A Conversation with Philip G Anderson and Laura Masotto

As I prepare this interview for publication, it is an unseasonably mild Sunday afternoon in January. The windows are cracked open to let in a rejuvenating breeze and to complete the illusion of spring, a lively pas de deux between piano and violin pirouettes in the air. The instruments belong to American composer & multi-instrumentalist Philip G Anderson and classically-trained Italian composer & violinist Laura Masotto. Having collaborated previously for compilation albums on two different imprints and as artists yearning to express their creativity under the challenging conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, they decided to have a musical conversation across the water that resulted in a 5-track suite called ‘A Quiet Evening‘. The EP was written and recorded in two different locations: Philip’s home-studio in Covington, Georgia (USA) and the country-side of Bologna were Laura was temporarily based after returning from a residency at Fabra I Coats in Barcelona (ES). Philip & Laura were kind enough to continue the conversation in verbal form for this latest edition of Duologues and share with us the story behind the album and their creative partnership.

Collaborations not unusual in the indie classical community, but the two of you have struck up a particularly productive partnership. How did you first come to collaborate and what do you think makes it work so well?

PHILIP: We first collaborated on “To Learn and Grow” a piece on Bigo & Twigetti’s 2019 compilation album, Scale. Funny enough, we each were writing our own pieces for the album without either of us knowing. While writing my piece, I kept feeling that it needed a lead violin part to help tell the story. Around that time I had been listening to Laura’s first album, Fireflies, and loved her violin performances on it. They were so expressive yet delicate, so interesting and captivating. I wanted to work with her at some point and it just worked out that I was working on a piece that needed violin. I sent her a message introducing myself, saying how much I was enjoying her album, and that I was working on this new piece for a compilation album that I thought she could really elevate with her violin performance. Fortunately she agreed to collaborate and then we started working on the piece together!

After that release, we collaborated again on a piece for Lady Blunt Records’ Collection Mediterraneo and now on this new EP. I think it works because of the level of trust we have in each other as musicians and artists. Laura is not only an incredibly talented violinist, but also a great composer and arranger so she has this wonderful ability to understand how pieces should evolve and flow. When working with players, I often have to give very detailed instructions and often have to go through several rounds of revising parts. However, with Laura I rarely give any notes to her prior to her writing her parts and recording them because of that understanding and trust. I know she is going to write and perform something interesting, something unique, and something that will move the listener. In a way, I think we share a similar understanding of how the music we write should sound and what it should accomplish. It’s also easy to work with her, she’s very open to feedback and suggestions as am I so there’s no pressure or concern about voicing a musical opinion.

LAURA: I remember the first time Philip wrote to me! I was so excited about the fact that he contacted me for a collaboration. I had recently released my first album, so I had just introduced myself to the world of modern-classical. Philip asked me to collaborate on a track for Bigo & Twigetti’s Scale Collection. I remember I was in a small studio on the Mont Blanc, it was summer, I was working on my new pieces and when I heard Philip’s track, I fell in love at the first listen. I wanted to find something special for that beautiful piece, so I worked hard on it until the right melodic line came up: I think it was the rhythm that was interesting and when that part came, I really felt it was the right one. In fact, I recall that Philip as well liked it immediately. Then followed many other pieces we made together, by now I have lost count, some are collaborations and others are recordings of his compositions. I think that we found the right balance in our way of collaborating, which includes both musical blending and freedom: it really works well for us.

Exactly how did ‘A Quiet Evening’ come about and what was it like developing the album from remote locations as the coronavirus lockdowns were taking hold in both your countries?

PHILIP: A Quiet Evening started out at the piano in my living room quite literally on a quiet evening in late winter/early spring (and yes, that’s where the name came from). Covid had just started to really spread here in The U.S. so everyone was staying at home. I would spend evenings sitting at my piano and just playing/improvising to distract myself from all of the negative news I’d seen/absorbed during the day. I was mentally exhausted from the stress and playing piano with no outside noises or distractions provided a sense of relief. I began developing what I was playing into structured pieces which I enjoyed on their own but felt they still needed something else. I thought Laura could really add something special to the pieces, so I reached out to her again to propose another collaboration.

Developing the EP provided a sense of normalcy and connection to the outside world again. While we’re each in different parts of the world (Laura in Italy and I in America), I felt that being able to work with someone in another country, especially during the pandemic, was special. It brought a sense of normalcy in that I was back working with other musicians again (even if it was under different circumstances) as I was prior to the pandemic.

LAURA: I’ve spent the lockdown period in Italy: for me it began on the 9th of March, the day I returned from Barcelona. ​​I was passing from a city in full operation, where there were still no restrictions to a sort of sudden imprisonment. It was very intense, maybe I wasn’t ready, I think no one was, but luckily music kept my head very busy: I’ve worked really hard on our EP, I wanted every note to go in the right place, fit perfectly with the notes written by Philip. I looked for melodies on my violin and then wrote them on paper, then I arranged them and recorded them: I felt I needed a slow process.

It was very nice to have this project to share with Philip who is a person I deeply admire: I know what incredible value he gives to music and the respect he pays to music. I think we both understood that music was being a great comfort to us in that moment and that it could become a solace for many other people too. Once we mixed the EP, I felt the need to detach from it for a while, as when listening to it my mind brought me back to that heavy period. After a few months, I was ready to dive into it again, so we planned the release and now I feel it’s a joy to listen to it.

What process did you follow to develop the pieces from the initial idea to the finished product? Was there a lot of back and forth by email and such?

PHILIP: Originally all of the pieces were just solo piano, but I felt like they needed something more and another perspective. They also were fairly complete, at least in terms of structure. I sent the piano demos to Laura who wrote all of the strings parts over top of them. This was fairly back and forth via email. We worked on tracks one by one. She’d record strings demos and send them to me and then I’d create a rough mix with the piano tracks and send it back to her to get her thoughts. It was an open and free flowing process with each of us coming up with and proposing new ideas along the way. We ended up rearranging and tweaking some of the tracks to incorporate some additional strings parts she’d written and I feel they really improved the tracks.

LAURA: Philip perfectly explained the process of creating and developing the songs. I can add that working with Philip is a real pleasure because he is one of the most precise musicians I know, he is always attentive to everything, it is really a rare feature to find in musicians.

There is a minimalism and directness to the new music compared with your previous collaborations that were more layered and cinematic. Did you discuss going for a particular sound at the outset or did that just develop naturally?

PHILIP: We never discussed an overall sound, it just sort of evolved as we exchanged emails and files. I think minimalism was a subconscious choice at least for me, as I never gave it any thought really. The original piano recordings were dry and simple so perhaps that set the tone for everything after that whereas with our previous collaborations, the original demos were fairly layered and already featured cinematic elements. I’m sure our recording conditions also played a factor in determining the sound as everything was recorded in our homes. Neither of us were able to record in an actual studio. I recorded myself playing the piano in the living room in my apartment.

I think the mental exhaustion from the pandemic and everything going on at the time may have also played a part in the minimalist direction too in that we may have just wanted it to be simple, to be to the point, and to be structured unlike everything around us. I did try to add elements and did experiment with other sounds when mixing the tracks, but I felt it wasn’t necessary and distracted from the underlying compositions. I think we said what we wanted to say solely through the compositions and the individual performances and that’s what I find special about the EP.

LAURA: I think that this music came out minimal as it reflects exactly what we wanted in that precise moment. There was such a storm of thoughts in my mind given by all the questions I started asking myself, triggered by all the news and fears to which we were subjected. Eventually as I went deeper, I realized that the real important questions were just few: am I happy? How am I treating myself, other and the planet I live in? With this Ep we unconsciously wanted to convey a sense of simplicity, like the ever-evolving nature we looked at from our windows at home, eventually life itself.

Of course we are much deeper into the pandemic now. How are you each managing both personally and artistically?

PHILIP: Personally, I’ve become better at managing the stress from the pandemic. I wouldn’t say everything is great but all things considered, I’m doing as well as I can and have remained healthy. it helps seeing vaccines finally being rolled out. Hopefully we’re finally approaching the end. The pandemic has been interesting from an artistic perspective. It has given me more time to focus on my own artistic work as my composing and production work has slowed significantly (that was a big contributor to stress). It also put creative constraints on what I could do as an artist. I couldn’t work with any local musicians or record in any studios because of lockdowns and other Covid restrictions. Anything I wrote and recorded had to be done in my own home or remotely by someone else (which is demonstrated by this EP). I’ve certainly created some unique work during the pandemic including this EP with Laura.

LAURA: For me it has been really very difficult to deal with the first lockdown: it was so long and rigid here in Italy, you could not set foot outside the house, we had so many emotions to process. I could not cope with such a sudden change and with such a rigid set of rules to follow. That kind of lockdown hasn’t happened here anymore but it’s certainly not back to normal: I miss listening to live music so much. Because of the pandemic in 2020 I have missed three fantastic concerts that I already had tickets for: Bjork, Woodkid and Agnes Obel. But I try to have hope for 2021!

I think this pandemic has changed us, maybe everyone inside of us was hoping that something would change, it was all going so fast and on the surface that maybe it was time to face ourselves and just look a little deeper. Surely for me it was a period of deep focus on my music, I had no distractions so everything I produced in 2020 was done very carefully, from the EP with Philip to my new album, passing through other beautiful collaborations. Lately I started approaching meditation, which I really feel it helps me to live fully, I think it’s a great training for the mind and a big help to face life.

Finally, are there any new ideas or projects either of you have in the works that you can tell us about?

PHILIP: Yes! I’m currently mixing my next full length album, which will once again feature Laura’s violin performances. I don’t want to give too much away as I haven’t formally announced it yet, but I will say that it’s very different from my previous releases. No exact release date has been set either, but it will be in 2021.

LAURA: I’m finishing up the final mix of my new album these days. I’ve been working on it for all of 2020 and I think it represents the emotions and reflections it caused, a sort of emotional heritage of the pandemic experience. It will be released in 2021 with a label that I admire a lot, but I still can’t reveal much about it!