and innovation.
Having recently released “Christmas On The Moon,” the video for which has been well received for it’s unusual and nuanced take on the ‘most wonderful time of the year’, Cartosio has been hard at work Abbey Road Studios, recording his forthcoming album. We chatted to him about the process involved, his techniques, and working with famed conductor Gevin Greenaway.
Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea?
I don’t belong to the Tory Trombonists, or the Whigs Contrabass Players.
I haven’t taken an oath at Trafalgar Square to only express the Brexit problem in just a B-flat major scale.
I’m saying that I will be immediately torn to pieces by saber-toothed music critics, but in music the idea always comes second. In most cases, the idea is only a publicity by-product, arranged as an afterthought. Music exists to express something that can’t be expressed with words. And then composers use words to hook basically anything up to their opuses. So-called “neoclassics” especially tend to suffer from this.
Well, you know, these guys who like to disguise their music as the arpeggio exercises we used to play at the music school for practice. So he’s sitting at the piano thumbing an F-minor arpeggio, and preaches: “I’ve composed an ecological elegy. It expresses a pain the oceans feel because of the plastic rubbish contamination.” Well, sure, dude!
At the same time I do like it when composers try out new things with the structure and the texture of a music piece just to express some additional meanings. In my «Cocaine march» I tend to copy the structure of cocaine addiction stages: the powerful energy boost, the euphoria, the serotonin bliss, interrupted by the withdrawal, one more dose, coming down. But if I hadn’t told you about it, would you have asked me about it? Anyway, it’s music that matters, not the idea. Explaining music with words is so lame.
I can’t say I compose music. It lives inside me. Now, can you say that you compose your own dreams? Well, scientifically speaking I suppose you can, yes, your mind definitely takes part in the creation of your dreams, but you’re not aware of it, right? So this is exactly how the tunes appear inside me.
When I look at a beautiful girl walking down the street, I hear her tune. Or when the sun appears in the middle of a gloomy day – I hear how it sounds.
A composer is like a dream catcher, he catches his music – it’s like you’re trying to hold on to a beautiful dream slipping away from you in the morning.
It’s the same for me, too. Sometimes I manage to catch a tune that was just playing inside my head and transfer it to the piano keys. If I don’t do it immediately, it’ll leave me forever.
Composing always means two things: some magic, and slaving over the instrument, or a musical score. I’ve got no questions about slaving, but the magic… where does this tune come from, where do they go away to?
In my case there are always two streams of thoughts flowing inside my head: thoughts shaped in words, and thoughts shaped in tunes. I see this world in tunes.
And people as well.
Your music videos are very cinematic. What was the idea behind this?
Why can a rapper can make cool music videos, but a classical composer can’t? Classical musicians usually make unbearably boring videos: a dude in a black tie, a blurred candle… why can’t we use all these modern tricks and make a trendy and cool video? It’s not like we’re from the 16th century, we live here and now. I wish classical music would exist not only for some ten thousand snobs, but for everybody. It could be trendy, popular. Because it’s beautiful. And beauty can’t go out of style. Can sitting with a girl by the ocean go out of style? Though the ocean is even older than Van Morrison’s rhymes. My goal is to make it modern – by all means available, to shoot a cool video, to make it sound more like “now”, to talk about today’s problems. But at the core it will still be classical music.
Why do you think people are so drawn to your music videos?
There is a poem by a Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak, where there are the lines: “But you, yourself, must not distinguish // Defeats and victories amassed.” You know, I can’t answer this question. But I’m sure I’m happy about it. I can only say one thing: everything that is played there, is played from the bottom of my heart. It’s not artifactual music. There’s my pain inside of it, my emotions.
And my videos, too. They are not some abstractions, they are about things that concern us, move us.
What can you tell us about ‘Christmas On The Moon’? Does the song have any special meaning to you?
For me it was a way to deal with my pain. This video is set in a city – the most beautiful city of my childhood probably – in Saint Petersburg. Those years when I was growing up are now called “The Wild 90s” in my country. It means that shootings in the streets were quite a common thing, and sometimes people were killed, not only adults, but children, too. Children were often involved in something illegal. The real part of this story happened many years ago. A person very dear to me didn’t live to see that Christmas. Maybe this is why for many years on Christmas I used to dive into the black, oily darkness, into depression, into a sense of loneliness and grave injustice, into a pre-Christmas nightmare. It’s a story I couldn’t tell in words, but somehow I managed to tell it in music. I managed to overcome some deep internal pain, to push off this black muddy bottom and to swim up and up, to the surface, to those Christmas lights. To be born is not a difficult trick, everybody gets to do that. To resurrect – this is a true wonder. And, well, life is about trying over and over again. To try and cross a bridge… to cut it short, what does it mean – to be a human being? I believe that every human is a bridge, something incomplete, a passage between an animal and a consciousness. And we’re all milling about at this bridge, though we know exactly which way we have to go. Maybe this is our task for the short period we’re staying in this training camp called Earth.
Does your material feature any collaborations? How did you end up working with these acclaimed musicians?
In the spring of 2018 I composed a piece called “Snow Above the Earth.” It’s a requiem for all the young musicians that have left us. My friends helped me to make the video. And I thought, maybe this is something that can unite people. So I wanted to share it. And we decided to put it online. And people began to share it, send links to each other, and it gained quite a lot of views. So some people got in touch with me and asked: “Who are you? Are you a composer?”, and I replied: “Yes, I write music.” So I showed them another 10 or 15 draft pieces I had, and was offered to record an album in London, at Abbey Road. I just couldn’t refuse this kind of offer. We put together a fantastic team. I was quite surprised when the manager who was bringing the orchestra together asked me: “Do you have someone in mind for the violin solo?” The fact that I was given a choice was confusing – but very exciting at the same time. I knew a wonderful violinist, John Mills, a British man, so I asked: “What about John Mills? Can he perform with us?” And sometime later I got a reply: “It’s a “yes”. He looked through the material, and agreed”. And I thought, “Wow, this is some kind of miracle”. It’s actually quite a common thing among musicians – to play pranks, to troll each other. And when I was asked, “Who do you see as a conductor for this recording?” I said, “A sober one, at the very least”. By the way, I once had to record with a conductor who was completely wasted. So they showed me the list: “Here, look.” I saw the name. One of the most well-known celebrity conductors, who had worked with Hans Zimmer – Mr Gevin Greenaway. And I suddenly got it. It’s your typical musician’s prank. Like, wanna get Hans Zimmer’s conductor? Ha ha. So I’m playing along – Sure, guys, give him a call! You know, it would be a nice joke, me walking into the studio and asking: “Well, where’s Gavin?” And everybody laughs. Now, I get into the studio, and the first person I see is Gevin Greenway who’s holding a score with my name printed on it. He walks over to me and says “Let’s go over a couple of places.”
What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?
Do we bow with raw meat on a saw in an absolute vacuum? Something like that? You know, contemporary music has strong tendencies towards turning into sound design, and it’s not only happening in rap and pop. This is how it’s made today: you stumble upon some interesting little effect, use some resonance filters to cook up a sound, and there you go – we have a new direction in music. To tell you the truth, something similar is going on in music we call Classical. Yes, we can try and ask our violinists to play with the backs of their bows for the recording. Or install a mic in a completely different way, make a stereo panorama for a friend. But all these are merely elements of a sound design. I’m absolutely sure that an orchestra is still capable of playing with electronics, especially if the musicians are good. Naturally, I’m not against some electronic injections into our elderly 18th-century-style orchestra.
But I just want to tell people a story with my music, and for me a symphony orchestra is enough. I don’t mix any electronics in it, at least I didn’t do it in my first album. You can call me a retrograde, or an Afraidy Mercury Retrograde if you please.
What’s on your current playlist?
Ariana Grande, of course Well, maybe a couple of other things. There’s always some composer I’ve decided to listen to from the beginning to the very end, so to say. To understand how they are developing. Now it’s Henry Purcell. Before that, it was Mozart, because out of his 626 pieces, let’s be honest, we only know thirty, tops. Unless you’re the director of Salzburg Festival or Teodor Currentzis. I’ve rediscovered some very interesting sonatas, concertos. I listen to quite a lot of rap, mostly when driving, of course. Nicki Minaj, Ghostface Killah, Kendrick Lamar. Right now I’m on Max Richter’s soundtrack for “Mary, Queen of Scots”. Before that I was listening to Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack for “The Avengers”. I do it to keep up with what a contemporary soundtrack is. I listen to quite a lot of ethnic music, including religious pieces. I’m currently working on a project combining the strict rules of symphonic form of the Baroque era, with religious music: Indian, Tibetan, etc. Quite a curious experience.
Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “This is what I want to do?”
A composer’s life is happening mostly inside his head, it’s slightly different from a life James Bond leads. Saving the world, destroying the world, seducing beautiful ladies, fighting the enemy – all this takes place in the heart and the brain of a composer. All the while he could be sitting barefoot at his piano – or even in a café with some musical score in his hands. So I don’t quite understand your question. All I want – all I can do – is write music.
What gets your creative juices flowing?
I think I’m a bit like a dream catcher. As I said before, I’ve been like this since childhood. I see this world as a set of tunes. So I try to catch these tunes. Just think – what is happiness? Happiness is when this stream of thoughts flowing in your head just stops and suddenly there’s silence. This is happiness. So it’s the same here. When all these tunes are overlapping polyphonically inside your head, etc. You just slowly, softly untangle them, take them out, touch them up on the instrument – and set them free. And it’s over. This tune doesn’t torture you anymore, it doesn’t make you squirm. You are free, too. It’s like the tunes want to get outside, and I set them free. I feel that this is my way to express my impressions of this world. For someone it’s easier to do it with words, and for someone else – with bullets. For me it’s music.
I can give these predator critics a free gift in the form of a humiliating phrase: “His heart obviously takes a bigger part in the creation of his music, than his brain does.” I believe for a critic it may sound insulting, but for me it’s the most obvious thing. Music lives inside one’s heart. The concept lives inside one’s brain.
Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.
Recently a Stradivari violin (it’s a kind of cool gizmo from the 17th century) took part in one of my recordings. What do you feel when your music is performed by a Stradivari violin? Well, I suppose roughly the same as an ISIS gunman who was given Osama’s personal rocket launcher for a couple of shots – pure bliss! Sure, I do have a home studio. The orchestration drafts are being made in Cubase. I use samples, SpitFire audio mostly. But all this is only to create a sketch, a demo. For everything else I work with a real orchestra.
Any side projects you’re working on?
There is a world-known genius – Ilya Kabakov. Maybe one of the most famous conceptual artists of the world. His works are exhibited everywhere, in museums at Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Centre Pompidou, Paris, etc. So not long ago I was asked to write some music for a film about him, a biopic called “Poor Folk – Kabakov.” I composed the opening soundtrack, “The Long Island Elegy.” Kabakov now lives in an old mansion in Long Island. It is something very American, from the sixties, when the cold waves are breaking basically against your own porch. And the most astonishing thing is, now that the film is out, the music doesn’t just play in cinemas anymore, but this film is now permanently stored in the most famous museums of the world. As a composer, I find it very exciting that my music is played every day in the halls of cultural meccas all over the world. There’s something very special about it. Maybe you know the term “aftersound.” So here we have a soundtrack with an aftersound. I also have some proposals to write music for films in Europe and in the US. And I’m already working on my second album. Can we consider it as a side project?
How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?
I need less sleep these days. Now 3-4 hours is enough for me. After that, I’m back to work.
Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?
The main event for me is going to be in April – my first album, recorded at Abbey Road will be out. So I’m thinking about naming it “The Longest Nights In Limbo”. If, of course, the label doesn’t ask me to name it “The Romantic Tunes For Lonely Hearts.” I’m kidding, but I hope not all the same.