Name: Cosmin TRG aka Cosmin Nicolae
Occupation: Producer, DJ, label owner at Sportiv
Recommendations: I am present pleasantly haunted by the work of Yoshishige Yoshida, especially Rengoku Eroica (1970) and Romanian film director Mircea Săucan, whose career was tragically sabotaged by the authorities in the 70s - especially his deliriously experimental public advisory documentary “Alerta” (1967) and his feature film Endless Shore (1962).
If you enjoyed this interview with Cosmin TRG and would like to find out more about his work, visit his exquisitely designed and highly informative homepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Cosmin TRG was one of the artists highlighted at the Klangbox series at Galerie Zora Auguste in Berlin. The performances and listening sessions, curated by Kaan Bulak [Read our Kaan Bulak interview], highlighted a wealth of approaches towards working with sound. Each Klangbox gig brought together musicians from the most diverse corner of the stylistic spectrum and placed them outside of their usual comfort zone, promising performances stimulating for the audience and the performers alike. If you missed the concerts, you can still engage with the music via the related compilation releases, published by the Feral Note imprint.
For a deeper look into the thoughts and concepts of the other participants, read our Jeker / Moser interview, our Jemma Woolmore interview and our Martyna Poznańska interview.
Electronic club music and sound art are not usually thought of as related genres. But there are plenty of overlaps. What's your own take on the importance of sound for your production and DJ work – from the sound of the space you're playing in, via the sound system to the production quality of the records you're creating and playing?
Sound creates context, it is very much alive and its form and function is integral to a club music experience.
I find the term “sound art” slightly pretentious when used to describe non-club music as it can often (badly) camouflage sound with no intention or projection behind it. For decades it was thought of as the ivory tower of musicians divorced from their audiences, but in recent times itʼs been much more geared either towards performances or immersive installations that have a discerning audience at heart. With the advent of AI, powerful sound system solutions and creative tools, sound is once more an organic element of a music experience (club or non-club).
More to the point of the question, fantastic, curious, forward thinking sounds are indispensable to the experience I like to either create or to what I like to experience myself.
Tell me just a little bit about your upcoming performance at Klangbox and what made the concept of the series appealing to you, please.
It is always a pleasure to work with Kaan and Lucilla at Feral Note, they are the embodiment of what Iʼve always respected in arts and culture: the drive to create and disseminate great work and to bring like-minded people together.
The Klangbox performance was a listening session in the absence of the artist - mostly down to logistics but conceptually, in my view, the absence was wonderfully on brand with my reluctance, at present, to perform in the traditional sense of playing a piece of pre-recorded music to a live audience.
Let's switch gears for a moment and talk about your DJ work. When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
To be very open from the beginning, “being a DJ” and “DJ-ing as an activity” are quite different things. I respect artists who identify as DJs and have made it their lifeʼs mission, too much to not make a distinction. I think I fall under a different category, of those who sometimes DJ as an activity and happened to do so for a living (thankfully) in the last decade.
I started getting interested in DJing and music production through culture and music magazines out of France and the UK growing up in Romania in the late 90s-early 00s. It seemed like one of the most futuristic and exciting modes of expression to complement a utopian vision of a globalised, networked world.
There was very little access to records and hardly any events so I would have to exercise my imagination reading reviews of releases or performances. I was into jungle and drum and bass at the time, even though chronologically it was at the tail end of its worldwide popularity. Itʼs difficult now to imagine the significant pre-internet delay between local music scenes. What these days happens almost instantaneously used to take years, unlike the synchronicity of scenes now: you can hear the same music from Tbilisi to San Francisco via Bucharest.
I was drawn to a space where dub techno, jungle and IDM would collide, which wasnʼt necessarily dance music - and so a lot of my interest was geared towards music that didnʼt find expression under the guise of a DJ set.
For most artists, originality is 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 try to dissociate myself from the term ‘artist”, I think itʼs slightly too pretentious and I donʼt really subscribe to what is expected of an artist. I go through different phases and I like to ritually burn the effigies of my past. I used to write poetry, then make music, now Iʼm back to writing, but these are all very distinct phases in my life, closed chapters.
I donʼt like repeating myself. In that sense I donʼt really emulate the artists I respect, I can only admire/ worhsip them. If it has to be a singular music personality, it will be Björk - she was and still is really influential, especially in my formative, teen years - she represented the purest expression of creative freedom in all its aspects: the visual, the sonic, the dramatic.
Itʼs only fairly recent that itʼs become more socially acceptable to be multi-dimensional, to do and be several things at once, or sequentially. It comes from a tragic place, the current state of late capitalism with its gig economy and the spectre of penury. One is now even forced to be active in multiple fields to maintain a successful art practice and/or not starve. My journey is towards finding the right angle to tell the stories or show the pictures Iʼve come across in my time so far. Itʼs been a roundabout journey towards film, a medium that Iʼve always been close to but just now feel comfortable expressing myself in.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I find identity to be a very fluid aspect, certainly not a constant in my life. So much of it is a social construct. It's difficult to pin point the exact areas where your personality ends and a construct starts. My work revolves a lot around memory and evoking certain moments in the present, and where the lines between the two blur.
At the moment I donʼt identify as an artist, I think itʼs a terribly constrictive concept - youʼre supposed to generate art. I prefer to generate perspectives, and see myself as more of a labourer in that sense. There is identity, and there is persona - which are very different things. Iʼve been very bad at the latter, I canʼt seem to come across as someone Iʼm not.
Sometimes I try to erase my identity (in the sense of heritage) so I donʼt succumb to any prescribed cultural codes. Other times Iʼm trying to decode what exactly that heritage is.
What were your main creative challenges when starting out as a DJ and how have they changed over time?
Not having physical access to music in my country was a big challenge. Building a collection was a nearly impossible task. That changed with digital in the 2000s and subsequently moving to Berlin. One of the main challenges was to not be labeled as just another DJ transplant to the city.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I made about 20 records on laptop with headphones, which was extremely limiting and frustrating at the time. When I set up my first studio I thought Iʼd like to amass vintage synths and have everything play in sync, and when that happened I couldnʼt identify with that. It just wasnʼt me - I couldnʼt make music that way.
At the moment Iʼm using a very minimal set-up and Iʼm more concerned with the process, the creative flow than the tools to get work done. I used to enjoy painstaking sound design and spending hours on very textural sounds that ultimately nobody could hear, whereas these days Iʼm tryin to spend as little time on a computer/ instrument as possible.
I guess itʼs just a shift in perspective, in my current phase I want to go with a “wider” lens.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you perform?
Itʼs probably going to sound very funny or very vague, but it was the computer.
At the end of the 90s when I got interested in electronic music, computers were the last choice for an electronic musician, and for years computer music had a very distinctive tinny, digital sound. Not to mention the limited computing power. If youʼre a Gen X / Millennial like me you are still in awe at how incredible computer music can sound, and the ways computers can be used to perform live music. the evolution has been mind blowing.
DJing is a unique discipline at the border between presenting great music and creating something new with it, between composition and improvisation. How would you describe your approach to it? What do you start with, how do you develop a set, how does a form gradually manifest itself, what are good transitions between different tracks etc …
Iʼve been through all stages of DJ-ing, from bedrooms to pubs, clubs, arenas, festivals, boiler rooms - from creating blissful moments to trying to please crowds to get paid and get the hell out - in the end my unique goal as a DJ is to build up euphoric, exuberant moments of complete detachment and those moments are the only ones I genuinely get pleasure from.
How would you describe the relationship between your choices and goals as a DJ and the expectations, desires and feedback of the audience? Is there a sense of collaboration between you and the dancers?
I think expectations are quite vulgar, they donʼt really belong in a modern club. I guess the only expectation should be for a night or an artist to not be mediocre, forgettable. At least these are the only expectations Iʼm trying to meet.
Audience are rarely homogenous, very different people come together in the darkness of a club for very different reasons. If those reasons are of a musical nature, we will meet on a certain frequency. If you treat DJs like jukeboxes, what you get is jukebox music which is not really my field.
Having said all this pretentious stuff, I donʼt think Iʼve ever walked behind the decks without nauseating nerves, trying to perform to the best of my ability and bringing an open mind.
In a song or classical composition, the building blocks are notes, but in a DJ set the building blocks are entire songs and their combinatory potential. Can you tell me a bit about how your work as a DJ has influenced your view of music, your way of listening and perhaps also, if applicable, your work as a producer?
I can tell you playing too many techno nights can definitely influence your studio work for the worse.
There were nights, especially in the early 2010s where techno was still a very broad spectrum with very strong, identifiable tracks, nay, songs! With real structure and story. In recent years the techno thatʼs played at events is a sort of homogenous mush and I canʼt hear any individual tracks any more - itʼs been perhaps more than three years since I paid attention to the genre.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
With music I tend to go through very intense but time-limited phases. I canʼt just sit down for a couple of hours, make music and then work on something else, so when I feel inspired I plunge into it for at least 12 hours, and I have to start early in the morning otherwise the flow is corrupt.
On most days I donʼt make music, though. Normally I wake up with a sense of dread, exercise, have frugal breakfast, then get to some form of work: I either write or research for different projects, like screenplays, articles, books, performances. I like to be in a process of constant education, even though I absolutely didnʼt vibe with academia.
Sometimes itʼs all in a deafening silence and canʼt stand to hear a single sound, other times itʼs all soundtracked by different types of music. I sometimes like to have one of those POV walking videos on youtube, 4 hours of walking around Japanese villages, etc.
Can you talk about a breakthrough DJ set or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
There were too many to mention, but a moment of epiphany was a very intimate screening of Jonathan Glazerʼs Under The Skin at a very tiny cinema in Manchester cultural centre, in 2014.
I was blown away by the cinematography and the incredible soundtrack by Mica Levi, and I loved the contrast between the scope of the film, the underlying big themes of identity, beauty, gender, alienation, and the fact that it was screened for a small, 20-people audience.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I've used music as therapy for as long as I can remember. If not for healing, then certainly for escapist purposes. I would use music to forget poor living conditions or contexts that I didnʼt want to be a part of. I used it to treat heart breaks, disaffections, to soundtrack loss, to avoid arguments.
I am definitely vulnerable to hostile sound, and one of the biggest challenges today is to escape a form of commercialised, easily marketable music that plants itself in various aspects of life.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
In this field Iʼm still very much indebted to Jon Hasselʼs theory underlying the Fourth World philosophy.
I think itʼs extremely important to decolonise thought, art and public expression. It also has to be done with grace and caution because where some criteria are political, others are purely aesthetic and the goals will keep moving.
I can only speak for myself that I try to use my judgment and instinct when I borrow or pay tribute to a culture that I wasnʼt born into but which seems very familiar and organic. I think you can sort of tell when the intentions behind something that looks like cultural appropriation are bad, or when itʼs down to a kind of naive ignorance that can be corrected with education.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
As Iʼve probably mentioned earlier, I am currently in a phase where I donʼt place much currency on being an artist - certainly not in its institutional sense. I enjoy watching a lot of very young, very assertive young people becoming agents of cultural change, challenging the status quo in different ways.
I am very political in my private life, but my art practice is more concerned with ecstatic forms of expressions, ways of seeing, reaching the exuberance of existence - perhaps that could be interpreted as political in its own way in todayʼs plastic, materialistic world.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
To use as few words as possible, Iʼd like to again send you to Mica Leviʼs Under The Skin OST, Octav Nemescuʼs Metabizantinirikon, Costin Miereanuʼs Finis Terre, Don Cherryʼs Brown Rice, the list is endless. Words cannot express infinity, music can.