Name: Federico Albanese
Occupations: Composer, pianist
Current Release: Federico Albanese's Before And Now Seems Infinite is slated for release February 25th 2022 on Mercury KX.
Recommendations: Any John Ashbery’s poetry collection book / Television's Marquee Moon. The best album ever made (or one of the best ...)
If you enjoyed this interview with Federico Albanese, visit his official website for more information. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I believe I started “making” music when I was about 11 years old. I was trying to emulate at the piano songs that were on the radio, but as I couldn’t really do that I ended up playing odd progressions of chords. I don’t think this can be called “composing” really, but it was a first attempt I’d say.
From there I went on playing with many bands, writing songs, moving from one genre to the other. I studied piano til I was about 13, then clarinet and bass guitar. I was drawn to any kind of music, I have always been. Listening to all my dad’s record collection, which spanned from Bach, Keith Jarreth, Eno, Led Zeppelin, Traffic, Television, Velvet Underground, Italian prog music from the 70s, Coltrane, Davies … and so on.
I think that deep within I always wanted to be a musician, it was so much more than a passion, It was an obsession. Regardless what kind of music. I remember staying hooked to the radio til the song I wanted to hear was airing, and hitting the rec button.
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?
Of course at first the aim is “to be like” that kind of band or artist. That is part of the process.
In my case I followed the dream to be a rocker for a long time, you know. Making calm music came along far ahead in my life. The path that led me to do what I do now went through many different phases and experiments. Until a certain moment when I understood there was something I wanted to say for real, almost like an atavistic need to express, to manifest, to exorcise my life and deepest thoughts. And that’s the moment where one can find one's voice, and all the influences, all these phases and experiments, start to make sense.
The piano has always been there, it was in our flat in Milan. My mother bought it when I started studying when I was 6. So I always played it, regardless what kind of musical phase I was in. At some point in my life I figured that it was my way to express my creativity and to craft my own voice. But if I wouldn’t have gone through all the rest, I probably would never have realized it.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Well, I guess my music is a representation of my identity, especially the more introverted part of it.
I consider myself to be a social person. I am an extrovert and I like to be around people. But I also do have a very big inner side which rarely comes out in ordinary life. Music is my tool to express this side of me that otherwise would be some kind of burden that would never manifest itself.
Think of it almost as a therapeutic process.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My challenges were and still are, always technical in a way. When I have an idea about something, a sound, an arrangement, I try to picture it in my head as clearly as possible and attempt to reproduce it and craft it in a way that it gets as close as possible to the initial idea. That’s never easy, rarely things come out exactly the way you imagined them.
Sometimes I need to craft a piece of equipment in order to do something, or search for a specific gear that does a specific thing, or treat the piano in a certain way. It’s a long process, exhausting at times, and often ends up in a rabbit hole. Especially when something amazing happens randomly and you try to re-do it better or cleaner.Impossible task.
In fact most times I give up eventually, and accept what’s there. And that is also magical, because often I realize that the final result is better than the initial idea. I feel a bit more confident now, but I still end up in this pattern, but I also understood over time the importance of giving some kind of space to chaos, randomness, improvisation.
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?
Well, time has been discussed and represented in music, ideologically and conceptually. More clearly let’s think of Ligeti’s "Poème symphonique" for instance, a piece of music made with metronomes, or Reich’s "Piano Phase", that plays around with time and speed. Bach himself played a lot with time and measures.
Time is essential to understand music in any sort of way. If we think of Baroque music ( before Bach ) the conception of time was different, it wasn’t as defined as it is now, or if we travel back to early and ancient folk music, mantras, religions ... There is too much to understand on how we have constructed our idea of time in music, and the importance of it.
Personally, for me, time is an almost constant element in the creative process, in so many different ways. As I was saying before, digging deep and spending days, months to find the right tool to express an idea. And also greatly as a concept. Especially on my new record Before And Now Seems Infinite which explores memories and the way we perceive them over the years. I tried to go back in time and reflect on certain moments of my life and I came across a lot of obstacles, attempts to remember things.
Overall time is a burden we all have to manage to endure and our memories will help us by deciding to magnify the good and sometimes eliminate the bad.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Both things are deeply intertwined. Surely the sound, the timbre and the way you compose or write something is a tool you have to create something unique. The piano itself is an instrument that contains an almost infinite multitude of facets, hidden sounds. But again, it's very easy to end up in a place of no return.
Unfortunately nowadays there is an infinite amount of sounds, gears, synths, pianos, whatever virtual instrument, technology, and as I mentioned in a previous question, it is almost impossible to translate exactly what your initial idea is. I believe the key is to try to restrict the range of possibilities into a carefully selected number of sound ideas, and work around them only, and practice with them, endlessly.
In retrospect, the attitude of how certain albums were made in the past, makes the difference to me. Artists that didn’t care much about the sound alone but more about the music, what they wanted to communicate. So eventually that is what every artist should care about probably: The instrument you choose, the sound you want to have, that’s what defines you, that’s you. That’s your identity as an artist, that’s the same thing as the composition you make. It goes together, all along.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Sharing is essential.
This is something I re-discovered in the last few years. For most of my solo career I’ve been alone. It was always me. Just recently I opened my studio to other artists with whom I had the pleasure of collaborating.
It’s magical, especially when trying to merge different genres and musical backgrounds. It tells you a lot about the universality of music.
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?
I’m a family man, with 2 beautiful children, and I try - as much as I can - to have a precise daily working routine.
I wake up early, around 6:30/7 am, even though I confess I’m kind of lazy in the morning. I would rather spend a few more hours in bed, but the family rhythm has to kick in before that.
I usually head to the studio at about 9:30/10. If I have no deadline or no specific commitment or task, I study a lot. Everyday if I can, I sit at the piano and work through scales, arpeggios and so on. There is always something new to learn. Then I usually work on my things, checking old material, re-recording certain things, just for myself really. I have quite a number of old pieces of gear that require constant maintenance, so I often spend quite a good deal of time fixing things. It’s a nice process, almost meditative in a way.
I have the fortune of working in an environment full of fabulous creatives and there is a lot of exchange, talks, stories, and it all converges into the creative process eventually. Many of the collaborations I did over the years, the people I’ve worked with happened spontaneously in the studio. During the day there is always a moment of exchange and talk with my management or label about various “to do’s” and general things.
I always take my time for a good walk, it is always refreshing. My day ends at around 6pm, when I head back home.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event 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?
One thing above all: My first performance at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Grosser Saal.
I was frightened from the day the gig was booked. Not only because of the magnificence of the room itself but also because I was told I had to perform with no PA. I remember being obsessed for months thinking about how it would sound, would people be able to hear the music? Only whispering the idea of being there would make me shake. It was a huge challenge for me, on any possible level.
The gig went really well and made me grow very much as an artist and performer. From that day on I seek for new challenges. Avoid being in the comfort zone, but rather trying to do something that is new, more difficult. I know that it would make me take a bigger step forward in my musical path.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Probably there is no ideal state of mind for being creative. Creativity can be triggered by many many different things, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes I’m not in a good place in life and am extremely prolific because of that or the other way around. It comes when it comes, it's a spontaneous reaction to something that happened, like a glimpse, some sort of illumination if you want.
In my case procrastination is a good tool to feed the creative process, let things sit for a while ...
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?
There is only one thing I know for sure. I can cry, or laugh, be happy or sad, and music will always be there. Any moment of my life, every memory I have safely stored, is accompanied by a piece of music.
So yeah, not all memories are good, some of them are very bad, but still maybe that song did help in a difficult time. Music always heals because it's with you in good and bad. It's like always having a companion in life, no matter what.
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?
Part of the artistic work is dialogue. A constant exchange of ideas, thoughts, that’s where some of the most intriguing things were created. Contamination between different artistic ideas, visions.
The point is to always try to think outside of the box, so every sort of influence that differs greatly from yours gives you a totally different view, and if all these contaminations manage to coexist, something truly magnificent is crafted.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
This is very interesting. Let's say I think about the smell of wet asphalt in the centre of Milan, in the summer, after the rain, when the sun comes out suddenly. If I can turn that into music, it is the most incredibly magical thing that ever happens.
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?
I think that any art form can be above everything. It should be accessible to everyone, no matter the circumstances. I try to express my feelings when I write music, as openly and honestly as possible and that is what defines me as an artist I think.
What the public perceives is subjective to everyone's ideas, feelings, emotions. Something that for me is meant to send a positive, joyful message, could trigger the opposite in someone else.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I think music can express and represent the deepest thoughts and secrets we carry with us. The meaning of life and death is the most essential question we all ask ourselves every day. We can use music or any form of art to get closer and closer to that answer perhaps. Maybe that is the final scope of it after all.