Name: Bryan Senti
Occupation: Composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer, recording artist
Recent release: Bryan Senti's Manu is out June 24th via Naïve.
Over the course of his career, Senti has worked with a wide range of artists, including Dustin O’Halloran, Peter Gregson and Niklas Paschburg.
[Read our Dustin O’Halloran interview]
[Read our Peter Gregson interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Bryan Senti and would like to find out more, visit him on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
If you’re going to get to the end of a piece, you’re going to need a variety of impulses along the way. The best music to me has a depth that is only achievable when an artist takes an initial idea and goes beyond the style and form of their medium, refracting it against the prism of some greater human experience, a few of which you mentioned (dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics, culture etc.).
That said, the primary impulse for me these days is one of personal identity. Inching towards 40, I’ve spent nearly all my professional life working to support other artists on their personal journeys. And ultimately, it’s taught me that the best story you can tell is the one that only you can. So for me, music has become about the story of my family, my life experiences, the violin.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
For me the creative process starts well before any concrete ideas; it starts when I stop caring what other people think and I’m alone with myself, my mind is an elastic and receptive state. It’s harder to do than one thinks, which is why people develop a practice around their creative process, not unlike meditation.
For a similar reason I don’t often visualize the final work until the work is far enough along that it starts to feel like it can write itself. I think it’s easy to kill what makes something special, and more often than not it’s the things that weren’t planned: the happy accidents, the peculiar juxtapositions, the mistakes even, that make something great.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I think the preparation phase is perpetual.
When I was studying composition, I had a professor tell me once that you could probably skip college if you just truly learned to listen; When you really listen to something, it becomes a touchstone in your mind, informing future composition for the rest of your life. I think he was right, which is why I think it’s important to always be consuming books, art, and music: researching.
I have my studio set up so that I can quickly play and record different instruments, or go straight to score. On different days, I’m inspired to do different things, so I spent a lot of time making a comfortable work space that was conducive to that.
As for early versions, yes absolutely … who doesn’t? Perhaps people who purely improvise. I really admire the great improvisers, what a gift.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Oof, this question is a call to be a better person.
I’ll say this, I’m no good on weed, I’m no good hungover or sleep deprived, I need to be more-or-less healthy. So yes to exercise and eating well when composing and recording. If I’m on vacation, out there in the world as a pedestrian, it’s a different story of course.
But beyond that, the ritual is trying to write every day. Barring other commitments, you’ll find me in the studio at 830AM trying to make something.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first note, the one that won’t be subsequently scrapped, is the hardest. Gotta be patient.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
It depends, but most often in fits and starts. When a piece has an underlying process-oriented compositional approach, then the work will unfold more seamlessly. But even then, I’m looking for some peculiar juxtaposition, some unpredictable moment or section to challenge expectations.
And then other pieces feel like painting, and their conclusions are only intuited after stepping back and digesting the work as a whole. With those pieces it often feel like the work itself decides when and how to reveal itself. I think I’m often in this latter camp.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Beyond embracing my initial impulses, I’m always following things where they lead me.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
It’s a good question. It doesn’t happen to me often honestly, most pieces feel like they have some platonic ideal even if I fall short of them.
That said, there are times when there’s more of a choice, or even a stark choice. I think part of my solution to this is to create longer works, composed of smaller pieces.
When a piece of music stands alone, there’s a warped desire to have it convey everything: all your talent, all your emotions, everything that particular instrument or set of instruments can do. It’s a bad desire. In the micro, narrower goals and simpler aims create stronger and more impactful works. And by stitching these simpler pieces together, you can create a larger work that perhaps achieves many of those initial desires, albeit through context and equanimity.
Because a larger work demands structure: a beginning, middle and end, the answer to the choices found in individual pieces, I find, is often answered by looking at the larger work as a whole. This can be extrapolated out to apply to bodies of work, or even one’s career.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I find it profoundly spiritual.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
When I started writing Manu I did some soul-searching as to what this record should ultimately feel like from a production standpoint.
I have a lot of experience using synths and arranging for other instruments, but I understood quickly that the story I wanted to tell was one that should be told by strings, and only strings. That said, I did want the record to have an unexpectedly modern feel, and with counsel from Francesco Donadello and Justin Moshkevich there is careful and tasteful employment of tape delay, eq, and various verbs. But all of it is in support of the record’s ultimate narrative, the desire to connect my world to that of my parents and ancestors.
I think the seemingly infinite production choices that can be made in today’s digital world attenuate quickly when the mission of the music is clear.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I’ll finish a piece and it’ll exist in a demo format until I record what else needs to be recorded, and then I’m premixing it, sending it to a mixer (along with the rest of the record), and then finally sending it off to be mastered. Through that whole process I’m revising it, trying to make it the best it can be. And because it takes time to schedule all those steps, I do feel finished with a piece by the time it’s finished being mastered.
And by finished, I mean finished with that particular recording. I find solace in the fact that a great recording is simply the best you can do at that moment in time, and in-it-of-itself there’s something truly beautiful about that. Perfection doesn’t exist, but to listen to its attempt is exhilarating.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Very involved. The role of production, mixing and mastering is so essential today that in my mind it’s become the final stage of composition, akin to orchestration.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I can definitely relate to this. You stop making music and you become a preacher without a sermon. I think you just can’t be too hard on yourself, as it’s also a perfect time to open up your heart and mind, to really start listening again. We’re not alone making music, and when you hear the pursuit of perfection in other people’s work, it’s not hard to catch that spark of inspiration again.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I love making a cup of coffee, but there are serious limits to how expressive that can be. By contrast, I’d say music is limitless.