Name: Carlos Simon
Musical Recommendations: Snarky Puppy, Emily King
Recent Events: Carl Simon was awarded the 2016 Underwood Commission by the American Composers Orchestra after participating in the 25th Annual Underwood New Music Readings in June 2016.
Website: If you enjoyed this interview with Carlos Simon, you can find more information about him on his website.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
My father began pastoring a small congregation church in Atlanta in 1996. It was so small that there was no one to play piano on Sundays. At age 10, my parents enlisted me to play on Sundays and I began taking lessons. My teacher taught me how to learn songs “by ear” which is learning the music simply by listening and identifying chords. It was an unorthodox way of teaching because most teachers start with reading and technique, but looking back, this type of training helped me to hear and listen to music completely different from other musicians. It wasn’t long after that I started writing and teaching songs to the congregation. My early are linked to my family’s involvement in church.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I grew up listening and playing Gospel music. In fact, my parents only allowed my siblings to listen to Gospel music; anything else was forbidden. My uncles, who were church musicians, were my heroes! They lived in Virginia and had been performing in their father’s church at an early age. My family and I would take trips there during the holidays and I would try to soak up as much musical knowledge as I could— Asking questions, recording them playing (with my tape machine), and watching them play. I would take what they taught me and try to emulate it, not only in my playing, but also in my short compositions.
Gospel music, like Jazz, is an improvisatory genre. You learn to feel the music, hear what others are doing and respond to that musically. Improvisation has allowed me to think freely and confidently about my musical ideas. It is very easy to criticize one’s ideas and become paralyzed creatively by filtering too much. The idea of accepting whatever ideas come has really helped me to develop as an artist.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
One of the most difficult challenges for me was being afraid that people were not enjoying my music. I spent so much time writing music that I thought others would enjoy, but rarely really enjoying the music myself. It was paralyzing. I realized that out of all the music that I wrote, I was only proud of one third of those works. Thinking retrospectively, what was different about those pieces was that they in some way resonated with my ideals and influences as a person. I strongly believe that the art a person creates is influenced by their beliefs, ideals and influences.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My workspace has been something that has evolved with me as a composer over time. I think it shows all of my stages as a creative artist. I’ve always been a “tech geek” so I have a lot of electronic gear that I have collected over the years. The center piece of my studio is my Mac desktop computer, which houses a variety of programs that give me the freedom to create freely. I use Logic Pro X to improvise and record ideas and if there are ideas that I like then I will refine them in Sibelius or Finale. Like any composer, I like my creative flow to be as streamlined as possible so those two programs have been mainstays in my work flow.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? What do you start with when working on a new piece, for example, how do you form your creative decisions and how do you refine them?
I start with a concept that I try to understand completely and have an emotional/personal connection with it. Once that connection happens, I usually like to draw or map out the piece on paper using adjectives, a variety of scribblings representing feelings and an overall arch of the piece. This gives me a map or blueprint to follow. Doing this gives me a general idea of how I want the music to sound like, which will lead to improvising until I have several ideas to refine later. Feeling and emotion plays an integral part in the process. If I can feel a certain emotion while hearing my ideas then I believe someone else will too.
What, if anything, do you personally draw from the cosmos of electronic music and digital production tools that is inspiring for your daily practise? In how far do you see the potential for a mutual creative pollination between the two?
I think the 21st century composer has be technologically savvy in some way. Technology has really helped composers in creating new sounds. At the very basis, that’s what composers are: sound artists. Whether I am composing an electronic piece or an acoustic composition, my process almost always involves some electronic component. It’s not completely necessary but it having the skills for digital production has influenced my writing immensely.
How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?
Color and texture are important. So I like to have an understanding of how to control timbre because it’s the backbone of any composition.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I like to keep the listener engaged. That sometimes means having the piece to be the best length for the piece. It really depends on what I want to say with the piece.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Improvisation for me is spontaneous composition. I use improvisation at the beginning of the process. It’s a way of freeing my ideas and being confident in the process.
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
I would like audiences to understand what they are hearing by feeling. Although it is pretty cool to have someone notice small details or even recognize something I didn’t notice myself. I love when people can have their own interpretation of what is happening.
With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
It’s more of an opportunity to learn and be exposed to what other people are doing. I love hearing and learning about new music, whatever the genre. We are all a part of an artistic collective. What is originality? It all comes from somewhere. The best we can do is to stay relevant by being socially conscious. There are a lot of great artists whose music reflect our time: John Luther Adams, Stevie Wonder, Joel Thompson to name a few.
How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to closely work together with the artists performing your work?
Interpretation is translation of markings on a page to something that is transcendental. I try not to get to involved with interpretation of a performance. It’s important for me to let the performer execute what I have written. Collaboration with a performer during the compositional process would have helped to make my intentions as clear as possible on the page. I come from a background where individual interpretation is accepted so I welcome it with my music.
The effect of a piece doesn't merely depend on the performance of the musicians, but also on the place it is performed at. How do you see the relationship between location and sound? In how far do you feel the current system of concert halls is still the right one for your music – or for contemporary music in general?
I love the notion that my music could be performed in as many venues as possible. In fact, I would like to reach as many people as I can through music. I really don’t have a preference where it is performed.
What's your view on the role and function of music as well as the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of composers today - and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
The goal of an artist is to be a voice for the present day society. My goal has been to have my music reflect the ideas and events of the time and hopefully make someone better.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
I want to continue to create awesome music for awesome musicians and hopefully make someone better for it.