An interview with the music composer Alexei Turcan
photo by Roland Váczii
Alexei Turcan is one of those people you could describe as a music man. He writes and produce music, he orchestrates and he plays several instruments, and he is doing all these with a great passion. His music compositions and orchestrations can be found on numerous records and his music versatility proposed him for scoring theater plays, film and dance performances. Alexei made a name for himself with the alternative rock music project Travka, but he soon emerged in the electronic music scene with his solo project Tomma Alistar.
In a short break from his numerous projects Alexei took his time to offer this warm interview about his musical life.
| How did your journey into music started? As I remember only last year you’ve celebrated 15 years with Travka. Do you remember your early beginnings?
I don’t really remember how it all started, I was 7 years old and I wanted to play accordion. My parents were happy to support my dream and enrolled me to a teacher, although the instrument was too big for me at that age. In Moldova almost all kids follow some art school, but for me, that was a game-changer, scratch that – a game-maker! That teacher was my mentor for the next 8 years, I still visit him every time I go home.
| When you moved to Bucharest you enrolled in the music Conservatory, how was this experience for your artistic development?
I was a full-time musician right when I moved to Bucharest. Those were hard times. The Conservatory was of little interest for me – at that time I was discovering other instruments, computer music, producing and sound design. So my evolution as a multi-instrumentalist and all that came with the price of the Conservatory itself. My passion for studying and understanding music suffered some mutation at that university and I had to follow my own instincts. There were prices and sacrifices… totally worth to pay even by today’s standards!
| How did you approach at first alternative music? Did you make an instinctual transition from rock to electronic, or were these sounds close to you from the beginning?
I cannot define alternative music to this day. I guess I eliminated the guitar stuff I wasn’t able to play - jazz, blues, metal, etc. And then you mix what’s left. That was my “magical” approach. The transition from rock to electronic was via The Prodigy, I can tell you that. But it also happened in relation to my ongoing development of skills. Now, to talk about electronic sounds, as a listener and a producer, it was years and years of taste refinement. A bunch of guitars and drums would preserve their sound, no matter the style, the speed of playing or the amount of reverb pedals. But when it comes to electronic music, it has almost infinite range, and it can even incorporate the bunch of the guitars and drum sounds and all. The fun part for me arrives when everything finally comes together.
| How do you approach your music? Do you evolve with each record?
Things are organically changing whenever you talk about evolution. For example, when I got tired of the old stuff, I approached things from a fresh perspective and I’m ready to challenge the audience’s expectation too. I try to set some limits from the start when I write new music. Any limits at all, regarding gear, recording/producing techniques, style, sound textures. I don’t see myself very productive in a room full of synthesizers and actually finishing up a song! Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have a great range of vocabulary, it’s awesome, but having limits and getting things done, for me, is much more challenging and realistic compared to dreaming of some gear I don’t have, or fiddling endlessly on some patch which can trigger an idea, but not necessarily a tune.
Travka itself was a limit (a positive one), so my compositions evolved due to the band’s needs and creative direction. This certainly didn’t stop us to set a trend in Romania for electronics back to back with distorted guitars. The new (electronic) sounds made their way easy, I guess, in the end it’s alternative, there are many boxes to think outside of, not just one!
| Are you interested in the sampling culture?
I’m maybe more into Amon Tobin’s stuff. I respect artists that gravitate around sampling, but this is not my cup of tea, I mean as a creative starting point. Though I’m a big fan of re-sampling and re-re-re-sampling techniques in my own productions, but that’s another thing and most of the times it does not imply to other music than mine. I also think that the laws regarding sampling should be reconsidered in our times, after all, everything is a remix and both consumers and creators got past tons of music in the last century – sampled, stolen, borrowed, twisted, modified, over-processed, complete F.U.B.A.R.!
Photo credit to Năluca
| During your musical career your marched from one alias to the other, changing the tempo and the genre with each one. What fascinates you within electronic music and how do you find it as an environment of expression?
As I said before, electronic music is a larger creative area for me and my previous projects were just test pilots, in every way. Even Tomma Alistar is just a glimpse of all my electronic adventures. But I promised myself it’s my last alias, haha! that automatically means that if it’s 3/4 it’s still Tomma Alistar, classical instruments – yes, downtempo jazzy weird tune – good to go, soundtrack for movie/theatre fit to be performed live – still Tomma Alistar. I’m currently working on some choir music, you can bet it’s Tomma Alistar again.
Regarding other instruments, it was a wall of fear I needed to climb and it took some time, that’s why Discoballs, an electronic project, still had a rock structure as a band. There are infinite textures some classical instruments can provide – I just found some good friends to share my ideas with. And now the courage went crazy, maaan, last august I stripped down the beats and synths and effects and wrote a contemporary piece for a trio – piano, violin and cello. It’s been emotional!
| Music is a big part of your personal life as well. Your wife is a cellist from a musical family and you guys have composed and performed together numerous times. How does it feel like to be immersed at such a deep level in sounds and musical notes?
Yes, my wife is a great inspiration for me, and we make a deadly team when working together! She always has some projects up her sleeve and her ambition is sometimes overwhelming for a semi-lazy dude like me. But there are times when she has to keep up with my work, so it comes both ways. Being a professional music engraver, Corina works harder, better and faster than me. Also her clients are high profile composers and publishing houses across the world, so even if it seems like we’re in the same field, we have plenty of debates over a vast variety of subjects. We also act stupid and have lots of fun, we’re not THAT geek, our family is like a joint venture, if you know what I mean.
| How did you become part of the Underdog project and what future plans do you have for this project?
The Underdog label and it’s recently released chillout compilation is a great initiative by Victor Mihailescu. The Romanian scene needed this here and now. That’s the (easy) explanation how everybody got on board instantly. And I mean, not every producer involved did necessary produce chillout music in their career, but for such a cause, and such a gathering of talents, who wouldn’t? Future plans for this? I don’t know, maybe some cross-collaboration between producers on the same theme.
| Your daytime job is at UNDA Recording studio. You’ve worked here with your projects Travka, Tomma Alistar, but also with Fanfare Ciocarlia, Akua Naru, Muse Quartet, Silent Strike and Alexandrina among others. How do you find the balance between the objectivity of this profession and the subjectivity you must have to put that needed energy into composition and recording?
I've been at Unda Recording for many years now, it's the place where I spend most of the time, besides my home. It's a great crew there, everyone involved share this passion for music gear, sound (design), art in general and coffee 🙂 Horia, the owner of the studio, has this brave attitude of encouraging others to do stuff, to learn and evolve as sound engineers/producers. It's good for business too. I've certainly learned a lot through the projects made inside the studio and, over the time, I've refined my skills as a producer - lots of experimenting, tons of quality gear to discover and a creative space as a whole! All my scoring projects for theatre and film, all my releases are crafted at Unda - that's the dream venue for an idea-driven career.
Regarding recording and producing other artists, it all goes down to communication. The artist's vision needs to be understood in the first place, then the button tweaking, microphone placement or other technical requirement come natural and easy. Fanfare Ciocarlia's album, for example, was in the beginning an objective matter for me, but it ended up relying also on my subjectivity – as folklore music being my main dish in my youth, when I was playing a lot of accordion. Also, being subjective is the only way to inject personality and character in a sound or production as a whole.
| How do you explain to yourself the difference between songwriting and production? Does arranging and orchestration have another part of your brain working?
I don’t think so. But then, I don’t think too much when I do this, inspiration just comes to me and I’m always there to welcome it.
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