Cellist Michael Nicolas In Transition: ‘All Art Is Technology’

Michael Nicolas. Image: Erin Baiano
Michael Nicolas. Image: Erin Baiano

‘Something From Deep Down Inside’

“This is a new thing for me. I’ve been a freelancer in New York since graduating” from Juilliard. “I had an orchestral job right out of school but after that I decided that I wanted to have a more multifaceted career. So I left that and became a freelancer in New York. Musically, that entails playing a whole bunch of different types of music with a whole bunch of different types of people and a whole bunch of different types of groups. Which is great. It’s exposed me to everything.”

But, as freelancers in the writing business can tell you, too, the freelance life leaves your work scattered across “a whole bunch” of media, styles, and readerships. Yes, it exposes you to everthing. And it sends you home at night to work on that novel.

1000 Album coverThink of Transitions, releasing May 27 from Sono Luminus as Michael Nicolas’ first novel. And then think again: his work already lives on at least nine albums.

At 33, Nicolas can boast a bigger discography than many professional musicians will have at the end of their careers. Most of those CDs, though, are with Ensemble Ditto, a chamber group based in Korea. In the States, Nicolas is better known as a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) in New York. With the ensemble Third Sound, he became one of the first US-based artists to do a residency in Havana last year.

And regular followers of contemporary classical music will be chuffed to know that this is the new cellist with Brooklyn Rider, like ICE one of New York’s most acclaimed ensembles on the scene today. Nicolas is taking over from the departing Eric Jacobsen. (In New York? Catch Brooklyn Rider with Nicolas in place, June 3 at National Sawdust.)

“A freelancer in New York. Musically, that entails playing a whole bunch of different types of music with a whole bunch of different types of people and a whole bunch of different types of groups.”
Michael Nicolas

For all the excellence of his work with that “whole bunch” of groups, one of the transitions behind Transitions is maybe the most exciting of all: Nicolas is arriving now as commissioner and performer of works that reflect his own interests in technologies, as you’ll learn in our interview.

Because it’s part of Q2 Music’s Album of the Week series,  you can read Doyle Armbrust’s commentary here. Q2 Music, a service of New York Public Radio’s WQXR, last month became a Peabody Award winner for its Meet the Composer podcast series with Nadia Sirota. A third season of Meet the Composer is being Kickstarted now: details are at the end of this story.

In the same way that the film Ex Machina questions the intimacy with which human and artificial intelligence may come together, Nicolas has put together an album the Transitions of which take into account various musical technologies. Its title comes from the first commission, pivotal to Nicolas’ thinking on the entire disc, by Anna Thorvaldstottir, whom we’ve interviewed in our #MusicForWriters columns.

We start our conversation with Nicolas on that point of being such a busy freelancer.

‘2016 Is A Big Year’

Thought Catalog: Michael, as great a range of experience and accomplishment with so many ensembles has given you, you’ve now moved — like another cellist we’ve talked with, Jeffrey Ziegler — into a new chapter of solo work. What’s behind this pivot?

Michael Nicolas. Image: Erin Baiano
Michael Nicolas. Image: Erin Baiano

Michael Nicolas: I’m following the arc of my career, trying to develop as an artist and a musician. The downside to being a freelance musician is that there’s no one thing that you can really say is you. I put myself into everything I do, of course, but because I’m dividing my time [between ensembles], there’s a sense of discontinuity.

This solo album was really something that came from deep down inside. I wanted to make my own marks, make my own decisions, shape it, myself.

TC: Something else writers will sympathize with you on: this album was hard to do, wasn’t it?

MN: It was a long, arduous project. The inception was at least two years ago when I contacted my first composer, saying, “Hey, would you like to write a piece for me?” Four of the pieces on the albums are commissions.

TC: And three are world premieres, only because that first commission, the one with Thorvaldsdottir in Iceland is on the ICE album of her work.

MN: Anna was the first composer I approached. She has a role in the inception of this album. And the title has a lot of meaning for me in my personal life, too.

This year, for me and people around me, 2016 is a big year. It’s mattering a lot, in my life and the the world. Something is happening, I feel it. There’s a big change here. A big year.

I realize that stylistically, the album is all over the place, but that reflects my own personality and musical career. I’ve never been one type of musician. And the work is brought together by my own playing and my own conviction in bringing these pieces together.

“This solo album was really something that came from deep down inside. I wanted to…make my own decisions, shape it, myself.”
Michael Nicolas

TC: You’re Canadian and Taiwanese, by background?

MN: I’m actually American now. I’ve naturalized just this year — another thing about this year! But yeah, my father is French-Canadian and my mother was born in Taiwan. So I’m of mixed race, born in Winnipeg. Played in the Montreal Symphony, went to school in New York.

TC: Your cello has such a vibrant sound. What are you playing?

MN: I play a modern instrument. It was made in 2001, by Michelle Ashley. She used to be based in Boston. But she married a Quebecois man and moved to Montreal, so she’s also there. I love this cello. I’m a huge fan of modern instruments. I don’t like the inflated prices of the old instruments. They do sound great, but there are wonderful instrument makers out there who just don’t have the brand name.

‘What Kind Of Music I Believe In’

TC: You’re talking to us on this album about the coming-together of technologies. What is it you’re saying with this album’s concept?

Michael Nicolas. Image: Kevin Yatarola
Michael Nicolas. Image: Kevin Yatarola

MN: The whole idea is that I feel like all art is technology. It comes about because we discovered some kind of technology, from cave paintings to whatever. If we’re singing, that’s human. And any other sound we make is a form of technology, it’s artificial.

The cello is an old, 17th-century type of technology. But the cello is also closest to the human voice.

And when paired with a newer technology, then the cello becomes more human. If you just keep going into the future, technologies become more and more human.

For example, in the Davidovsky [“Synchronisms No. 3 for Cello and Electronic Sounds”], you have the cello sound and it’s very modernistic and hyper-expressive. Then the computer sounds come in and you’re like, “Whoa, that’s really different-sounding.” But then you have something that the cello imitates.

The whole idea behind the [Steve] Reich is that it’s an octet, for eight cellos. Normally eight people would have to play it. But because of technology, I’m able to do it myself. That’s not necessarily a statement about technology but it’s because of technology that I’m able to do it.

TC: Amazing sound, too, that’s the “Cello Counterpoint” of Steve Reich.

MN: Same with the David Fuller piece…

TC: “Speak of the Spring”…

MN: …I’m able to do it as another multi-layered, multi-tracked cello piece. Without any synthesized sounds the way the Davidovsky or the La Rosa have.

TC: The “flexura” of Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa?

MN: That and the Davidovsky have sounds that literally are made by computers. Davidovsky has synthesized sounds, while the “flexura” and Gosfield pieces…

TC: “Four Roses” and “…and a Five-Spot.”

MN: …have sampled sounds that are manipulated by synthesizers. And Anna’s piece…

TC: “Transitions.”

MN: …is the most conceptual of all. It’s a straight cello piece but it’s on the theme of all this, so it’s more in the playing. It has no technique that would be foreign to Beethoven or Bach. Maybe even conceptually they’d be able to understand it.

“What if I had stayed in just one orchestra? Or done just one thing? A lot of people do that, and it’s great, they excel. But it’s not me.”
Michael Nicolas

TC: The more we “tech out,” the more human we become, right?

MN: Tchaikovsky or Beethoven or Schubert, they were just trying to imitate the human voice. The closer you can get to the voice, the better. And the closer you can get, the more I don’t care that it’s not the voice. Because it sings through the cello.

We’re all striving for that same thing, to elucidate what it is about humanity. Getting closer to humanness through this technology, through something that’s not necessarily flesh and blood.

TC: Does this “soothe the savage breast” of someone fearful of technology’s progress?

MN: (Laughs.) I, for one, welcome our robot overlords. And that’s the thing about my career. What if I had stayed in just one orchestra? Or done just one thing? A lot of people do that, and it’s great, they excel. But it’s not me.

TC: And you waited until now instead of trying to pull off a solo effort too early.

MN: It took a while to figure out even what kind of musician I was and wanted to become. Some people burst onto the scene and that’s great. Me, I’m a little bit of a simmerer. I slow-cook for a while and hopefully get tender enough to eat. We shouldn’t take that metaphor too far.

TC: Right.

MN: I just wanted to figure out what I stood for and what I wanted to say. And what kind of music I believe in. Now, I’m confident enough to be like, “Yeah, you know what? This is what I hope to say.” And hopefully somebody will take it to heart. But I just need to say it. Even if no one else existed, we would still have art. As long as there was one human on Earth.

The Peabody Award-winning Meet the Composer podcast series from Q2 Music with Nadia Sirota is something we’ve covered in the past here at #MusicForWriters. The series is currently in its annual Kickstarter campaign, this time for a third season. As Sirota points out in her video, Q2 Music prefers to raise the $30,000 needed for the season this way to public-radio pledge drives for the series. At this writing, the podcast series has raised $17,276 of its goal in only six days, with 311 backers pledging.

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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