Interview with Andrea Centazzo in July 2008 - The Drum-Artic Multimedia Magician

Andrea Centazzo in my opinion is the Gandalf of drumming - able to create very particular soundscapes that beam you in wondrous stories happening in your inner landscapes. But you need not pass the gates of delirium because his music broadens your horizon without using any drugs! With his multimedia performances he comes close to the edge of Richard Wagner´s synthesis of the arts. Yes, this man is worth listening to him.

ragazzi: "You seem to be an uomo universale: musician, conductor, librettist, composer, arranger, producer, photographer, director, writer etc.; do you have nine lives?"

Andrea: "I wish I could have nine lives!!! Unfortunately I have just one and I'm always running late since I have so many things to do! But I have to say that while I'm enjoying enormously every aspect of my artistic work, I'm really bothered by the business side of it. It could be my karma, but I never found anybody that could have been helping me as agent or manager so I have to do all that by myself and it takes so much energy out of my artistic work. I know that I did a lot, but I imagine what I could have done in terms of artistic works if somebody could have helped me out ... Nine symphonies??? A couple of movies??? Who knows :)"

ragazzi: "Did you visit a conservatory or did you have some teachers for learning all these activities?"

Andrea: "Believe it or not, I'm totally self-taught !!! Well ... actually I had some teachers in the beginning, but I never followed a regular school, except the Musicology Faculty at the Bologna University but that was really a kind of a cultural enrichment since I never worked as antique music professor!!! I have to say that the experience that changed my life was the Summer jazz clinic in Wengen in 1970. Wengen was really the experience that changed my life. Not that I learned much in ten days, but I got Pierre Favre, Peter Giger and Stu Martin (and especially Pierre that I still adore for his immense talent and originality) "discovering" me and pushing me to turn professional. There I had the chance to listen live to some of the most prominent jazz players of that time, even jamming with Johnny Griffin (I was just shaking!!!) and make friends that later I found in my touring around the world. In Wengen I understood that I was born not to be an attorney (as all in my family) but a musician! So when I went back I had a deal with my father, asking permission and some support to go to study in Bern in exchange of the promise to finish my Law University and get my PHD. There's a funny - now but at that time was terrible - anecdote about that. When back after one year in Switzerland I had to present my final thesis/dissertation as promised. And I did quite successfully. Exiting from the dissertation I found my father congratulating me and saying "Finally you got it. Now it's time to become a serious person and start you attorney career in our family office". But I replied "Dad! We had a deal: I promised you to get the PHD in exchange of one year in Bern, but I never promised you to become an attorney. Now it's time for me to start my musician career". He stared at me in disbelief and speechless walked away. He didn't speak to me for almost two years. But when just a couple of years later I started to have my name in the newspapers, he understood that my choice was right and we reconnected Later in his last years he was a real supporter. After that I went to the Bologna University as I said for that musicology degree and in the same time I started to play professionally."

ragazzi: "Is there an activity you like best?"

Andrea: "I was born as percussionist (actually drummer ...) and I still love to perform. If I'm not on stage, I feel really craving for that even if in the last few years mysteriously nobody is calling me anymore for concerts. But composing is what now I like the best ... and working in the studio too ... and filming too ... and editing too ... and ARGGGGGGG ... yes it's true I don't know what to choose!!!"

ragazzi: "You live in different musical worlds: jazz, avant-garde, classical music etc. Did you ever have any problems of being accepted by a special group of music-lovers?"

Andrea: "Always!!! The walls that exist between genres are bigger that the Great Wall of China!!!!!! I remember once when I went to propose one of my operas in the main Opera House in Bologna to a fishy, conceited, bumptious artistic director ... He stared at me and said "Mmm ... Centazzo ... I remember a percussionist with that name ..." and I said promptly "Oh yeah, it is my cousin!" so I got the job! But in his stupid mentality a percussionist cannot ever be an opera composer!!! When I started to compose music after years of avant-garde I remember that a radical magazine wrote something like "Let's ban this guy! He's a bastard traitor ...". It seems that the people in music instead to be free of prejudices are the most obscure reactionaries."

ragazzi: "Ictus Records is a label that documents all of your recordings; did you found this label on your own?"

Andrea: "Yes; in 1976 me and my wife Carla Lugli, we started the label to free my music from the majors that at that time were the only making records. As matter of fact it was a crazy but exciting experience: we were together with INCUS in GB, FMP in Germany and ICP in Holland one of the first avant-garde labels owned and operated by musicians only. There I had the chance to record with the best musicians of that genre and experiment myself with all kind of crazy combinations for solo to orchestra. Due to financial reasons and also to the divorce from Carla, ICTUS collapsed in 1984. Just in 2006 I had the chance to set it back here in LA, thanks to Cezary Lerski of who was my mentor and now partner in the operation. The new catalogue is quite impressive since I incorporated all my recording in the hope to have an logical archive of all my work."

ragazzi: "You played with many different musicians since the 1970s; which of them did you inspire most?"

Andrea: "The only and first thing that I can say is that I had the immense privilege to play with some of the most creative musicians of the 20th century. Each of them having a separate story and a separate ending. With most of them I recorded great albums and even if our meeting was one day or one hour it was always worth!!! With many I'm still in touch today; some sadly passed away and some took different directions But I have all always in my heart because all represent a real step in my music and in my life. I just regret that with somebody like Don Cherry I performed but not recorded Mangelsdorff, Oxley, Lytton, Bauer, Trevor Watts so many I played with, without now have a trace of it In any case the Zorn/Corra/Chadbourne/Kondo/Bradfield/Centazzo sextet (and all kinds of combination we had) for me was a very important experience since it was the founding of the NY Downtown Music Scene at the end of the 70s'. Unfortunately I decided to go back at that time while instead I should have stayed in New York. But you can't preview your life so I went back to USA probably too late for my career in 1991, but now it's almost twenty years that I live in Los Angeles and eight that I'm American citizen. Weird enough when I went back to US to settle down I decided to just compose music and not perform anymore. I was kind of disappointed with the jazz scene in Italy and I had the opportunity to be signed with an exclusivity agreement as a composer by Warner Chappell. I was obviously interested to compose my own music (see ICTUS NEW MUSIC SERIES) but basically they sent me to LA for a film composer career. Unfortunately even if I was in a "new age" period writing mostly melodic and straight rhythmic music, I still was too avant-garde for an industry where all is just a formula. So I had more fights with producers and directors that with anybody else - I decided to write my own stuff. So between 1990 and 2000 I composed three operas, one Symphonic requiem and countless large ensemble compositions. I went back to the jazz scene just in 2006 when Cezary Lerski, producer for asked me to start a joint venture in releasing an ICTUS BOX SET. Going back to the musicians: I have here to pay tribute to the one that really helped me to understand the concept of creativity: Steve Lacy. In 1975 I had a serious problem with my right shoulder. Years before I had an accident playing volleyball and it got worst and worst with playing professionally. So I went to Paris for a month treatment with a famous shoulder specialist. At that point I knew and I admired Lacy since years so I decided to call him. He was very kind and we had a nice conversation and I gave him my LP's. In the meantime I learned from an Italian newspaper that Gaslini had decided to hire another drummer it was a shock ... like having your father stabbing you in the back. But then during my career I found so many of those situations that I got accustomed. So when I went back with no jobs and also big problems since my house had been destroyed by the 1976 earthquake, I decided to write to Lacy asking if he was interested to do a duo tour. I got a immediate answer: YES! So we did this tour and the year later another wit the addition of Kent Carter bass. I remember vividly the first time I met him in Milan for an afternoon rehearsal. Working with Gaslini, I was used to follow rigidly the rules of the sideman and read a score. So before to start since we had no scores, nor I knew what we were going to play, I timidly asked "Steve, what do you want me to do???" and he looked at me and placidly said : "PLAY WHAT YOU FEEL!!!" I never forgot that moment in my career. And there it was when the improvising percussionist was born. From that experience I have left three great ICTUS albums (121,123,131), now re-mastered. Still fresh and interesting, since Lacy music is always exciting."

ragazzi: "Where are the differences between Balinese, rock, jazz and classical musicians in your opinion?"

Andrea: "I make it simple: Balinese music the pleasure of playing and the joy of a spiritual experience. Rock the power of communication and (a lot) the money. Jazz, the need to express something different. Classical, the keeping of the traditions, the form and the possibilities (meaning money for production with super large orchestras ...)
Of course all these musical styles have their negative sides but I prefer to talk on the good aspects only!!!"

ragazzi: "I was very impressed when I heard your works for the Mitteleuropa Orchestra for the first time. How did you develop your compositional skills?"

Andrea: "Well ... a good question! When I started to compose I barely could read music but I had the urge to express myself in an organized form so I started to study seriously composition by myself. Later I had a couple of great Italian composers teaching me some fundamentals, but I always composed like in a trance. When I finish to compose a piece I always ask to myself why I did this and that. I think it's really something magic. I remember in 1982 when I got the commission for the Mitteleuropa concert celebrating the 1000 years of Udine, (unfortunately) my home town: I started to write and I finished it without any problem with the music flooding the pages ..."

ragazzi: "You wrote a piece of music called "A Requiem" (formerly known as "A Bosnian Requiem"); this genre is very special in several ways: difficult to compose and sensible to handle. Was the requiem commissioned and what is the purpose of this work?"

Andrea: "No, that was my own idea. I was horrified with the Balcanic war and I decided to do something for that. Nobody paid for the composition I did it just because I felt to do it. Later Warner published it and made the CD. I have to say that the performance is very far from what I was expecting ... but that was a youth orchestra and the entire operation was just a workshop. I mean the oboe player was sixteen years old and so on ..."

ragazzi: "How did you come up with the idea of playing multimedia performances?"

Andrea: "After five years of composing, around 1998 I started to go back to percussion and finally I started again to perform this time multimedia concerts where I blend my percussion music (and now also my computer sampling and looping) with my videos. As a matter of fact in 1984 when I saw the ICTUS label collapsing and my jazz career dissolving I had the idea to start a career as video director. I did it with so much success that for four years I was almost exclusively doing films. I got also many awards all over the world in 1986/87/88 for my film Tiare. So when I resuscitated my percussionist career I had the idea to incorporate my filming and since then I'm quite happy of what I accomplished as a multimedia artist."

ragazzi: "Do you produce all the video sequences that you use on your own?"

Andrea: "Yes 99,99% are all mine - shot, edited and eventually computer animated; I'm working on an new very important project (see below) at the moment and here I have many sequences that are not my videos, but images from the HUBBLE telescope in the space!!!"

ragazzi: "Is there still room for improvisation in your music when you play multimedia performances?"

Andrea: "Sure! The music is synchronized to the video by some precise temporal links, but in between I can improvise greatly."

ragazzi: "In the 1970s you endorsed UFIP cymbals but nowadays the cymbal manufacturer of your choice is PAISTE; for what reason did you change your cymbal endorsement?"

Andrea: "Here is the entire story of me, Ufip and Paiste, going back when it started in 1974. That year I approached UFIP the old Italian cymbal manufacture and I proposed to Luigi Tronci (one of the greatest men I met in my life) to develop a series of metallic percussion together based on the sound and shapes of the Asian instruments. They were just enthusiastic about that since UFIP was having an "identity crisis" making cymbals for all the drum companies (Ludwig, Slingerland, Gretsch, etc.) but under fictitious names (Kashian, Pashian or similar).?The big problem that I immediately encountered was the fact that at UFIP they had only one method of manufacturing: casting the metal in shells in the ground.?That was great for the quality of the bronze, but very difficult for making gongs since it was impossible to hammer thin rims and nipples without breaking the metal.? But on the other hand the richness in harmonics of those casted shapes was unique and so I decided to go with some different and innovative design.? First of all, since they were concerned with all the discarding scraps from broken cymbals (When you work with heavy cast shapes it's normal to break a quantity in thinning it.) I decided to utilize part of it, namely the bells.? And there the most successful UFIP instrument that I named ICEBELL was born. ?Later the instrument - not copyrighted - was largely copied and I never saw a penny from the hundred of thousands produced, but this is another sad story ?Then I posed to myself the fundamental question: how can we make a gong without working with a metal sheet and using a cymbal shell instead?? And after experimenting I came up with another invention, the TAMPANG.? I simply used the China cymbal shape, working on it differently, reducing the thickness not like for a cymbal (from a thick bell to a thin edge) but leaving the edge thick as well the bell (now a nipple) and reducing the rest of the body. A final hammering gave me the possibility to obtain a dark mellow tone with a perfect pitch. And suspending it was easy since the protruding shape. ?UFIP had already in production some gongs called Tam Tam (from the Malesyan name Tammitam that indicates a large nipple gong) casted in a flat lens like shapes and reduced in thickness with a lathe.? I departed from those shapes to realize a new tuned gong series called LOKOLELE and a heavier one called SHENG. The first was reduced in thickness the second was left raw.?Both series sounded amazing. A pure tone reminding of a mixture between a bell, a Tibetan Crotale and a Chinese nipple gong. All this on three octaves from c3 to c5.? Again: what to do with those large pieces of TAM TAMS broken during the work on the lathe? I decided to cut out some discs and in this way I added the OGORORO series to the two previous series.? Ogororo had a high pitch sound, pure and long lasting (like all those instruments) due to the compact bronze.? I have to add that UFIP invented just that year the Roto-Casting: it was a procedure based on pouring the liquid bronze in a rotating shell. It was a great idea since this way the metal became more stable in its molecular structure and less breakable during the thinning.? I also experimented with the large TAM TAMS having special casting shells made and producing shapes with rims and different thickness.? Beside those models I had the opportunity to make a copy of the Burma Bell in several tuned sizes, Bell Trees and many other instruments that never reached a commercial success, remaining in my collection as prototypes, like the Tuned Cymbals, the Tuned Cattle Bells, the Bronze Plates etc.? In 1984 I was approached by PAISTE - they were interested in my work as musician and gong maker and they proposed me to become a Top Endorser for their instruments. I immediately suspected that it was a move to get me out of UFIP, but since my period there was at the end for personal problems, I decided to take the opportunity and go on with PAISTE.? It was another great period since I had the opportunity to include in my set up the whole PAISTE gong collection plus many prototypes that I got visiting the Nottwil and Rendsburg factories.?In 1991 under exclusivity contract as composer with Warner Chappell I decided to move to Los Angeles and for few years I stopped playing percussion and performing, dedicating myself to composing and conducting orchestras. ?So I lost all contacts that fortunately I resumed in 1998 when I started again to perform solo percussion concerts (now with my videos in a multimedia format) and with my groups.? In the meantime I donated all my percussion instruments collection (about 2000 pieces of which 200 gongs including an entire Balinese gamelan) to the new Tronci Foundation that Luigi Tronci of UFIP initiated with the aim to open a percussion museum in Florence. The project is under development and the Museum will open in 2010."

ragazzi: "Would you get any problems with PAISTE if you played cymbals or gongs of another brand?"

Andrea: "Actually, Since I'm not a rock star I don't think so ... well, loyalty is my motto with sponsors and also I love PAISTE for their support and for the cymbals and gongs that I have. When I travel abroad they support me greatly. And in this days with the cost of traveling and shipping for a starving musician like me it's a great help.
My set includes a lot of ethnic gongs like Balinese, Chinese and so on."

ragazzi: "The drum set you play in these days is very special; you use a lot of frame drums mounted like toms and a hi-hat that can only be played by foot. Why does a modern drummer like you use such unconventional respectively "atavistic" instruments?"

Andrea: "My philosophy is simple: I play what I find enjoyable to play. Those REMO tambourines - REMO is also sponsoring me - were the perfect compromise between transportability, light weight and sound so I had a blacksmith making a frame that I designed and I can travel with a single bass drum bag with my 18 drums in it! A couple of mikes, a careful tuning and you can't really say listening to my CD's that I'm playing tambourines and not drums!"

ragazzi: "You seem to be obsessed by discovering new sounds in order to incorporate them into your drum set; what is the cause of this addiction?"

Andrea: "Curiosity, love for risking, bravery, craziness ... my principle is that you have to experiment with sounds otherwise the sound will die."

ragazzi: "Are there instruments in your actual collection that you created on your own?"

Andrea: "Not really ... actually as I said before I own only the instruments that I play and no one is made by me, except the frames and the arrangements of it. In the 80s I had hundreds of instruments that I made with UFIP and others (I had a blacksmith making gigantic cowbells for me ... I mean GIGANTIC: 28 inches x 35 inches!!!) but now I have only my sets, one here and one in Italy. Also playing the KAT MALLET I have the possibility to sample all my instruments and reproducing it on the keyboard ... of course it is not like the real instruments, but at least I don't have to travel with a truck!!!"
ragazzi: "Did you ever change your way of composing to accommodate to the requirements of a special instrument?"

Andrea: "I'm composing for specific instruments and players only. I always had in mind that composing must be related to performing. Not like some classical avant-garde composer that compose theoretically ... If I didn't have a string quartet ready why to write a string quartet??? All the music I composed was performed and I'm very happy about it - so no need to change anything during the composing process."

ragazzi: "In 1980 you released the three record set "Indian Tapes" and in 1996 its follow-up "The Secret Of Joy" - these recordings deal with the spirituality of the Native Americans. Did you intend to imitate the musical structures of this culture?"

Andrea: "Not at all! That was a homage to the native Indian culture, but nothing is more distant from that music (monophonic and rhythmically simple) than Indian Tapes and later Secret of Joy. Indian tapes was released in 1980. An epic effort for a small label run just by a musician and his wife I had all those recordings and experiments made within five years of home work and I decided that was the time to organize all in a magnum opus, a kind of percussive symphony. It took me one year to record all the new tracks and to use the old material accordingly. We shouldn't forget that at that time my studio was a mere four track recorder and a small mixer. Everything was so expensive that a musician couldn't afford to buy for instance an echo chamber. But with tons of creativity and a lot of time finally I got a relevant result. I remember that to make the loops that you listen in some tracks I had the tape literally looping around my studio with some weird self made mechanical wheels to move it!!!"

ragazzi: "I discovered "shamanistic elements" such as the use of ostinatos in your music; for what purpose did you integrate them?"

Andrea: "Those ostinatos aren't of shamanic origins but connected with my interest for the Asian music and especially for the Balinese gamelan. Of course I'm not the only one ... Glass, Riley, Reich and all the "so called" minimal music school came from that music. When in 2002 I had the chance to do my SACRED SHADOWS project with the Balinese musicians I was in heaven! Finally I had the opportunity to write music for the originators of my entire artistic musical experience. I still consider that experience one of the best of my life."

ragazzi: "Are drummers the descendants of the shamans?"

Andrea: "Well ... it's known that percussion was and is associate with all the shamanic rites. Even playing with the Balinese I experienced that. Rituals before performing are so deeply grounded in their culture that they even performed these rituals before the concert of my western compositions. Music itself is a ritual: it could be a personal experience or it could be a mass experience like a rock concert, but it always is something connected with something supernatural. Drummers being the time keepers are probably more shamanic than the other musicians indeed."

ragazzi: "Do you have a vision as a guiding light for your life?"

Andrea: "My art was always my guiding light; I have to say that I offered my art to many social causes and I felt blessed to be able to help people with music."

ragazzi: "The German philosopher Nietzsche once said "Without music life would be a mistake". Do you agree?"

Andrea: "Partially since Nietzsche was probably referring to the Western music. The fact is that music is a language and in many cultures still parts of the communication are done with music. So there will be no communication without music ... and life will be not social."

ragazzi: "You wrote a book about the music of Edgard Varèse who is known as the "Father of Electronic Music". What makes Varèse´s music so unique to you?"

Andrea: "Varèse is the father of electronic music, but for me his legacy (carefully selected: he saved ten works and burned all the rest... arggggg!!!) is the fundament of modern music. The way he orchestrated, the way he created new sound with just traditional instruments is timeless and unique. Aside from that he was the first to write for percussion instruments only. His IONIZATION for thirteen percussionists is still a masterpiece always imitated but never reached."

ragazzi: "Is there something that makes your music unique?"

Andrea: "Probably the fact that everybody is praising it and nobody call me to perform. Within the last twenty years I did something like a total of thirty concerts ... what any musician is doing in two months ... besides to invoke the karma, it seems to me that this is something that makes my music very unique and my life experience similar to Varese´s one."

ragazzi: "What do you teach in your seminars and workshops; playing techniques, attitude or even the secret of joy?"

Andrea: "It depends. I did workshop on percussion, video-making, orchestra performing, multimedia producing ... I'm always trying to explain to the students that if they are willing to do it and die for it, it will happen."

ragazzi: "Please tell us something about your current projects."

Andrea: "Besides continuing to present my multimedia shows MANDALA and Eternal Traveler I'm working now on a new multimedia show named: EINSTEIN'S COSMIC MESSENGERS.
In collaboration with the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Cal Tech (NASA in Pasadena) I'm presenting a multimedia show about general relativity and gravitational waves. This project follows the successful ETERNAL TRAVELER multimedia show inspired by Leonardo da Vinci´s art and studies, which has been successfully premiered in 2007 at the Palm Springs Air Museum and performed on tour in Australia and Europe. The show (working title "Einstein's Cosmic Messengers") involves me as usual playing live (acoustic percussive instruments and digital sampled instruments) in sync with a video montage also created by me but with images from the space, involving both "real world" footage and animations. The show lasts fifty to seventy minutes, and is articulated in "chapters"; it begins with ancient astronomy and moves on to the modern understanding of the Universe; there's a chapter about gravitational waves interferometers (with footage shot at LIGO-Livingstone), one about BH Binary (entitled "Inspiral, merger, and ringdown") and so on. The planned outreach use of this show by the LSC is to pair it with public lectures by a LIGO scientist at venues such as the auditoriums of LSC members, the LIGO sites, science museums. Such a combined event joins the "two cultures" and can bring together the more scientifically-oriented and the more artistically-oriented persons in the public. In addition, the metaphor of gravitational waves as "cosmic sound" provides many interesting talking points for the speaker. The premiere will be this fall October 30th, at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, and is being organized with the LIGO Lab @ CIT."

ragazzi: "Can you give us a prognosis about the future of drumming?"

Andrea: "There's no future in drumming just past. Getting a new hardware or a new pair of sticks doesn't change the primeval nature of drumming still the same after 2000 years. 5/4 wasn't invented by Joe Morello nor bozzio invented the solo drumming ... you just need to listen to African musicians in the fist case or the Burmese drummers in the second to understand that nothing is new under the percussion sun."

ragazzi: "Can you name some of your next projects?"

Andrea: "I have so many in my mind and so few opportunities to perform that probably it's better to be realistic and just think of it. In any case for sure I'll produce four new CD's before the end of the year (some reissues and something new) plus I want put out all my film catalogue on DVD. Performing my solo multimedia shows and doing some composing (hopefully a new opera) will complete my program for the next year."

Frank Bender