Name: Nu Deco Ensemble
Interviewee: Sam Hyken
Occupation: Composer, arranger, producer
Nationality: American
Current release: The Nu Deco Ensemble have just released a collaboration with “Gothic Roots Rock duo” Larkin Poe. [Read Our Larkin Poe interview] Paint The Roses: Live In Concert, a collaboration with the Nu Deco Ensemble, is out September 17th and can be pre-ordered from the Larkin Poe webstore.

If you enjoyed this interview with the Nu Deco Ensemble and would like to find out more, visit their excellent, detailed official homepage for everything you ever wanted to know about them. You can also find them on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.

Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

I am very fortunate to have many different kinds of writing projects on the horizon. Most times the works I write or songs I arrange stem from opportunities to collaborate or to deeply musically explore the work of a notable artist, or brought to me for specific events or projects.

I do like to put "Easter eggs" throughout the music I create or arrange, depending on the context the work was created in. For example, when we were premiering a new suite that celebrates the music of Bill Withers, which happened to be on the same program as we were performing Copland’s Billy the Kid, one of Copland’s famous theme’s was quoted within the new work.

For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?

While I would not say I tend to have an entire visualization of a finished work before getting started, I would say I always like to have a general concept or sense of the macro before beginning, and always with certain key ideas and moments I know I want to explore.

Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?

Preparation is key for the majority of the work that I create. When working on any other artists music, whether it be an exploration of their work or a collaboration, I research as many “versions” of the work that I can find; whether it be a studio, live, or re-imagintion of their music.

Technically speaking, I always make sure any music that I’m arranging is laid out on a timeline, which I happen to use Logic Pro for. This allows me to switch between sequencing software, which tends to be a place I create many ideas, to notation software, where many of the ideas are developed.

Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?

I would say that I’m fueled on coffee and orange seltzer drinks! While I’m not a person who regularly meditates, I do find it an incredibly helpful tool for writers block. I also find walking is the cure for many creative ills.

Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?

I find that is very important to have moments of space away from a project.  This space and breath helps create the room for new ideas and perspectives, and often times frustration sets in when I do not allow myself (or have time for) that room.

I’m the type of composer that tends to write too much and then take away, so in many ways the works almost emerge like a sculpture rather than a painting.

Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?

For me, there always must be room for inspiration and flexibility, especially when it comes to collaboration. I am not the type of artist that holds on to my work like a vice grip, and can easily throw an idea away if there is something better to take it’s place.  

When collaborating, I never try and squash any idea, even if I’m not feeling it. Some ideas created in the moment that I do not see possibly working can end up the strongest and hippest moments.

There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?

I feel there are multiple creative states. There are definitely many moments of flow, where ideas seem to pour out and hours roll by. There are other times where the work feels slow and sloggy and frustrating.  Great work can come from both states, where sometimes the most meaningful work feels the hardest.

Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?

Especially since I am a perfectionist, who also happens to be motivated by stress, deadlines are key for me.  Although like many creatives, I have hours of fragments of ideas sitting on hard drives, there is nothing there that I regret not developing, or anything significant that I started and never completed.

Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?

I place a lot of value on continued growth and evolution, and life long learning. I think when evaluating old work, it’s important to have perspective on the moment and circumstances it took place, and try to learn any lessons from it that I can.  

There are pieces that I created early on in my career that I continue to develop, some I can not even listen to, and others I never thought of again.

What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?

Being at least a small part of the mixing process when disseminating work is critical for me. Mixing is very much like orchestration, where small decisions of tone, timbre and volume can have great impact on clarity of ideas as well as the energy of a work.

My personality is such that I generally prefer to give notes on a mix rather than be in the room when it happens. I find that observing the micro process of mixing can trick my ear into overly obsessing of elements I probably would not notice on general listening session.

After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?

During Nu Deco’s season, (October to May) I have very little time to process work just completed as it is always “on to the next”. At the end a season, although I am always craving a bit of break, no matter how many projects I have to work on, it always feels very hollow staring into the summer months. I generally have a lighter writing schedule during these months and use the time for creative energy rejuvenation.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

I strongly agree that we can find creativity in different aspects of our lives. As I have a dual role at Nu Deco Ensemble as both artistic director and CEO, I often say that I get great creative satisfaction from running the business. Whether it be collaborating on the micro elements of fundraising, branding, and marketing or the macro of strategic planning, there is creativity needed in everyone one of those elements.