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London, 2019 

During this interview, I change seat, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to American composer Philip Daniel. After two successful albums that explored maximalism, the composer ventures outside of his comfort zone and releases a minimalistic album that displays his new approach to balancing silence and sound.


Between Us Ch. 1 is considerably different from your two previous albums. What triggered the need to write differently and how did you approach the composition of pieces that differ so much from the previous ones?


It was a combination of reasons. Naturally, as an artist I always feel the need to be progressing and changing what I do instead of writing the same pieces over and over. This intimate and improvised style came out of wanting to contrast my first two albums. A huge part of it however was the piano itself and the environment I compose in; late at night, alone in my small studio. These tunes were born from that. 


When listening to Between Us Ch. 1, I cannot stop thinking about Nils Frahm—who popularised felt piano—but I can also hear a lot of Keith Jarrett. Did they influence the composition of the album at all? If not, who did? What about the instrument—Daniel recorded on a 100 year-old Steinway upright piano—, did it influence your creative approach at all?


Absolutely. Nil’s Felt album and the way he approaches solo piano are a huge influence. Keith Jarrett is a huge inspiration as well and specifically to this album. Before writing/recording it I was obsessed with his Köln concert and how magical it was hearing this music born from the moment. I knew I wanted to let these pieces be created during the recording, and not predetermined. 


The album was recorded in one take, and unplanned—Philip, how did you prepare the recording of the album? Once recorded, did you go through the inverted process of transcribing your own music?


I had tried and failed to record these pieces for months, and finally one night something just clicked—and I loved how the takes turned out. There are definitely mistakes here and there—and I didn’t know as much about production as I do now—but it’s a snapshot of where I was at, and I’m very happy with how they turned out. I have actually never transcribed anything I’ve written down and probably won’t for this album. 


A lot of the current Indie Contemporary Classical music scene is made of self-taught composers and pianists. How do you feel your classical training has influenced your musical identity and the way your compose and perform?


I think the biggest advantage is having the knowledge of music theory, and being blessed enough to study the greats (Chopin, Beethoven, Bach etc.) and understanding how music works. I’m also very grateful to have been able to immerse myself in practicing/performing Classical repertoire, which has given me an adequate piano technique. I seek to compose pieces that challenge me as a pianist but that I can “pull-off” due to my background. I’m very thankful for the Classical training I had and it’s helped me a ton in composing.

What about you role as a teacher? Do you think that teaching influences your writing? And have you ever thought of writing didactic music?


I surely compose in a logical manner that I know would be easy for a student to learn, and I’ve been blessed enough to have students learn my own pieces which has changed how I compose. This has taught me how to write in a way that is pianistic and conceptually makes sense; phrase lengths, intervals etc. I definitely have some music, and will get back to you on that! 


Conveying emotions seems to be your main line of focus when sharing music. During your creative process, what’s the part of intellect and emotion? In other words, do you consciously think about what emerges, or do you let yourself be drowned into the music?


I normally don’t consciously seek to compose based off a certain emotion, but writing music is how I convey what I am feeling, so it is more of a subconscious endeavour. However, I have recently composed specifically for someone or a certain reason, and it has been a refreshing change that has resulted in compositions that are very special to me. 


So after Between Us Ch. 1—what’s next, Ch. 2?


Yes! I have six more tunes that I am very excited to share. I am currently up in Iceland doing an artist residency so the second half—Ch. 2—is on hold until I get back. They are from the same take as the first chapter but are very different compositionally. 


Thanks very much Philip. Last one for the road—one book, one album, one film—tell us about your latest cultural pearls?


Hmmm, good question. I’ve been loving old Russian sacred choral music, specifically their basso profondo tunes that feature extremely low bass singers. I am wanting to get into composing choral music and this has been an inspiration. I also have been obsessed with old (and new) John Prine albums. I’m not much of a reader, which I need to work on. Movie-wise, my mom—who is up here in Iceland as well—and I have been watching the old Johnny English movies, not the most artistic/cultural but are just so funny!


Bouncing on Philip’s words, I strongly suggest to discover the music of Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov, as well as oktavists Mikhail Zlatopolsky and Alexander Ort… Read my review of Between Us Ch. 1.

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