From The Grammys To Opera Training: A NY Conversation With Maestro Gabriele Ciampi

Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena [L’Idea Magazine, February 23, 2018]

A golden period for the Roman composer Gabriele Ciampi, appreciated by the great men of the Earth: he played for the Obamas in the White House, at the invitation of the former First Lady, he met Pope Francis and was the only one to represent Italy as a judge of the prestigious 2018 Grammy Awards. One of the most important awards of the USA, a recognition that every year crowns the protagonists of the music sector, is generally considered as the “Oscar of Music”. The ceremony took place on January 28, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Maestro Gabriele Ciampi met us in New York in the hall of his hotel the day after the Grammy Award. We report (late, for technical reasons) part of the long conversation between our editorial director and the congenial Roman composer.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena and Gabriele Ciampi

L’Idea: Good evening, Maestro. (I smile) Excuse me but I was not prepared to meet a composer. I thought you were an orchestra conductor, but by researching your name I discovered so much more. So, you conduct orchestras, but you are a composer…?
Ciampi: I am a contemporary composer (Smiling in turn). I have an orchestra of 40 elements plus guitars and percussion that give a little more modern touch; to be clear, something cinematic, obviously with a classical basis, because I come from the conservatory, so the classical basis is there. I have also collaborated with symphony orchestras … And lately I have also been invited by the Recording Academy to be one of the judges; besides that, I’m also a member of the Recording Academy, so as a member I can submit my music in the future when I have some other album, and I can vote.

L’Idea: Since you were one of the Grammy Award judges, could you tell us how the award assignment works?
Ciampi: First of all, I consider the Grammy a competition for emerging artists because it is not tied to the sales, discography or popularity of the artist, but it is linked to the quality of the music; so you can have an unknown artist who is competing with Bruno Mars, who won almost everything. This is because the Recording Academy receives twenty thousand titles every year. There are 350 experts at the Recording Academy who make a first screening. They identify ten songs for each category, and then send them to the voting members of the Recording Academy, who are musicians, composers, authors, who choose among these songs the nominations. The first vote is cast, the one called the first round ballot. Having done this, the Recording Academy chooses a sort of artistic commission of about a hundred people from various parts of the world, all belonging to music; there are no journalists or record labels executives, but pianists, authors, composers, etc., and we are asked to do a selection and vote for the songs that have received the nominations. After that, the result of these votes is known only on the evening of the Awards; a three-step process, then. When you see the results on television, you should not think that the judges decided only a few hours before, because the votes had already been delivered a week before.

L’Idea: Is it difficult for a classicist, that is, someone who works, composes and lives in the world of classical music, judging pop music or RAP?
Ciampi: Well, let’s start from the fact that classical music is the popular music of a hundred years ago, so when we assigned this concept of musicality, it was not like we think it today; I do not see big differences between pop music and classical music. That said, my opinion is technical on the score, so I get the sheet with the score, I look at what is written … in the case of Bruno Mars, for example, I have examined the song 24K: it’s a song that was written on the piano, so it has interesting harmonies; what I judge is actually the harmonic part of the song, I do not care about the arrangement. Here we return to the pop concept in contrast to the classic: there can be innovation in a pop piece while there may be boredom in a classic piece, it always depends on what one writes. So, the music is all on the same level…

L’Idea: How come there are no Italian names in the list of nominees at the Grammy?
Ciampi: That is an old quandary. First, the language. The Italian language is not considered a musical language, so, unfortunately, Italian is being considered a language only suitable for the classics, the opera… It’s a mistake… but, surely English is a much more musical language. If you have to write a song, English flows more easily and makes the composition work easier. Of course, when I had to write a work for the composition exams, in the conservatory, the Italian text was perfect, but if I have to write an opera, using an English text would make my work easier, because English has words that are short and the sound follows a lot; Italian, a bit for the accents, for the length of words, the syllables, is very technical, so I agree with them that Italian music is difficult to understand.While a beautiful English melody appeals to everyone, a melody in Italian, even if written with passion, is difficult; it will never have the same impact. This is the first problem. The second is that, as long as Italian music does not return to being original, it will not be able to compete with the Grammys because it has lost its identity, because there is a tendency a little to trace American success, so if, for example, a pop tune, based on the American experience, comes out in the market, Italians sing it and think it’s Italian music, but it’s not, actually. This is how the last Italian albums all seem to be…So, when you follow a trend, but you are not trendy, why should the Recording Academy choose an Italian song? Paradoxically, if there was a Modugno song, it would be there, because the Italian tradition comes from there. After the 60s and 70s, it all ended. Today, on the Italian recording market there are almost only artists that follow the American one, so it’s not original music.

L’Idea: Do you think that returning to professional and not popular judges would improve the quality of the choices at the Sanremo Festival?
Ciampi: I think we will have an important revolution with Baglioni, because it took away the elimination, gave more importance to the authors, so big news … If you could change the jury system slightly, certainly there would be an increase in quality … the popular vote is a bit of a feature of Sanremo, it is important, but at the same time the popular vote is influenced by the presence of an artist on television, so it would take a change in the quality judges, that they should weigh a little more in the Sanremo Festival. So the popular vote is welcome, but the quality vote should be worth 40% instead of 20% to have a balance between the quality vote and the popular vote. The moment you have this, everything improves. So, in the quality judges it would be nice to see only musicians, because the journalist, the movie director, do not have the technical competence to judge. Then the popular vote and the quality vote together would give other fruits. We are already, however, in a phase of change

L’Idea: Now you will have to continue your international tour with the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra. Will they only play songs composed by you or is it a more complex repertoire?
Ciampi: I am a composer who directs his own music, so all my concerts are my original music. As much as I did classical studies, orchestra direction, that it’s not my job. Who does that, makes classical music. My activity is not that of a conductor, but of a composer.

L’Idea: What was the difference in emotions that you felt in the meetings with Pope Francis and the Obamas?
Ciampi: The meeting with Obama is also important for the manner it arrived… So, I wrote to the First Lady, who wrote back me after three months, inviting me to the White House. She wanted an Italian composer … to see them in person … when I could get in … (gives a long sigh) The White House, as a building, is not so big, we have the Quirinale that is a vast palace… The White House gives the idea, however, everything is clean, extremely accurate in details, in short, exciting already from the outside. For the Pope it was different, from the human point of view; (stops a moment, emits a slow and controlled sigh, almost relives those moments, and then resumes talking) the hug with the Pope, the fact that he told me to go on, I was struck, because you have it in front of you, you feel the strength of this man, and then, regardless of the Catholic faith or not, you feel the personality of the man, you cannot but feel it … Two different emotions, in short; e.g. regarding the experience of the pope, I am happy also because it came from Italy.


L’Idea: If you could hypothetically meet one of the great music of the past, who would he be? Why?
Ciampi: I have a passion for Rachmaninov because I analyzed his scores, which are to date, in the harmonic passages, which can be good for an opera, a ballet, rather than for a piece … well, in short, harmony by Rachmaninov is very modern, yet it was written almost a hundred years ago. I consider him the best contemporary author. And then he was a great pianist; nobody talks about it, but there are records that speak for him. He was a great pianist but wanted to be recognized as a composer, because that was what he wanted to do most of all and he did it beautifully. I would really like to meet him.
Today, in Italy, and we do not talk about who comes to America, there are those who are pianists, then become composers, direct the orchestra, and write books. One thing you can do and do well, then one chooses; I also did various things, I played piano and directed the orchestra, but then as a message I am a composer, I respect who is a conductor … Today there is it’s a bit of a quest to do everything and then you do not do nothing … Of the composers of the past, Chopin himself was an exceptional pianist but no one mentions that, because he was first and foremost a composer. You must not lose your identity. And that is one of the reasons why Italian music was not present at Madison Square Garden.

L’Idea: How much has your career choice been influenced by having worked in the family business of selling pianos?
Ciampi: Let’s say that the weight was remarkable, because it is a company started by my grandfather, in 1945; over 70 years of history… But when you live music from a commercial point of view it’s different. It’s a business, there’s no room for creativity. In any case it was an exceptional 10, beautiful years, I approached the piano, the composition, but I lacked the creative aspect, because when you work it is a trade, but I must say that without the experience of the family work, maybe I would have never done what I am doing, because I breathed the air of the piano every day, since I was six, then the passion for the composition has become almost a natural growth because I was fascinated by the instrument. I have also worked in the factory, I know all the aspects of how a piano is born…

L’Idea: So, Ciampi also produces pianos?
Ciampi: We distribute them and also produce them, in the Czech Republic. Consequently, I also followed from the single screw that was used, and I realized that the piano is a set of details and it’s like my style, very minimal; in my compositions I try to minimize the harmonic and melodic fabric, because it is easy to write music with many notes, the difficulty lies in removing them as much as possible until the essential backbone remains. The piano is the same, you start with many ornaments, but then you have to remove them, you have to open it to clean it. So, there is a nice analogy between a well written composition, which one may not even like, but that is well written, and the opened piano. As you can put one note too much in a composition, it is like putting too much ornament in the piano, which loses that elegance. So I was fascinated by the production; here, my music, I produce it because the creative process fascinates me, ever since you write a melody, since you develop it, and it can take weeks, because I still use paper and pencil.

L’Idea: When you complete a composition, are you then tempted to come back to it and correct it several times, as some writers do with their books?
Ciampi: Let’s say that the moment you put the period, the piece, the work is finished. Then if you come back on it… Of course, I sometimes tell myself, “I could”… but that reasoning is wrong, because when the composition is written, I try to transfer the emotions of the moment, the way I speak is through music, so I have a particular state of mind at the moment. What can I say? An anger, an anguish, an uneasiness, I express it. If I see the piece again with a different mood, it will no longer be a speech of creativity, but only a commercial discourse. In short, when you put the period, you decide.

L’Idea: As a matter of fact, I, as a poet, try never to rewrite my poems after some time has passed to avoid losing that feeling that I felt and that was unique, unrepeatable, and that I described in the poem itself. Changing the words would mean changing the feeling that one has felt…
Ciampi: Indeed, in the work, when one hears it, technically it could say: “You know, here, I do not understand why the flute does not play…” But if it was written like this… if you go to analyze Verdi, why it was written, then you also understand the context in which he lived, because it is also important to understand what is behind the opera, not just the opera itself. That’s why in the end, when we go to hear the opera we say “good director”, but that is his personal interpretation. It would be interesting to ask the composer: “But did you want it that way?” Because in the end we always forget who wrote it. Chopin, Verdi, both said that in their musical works there were errors, and I confirm it too, because listening to my songs, I say to myself, “But in that passage I could have done that.” But I leave it as it is, because the piece is part of me, for the good and the bad; if you continue to retouch it, will never end. And then, every instrument has its voice and its emotion, so if I insert a clarinet I do it because I need to express a feeling of sadness, of melancholy. Returning back after a year and listening to the piece I wonder if I could have not used the flute for the same song. Of course, I could have done it, but I did not want it that way at the time, so by changing the instrument you would lose the true emotion that I had tried to transfer.

L’Idea: And speaking of the operatic representations made at different times than those prescribed by the libretto, what do you think? I personally hate them.
Ciampi: I am deeply opposed to certain things that they do in America, regarding opera. These modernizations of scenes that bring the opera to other historical periods show a lack of respect for the composer, for our Italian tradition, and someone should write about it. This kind of interpretative extremism in Italy is not much appreciated, not even in Europe, in the end only America is left, because they are a little alternative in their productions.

L’Idea: What suggestions do you have for young people who are trying to break into the world of music? This question is asked me many times by readers of the magazine OperaMyLove and I, as a journalist, do not know what to answer…
Ciampi: Mah! There is only one word in my opinion; I do not believe in luck, because even if they say “You were lucky with the White House” I answer: “It also takes the courage to follow it for six months; it’s not just luck…” That said, the study is needed. If there is talent, it comes out. It’s not true as people say: “You know, in Italy there are no possibilities…” It’s more difficult, I took years myself to do something in Italy, but if you have something to say, the space is given to you, eventually. The problem is that many want success just like that; they go on TV, there’s talent show, I’m an artist… It takes years.

L’Idea: Well, there is also the problem that “reality shows” make people who have no talent whatsoever, but who have only the nerve to appear in public, famous…
Ciampi: Very true. The reality show should be a consequence of fame. One should already have a certain reputation and therefore become more popular. They create popularity before the character. Let’s create the artist first. If you want to run, first you have to walk and not vice versa. They build sand castles. Yes, sacrifice is necessary, but it can be facilitated by study.

L’Idea: For those who study opera, in Italy, it seems that there are not many hopes…

Ciampi: Certainly the Italian opera, our school, is the best in the world, but it is not the only one. One should compare… The luck that I had, if we want to talk about luck, is that I could study at the conservatory in Rome and compare with the American school. When I arrived here they told me: “What you did in Italy does not interest us. Show us what you can do.” One who studies opera in Italy already thinks he has arrived. So, it takes a little more humility. That is, everything you do in Italy, in America matters little. You have to prove it. Thus, show that you are a good singer, a good pianist, and sooner or later you get there.

L’Idea: Yes, but how can a young soprano, for example, get noticed?
Ciampi: Today, thank God, there is a very important medium that was not there ten years ago, or at least it did not have the same influence: the Internet. So, even if I have no money to come to New York, to come to America, I put a video on YouTube and see it all over the world. We are always there. It is the most democratic instrument that exists today. I am generally opposed to technology and I still write music with paper and pencil, and not with the computer, but I say that it is the most democratic instrument. If you are good, a song on Spotify goes to the top of the chart alone. You do not need the record company that pays; you do not need money to break through. But if nothing happens, well, perhaps that voice is not so captivating; here, I would put some doubt. If I go online to get visibility, I have no followers, maybe there is something in my music that does not work; it is not the others who do not understand, maybe I am the problem.
Therefore, to answer the question, the young Italian who wants to break through must use the Social Network when he has no economic possibilities to finance his experience abroad; the Social is the fastest way to reach the goal. In short, if one has the talent you can see it and eventually they call you.
I recommend this: if you are a singer, make a nice piano and voice piece; there is no need to be opera, far from it. At the Grammy, Lady Gaga sang a piano and voice piece and gave everyone goosebumps. A person who has fifteen million listeners at the Grammy by playing with piano and voice has tenacity… that’s talent.
So, my dear young singer, make a three-minute video, piano and voice. It’s free. Put it on You Tube and see what happens. This is the answer I would give.
Let’s leave the orchestra out of it; I want to hear the voice. If they go to look and ask “Don’t you have a website?” You have to be ready…. How many artists do not have the web site and then wonder why no one knows them. These are things that cost zero, so they are to be done.