Gabriele Ciampi Performs in DC To Celebrate Italian Republic's 70th Anniversary, Plus a Conversation with The Maestro


Gabriele Ciampi
Gabriele Ciampi

The Italian Republic celebrates its 70th anniversary tomorrow, June 2nd. On that day in 1946, Italy switched from a monarchy to a republic and to celebrate the historic event, the Embassy of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., invited Maestro Gabriele Ciampi to perform at the embassy's gala.

For the occasion, Ciampi composed "Trio in SI minor" (aka "Trio In B Minor") and will conduct the piece and more with pianist Fang-Ning Lim, violinist Nicole Elliott, and cellist Yu bin Choi, the same trio that performed for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for the White House Holiday Tour this past December.

Gabriele Ciampi recently was awarded the Premio Barocco 2016, joining a collection that includes the Italian Senate medal, Eccellenza Italiana, a Los Angeles Music Award for "Instrumental Artists of the Year," and the "Primidieci-Under 40 2014" by the PrimiDieci Society. 

A Conversation with Gabriele Ciampi

Mike Ragogna: Gabriele, I've looked forward to this interview because I like that although you acknowledge modern technology, you also like to apply a more traditional approach and I wanted you to explain that.

Gabriele Ciampi: Thank you so much for your time. This interview is very important for me because as an old-school composer who studied ten years at a conservatory, I've had some trouble adapting in the States, because it's a country where most composers do use computers. While it was really tough at the beginning of my career to find the right partner to work with,  I'm really convinced that quality is always the most important thing.

MR: First off, which instruments do you play?

GC: Piano. When I write a concerto for guitars or for cello, everything is my imagination. I sit at the piano and with my left hand I write, "This is the melody for cello." That's how I work. I studied piano, so I sit down at my piano and I play my concerto for the different instruments.

MR: What is your favorite kind of work? What is the one that feels most fulfilling to you?

GC: Concerts. I'm a composer who conducts his music, that's how I describe myself. Composer who conducts music. When I conduct I don't see the people, I don't see the audience. The only way for me to communicate with them is through musicians, through my music. You write, you have your website and people can read your story. The only way for me to communicate my feelings is during the concert. The recording is something cold, something that I have to do, but I cannot share my feelings because you have to record a work many times until everything is great, but a concert is only one shot. You go there, you perform, you're going to be good or you're going to be bad, but that moment is the only way for me to share my life and my feelings with the audience. I really like to do concerts, and I would like to do more of them here in the US, in different states. It sometimes takes a long time to create a composition, and then we only have a few minutes to perform, so the feeling must be very, very deep in that moment.

MR: What about a composition? Is there anything you've written that you really, really care about?

GC: Yeah, there are two compositions that I really, really care about. One is the "Piano Concerto in A Major" that we performed at the White House because in that moment, I dedicated it to the First Lady. And this Trio. It's a reflection of myself, of my feelings, so I'm really impassioned by this composition. I also wrote a guitar concerto and a cello concerto that are going to be premiered in Los Angeles in November. I like the structure of the concerto. The "Piano Concerto in A Minor" and "Trio in B Minor" are things that belong to me and reflect my soul and my feelings.

MR: Who did you study? Who inspired you?

GC: It's strange, but I love Russian composers. Russian composers at the end of the eighteenth century, I think there is something special, something magical. They are modern. I'm not saying that Italian composers or German composers are not good, I'm saying that there is something special in Russian composers. If you listen to Rachmaninoff right now, you will hear something that is still new, and this is amazing.

MR: You're so busy composing, do you still listen to music?

GC: I don't really listen to a lot of music because I want to find inspiration inside my soul, I don't want to find inspiration listening to someone else work, but every time I listen to Russian composers there is something magical, something there that is always, always modern. You can listen to the "Rachmaninoff Concerto," but "...No. 4" that is not very famous--they'll usually only do the first and the second, maybe the third sometimes--but the secret is that No. 4 is also really wonderful, it's magical. I really love pieces like that.

MR: Let's talk about your "Trio in B Minor" that you wrote for the 70th anniversary of the Italian Republic. How did you approach that? And were you approached to write it, or were you inspired to create it independently?

GC: Everything started last year, December 8th, when I went to the White House and I dedicated the second piano concerto to the First Lady. I did something for the United States because of the great opportunities this country gave me.  Italian National Day on June 2nd is a chance for me to do something for my country's 70th anniversary. You know the situation in my country is a bit controversial right now, it's not easy. This Trio really reflects that, I think. I chose, first of all, the tonality of B Minor because of the feeling of darkness and sadness that sometimes I have deep inside me. I remember a few months ago, this melody came out of this dark feeling I had, so I felt maybe the cello should be the first instrument to play this melody, because I love the low registry of the cello. Then suddenly, I moved to the sweetness of the violin, that suddenly appears in this composition. The whole composition is a dialog, a contrast between darkness and sweetness, like a huge struggle between different feelings, from sadness to hope. The wish for a better future for everybody is the real meaning of this composition. At the end, I was saying, "Always keep going and never give up," because this is what I learned staying here in the United States. Anything is possible. Everybody has a chance. If you really work hard and believe in your dream, anybody can make it. It will take a while, but you'll be able to make it. Never give up.

MR: Including getting to the White House. I'm looking at this beautiful letter from Michelle Obama to you, which must be a treasure of yours. How did your White House appearance come together?

GC: I think that Michelle Obama has been paying close attention to music on a global level. I sent my last piece to the White House for her attention and it was unbelievable, after just a few months, they called me and asked me to come and perform. The experience of performing in the White House has helped me so much because I realized that everything is possible if you work with commitment and patience. For the first time ever, an Italian composer has been invited into the White House to perform for the president and the First Lady. Everything changed after that.

MR: And I imagine you attribute that to your having a traditional approach.

GC: I believe in what I'm doing working with pencil and paper. I'm sure at the end, it's going to work, it just takes time. When I came here four years ago, it was really tough on me because everything was about credit, and, "How many movies did you score?" It was about TV shows, it was about computers. I'm not familiar with that, so I really had a bad time. But I said, "Okay, I know how to write music the traditional way, that's what I want to do." I do concerts, I conduct my music; I'm a composer who conducts his music and that's what I want to do. "I have a big dream. I would like to perform at the White House." That's what I said to my wife four years ago. She said, "I don't know, it's very difficult." Thinking right now about what happened a few months ago, it's unbelievable.

MR: And there's your relationship to the US ambassador to Italy, John Phillips.

GC: John Phillips came to my concert with his staff and gave a speech, which surprised me. It was a really good speech. I'm Italian but I really like the US for the opportunities they give to anybody. Considering it's the White House, they could've picked an American composer to go there, but they didn't care about nationality, they cared about music. They chose my music to perform there, so there really is space for anybody in this country. So that's why I invited John Phillips, because he sent me a nice letter and became close to me, so I just wanted to acknowledge the good relations between our countries.

MR: It looks like John Phillips is not the only ambassador in your life!

GC: Yeah! [laughs] Italian ambassador Armando Varriccio trusts me. "I would like you to do music for our President, you wrote a piece for Michelle Obama, you should write something for us." Okay, this is the right moment because I'm coming from university, I have this trio in mind and I want to play it for the first time in the United States on June 2nd. I think it's going to be a really great opportunity.

MR: Did you get to meet President Obama and Michelle Obama while you were there?

GC: They were there! I didn't get a chance to talk to them because they were crazy busy, but they kept asking me to play more. The one hour concert became one hour forty-five. I was not tired because of the adrenaline I had inside me.

MR: [laughs]

GC: [laughs] I remember the guy came and said, "Oh Gabriele, the President wants you to play more, can you?" "No problem, no problem!" I talked to the orchestra, "Start again! Start again!"

Gabriele Ciampi
Gabriele Ciampi

MR: You mentioned how it changed things for you professionally, but did it change how you are inspired now? Did it change your life?

GC: It changed a lot, yes. I think after this experience everything changed for me, especially in Europe. They're talking about me as the first Italian composer who performed at the White House. Everything changed for me, but I would like to continue what I'm doing. I'm happy to score a movie, but it's not always about the music. You can write the best music ever, but you need the best director, you need the best producer, you need the best story. It's not easy right now in the industry to find quality. When was the last time you watched a really great movie with a really great soundtrack? It's been a while. I would love to score for film, but even when I find a really great movie, I am still very focused on concertizing. I have a concert in November here in Los Angeles, I want to do New York, too. That's what I would like to do because I think New York and Washington, DC, because the people are interested in live music. I think really the best way to share my music is to go live. When I record I can make everything perfect, but this is not me. Music should not be perfect like that, it's impossible. When you do concerts, maybe there are a few mistakes, that's fine, but the most important thing is to see an artist live. That's what matters to me. I record, but it just isn't the same.

MR: Gabriele, what advice do you have for new artists?

GC: Only one advice: First study the traditional way. If you want to use a computer, that's fine for the future, but it's important to build a house on a solid floor. You need the fundamentals, so study and study. That's my advice. Don't trust people here just looking for credit. If you want to be a composer, it means you have to want to create art. Money and business will all arrive later. But in the beginning, it should be about art. Study the past and study classical music. That's the only way to create something new. If we don't know the difference between a symphony or symphony concerto, we are not ready to leave a mark on the future. My advice is to study in a traditional way. Then, after that, you can use a computer, but it's important for a new composer to have a strong, strong background.

MR: Just for contrast, what is it like in Italy?

GC: It's very different. We are ninety-five percent focused on classical music, so it's good for one side, but it's not good for the other side because after ten years at conservatory, we are not ready to be inside the recording studio and have a recording session. We don't know how to do it, because we study, study classical music for ten years. In the US, it is the opposite. If you take a class, let's say "Orchestration & Composing," after three or four months, you are ready to go inside the recording studio and have a recording session with a small ensemble. I think the best way would be a combination of the two systems of teaching--one for the background and one for the real business.

MR: What are the advantages and disadvantages of creating music with computer programs as opposed to the traditional approach?

GC: Using computers, it's possible to write music without having a real classical foundation. If you have a good ear, you can write music, even if you didn't study composing or orchestration. But in my opinion you are not creating art, you are creating sound--something you can put on TV, or something good for a movie.   I feel that the only way to create truly lasting music--and we are not talking about marketing, we are talking about art--is to study the classic disciplines and then commit the music to paper.

There are three different jobs for musicians: performer, composer, and conductor. If you work in a traditional way, you'll be able to master one of these, because you'll have put in years of study. So if you want to be a composer, you'll have to study orchestration for eight hours a day for ten years, so really, you won't have time to be a great conductor or a great performer. With computer technology, you can do everything at once. You write the music, you are the conductor, you are the performer because you play the keyboard. It may work well for the project at hand, but I don't think it qualifies as music for the ages.  If you ask me about business, yes, of course, the old school way is very tough to make money with; but if you're talking about art--to sit down at the piano, write the right melody and imagine in your head that the melody you're writing is for oboe, clarinet, piano, and then write on the piano--it takes a long time, but I think that at the end, you can leave a lasting impression. That's my point of view.

MR: Do you feel the tactile relationship between the artist and the musical instrument brings out more nuances of the composition?

GC: Yes. Everything comes from my feeling. When I sit down at the piano and I have a dark feeling inside myself, I have to try to communicate this with people, and the only universal language to do this is music. For example, my "Trio in B Minor,"   will have its world premier on June 2nd where I've been invited to perform at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC.   When I wrote these [pieces], I chose a very dark tonality, B minor, because that is what I felt that day. Then I realized, "Okay, I found this melody, now I need a dark, but at the same time, deep and sweet instrument," so there's no better choice than the cello for that. That's how I started the piece. But at a certain point, I told myself, "Everything is dark and very sad. Now I really need the contrast." So the best choice for me was to add the violin, because the violin could be very deep or could be very sweet. It could be a good contrast between the cello and the violin, with the piano in the middle.

That's an example of how I create my piece. It's all about the feeling I have inside. I just try to communicate with people through the universal language of music. When you do music with computer, there is a template. "Music should be intro, then a chorus," I think it's very difficult to create great music using templates. You have to study hard, but everything is about the feeling you have inside. You have to create the melody and then decide the ensemble. You can't sit down and say, "Okay, this is the ensemble, string quartet," or oboe concerto or piano concerto; you don't know. If you want to do piano concerto, you have to make sure you create the right melody for piano, but sometimes what you feel inside is not for a piano but for a cello.

MR: Is it challenging to stay true to the traditional way?

GC: Yeah, it's challenging. We study inside a conservatory with only two people. For our exam, we are locked inside a classroom for eight hours. For the final exam, you are locked for twenty-four hours with only you and the piano. It's really, really tough psychologically. You have to imagine in your mind the orchestra, because computers are not allowed. When you sit down at the piano and you create a melody, you have to think about which instruments are going to play that melody. I always say that composing is like torture, because you're still thinking, thinking, thinking all day about the music in your mind. Cooking, for me, is a great passion, but it's more like therapy, because I've been thinking all day about music.

MR: Do you approach your cooking like you approach your music?

GC: [laughs] Exactly, the same way. In the morning, music. At night, cooking. But that's why I think it's not possible to write music by template. It's not going to work like this. I need to find the right instrument in my mind.

MR: And the right instrument for you is not a drum machine or a loop, right?

GC: Everything starts on the piano for me. Piano is the only real instrument you have to study. For instance, in the conservatory, if you are studying guitar or cello, it's mandatory for you to study piano, because you can see the orchestra when you sit at the piano. If you play cello, if you play guitar, there is a limit of instruments; you are not able to see the entire orchestra. That's why piano is mandatory.

I think this is an amazing country for opportunity. Talking about learning and school, I think that here, the biggest problem is that producers judge your music only by credits and things like that, and that surprises me a lot. Composers should be judged by the actual quality of the music they write. They should not be judged based on the number credits they have, because you can score one hundred movies, but if you are not able to create a solo for oboe or clarinet using the right melody, if you don't know the difference between a symphony and a sonata, you cannot be a true composer. That's just my opinion, of course.

MR: Do you think for the purposes of practicality, musicians are being herded by schools, teachers, etc. to Hollywood or whatever brings money? Is it possible that the teachers right now are in the mode of teaching what's appropriate for a student's future business success?

GC: I agree one hundred percent. I think that there are really great teachers in the US; the only problem is money. Marketing, is especially important in this country. I know that because in Italy I studied in the conservatory, but when I came to the United States, I went to UCLA. I took a film scoring class because I wanted to know more about the US way of teaching. I found a really great, amazing teacher, but the only problem was that they don't really teach what you need to create music, they teach what you need for business. This is really important, but you need to get the basics first. I think the biggest fault is how Hollywood works right now, with the producer and director. I remember the time of John Williams and Ennio Morricone, because my family was good friends of Morricone. He would watch the movie, read the script and then write the music. That's how music for movies should be written.

Here in the US--because I had experience with some independents--they give you the final cut of the film, so you only get to look at the images and then you write the music for each scene. I believe the old way is much  better. Here at UCLA (Los Angeles) and other universities, they teach you exactly like this, to write the music with cues from the image. But a composer should also be able to write the music from reading the script. John Williams and Ennio Morricone did it in the past. But now, because musicians are paid so little money, there are no big orchestras anymore. All the money goes to the actors and casting and producing. What about composers? That's why it's become necessary for the composer just to write the essentials for the movie. We cannot invest six months of our life creating an amazing score for a movie because there is no money, there is no time to do it. So to answer your question, unfortunately, it's Hollywood's marketing and business that's creating a big gap between quality music and music for mass marketing. A long time ago, a composer was somebody who wrote music. But now, there should be a difference between a movie composer and a music composer, in my personal opinion.

MR: You're also teaching while you're in the United States, aren't you?

GC: Yeah, I went to UCLA just because I wanted to learn more about the US way of teaching. I'm lucky because I studied in Italy and in the US, so I got the best from these two countries. Europe is more traditional, so you can be a great musician but you are not ready for business. The US is great because when you study here, you are ready for business and Hollywood stuff. But in my opinion, you are not a true musician because you don't have the fundamentals, you don't have the basics, everything is so fast. I remember the UCLA orchestration class was just six months. How is it possible to write for orchestra in six months? It took me five years before I wrote my first piece for an ensemble.

MR: Let's talk about the studio. My feeling is that a studio recording is like a snapshot of a piece, but in order for it to live and breathe, you have to take it out of this little delivery system. For example, your project The Minimalist Evolution. By performing that, doesn't it breathe in a different kind of way? Doesn't it exist in the universe in a different kind of way?

GC: Yeah! On The Minimalist Evolution, every time I worked in the studio, I didn't work with a click or different tracks; I did it live. I had an orchestra over there and I would personally conduct and we could repeat the piece a few times, but we didn't cut; the piece goes from the beginning to the end. You can hear a few mistakes, that's totally fine. I don't want a perfect execution of the music without any feeling. I want to feel something while listening to the music, even though it's a mistake. If you listen to a really perfect recording with a lot of editing and effects but no feeling, it doesn't matter. It's not relevant. What's relevant, what matters to me is trying to talk to you. I'm trying to share with you my emotions and what I have inside.

All my recordings are live inside the studio with a whole orchestra. We can do different takes, but it's live. That's another difference between traditional and digital here. Everything is about saving time, so composers here use click tracks because studios are expensive. But it's bad for the quality. It is better to have an orchestra and try it. It's not because you want to hire a cheaper musician. People here have to say, "Oh, I can't work with you because you're expensive." The point is if a musician is good. If I write a symphony but I leave it in my closet, it's just music written on a piece of paper. I need a musician to make my music live. To find a great musician for original music is the toughest experience in life, because they're not playing Rachmaninoff or Beethoven. They're playing originals. So I have to make sure to find the right person who is able to share with me my feelings and what they have inside.

MR: I also want to talk to you about what just happened at the Premio Barocco. What is it?

GC: The Premio Barocco is a national award created in 1969. It's a really important award for the patronage of the President of the Italian Republic. It's about young musicians and artists who work in different countries, especially the US. I'm very honored to receive such an important award like the Premio Barocco from my country. Just last week performed there in concert. I am Italian, so even though I live here [in the US], I would really like to do something in my country, too. This is a chance to receive an official government award in Italy, so I am very happy about it.

MR: Beautiful. Are you creatively and personally fulfilled living between the two countries?

GC: It's impossible to keep up with it! I enjoy doing this. I want to live in both countries. I want to perform in both Europe and the US, but at the same time, it's very difficult because I have two of everything: Two passports, two driver's licenses, two credit cards--it's complicated. I was in Italy four years ago, and after I studied ten years, I was working in my family company. We have an acoustic piano store. Really, there was no future for a musician and composer over there. My wife is Korean American. She said, "Oh, you should come to Los Angeles and try." So I came here for just ten days, and then I moved here forever. My family was really shocked. Suddenly, I changed my whole life, but that's the only way to do it, because the other part of the world is very far and everything is different--the food, the mentality, you know. Now I'm getting used to it, but changing countries every four months is not easy. It's really tough, but I'm happy at the same time that I now have space in the US to show what I am doing as well as in Italy and other countries like Germany and Russia. I still believe that the old school, old-fashioned approach is always the best to create something new.

MR: Can you predict something for me? Can you predict if and how your music might change over the years?

GC: I think that what I'm doing right now is an experiment. "The Minimalist Evolution" is my idea of music. In my personal opinion music should be written in a simple, simple way. I try to write music with as few notes as possible. This research I do every day is going to change. In one year I'm sure that my music will change again. My goal is to write music in a simple, simple way. That doesn't mean easy, but simple, because simplicity is always better than complexity in my opinion, and that's my work. I will be happy if at the end of a concert of one and a half hours you in the audience will remember just three or four notes, just the melody or something. That's my goal.

MR: Gabriele, what does the future bring? What are your plans and what are you needing to do creatively?

GC: Right now, it's going to be my CD release, first in Europe and then the United States at the end of the year. I will play concerts starting in Los Angeles in November. In my future, I would like to continue to have more live concerts because I want to share my music with people. That's the first thing that I want to continue. And of course the second would be to find, in the future, like the right movie for me, working with a director who really loves music. It's not about marketing, it should be about loving music and creating the great main theme for the story. It's going to be difficult to find, but this is my dream.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne  

Here are some additional works by Gabriele Ciampi... 

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