What Is Classical Music?: An Interview with Roger Goula

When Roger Goula’s Overview Effect was first brought to my attention, I was immediately intrigued. Being a huge fan of ambient sounds with a classical foundation and a modern electronic twist, I knew that this was something I was deeply interested in. This album embraces the sounds that feel like space would if something so serene and chaotic could exude noise. The album is a journey, one that tells a story of the unknown, the stars, and how they exist elsewhere yet amongst us all at once.

There is a whole wave of neo-classical artists like Nils Frahm, Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds, that create music that I always describe as cinematic because it is music I can visualize. What does the music you make symbolize for you?

It’s an interesting question because I also write film music, and I don’t know what came first. I don’t know if I became a film composer because I write this kind of music or if I write this kind of music because I’m also a film composer.

What I do know is that my music always has a narrative to tell. It might be quite hidden at times or very exposed other times, but somehow, since I can remember, music, for me, has always related to telling a story. It symbolizes a very deep feeling, I guess. It’s not explainable with words.

Your approach to creating music relies heavily on existential thought. What do you do, specifically, with your compositions that can portray this idea of the galaxy vs. individual being?

I see my music sometimes as a philosophical reflection that can’t be explained with words. There are many philosophical thoughts behind Overview Effect (which didn’t necessarily come when writing). I had a very broad thought of how it had to sound, and somehow the philosophical thought came after and fit perfectly. Generally speaking, the album is about how our existence/condition relates to our world.

I've always been fascinated about physics and astronomy. My grandad had a telescope at home and we used it to look at the planets every night. Somehow, without really knowing how, I acquired some knowledge in astronomy.

So you make the music first and then apply the thought? Kind of like, making the music is translating your thoughts into notes?

Somehow yes. But one complements the other. It’s always like doing research about yourself. I didn’t start writing saying, I’ll write a piece called “Pale Blue Dot” that will do this and that. Not at all. I wrote this album very intuitively and then after, I realised all of the songs related to one another and it all made sense. The titles fit perfectly and the journey of the pieces made sense to me. I wanted to be honest with the material and that’s what came out. Many people tell me that this album is very much me. That pleases me because it’s very difficult to do that.

Are you classically trained in anything specifically? How did you learn all the instruments you play?

Yes, i did study classical guitar and composition at the Barcelona Conservatory. I compose a lot on the piano too...and my computer. For my film music I started to learn other instruments, like all the plugged instruments and some brass and wind..but those are not in this album.

How did the electronic influence come into play?

I’ve always been doing electronic music. I’ve never trained on that, just learned the necessities. Two things I always been fascinated with since I was a kid have been music and inventions. I used to make my own instruments and record them on a tape cassette and I still do that. For me, composing is an invention; a discovery.

What direction do you think “classical” music is heading into?

It’s an interesting question because I think many people confuse the terminology. Classical music... what is it exactly? “Classical”...I mean, is Stockhausen a “classical” composer?  I don’t think so… yet we still call it classical. Or is “classical” playing the “old” stuff like the “old” instruments? I’ve been in classical music for 25 years and I am more and more confused.

If we think about the “classical” composers, they were always innovating and challenging the scene and their peers. At the time, it was contemporary music. So I feel the same. I’m writing the music of my time with instruments (which is anything that makes noise) of my time. It’s funny because it has such a conservative name for something that is looking forward.

Are there any movies you wish you could’ve done the scores for?
Definitely Blade Runner.

Who are some of your biggest influences?
Johann Johannson , Max Richter, Bach! Always Bach! He was a big inventor… a lot of renaissance polyphony.  Also Vivaldi. This is controversial..but big symphonic music doesn’t say much to me...I recognise its beauty and admire the composers…but…I’m not so keen on romantics.

Satie, Debussy...Inventors again..Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, Hildegard Von Bingen, Gesualdo, Rameau, Authecre, John Cage, Hauschka, Bjork, Radiohead, Steve Reich, Glass, John Adams, John Coltrane, John Zorn, Arvo Part, Gorecky, Penderecky, Aphex Twin, William Basinski, David Land, Murcof.

Is there anything you wish people felt or understood when listening to your music?
I would love for people to feel an admiration for the infinitude of space and at the same time feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to live. I want them to feel hopeful. If they can grasp that feeling just for a second; that feeling of belonging to the universe where all entities matter and relate to each other, I would be very happy. I think there are composers that look at earth. They write for feelings. Other composers write for something bigger. They write to try to understand our existence. I am slowly realizing that I am the latter.