WITH CARLOS PLAZA OF KOTEBEL (italian
by Giancarlo Bolther
Hi Carlos, can you tell us about the songs from Omphalos and which are the hit-points of the new album?
The album opens with a 13-minute song called “Ra”, the Egyptian Sun God. This is probably the piece where we have achieved the tightest integration of different styles and languages. Tracks 2 and 9 feature compositions from César García. As in “Fragments of Light”, they are instrumental and heavily guitar-based. His composing style is very different from mine and this gives variety to the album. I believe both pieces are excellent; full of details waiting to be discovered. To me the most important piece is the 30-minute suite titled “The Pentacle’s Suite”. As it name implies, it is the musical representation of selected pentacles used by ancient magicians to protect themselves from the effect of their spells. The suite is made up of six pieces, which share and develop common thematic material (except the Epilogue). The album is wrapped up with “Omphalos” which in my opinion is the song that is closer in style with the language of previous Kotebel albums. I also added a piece called “Joropo” which is the name of a folkloric Venezuelan rhythm. This piece is another example that shows the eclectic character of Kotebel.
With respect to hit-points, I don’t think it’s possible to refer to “commercial” or “more accessible” points in most current progressive music albums. Fortunately we have abandoned the usual practise in the 70’s albums of including a short commercial track to satisfy the record companies and assure the selling level targets. Maybe I’m wrong and there is such a thing as hit-points in any album but I don’t compose with such a thing in mind. I guess that if “Omphalos” has hit-points, they will be identified by the fans themselves.
What does the title mean and what kind of message do you want to give with this album?
“Omphalos” is the Greek word for navel. The name is also used to refer to a sacred stone placed in the centre of the ancient Greek oracles, included the Delphi Oracle. The stone represented the origin of everything that “Is”. The primal source. On the answers to questions 9 and 10 I give an explanation of how this fits into some metaphysical considerations.
How do you go about the process of composing songs?
I usually start with ideas used as building blocks. From these, I create a rough version of the piece; an overall template, so to speak. Then I start working on the individual parts, but always having an overall perspective of the piece. If you don’t compose and arrange with a clear overall picture, you end up with a long piece made up of a concatenation of ideas instead of a coherent whole. Once I come up with the arrangement, I present it to the other musicians. Their ideas come into play and the final arrangement is achieved. Obviously this process is heavily dependent on any extra-musical elements used as a basis for inspiration. It can be a poem, or a series of ideas, or a concept, or even a picture. I use these elements as a basis for meditation and wait for the musical ideas that are suggested by them.
In your opinion, which are the differences between your studio records?
When I decided to use progressive music as the vehicle to continue my work as an artist, I was totally unaware of all the music that had been written after the 70’s. That is the reason why the “Structures” sound is very much in the vein of the 70’s. I wrote “Mysticae Visiones” under a strong inspirational drive and on a time when I was studying metaphysical literature. Some people say that “Fragments of Light” and “Omphalos” are an evolution from the two first albums. I don’t agree. I think “Mysticae Visiones” is different from successive albums. 4 years after its release today I feel I would not change a single note. In “Fragments of Light” I wanted to experiment, so language was as important as the message. I took a series of poems written by Nathalye Engelke, my wife, and for the first time there were lyrics in a Kotebel album. I also wanted to experiment with the human voice. I took its melody and rhythm and put them in context. For example in “Memories”, you can listen to a synthesiser below the vocal declamation, outlining the melody of human speech. In “Fire” I wanted to experiment with writing a more conventional rock piece and that’s why I invited a male singer, Juan Olmos. In “Mirrors”, I wrote a piece in ABA form (+ coda to be precise) where “B” was the mirror image of “A”. When theme “A” is re-exposed, you can hear a piano recording played backwards; it is actually theme “B” but with the audio wave inverted. Up to “Fragments of Light” Kotebel was a personal project with the stable collaboration of excellent musicians like Omar Acosta, César García and Carolina Prieto. I had conceived it as a studio project. We were invited to BajaProg in 2004, so I assembled a band for the occasion. This band turned into a steady formation and Kotebel grew from a personal to a group project. “Omphalos” is the first product of this change. You can feel the effect of musicians like Carlos Franco and Jaime Pascual in the arrangements. The difference from my first complete version of the pieces, with all the arrangements, to what ended up in the album, is very big. The wide backgrounds of the different musicians have reinforced the eclectic character of the band. I believe with “Omphalos” Kotebel has achieved its own language; we are breaking into unexplored grounds.
Looking back at your past discography it seems to me that you have started as a personal project and now you became a real band, do you agree?
As you can see from my previous answer, I totally agree with this statement.
Your music is a way to escape from reality or to face the reality?
I could write a book answering this question. It all depends on what you mean by reality and this issue is as old as philosophy itself. In my humble opinion, reality is built by adding the rational aspect (information from your senses and the logical framework constructed around this information) with Intuition. I got a bachelor’s degree in physics back in 1982 so I’m well acquainted with the rational means used by humans to understand reality. Today, I believe that one can achieve a wider, more encompassing feel of what reality is through meditation, than with an electronic microscope. So back to your question, my music I hope opens doors to get a wider perspective of reality.
Your line up was changed, what can you tell us about the new members?
Strictly speaking, the only new member is Jaime Pascual on bass. In “Structures”, Carlos Franco played percussion in “Structure Nº 7” and Adriana Plaza (9 years old at the time) played the tambourine in a couple of songs. Carlos and Jaime formed part of the band assembled to play in BajaProg in 2004. They participated heavily in the arrangements of “Omphalos”. Carlos added the ethnic character and Jaime the solid bass that I would never have been able to accomplish by myself. I owe to them the tight sound achieved in the album. The most recent member is Adriana Plaza, my daughter. By the time she joined the band, “Omphalos” was almost finished so her participation in the album was in the synthesiser part of “Joropo”. Her participation in the next Kotebel album will be very important. She has reached a very high level as a performer and I want to use her skills to our advantage. She will take care of the more complicated fragments that I would find hard, if not impossible, to play. Our live set-up requires two keyboard players, so she also plays a key role in our live shows.
Can you tell me more about the meaning of the band’s name?
I owe this name to Adriana. When she was about 2 years old, she made the word up to refer to anyone speaking in a language she did not understand. I had some English friends at the time and she would say that they were speaking in “Kotebel”. When I decided to create the project back in 1999, the choice of the name was obvious. This name has an added advantage: all references in Internet are linked to us!
The artwork of the new album has a lot of symbols, there is a religious concept behind?
There are three elements that give the album a sort of unity: the reference to “Ra” the Egyptian god that furnished the energy required to animate all living creatures, “Pentacles” – artefacts used to control the forces evoked by magic spells and “Omphalos” as the origin of these forces. The whole idea is very well represented in the cover art: a man’s soul tied to matter by virtue of his incarnation, but aware of its transcendent nature. He resorts to religion, spells, meditation, philosophy in order to break the material chains and achieve universal consciousness, while at the same time retaining awareness of himself.
What do you think about religion and how much religious are you?
In its pure sense, religion is one of the different vehicles used by men to come in contact with hidden aspects of reality. The limitation of our senses is of course one important factor but in my opinion, the main one is our habit to consider reason and logic as the only way to reach the Truth and understand reality. I believe in God but my concept of what It is differs from most conventional religions. Most religions are geocentric; they assign human attributes to God and place human beings in the highest place among creatures. There are billions of galaxies, each with millions and millions of stars. It doesn’t take that much meditation to conclude that God’s nature is beyond human comprehension and is much more than the anthropomorphic image that most people have of Him. I believe religions have an important responsibility in the growing trend of atheism. On one hand, taking their creed at face value, most people claim that God is unfair because He does not intervene to ban injustice, heal, protect and make sure humans are forever happy. Since He does not make himself noticeable in these terms, he must not exist. Others, quite understandably, believe that religions are based on a childish representation of what the Universe is and by not believing in religions, they end up not believing in God. Others, instead of analysing the theosophical base, only see how religious fanatics act. They claim religions are at the origin of most of the wars and conflicts suffered by humans. We all know that religions have been used through centuries by men to control other men. Concepts and historical facts have been changed in order to convert religions into effective means to manipulate society. Fear of God and the idea of the Original Sin are, I insist in my personal opinion, examples of how religions have been distorted to exercise power. So, I believe in God but I don’t follow any particular religion.
I stated earlier that God is beyond human comprehension. I want to clarify that I mean rational comprehension. We can go a long way understanding some aspects of God by looking at nature. For example, its cyclic nature. “Mysticae Visiones” is a musical representation of reincarnation; I’m convinced that we evolve by forming part of an enormous chain of actions and reactions (Karma) and our souls are subject to innumerable reincarnations not only as humans; even not only as earthly creatures. Depending on our evolution state and our needs we go through different incarnations under different states of matter density; including the gaseous state or thinner entities which humans are not capable of detecting. So, we can be as solid as a rock or as volatile as a ghost. I believe humans, as well as all Creation, are living entities that are part of God; not something detached and independent from Him. As we progress through our evolution, we increase our ability to comprehend God and thus, share more and more of his attributes, including the ability to eliminate our dependency on time.
I could expand more on these ideas, but we are straying from music and the object of this interview. I have been tempted to create a blog in Kotebel’s webpage to discuss these issues. If any reader believes it’s a good idea, just drop me a line in the guestbook or write me an e-mail.
Did you play on tour after the realisation of the cd? (if yes) What is that characterise your live performances?
After the release of Omphalos we have been working in preparing a live show with material from it and our previous albums as well. I believe we have come up with a very powerful live set that includes complete versions of Ra, The Pentacle’s Suite, Excellent Meat, long sections of “Mysticae Visiones”, and material from “Fragments of Light” like Hades, Quimerista II and Fire. We are now looking for opportunities to play at festivals or wherever it makes sense. By the way, any idea will be much appreciated. Italy is one of the places where I’d love to play because Italian progressive music has always been a source of inspiration for me. “Kotebel” live does not put up the typical rock show. We tend to concentrate on conveying music so we don’t disperse our energy running around the stage. In that respect, our performances are very similar to what you would find in a classical music concert.
What do you think about the actual progressive scene?
Prog is still far from achieving the big minority currently being enjoyed by other types of cult music like jazz or classical music. I have put a lot of thought into this and I believe much has to do with the fact that “Progressive Rock” is a misleading term and does not help in the expansion of the genre. On the last edition of the excellent Gouveia Art Rock Festival in Portugal, I was invited to a side event to make a speech on this. I’m preparing a paper that will hopefully be edited and distributed in next year’s edition. It’s too lengthy and difficult to summarise. In essence, I believe the main characteristics of our music have more to do with the structured development of themes than with its progressive nature. Many other genres are progressive in the sense that they strive to innovate by incorporating exotic instruments, odd rhythms, extra-musical elements, etc. The term progressive was appropriate for the bands in the 70’s because they were indeed creating a new language. But nowadays, based on this term, we should disregard for example the music done by Mathew Parmenter (Discipline) and that would be a grave mistake. In addition, critics still reject anything related to progressive rock. Some have understood this and have come up with terms like “Progressive Music” or “Art Rock”. For lack of a better term, I’m using the term “Art Music” as opposed to “Commercial Music”. Of course, Art Music can also encompass classical, jazz or any other form of music created by an artistic drive without commercial considerations. So, Art Music is still not appropriate to refer exclusively to our genre. Still, I believe it is a better term. By being vague in its definition, it is also easier to find a place in indie festivals were Kotebel and many other prog groups would probably be well accepted.
According to you what developments will be for progressive music in the next few years?
“Art Music” (let’s be consistent ;-)) is bound to increase its fan base in the next years. This is so because presently the proportion of offer and demand is absurd. Too many groups for such a small fan base. I believe this means that musicians have been the first ones feeling the need to move away from the extremely simplistic and naive music of the mainstream. More and more musicians find in Art Music the elements to develop their skills to their full potential. Our genre does not limit creativity: you can go from jazz, to rock, to impressionism, to folk and anything in between. As has happened in the past, public will start moving in the direction that the artists have previously foreseen. In some years, most of today’s bands will abandon but many will remain and will enjoy a fan base big enough for Art Music musicians to make a living of music.
In your opinion who is that wrote the most important music in the progressive rock history?
I don’t think one can identify a single most important musician or band. Our genre is broken down into many different substyles and each have several key actors.
Usually artists were never totally satisfied with their works, what would you like to change in yours (past and present) or they are good enough as they are for you?
As I said before, I would not change a single note for example in “Mysticae Visiones” but, if I could do the albums all over again and have enough economic resources, I would obviously use recording studios, professional recording engineers, and specialised mixing and mastering facilities. Bear in mind that all Kotebel albums have been recorded in my project studio (most Cesar’s guitars in a small room in his apartment) and mixing and mastering have been done by me with very limited resources. I’m a musician, not an engineer so of course the end result is far from what you can achieve when you throw enough money into it. Another thing I would do is have Carlos Franco and Jaime Pascual take care of percussion and bass. Up until “Fragments of Light”, I played drums and bass in addition to keyboards. It is impossible to act as composer, arranger, performer, engineer, marketing manager, promoter, web designer, etc., etc., without compromising quality. With respect to the compositions themselves, I’m quite happy and would not change them.
What are your favourite bands actually and what are your inspirations from the past?
My references from the 70’s are the well-known icons: Genesis, Yes, ELP, PFM, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Focus, Pink Floyd, Rennaisance, etc. Probably the album I have listened to more times from that decade is Passion Play from Jethro Tull. To my knowledge, I think this is the most undervalued album in the history of Art Music.
My main references during the 90’s were: Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Chopin, Grieg, Schumman, etc. In general, impressionists and late romantic composers. These composers had, and still have, a profound influence in the way I write and understand music.
When I returned to progressive music, I discovered new bands and some from the 70’s I had missed. It is hard to make a complete list; the ones that come to mind are: After Crying, Deus Ex Machina, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Gentle Giant, Discipline (Mathew Parmenter), Anglagard, Finnegans Wake, Porcupine Tree, Anekdoten, Isildurs Bane, and last but definitely not least, Universal Totem Orquestra and their wonderful album “Rituale Alieno”.
What can you tell me about the musical scene in your country?
Well, I have two countries because I’m Venezuelan but I’m also Spanish and have been living in Madrid since 1989. Half of the members of Kotebel are Venezuelan and the other half Spaniards (if you’re wondering that 7 is not divisible by 2, bear in mind some of us have both nationalities ;-)) I still keep very tight links with Venezuela because most of my family lives there. In Spain, “Art Music” is practically non-existent. It is extremely difficult to find sponsorship and the little activity is due to the hard work of very few passionate individuals who invest most of their free time and money in trying to make this music better known. In that respect, Venezuela’s situation is healthier. There are quite a few active groups and Caracas is usually included in most Latin American tours. Madrid is usually excluded from European tours. Most Kotebel fans are from outside Spain and there many more Kotebel fans in Venezuela than in Spain.
How culturally connected are you to your native land?
Although my musical language tends to be more universal, you can clearly see the influence of Venezuela in my music. “Joropo” from “Omphalos” is just a recent example. Carlos Franco and myself are working very well together because he has been able to highlight aspects of my music with a Venezuelan taste I was unaware of. In “Ra” for example, he changed some of my original arrangements to include Venezuelan rhythms. He was able to incorporate them seamlessly; it is a way to achieve integration where I believe “Kotebel” is exploring new grounds.
These seem to be very dark times. What do you believe about this period, do you are optimistic or do you fear the future?
It is very difficult to answer this question briefly. If you look at our situation from a Universal perspective, then things are not as dark as they might appear. If the earth is finally destroyed by humans, we will continue our evolution elsewhere. God does not squander souls. If humans continue this trend based on voracious consumption deprived from spirituality, sooner than later Nature will put things in its place.
Feel free to end this interview as you like...
As it is, the interview is far too long and my apologies for that. Nevertheless I would like to invite fans to help out musicians by only acquiring music using means that allow us to, at least, recover the investment made. I have faith in the future of Art Music but certainly if musicians have to keep looking for other means to make a living, we will never be able to develop our art to its full potential. The number and quality of future music depends on your support.
Reviews (in italian): Mysticae Visiones; Fragments of Light; Ouroboros
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