Since launching the fledgling Leeds imprint Hessle Audio in 2007 with the driving 2-step one-two punch of ‘Put You Down / Broken Heart’, Cosmin Nicolae has elided the draw of a linear career progression. His ensuing run of releases on labels like Tempa and Aus further mapped the direction of dubstep as the decade drew to a close, without ever feeling beholden to the larger trends and deviations of his peer group. Each new release had Nicolae’s characteristic mark, without feeling like the sum product of what had come before.
This process of genre osmosis has only become more dispersed as time has passed, blending tendencies and techniques acquired from techno, dubstep and garage into bewitching dancefloor oddities. That’s not to say his body of work is esoteric, more that it’s restless. Nicolae’s latest release, Hope This Finds You Well, finds him working in yet another plane, a record of soft ambient textures derived directly from the modern corporate landscape. Released with relatively little fanfare, it’s a remarkably cohesive work that rewards surface enjoyment as much as it necessitates deeper readings.
After exchanging a few emails with Cosmin, we agreed that the best format for this interview would be a written exchange rather than a verbal one, given the potentially knotted subject matter. In many ways Cosmin’s writing reflects his attitude to production — it’s economical but discursive, with beats that leave room for amusement and contemplation in equal measure. What follows are entirely his words as written.
Your new album, Hope This Finds You Well, acts as astute social commentary despite being nearly completely bereft of dialogue. What was the process for communicating your intentions through ambient tones alone?
I looked into the way these office playlists are assembled. Some are glorified Top 40 jukeboxes, others are supposedly tailored for creativity, productivity, engagement, relaxation. Most of them come from curators called, for example, Office Music Experts. I hope we all remember the fake artist scandal from a couple of years ago…
So here we have a staggering amount of Muzak, incredibly trite stuff that’s supposedly “scientifically” produced to help you work a little harder or relax after that conference call. It unfortunately sounds pretty cheap, faux new-agey and bland. It’s all major scale, vaguely euphoric or nostalgic stuff. I took these tropes and cross-referenced your typical ambient works, and used these angles as a starting points for creating the music on Hope This Finds You Well.
What motivated this deconstruction of corporate soundscapes? Was it something you were building up to for a long time or was it spurred on spontaneously?
I’ve always been fascinated by the corporate world. As an Eastern European I tend to be ambivalent towards capital. On the one hand, in the murky transitional years after the Iron Curtain, Western companies and their paradigm was very seductive for the post-Communist middle class. After decades of stagnation it offered prospects of upwards mobility, training, travel, money. All these things were the stuff of utopias just a few years back.
I remember walking the halls of a telecom company, late ‘90s, soaking in that mixed scent of Xerox toner and carpet cleaner, people wearing nice suits. I loved that! It was in such stark contrast with the grey, derelict industrial ruin you would see out the window. On the other hand, beside all the ethical issues at the heart of corporate mentality, I imagined it would be totally different for a new generation.
I can’t really say things have changed radically. Tech has claimed a revolution that hasn’t really happened. It’s still tributary to a psychotic quest for profit that’s still far removed from the ideals of truth tech pioneers. What modern corporations are doing is inspiring a new kind of language and behaviour, encouraging self-starters and “entrepreneurs” who in effect still hover in an old-school corporate constellation.
Musically, it was as spontaneous as that stroke of luck when you find a killer page transition in Powerpoint. I came up with a process and stuck with it.
You’ve spoken a lot about how you think ambient music has been weaponised in the name of corporate efficiency. What is your personal experience with streaming platforms and so-called labour playlists?
I think I touched on this in the beginning but to expand on this: I imagined there would be a more insidious, expert level of manipulation in those playlists. I haven’t really found it. I was hoping there would be metrics and psych stats involved in the creation of the actual music, but so far I think the reason for the existence of these playlists is largely pecuniary.
There are studies like this one - it predates music platforms but I still find it relevant - that link music to work performance. It’s not really rocket science, but it’s very interesting and important to acknowledge the influence. I found playlists of music supposedly created for the purpose of productivity - most of it pretty bad. I also found curated playlists that mix together Vivaldi, Eno, Nobukazu Takemura and Forest Swords.
The song name ‘Romantic Slackbot Presentation’ particularly stands out as pointed satire, though all of the track titles poke fun at office culture. Is there something you find perturbing about workspace “hangout” apps like Slack?
I’ve never used Slack, I do miss hanging out with a team, although it’s also probably one of those false nostalgias. When it came out I actually suggested it to friends who started using it in their companies and now it’s a staple. Very strange. I don’t know why I’m following this microcosm, it’s just so bizarre to me. The titles I used weren’t necessarily intended to be sarcastic, rather I tried to decipher meaning by scrambling all that business jargon. I can’t really judge, I merely observe.
Many of the tracks seem euphoric and meditative, and yet they’re acting a pastiche of a movement that you described as having dragged ambient music “down from its Olympian heights”. Is a face value enjoyment of the music therefore sullied somewhat?
It’s definitely a possibility, if you read music in that key. I honestly found it really therapeutic to work on this, and didn’t intend to release it until I felt that it actually helped me to be more focused and productive. I had been critical of platform curation, then started peeling off the layers and ended up with an album. So cynicism turned into curiosity and finally led to palpable results. Pretty meta right?
Do you see a path forward for ambient music, or do you think it’s been tainted by its partial corporatisation?
There is excellent, forward-thinking ambient and experimental music on platforms like Bandcamp for example. I’m not particularly fond of the “ambient” tag, and it’s really easy to discredit it. Maybe the solution is to stop categorising so much.
There was a time I think, when music under the “ambient” tag was similarly discredited as background noise for cinema. How do you think an album of ambient music differs from works designed to provide background texture?
I think pitch, tone and texture differ in those works. Background material is supposed to be edulcorated, unobtrusive, so its creators will be careful to not annoy anyone. The ambient music that I enjoy doesn’t subscribe to those limitations. It’s supposed to inspire, affect, play with senses and memory.
I saw Alessandro Cortini play his Avanti album AV show in Bucharest at Automata Festival and you can see how images inform music and vice versa. It’s mesmerising, extremely compelling. Beatless music doesn’t have to conform to any preconceived notion. The other stuff is just music your dentist plays to calm you down.
Even as there’s a common thread in terms of your approach to sound design, Hope This Finds You Well feels expansive where your last album, Semnal, felt contracted. How did those two records differ in terms of process?
Semnal came together as a tape, a collection of music rather than a cohesive A to B journey. Stephen Bishop and I had been in touch for a while and he had heard my experiments. We came up with the tape idea because the material really lent itself to the medium. It’s all recent music, made throughout 2017 and early 2018, and mostly inspired by Romanian pioneers of Spectralism; Iancu Dumitrescu, Horatiu Radulescu, Octavian Nemescu. So in that sense you could say it was pretty po-faced at times. Hope This Finds You Well draws from different sources like Japanese ambient records, Fourth World — the more light-hearted stuff.
When looking at Hope This Finds You Well against your wider discography, do you feel that this new album is at odds with your past body of work? It certainly feels like an outlier.
I’m really more into the idea of music as a multi-dimensional discipline. The linear evolution of a catalog doesn’t really interest me. It implies peaks, troughs, stagnation. I’m interested in several areas of creativity, so putting one record after the other and trying to make sense of them isn’t very appealing to me. There is so much more you can do with contemporary media at your disposal. I think each of my releases is a bit at odds with the others. I tend to look at my records in terms of release cycles, or periods of interest.
It’s a real luxury to release the music you want, when you want to, even in the era of Bandcamp and immediate release, there is a timing to things. There are some records I’d like to take back. but in the grand scheme of things whether they serve a career-mapping purpose is irrelevant. I do feel that a lot of my material has been research and foundation for what I’m interested in making now. Hope This Finds You Well is perhaps the more open, empathetic and therapeutic record I’ve made.
This record also acts as a preface to another album you’re releasing later this year. What can you tell us about that?
The next one will be a sort of counterpoint to the ambient project. I’ve consciously removed any stylistic barrier there may have been in my head in the past. There’s a concept behind it that I’d like to keep under wraps for now but I think it ties in with the things I’m currently interested in.
Anything else you’re building to on the horizon?
People don’t like to spread themselves thin but this is the way I’m built. I’m taking on as much as I can because one of my greatest fears is to stand still. In that sense I’m developing an installation at the intersection of sculpture, music and ready-made. I hope I get people interested in that. I’m also very keen on collaborating on music for dance, film scores and generally just meeting talented people with a similar work ethic.