Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
It was hearing Monk’s Dream (Thelonious Monk Quartet) at 17, amidst the sea of UK garage and US Hip Hop I was listening to, that really made me want to play. I’d wander into the music rooms at my school between lessons and start hitting notes; school wasn’t the best of times (probably a universally applicable statement), and the sense of being able to assign inexpressible feelings to keys and sequences of notes, however primitively they may have been expressed and constructed, was completely absorbing.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
It’s probably no exaggeration to say Tourette’s Syndrome (TS). I didn’t know it by its name when I was a teenager (and wouldn’t until my early twenties) but I did know that the piano – the immersion I felt in it, the satisfaction of this innate [again universal, yet arguably slightly amplified [in the case of TS] craving for rhythm – offered me relief from my own body.
I think I would always have felt some draw to the instrument on a musical level – but without TS I’m not so sure that I would have stayed at the piano.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
The greatest challenge has probably been sticking with things, over months and years, trying to carry on persevering in spite it feeling delusional/completely unachievable at points. But I’m not actually sure this was a challenge; I didn’t really view doing what I wanted to be doing as a choice.
As an aside – I’m not sure I’d call my relationship to/involvement with music a career as such – partly because I try to split my time relatively evenly between sonic and visual areas but also because I’m slightly uncomfortable with the word ‘career’. I’ve always associated that word with the people who came to my school, asked me some questions and then suggested I was destined for one in the catering industry.
‘Career’ seems to evoke a sense of detachment or distinction from a life that must exist around it, in spite of it…personal life versus career. For better or worse, I’ve wanted to avoid doing anything with my life that I’d feel any need or desire to escape or detach from.
‘Career’ to me at least, is the imposition of artificially constructed expectations – from society and self it implies trajectory, outcome, above all – an attempt to quantify that which perhaps should exist outside the realm of metrics.
So perhaps one of my biggest challenges is to remember quite how much I don’t want to build a career. I don’t ever want to retire from what I’m choosing to give my time and my life to. And I suppose within that lies the ever-present question of whether what I’m choosing to give my time to is something I should be giving my time to.
My biggest frustration would definitely be the amount of time I need to spend in front of a screen to facilitate my engagement with a world that exists beyond it.
Another challenge I’m becoming increasingly aware of is how to communicate simple ideas without sounding detached and pretentious.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
My main, and relatively limited, experience of ‘commissioned’ music has been through film scores (a few shorts, documentary / narrative and a feature documentary). It’s a real privilege to be trusted with someone else’s work – and exciting to be able to respond to it.
I think part of the challenge is to factor in an awareness that what I’m doing should be informed but not limited by my response to the material. At the end of the day it’s someone else’s film – something they’ve potentially been working on for years and poured their life into, they’ll be attached to certain ideas when it comes to soundscapes and it’s important to be respectful of those ideas whilst also knowing when to be assertive and speak out and constructively disagree.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
At its best, collaboration really takes me outside myself – there’s a lowering of inhibitions and a confidence that doesn’t quite exist when playing solo. There’s also far more objectivity – good ideas mean so much more and crap ideas get removed so much earlier – or at least the process of working to redeem them begins much earlier.As far as challenges go – giving / being open to receiving feedback. But then if communication’s good and there’s mutual respect that’s 90% of the work done.
Of which works are you most proud?
I’m particularly proud of the mini album ‘Weightless’. I’d been holding on to four little piano tracks for a few years – almost as a safety net to be used if felt like my involvement in music was really slipping away.
I decided to try to commission a non-remix style remix album (one which wasn’t comprised of four C-grade club remixes) that could extend the small scope of the piano tracks into something more expansive and offer a more cohesive listening experience. I approached some friends whose music I loved and asked them to respond as honestly as possible to the themes of titles, to go wherever they felt musically led but just asked they remained tethered, however loosely, to some part of the original. I loved the resulting reworks and the musical variety that had spawned from these four very simple piano pieces- all credit for that of course goes to the four artists involved (Tom Adams, Siavash Amini, Hedia, Transept).
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I’m interested in attempting to bring a variety of influences and feelings to the piano. I like leaving room for slight variety in performance, space for improvisation at points. That gives me room to grow in my existing compositions and for them to grow with me too. I like melody but am trying to push my understanding and use of harmony further along. Whilst I love sparser music that I can get lost in, I find I’m generally more interested in narrative – I’d say most of the music I make, on piano at least, has some sense of journey attached baked into it. I can fully appreciate and welcome simplicity but equally don’t like easy answers so I try to not to offer those through my music either – life very rarely, if ever, finds itself exclusively steeped in one end of the existential spectrum so it doesn’t make sense to me for music to do so either.
How do you work?
Occasionally something will come out of nowhere but usually the process is fairly slow. I tend to play things over and over, record primitively on my phone (when camera phones were smaller I used to put one in my mouth and film what my hands were playing. Now I just record audio on my phone and hope to remember the fingering), listen back, play back, add, subtract, listen, listen – extend this process over weeks or months. By the end ideas have either been near fully formed or if I start to find them boring I let go of them.
Time becomes a filter, through which only the stuff that still interests me passes.
Even with my upcoming album – I’m listening to it on almost daily basis to make sure, at least up to the point of release, that I still feel accurately represented by it and sufficiently interested in it. I don’t mind if I change my mind at some future point but I need to know that at the moment of release it is music that still means something to me.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I really love Stevie Wonder’s albums from the 1970s. Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck. My favourite album of 2018 was Baloji’s “137 Avenue Kaniama” and having him seen him perform it live last year can easily say he’s one of my favourite performers.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To remember that expression isn’t a commodity and music isn’t a competition. To balance your strengths and limits over that fine line between thinking you’re shit / THE shit.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To have confidence in your story and own it, don’t expect everyone to get it or the music that comes from it – make stuff for yourself primarily and treat anyone else wanting to listen in as a welcome bonus.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Finding stability in transition and being free from expectations.. with a football in one hand and a frisbee in the other.
What do you enjoy doing most?
I love walking and being outside as much as possible. I used to love playing football almost more than anything else – I really miss it.
What is your present state of mind?
Honestly – conflicted and unsettled. Trying to question things without getting completely lost.
Alex Kozobolis’ new album ‘Somewhere Else’ is released on 26 April and is an album with the piano at its heart. Alex describes the piano as possessing a therapeutic magnetism for him, having originally turned to the instrument as a way of regulating the symptoms of his Tourette syndrome. A jazz-like preoccupation with improvisation is embedded within the album, each track was brought to the studio slightly incomplete allowing for spontaneity during the recording process.
(Photos by Özge Cöne)