Name: Olivia Belli
Occupation: Composer, pianist
Nationality: Italian
Current release: Olivia Belli's new album Sol Novo is out via XXIM.

In his equally entertaining and insightful Hot Ones interview, celebrity chef Alton Brown lamented that too many young people were opting for a culinary education not because of their true interest in food, but because they wanted to be become famous. The modern classical landscape has suffered the same fate in many respects. When Ludovico Einaudi presented his personal twist on blueprint's like Arvo Pärt's “For Alina” and Philip Glass's "Glassworks", it still felt fresh and Einaudi, schooled by Avantgardist Luciano Berio but with a keen interest in popular culture, like a renewer. Since then, the scene has been flooded with composers basing their entire career on repetition, a few broken triads and the complete absence of melody and harmonic development.

[Read our Ludovico Einaudi interview]

Olivia Belli is part of this generation of pianist-composers. But right off the bat, her approach has always been distinctly different. Classically trained, she first started making a name for herself with interpretations of other composer's work, from Nino Rota, Verdi and Satie to the aforementioned Glass, Einaudi and Max Richter. Similar to trailblazers like Francesco Tristano, she believed that the piano was, really, the first synthesizer and that the task of the modern artist did not stop at the score, but had to take sound – that one element that so many had blatantly ignored for too long – into consideration as well. Electronics, editing and remixing were an entirely natural part of her palette, even though her music, unlike that of her compatriot and equally inventive colleague Francesca Guccione, never strayed too far from an outwardly traditional chambermusical setting.

[Read our Max Richter interview]
[Read our Francesco Tristano interview]
[Read our Francesca Guccione interview]

Her earliest releases of original material – almost all published with staunch independence via her personal bandcamp account or smaller imprints - were indications of what was to come: On albums like the massively successful River Path and River Tributaries cycle, as well as Flowers we are, the microphone moved so close to her hands that you could hear every rustle of her clothes, every impact of her fingers on the keys, every breath she made in the moment of performance. Four Moons, meanwhile, saw her hitting her stride as a more developed orchestrator, with wistful compositions for herself on piano and her congenial violin partner Enrico Belli. But already Daguerréotypes and Where Night Never Comes hinted at her will to take things beyond, with tender field recordings of pastoral scenes and rattling clockworks supporting her fragile keyboard figures.

Sol Novo marks her major label debut (on XXIM, also home to Eydís Evensen, Uèle Lamore, Lambert and Stimming) and is sure to expand awareness of her oeuvre. In this case, that is a fortuitous occasion, as the album is almost without doubt her most accomplished so far in just about any imaginable way: Warm and remarkably dynamic in sound, creative and surprising in compositional approach and diverse and colourful in terms of the arrangements. There is no break in her development here, but somewhat of a quantum leap, many smaller progressions adding up to a significant step forward. The title track and "Upland" sport her possibly most lyrical melodies, "Bora" packs a welcome punch of drama into its three-and-three-quarter-minutes-short duration and album highlight "Grain Moon" is a delightful, slow-circling fantasy floating in the heartland between minor and major.

[Read our Eydís Evensen interview]
[Read our Lambert interview]
[Read our Stimming interview]

Perhaps Alton Brown was right and Einaudi did create an overwhelming slipstream of composers in the wake of his success. But if it also brings us works like Sol Novo, then there is really very little to complain about.

Recommendations: Two journey companions, both Sicilians: the painter Piero Guccione with "Il nero e l’azzurro" (2003) and the writer Gesualdo Bufalino with "Diceria dell'untore". Two artists with poignant lyricism.

If you enjoyed this interview with Olivia Belli, visit her official homepage. She also has profiles on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and bandcamp.

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 don't remember a day in my life without music.

When I was 1, my parents gave me a toy piano; at home, we listened to a lot of music and we had two pianos that my brothers were already playing. I used to stay a lot on the piano, inventing melodies that I ran to make my mother listen to: it was she who, at the age of 8, seeing me spend hours on the keyboard or listening to home vinyl, asked me if I wanted to study more seriously. And since that day, my favorite game has also become my profession and so I have “been playing” for a lifetime. I feel very grateful!

Music made me forget everything, it took me elsewhere and I liked where it took me: I wanted to stay there as much as possible. I adored the works of Mozart and Bach, two composers with whom, since childhood, I was in tune.

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?

Certainly, it is very important to always continue to study, learn from the great masters and try (I add in vain) to emulate them: I still remember an exercise in composition, as a student, in which we were assigned a "Sonatina" by Mozart and we, following his harmonic scheme, had to rewrite it ... there you realize that there is no hope! (laughs)

But it's possible to add a particular nuance to our artistic production. I would say that it applies to all the arts: it has already been written, painted, built, and composed of everything and more, but there is always room for a new point of view of what has already been created. It is there that the artist must concentrate, on understanding himself/herself and expressing it.

For me, this journey takes place outside of music, it is more a process of personal growth.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I think that one's identity influences all aspects of one's life: identity is made up of beliefs, values, fixed points and this changes one's way of thinking, living, one's priorities. So in the creative process, in which you access your deepest self, you draw from the core of your identity.

Then the issue of style is different: instead, this is an unceasing work as a craftsman to shape one's identity in a language that should be as personal as possible.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

The first big challenge was to make my original songs public.

I was trained as a classical pianist, an interpreter of the classical repertoire and I composed for myself, privately. Only in 2018, I published a collection of piano songs, a kind of personal diary about my daily life. And from there I never stopped.

A long journey began in which I explored various compositional styles to try to express that particular nuance, which I mentioned above. Now I feel I am on the right path that needs to be developed day by day.

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?

To be honest, I always lose track of time while composing or playing and that's what I'm looking for. I am transported to another dimension where time no longer matters, it is intense as if years had passed and very fast because it always ends too soon. It is a state of mind sought in many ways, from meditation to running, from lateral thinking to the oriental arts: it is extremely regenerating because we leave the left hemisphere and come into contact with the most creative part of ourselves.

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?

Music is a language that is expressed through sounds. When we read a score we will never know what sound the composer heard and imagined. Instead, we can, with greater certainty, know what color a painter saw or what word a writer had in mind. So personally, I carry on the composition at the same time with the production of sound which is now an aspect of the composition itself.

We no longer live in a world where you could listen to a work once and then never again until a new performance: today music floods us everywhere and the composer must therefore have his/her own sound as well as his/her own style.

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?

I collaborate and relate to many musicians who contribute, with their experience and their point of view, to make the project, I work on, grow.

But what most of all triggers sparks and strikes me deeply are the collaborations with artists from other disciplines (dancers, painters, actors): they manipulate their material in different ways, with different elements and I try to apply them in my music.

For example, for the latest album Sol Novo, I wanted to trasform light into sound as Caspar Friedrich tried to paint the air (naturally with the proper proportions).

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 love to wake up when it is still night and see the transition to the day: it is a moment that gives me a lot of positive energy. The first hours of the day are dedicated to piano composition, practically every day, with constancy, even if only to develop pre-existing material. The morning then passes between reading, listening, taking care of my land, or walking around my surroundings, sea, mountains, ancient villages, to observe and collect feelings.

The first afternoon is dedicated to my children who we educate at home following the Steinerian principles of freedom, creativity, and self-education. Then I go back to the studio: I try to create those conditions for which the synergy between what I have perceived and a musical element can express itself. If it lights up, that's where I work hard.

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?

Difficult question, because I could say it about all my works: every time it is as if I started all over again with the same fears, doubts but also with the same enthusiasm and vitality. However. If I have to choose, I would say the latest album Sol Novo, just released for the new Sony Music label, XXIM Records.

I had put down some ideas in June 2020, immediately after the first Covid lockdown, and I was trying to convey all the positivity and beauty that surrounds me every day. Right at that moment, there were the first contacts with the label and then the decision to collaborate. A very intense period began, with many collaborations with photographers, directors, sound producers, etc. We were all concentrated on developing the album idea to the maximum: capturing the light of my region, that of the morning and evening, oblique, full of shadows, a symbol of rebirth and renewal.

We worked like crazy (laughs) but I'm very happy with where Sol Novo has taken us.

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?

Creating is using existing materials, so the first thing is to use them as much as possible and in all possible ways. In my case, it means studying, imitating, composing, breaking down, redoing, every day.

Then, as you manipulate your material, it happens that you discover something, like an archaeologist who slowly pulls a hidden treasure out of the earth. When you find that beginning, the real creative process begins from there: a process that is a synergy between your style, who you are, and what you want to communicate through your work.

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 could not be a more appropriate historical period where music can work as calming, comforting and solace. To achieve this catharsis, you can work in two directions: either describe a depressed or melancholy state of mind with music or envision a more harmonious, serene and uplifting world.

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?

Concerning music, in every historical period, there has always been (perhaps except the second half of the twentieth century) a language, a harmonic, rhythmic, formal vocabulary, etc, a common language among composers.

For example, in the Viennese period of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert this is very evident. So I am not surprised that even today artists tend to use similar forms, structures, elements: it is as it has to be and as it always has been, a reciprocal exchange.

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?

For me, nowadays the most direct connection is that between hearing and sight: the overlap between music and image from the world of cinema and advertising is so strong that it pushes us, more than in any other era, to listen to music by imagining a scene, and therefore an interior film being projected.

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?

Each of us expresses our opinions, beliefs, emotions to communicate with others: it is an intrinsic necessity of the nature of man. Music is the language with which I can express myself best, perhaps the only one that I feel mine. And so I use it daily to talk to my loved ones and then to all who listen to me.

What I want to express, may change from project to project but there is always a basic desire to tell the beauty of the world around us, big or small, to appreciate it and find yourself in it, leaving behind all conditioning. We are the creators, the artists of our life and we should find ourselves, our place where we feel well and at ease.

Only in this way, we will be open to connecting with the world outside and its problems.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Death and life are extremely personal concepts that everyone experiences in a unique way. Music has the ability, not telling anything specific but using an abstract language, to bring out what each of us is, including our perception of life and death, because we are the ones who find what we are in the music we listen to.