Interview 9: Niccolò Neri
Niccolò Neri was born in Citta’ di Castello (Umbria) in central Italy. His passion for music began at a very young age while studying the classical guitar with guitarist/composer Marco William Duranti and achieving top-grade results at the London College of Music. It was during this period that he developed a liking to folk music as well as other musical genders and a deep interest in original songwriting. Niccolò also studied electric guitar with guitarist Samuele Martinelli and vocal coaching with Nicola Cesarotti (Accademia Visionaria).
At the age of 19, he joined a country music quartet and a new musical training creating original compositions that allowed him to obtain excellent results at a national level. In this project, he collaborated with Guglielmo Ridolfo Gagliano member of a famous Italian pop band called Negrita and with Paolo Alberta also a well known sound engineer in Italy. The ability to be versatile allowed Niccolò to play with dozens of different groups (worth mentioning is his participation in a live event with top Italian lyricist Mogol in 2015 and with Mariella Nava in 2017). He also collaborated as a touring musician, arranger and teacher, in various recording studios and music schools in the regions of Umbria and Tuscany. Furthermore, Niccolò composed music for RAI TV and Mediaset TV in collaboration with Casamusica. Later he collaborated in some live presentations for musician and poet friend Veronica Lazzari. In 2019 he began his studies at the Rossini Conservatory in the city of Pesaro with guitarist Duccio Bianchi and shortly after he was chosen as a baroque guitarist for a vocal chorus called Coro 1506 at the University of Urbino. Later as guitarist in the Opera “Santo Amato, il pellegrino delle stelle” by Fabio Masini (composer and vice headmaster of the Rossini Conservatory) and followed by a show called “Nel Blu” still by Fabio Masini.
He has also developed a passion various stringed instruments like the Argentine Charango, the Greek bouzouki, the ukulele, the mandolin, the banjo and the baroque guitar that has allowed him to collaborate with many other musicians and a variety of different music projects.
Interviewer: Why do you write music? What motivates you?
NN: I write because I need it.
I like to represent moments or years of my life in a work of art.
Interviewer: Where did it start? What is your first memory of creating your own original piece of music?
NN: I was 8 years old and my father often rode a bicycle. I received a small keyboard for Christmas, and I learned chords and wrote the first song, which represented the freedom I saw in my father's eyes when he rode his bicycle.
After a while I started playing the guitar and writing the first arpeggios and songs.
Interviewer: Give us a quick summary of your current musical activity.
NN: I Have guitar concerts, as a soloist and as a chamber musician.
I teach in a music school.
I compose music for guitar and film music.
Interviewer: You’ve played various musical styles, not just classical, including what sounds like a successful career playing in bands. How does that affect your approach to writing for classical guitar?
NN: Before writing songs I had been writing very simple things for classical guitar for a long time. Creating with the guitar in hand has always been the only way to communicate something true and authentic.
From adolescence, as is normal, I became interested in various musical genres, from rock to country up to being considered one of the best emerging Italian songwriters around the age of 20.
The style of the classical guitar is always present also in the other genres that I have written.
Interviewer: You have a suite of pieces, Suite Popolare Umbra, published by Bergmann Edition, https://bergmann-edition.com/collections/neri-niccolo/products/neri-suite-popolare-umbra , and I have seen your new composition Red Tango Shoes which is your first single on solo classical guitar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3ouff0b94 . In all how many pieces have you written for the instrument?
NN: Two more compositions are about to be released.
I’ve written about 20 for classical guitar so far.
Then I'm writing chamber music for guitar, vocals, strings, etc.
I also use the guitar in film music that I write together with my team, who are called ‘42 Stems’.
Interviewer: You studied with Marco William Duranti, a guitarist/composer who also has work published by Bergmann Edition. Did you study formal composition with him?
NN: I studied some rules with Marco William Duranti but in the guitar the rules of composition are a little different than the rest.
The important thing is to grasp the beauty, even for just a second.
This William taught me, to see the brilliance of a dewdrop in the dark.
Interviewer: The balance of composing and playing: would you see yourself primarily as a composer or a performer? Or teacher? And do you think the balance is changing?
NN: Everything is balanced in my opinion. The musician is all of these things. Many choose to do only one of them: however, to experience the beauty of music in a complete way, in my opinion, one must be a teacher, concert performer, student, composer, actor, father.
Interviewer: I know you play in various ensembles. Are you writing or arranging for instruments other than the guitar? If so, what? And if you’re not doing it now, do you think you will in future?
NN: Absolutely, as I said before I deal with chamber music, film music and I have also written an Opera called "Lo Scrigno magico”, dedicated to Gianni Rodari and premiered in the theater of Osimo, in the Marche region, in Italy.
Interviewer: You’re a virtuoso guitarist with a particular style of your own. How much would you say your own playing informs the way you write for guitar? Are you writing pieces mainly for yourself, envisaging yourself as the performer, or do you regard your music as an addition to the classical guitar repertoire?
NN: When I write I don't ask myself questions.
I write then decide what to do with my compositions.
I write for personal necessity.
When someone interprets a composition of mine it is always nice to hear the beauty and the life experience that it transmits in the guitar in a different way from mine.
Interviewer: Do you prefer to work on a large scale or a more intimate one? A suite is a good way of providing an extended composition that contains shorter, stand-alone pieces: but how would you feel about writing say a concerto or a sonata?
NN: I'm better at writing small compositions but I'm trying to change and try to write things on a large scale, like a sonata or a concerto.
Interviewer: I’ve used the term ‘classical guitar’ just as a sort of shorthand for the instrument – but how far do you regard yourself as a ‘classical’ guitarist (as a performer)?
NN: In my opinion there is a wrong view of the classical guitar.
Let us remember that the guitar has always been the people's instrument and making it educated and for a few people is the biggest mistake that can be made.
I am a classical guitarist and I want to bring this instrument to everyone with quality and authenticity.
Interviewer: How would you define your written musical style? Where do you think it fits in to the wider picture of the sort of music that is being written for classical guitar today?
NN: My music is simply music but if we want to give it a genre it is ethno-romantic.
Interviewer: What is your process for writing a piece? I think the readers of these interviews, who are mostly composers themselves are always interested in this aspect.
NN: I always write with the guitar in my hand.
Anyone who writes for guitar must necessarily write with the guitar in hand, it is a musical instrument too complicated for the standard methods of composition.
Sometimes, like in my Suite, I am inspired by the folk songs of the Umbria region, in Italy.
Of course I use the rules of tonal, modal or Dodecaphonic music.
It takes me about a week to write a short composition of about 3 minutes.
I'm never completely satisfied but that's what pushes a composer to write better and better !!
Interviewer: In your concert repertoire, what styles of music do you favour? If you had to pick a composer you feel has influenced you or inspired your writing, who would it be?
NN: I play mostly popular music. Many composers have influenced me but if I have to mention one in particular it is certainly Miguel LLobet.
Interviewer: You also teach. Do you write any materials for teaching? Studies etc?
NN: Yes, I am writing some studies for student and teacher, to be performed together, as they used to do in the past.
The level is progressive, so that once the student has mastered the student part he can start with the teacher part by playing with a new student and being able to teach something he knows.
I am writing this method that in addition to playing, teaches how to teach.
Interviewer: This is interesting to me. I have only recently become really aware of the power of learning to play with others. I am learning duets with another player, and the discipline it imposes makes us both better guitarists. Are you intending for these pieces to be published for other teachers to use?
NN: Yes, I could publish that!!
Interviewer: Can you write ‘to order’? I ask because I see you have written for RAI TV and Mediaset TV. For example if I were a TV production company and I approached you with a commission to write an hour of incidental music for a movie, do you think you could do it?
NN: Absolutely yes!!
I work with a team that takes care of just that.
Emanuele Frusi is the founder of 42 Stems, a company that deals with music for films and TV.
Interviewer: Again, this is very interesting. You compose as part of a company – what is your role in it? And how does it work with the others? I mean for example, are you doing the guitar parts and others doing their specialist parts? Is your decision on your own parts final or can others say ‘no, it should go to E minor here’….? And how do you approach working with other media – film and tv? Are you composing and recording to time-code? Are you watching the action on-screen and writing to fit it exactly? Or do you write first, then edit it to fit?
NN: It depends.
Sometimes I play already written guitar parts, using metronome, loops, etc.
Other times I am writing the music completely while I am watching the screen with the film or commercial.
Interviewer: Collaborative writing seems to me very different from collaborative performing – does one person oversee the whole process and approve the final output?
NN: The final word is always up to our boss Emanuele, but we work very well and there is hardly ever need to change direction.
Interviewer Do you use different technologies? For example, loops, samples etc?
NN: I use classic daw and condenser mics when recording guitars.
When I use the piano and synthesizers, on the other hand, I have my midi or analog machines.
However, it is the images that guide the composition in this case.
Interviewer: What is your experience of playing your own pieces in a concert setting for a live audience? Do you feel different playing one of your own pieces, as opposed to something from the general repertoire? Have they had a good reception?
NN: Of course pieces like “Asturias” or “Capricho Arabe” are always the top for people but my pieces are always very popular too.
Simple and direct pieces, maybe that's why it works.
Interviewer: The Suite Popolare has a really melodic, accessible, folkloric appeal – and it is very Italian! Do you consciously write Italian music, or was that specifically for this project? Am I right in thinking you have a wide knowledge of Italian popular and folk music?
I studied the popular music of central Italy.
Especially the popular songs that were made in the fields.
My grandparents were Umbrian farmers and I am proud to let you hear the ancient songs of my region.
Interviewer: Your biography refers to an interest in/experience of song-writing. In your various bands and ensembles, were you the songwriter? Did you write alone or in collaboration? Do you write lyrics as well as melody and harmony? Is there a big collection of Niccolo Neri original songs somewhere? Does the song-writing ‘gene’ explain the strong focus of sing-able melodic lines in your work?
NN: Sometimes I collaborated on writing and arranging but often I wrote all by myself.
Interviewer: Finally, plans and ambitions as a composer. Are you working on anything now? Do you have further pieces planned? And would you say you have a long-term ‘goal’ as a composer?
NN: My first goal is to search.
Looking for something in others, in myself, in paintings, in my compositions, in a book.
The important thing is to start looking for something.
As long as you search, learn and love every day, life is worth living.
Interviewer: Thank you Niccolò, and we look forward to more of your music.