In a day and age when musical talents and technical capabilities have seemingly fused into one via the millennial cohort cementing itself within the music industry, worldly musician Oleg Smirnov has stayed ahead of the curve. Composing and arranging music for media of all forms has become a mainstay of Smirnov’s career – even developing a new genre called ‘art-fusion,’ by fluidly tying existing styles such as orchestral music, jazz, and electronic together in the studio. From early beginnings in Moscow, Smirnov’s passion for music has taken him from across Europe and Asia, through Berklee College of Music, and most recently to Los Angeles where he has earned the respect of industry professionals and media outlets like Billboard. Recently achieving the opportunity to become a voting member in the prestigious Recording Academy, Smirnov is a true music visionary, open-minded and willing to bend the rules. We had the chance to catch up with Oleg, asking about his musical ambitions and learning
What particular skills do you believe help a composer, producer stand out within such a cut-throat industry as the music business?
Oleg: I believe a composer’s, or producer’s strongest professional asset is his informed vision as well as the ability to write and produce authentically in a variety of genres. The former is achieved through personal maturity and the latter through diverse educational and experiential background.
I was very lucky to have been born into a culture with deep academic music traditions. I was first exposed to music in a rigorous Russian classical school at the age of seven, when I started taking music classes at a music school in Moscow. It was profound and intense, and because of that I can never overestimate the impact of my early exposure to musical education. Later in my teens I turned to listening and playing contemporary music, such as alternative rock, trip-hop, new wave, and experimenting with electronic music, in other words, all that hip stuff that many teenagers of the 90’s were into. Soon I got immersed in the universe of ethnic music and studied the immense Indian, African and Asian music heritage. My passion for jazz also brought me through a jazz school and later I won a scholarship to attend Berklee with its remarkable and diverse contemporary writing and production program.
But it isn’t just music chops that make a good film composer, just like it is not a mere excellence in grammar that makes a brilliant poet. I actually gained a lot from studying humanities and ended up receiving my Masters degree in psychology. I have been studying a lot all my life and I am continuing to study on a routine basis.
One more factor contributing to your music language is the exposure to a variety of cultures. I was born in Europe, travelled extensively in India, Africa, China and now live in the US. Seeing life from the inside while living in different countries is a great way to absorb the culture and the spirit of the place and its people.
As a composer and producer of several albums for the instrumental collective EXIT Project, what role did you play in developing the collective’s “art-fusion” stylistic approach? What types of sounds and genres does art-fusion include?
Oleg: EXIT project is a collaboration involving remarkable musicians that I have had an enormous pleasure to be surrounded by for years. Giants like Duke Ellington, John Zorn and Vince Mendoza all had a great advantage of writing music with specific performers in mind. You just have a clear picture of the resulting sound from the very beginning of the composition process. As for the band’s sound, it was, to a large extent, shaped by the way specific performers blended together. Music-wise, it was quite eclectic, somewhat pleasingly eclectic. One could hear a plethora of influences: a hint of classical, jazz, electronic, progressive rock, world music, you name it. The critics labeled it as ‘art-fusion’ due to the broad range of stylistic elements that came into the brew.
How were you able to successfully arrange such differing genres of music into cohesive songs and projects?
Oleg: Miles Davis is known to have been a wizard of a few stylistic epochs in American music by pioneering cool jazz in the 60’s, leading the jazz-rock, funk and fusion movement in the 70’s, and eventually emerging in the disco planet in the 80s. He had that gut feeling for what is hip and shaped his music in that direction. I tried to adapt that vision in 2011 when we started working on the Color Splashes program, which was somewhat of a give and take situation with rich instrumental arrangements for music aesthetes, and “singable” melodies that would appeal to a non-prepared listener. I actually like and appreciate the way it turned out. In the meantime, my approach to composition those days was defined by a non-musical purpose. I viewed a musical piece or a show program as a transformative journey, a form of art therapy where the listener and the musician were taken on a dramatic journey that would lead through a psychological catharsis to a new, positive, and integrated state of mind.
Mixing live instruments with synthetic ones would appear to be quite an intricate task. Over the course of your career as a producer that has spanned over a decade, how have you learned to effectively blend artificial textures with live instrumentation?
Oleg: From my perspective, the distinction between synthesized and natural acoustic instruments is somewhat out-of-date. The new generation of composers was born into the time when both electronic and acoustic instruments have been present and equally available to write for. Moreover, synthesized instrument technology has gone on quite a path since the first analog synths were introduced to the market. Today’s virtual instruments are designed to be organic and often utilize the hybrid technology to seamlessly blend live and synthetic timbres. A listener often will not be able to tell the difference between the two. However, behind the technology is always the artistic vision of an artist to make actual sense out of it. This is the art and craft of today’s composer and music producer.
In the digital age where every artist has a platform in social media and the internet to promote one’s work, EXIT’s albums have managed to reach over a million CD copies in circulation. What publishing and distributing techniques have you helped develop to grow your audience?
Oleg: Well, obviously, that did not happen overnight, it happened over the course of about fifteen years. The creative approach to music distribution was the key to it. We worked hard to team up with various outlets to pitch and promote our work. For example, apart from conventional distribution, we would have our album distributed along with a popular magazine and people would buy a CD in a bundle with a magazine issue. Such methods worked well a decade ago particularly during the time when the CD was still alive as a format, so that approach might be irrelevant for today’s market. The ways of music distribution have changed dramatically. We are actively promoting innovative digital formats like 3plet, a virtual album production and distribution platform which enables any artist to publish their album as a standardized downloadable mobile app, and get it to sell worldwide through major app stores like iTunes, Google Play, etc. EXIT project was the pioneer of this publishing format in 2011.
When did you become a voting member of The Recording Academy for the Grammy Awards? Are there any specific projects you created which you feel propelled yourself into this upper-echelon of the music industry?
Oleg: Well, this happened just recently. I am honored and excited to become a part of it, as well as immensely humbled by the level of peer talent in this organization, particularly when some remarkable artist reaches out to me pitching their submissions for a Grammy nomination. The Recording Academy has a certain criteria that you need to fulfill in order to become a member and have certain amount of professional accomplishments and public acclaim to qualify you to vote. It is a vast expert pool of selected industry professionals.
How has your music been received by major music outlets such as Billboard?
Oleg: In the past some other major music print media paid quite a significant attention to our releases. For instance, a couple of album reviews appeared in Billboard as well as other print music magazines. Nowadays this industry has gone digital, and thus shifted to the Internet to a large extent. The EXIT project’s music was not easy to categorize due to its stylistic diversity, eclecticism and, should I say, genre obscurity, so critics found a convenient way to nest it somewhere in the electronic, experimental, or world music realm.
How does the experience of composing and producing music for film differ from making records?
Oleg: Oh, that is a very different task in nature. Consider the difference between the work of a visual artist versus a book illustrator. The former is a self-sufficient artistic statement, whereas the latter is the applied contribution that supports the written story. Similarly, a film composer has to illustrate the film with music and sound. The role of music in a film is often overlooked. When we watch a film the music guides us through it and forms a background, somewhat of a subliminal medium, or secondary language to support or sometimes challenge the primary visual narrative. On the other hand, when you compose and produce an album as a music artist it is always a foreground and main narrative. Unlike a music artist, a film composer needs to be more versatile and possess a wider range of genre vocabulary, be more sensitive to what is going on the screen, as well as be an excellent collaborator.
Looking forward, are there any publishing or production projects you’re currently working on that you are particularly excited about?
Oleg: I am now based in Los Angeles and I am excited to run my own music production house that focuses mainly on music for film, TV, and so-called new media. IDIOM music productions, a full-cycle music production outlet, handles the entire range of musical tasks and provides original music solutions in a variety of contemporary styles and genres. I do have some interest and projects with film directors, TV producers, music supervisors, visual artists, as well as music libraries and happy to do my part in the fruitful and meaningful collaboration.