Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast: Making Art Work

#254: Mario Grigorov (Composer & Pianist) (pt. 1 of 2)

December 25, 2023 Nick Petrella and Andy Heise // Mario Grigorov
Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast: Making Art Work
#254: Mario Grigorov (Composer & Pianist) (pt. 1 of 2)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This week on the podcast is part one of our conversation with Mario Grigorov. He’s a Bulgarian-born, London-based film composer and pianist. Early in his career he  signed with Warner Brothers Records and toured extensively with icons such as Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, and more.  He has composed music for dozens of films and TV shows, and his most recognizable film work comes from his long-standing collaboration with Academy Award-winning director Lee Daniels. You won’t want to miss our interview with this highly creative and versatile artist!  https://www.mariogrigorov.com/ 

Join us as we explore the delicate dance of professional networking and the personal evolution in the competitive realm of music. Mario Grigorov imparts invaluable insights into the alchemy of social acumen, humility, and the courage to share one's work with the world. He poignantly illustrates how pivotal moments and influential relationships have sculpted his path, weaving an inspiring narrative that harmonizes the dedication of the artist with the spirituality that fuels their creative fire.

We delve into the collaborative heart of music production, where the magic happens not in isolation, but through the collective work of composers, orchestrators, and sound engineers. Mario illuminates the unsung brilliance of technicians like Peter Cobbin and Olga Fitzroy, whose meticulous craft elevates music to its zenith. His anecdotes celebrate the symbiotic relationship between musical vision and technical mastery, a partnership that culminates in the rich tapestry of sound that is Mario Grigorov's life's work.

Announcer:

Welcome to the Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast. Making Art Work. We highlight how entrepreneurs align their artistry, passion and vision to create and pursue opportunities to capture value in the arts. The views expressed by guests on the Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast are solely their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the podcast or its hosts. The appearance of a guest on the podcast, the venture they represent or reference to any product or service does not imply an endorsement or recommendation by the podcast or its hosts. The content provided is for entertainment and informational purposes only and does not constitute business advice. Here are your hosts Andy Heise and Nick Petrella.

Andy Heise:

Hello Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast listeners. My name is Andy Heise.

Nick Petrella:

And I'm Nick Petrella. We're really happy to have Mario Grigorov on the podcast today. He's a Bulgarian-born, london-based film composer and pianist. Early in his career, he signed with Warner Brothers Records and toured extensively with icons such as Winton Marsalis, roy Hargrove, joshua Redman and more. He's composed music for dozens of films and TV shows, and his most recognizable film work comes from his long-standing collaboration with Academy Award-winning director Lee Daniels. We'll link to Mario's website and show notes so you can see and hear the music he's created and check out art from his other artistic pursuits. Simultaneous two-handed symmetrical drawings. Thanks for being with us, mario.

Mario Grigorov:

Thank you for having me.

Nick Petrella:

You have a fascinating story. Your parents were professional musicians. You're a musical prodigy from the age of five who went on to study in Tehran, vienna, berlin and Sydney. How were you able to do all that from such a young age?

Mario Grigorov:

What's interesting is that recently in the UK I got my mother, who lives in Sydney, australia, to send my dad's manuscript who passed away quite a while back, and I knew that he had some manuscripts but I found out that he actually has tons and tons of compositions that he wrote both for piano and trumpet he was a trumpeter but also for some small ensembles and other instruments such as French horn and clarinets, and I think I kind of discovered that I might have the composing talent to be able to improvise and to be able to compose in that order from my father. My mother is still alive but she was a concert pianist but she teaches now in Sydney and she also is quite musical. But my father really had kind of a real talent for composing. I was very excited to go through his manuscript and read some of his music. So I think, other than that at the age of probably five, I remember starting on the piano, we had a piano in Sofia, we had an upright piano in the apartment in Sofia and I think having had an instrument in the room obviously because my mom and dad were musical musicians, I think was a huge part of my development as a composer and as a pianist and as a musician. So having the piano there and remembering at five really be able to improvise and listen to the radio and copy tunes, and started to experiment with the blue scale out of all scales. I have no idea why the blue scale, I guess because of the pop music that came through the radio and even though we did listen to a lot of ethnic Bulgarian folk music remember in 1968 or 67, 68, I think Bulgarian was communist so there was some pop music at least from artists such as Lily Ivanova and who knows who else who would have kind of copied a little bit the western music, no idea. Later in East Germany I heard of Stevie Wonder and Oscar Peterson, people like that. But back at those times in Bulgaria I remember distinctly having that talent to be able just to make up things on the piano and I think this was the beginning.

Nick Petrella:

Now, did your parents move with you? Were they performing at the time or did you study on your own like a boarding school?

Mario Grigorov:

No, they were always with me, except that I spent when we migrated to Iran in 1968, I think they sent me back to the grandparents for a couple of years because they wanted me to start in a Bulgarian school, because they really wanted to get back to Bulgaria. They had no plans to stay in Iran. So there was time when I was by myself living with the grandparents, but in the apartment where my grandparents lived there was also an upright piano and it was actually a very good instrument and it was in tune. And I remember my grandmother taking me to piano lessons at the conservatorium where I already was kind of known and accepted as a student there.

Andy Heise:

So you went on to study music formally through a university, through college. Did you get a degree in music, performance or anything like that?

Mario Grigorov:

Yes, I did. I went to Well, when I was in Iran and went back to Iran between 1968 and 1973, my mother was my teacher, my piano teacher. She was a terrible teacher. She was very impatient with me and at any moment she got to kind of send me off to another teacher she took. And so when we moved to Germany then after Iran I studied to church, organ and piano with some very good teachers there, and then from then on in Australia I went to. I was in a Vienna conservatorium after that for about a couple of years after Germany, and then we migrated to Australia, to Sydney, Australia, where I got accepted at the conservatorium high school. Okay, yeah, so from there on I did high school and then I did jazz studying. I got Bachelor of Jazz and composition, basically from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in New South Wales, Gotcha.

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, Now to be fair, you know, my wife and I are both musicians and I think our children would say the same thing. But you know, your mom probably expected more from you.

Mario Grigorov:

Which she was teaching you. Not quite sure to be honest. I'm not sure they expectations from me, but I think my dad sometimes would want me to compose pieces and he promised me to give me money for that. I think my mother was more kind of convoluted in terms of In Bulgaria she knew the best. When we went back to Bulgaria after Iran, between Germany, there was a period of two years and I studied with probably the most well-known Bulgarian concert pianist, milena Molova. She won many awards in Moscow and all these amazing pianists, and so I studied with her. So, yes, my mother was pushing me in a way that she pushed me to push myself and was frustrated, probably because she wanted more, especially with the classical piano. I always suffered from dyslexia a little bit, so my side reading wasn't great and I think that stopped me from really kind of excelling in learning a lot of material fast. However, then I relied on my year a lot, so I developed a very good year and a memory to be able to learn the pieces fast. And then that's where also the improvisation came in. There's many times in school performances if I forget what I was playing, I would just improvise half of it and then go back to the piece and stuff like that. Sometimes that wasn't received very well and to the point of where I was later in some performances. I stopped doing that because unfortunately the teachers didn't like that idea of being kind of free flowing.

Andy Heise:

That's not how God intended those classical pieces to be performed.

Mario Grigorov:

No, that's exactly right.

Andy Heise:

So jazz studies was a really good fit for you in terms of pursuing a degree and composition, I suppose.

Mario Grigorov:

Well, finally enough, I found jazz also to be very kind of controlled, because in the academic circles jazz has also become like an academic subject. I found a similar kind of because it wasn't improvising or playing at certain scales or whatever melodic patterns or harmonic patterns that Poud would have played or whoever. There are so many pianists. That kind of set a very strong foundation for a good reason. It's very important. The foundation is important.

Andy Heise:

And so earlier, and it sounds like your whole life, you're surrounded by music and you're performing music. You're playing music. Your parents are immersed in music. Was there ever a point where you said, maybe I want to be an architect or something else?

Mario Grigorov:

Well, at one point no, but at one point in Sofia I dabbled with percussion. I said to my dad I want to actually do percussion and be a drummer and be a kind of orchestral percussion. I really liked the vibraphone and the xylophone I actually had one at home and then he connected me with Dobri Paliev, who was the professor of conservatorium in Sofia, and I did one or two years of percussion which later really helped me with my kind of honky tonnish piano in 789, 811, 811 and the crossover between multi doing paradiddles on the keys with using my fingers, almost kind of like an Indian tabla player. So these two years of percussion really helped me that and I always had very good rhythms. So the only other thing than being a pianist was percussionist. But then later I realized composition was important. So that's kind of where I went. But no, I was never going to be a cook.

Nick Petrella:

And Andy. I did not know he was a percussionist.

Andy Heise:

Yeah right, you know Nick's a percussionist. So no, I don't know.

Nick Petrella:

We have percussionists on. See Fantastic Anyway so for our younger listeners who may want to get into composing for TV and film. What was it like when you started, and was it and is it difficult to break into that field?

Mario Grigorov:

Wow. So I guess two things possibly really important is it is extremely hard for many reasons, but I kind of think the two things probably would be that the first thing would be to become to work very hard to become very good at your instrument and at your craft in terms of your creative outlet, and I think then I guess the second, the second thing, would be to understand how important it is, as a musician, to be also a business person or entrepreneur in that sense, and the importance of that. I think it's hard to kind of teach that. I don't know why academia is not more preoccupied with that. I mean everything that applies to get a girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever should apply to getting a job. You have to work on yourself, you have to be humble, you have to figure out to meet the right people. You've got to really understand the importance of you being a social person and what that means. You've got to really work on your social skills. You've got to learn to really kind of quieten down and really that's what I used to do and just really think when I get rejected for a job I'd really kind of say to myself things could be a lot worse. But what can I learn from this? I take it on board to really self-reflect.

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, that's really mature. Were you always that way?

Mario Grigorov:

Was I always that way.

Nick Petrella:

Reflecting on rejection.

Mario Grigorov:

I think my wife after 20 years of marriage. She kind of molded me into self-reflection.

Nick Petrella:

So it's self-preservation is what you're talking about Go think about what you've done. Make sure she doesn't give you this podcast. No, that's right.

Mario Grigorov:

And I think there's many ways to become professional. I'd recommend really books for developing better work ethics, anything you can get hands-on for you to kind of figure out what you work ethic as a professional artist should be, to learn that. The one I read was how to Win Friends and Influence People by Dyle Carnegie. That's kind of a good example. That book is great because it just in a very simple way kind of without having to go into the rabbit hole of self-evaluation, you can actually pick up some techniques to kind of help you understand, because everybody is different and sometimes shy people and introverts make great connections and have huge careers. And it's not true that you have to be this outgoing person, it's just understanding how you perceive from others. So who you know and what you know, it's important. Who you know, it's very important, but it's not everything. So for up-and-coming composer or a creative person, just learn to you know, just learn to gain some kind of confidence, to start releasing material and start producing stuff, be a producer of your craft and then put it out. Today's wonderful, we live in a wonderful time where you can actually put stuff out on social media. I mean, I never had that opportunity when I was growing up. So for me the social media was actually having to open a plane and go to live Australia and go to LA to meet people. That was my social media. And then being in the piano store and for Bob James to walk in and he and me played the piano and then signing me to Warner Brothers. So me playing at the piano store was my YouTube video. Really different times. I think a lot of the opportunities I had as a composer and other composers have had better and other more opportunities whatever, but for me personally I went to when we landed in Australia. That was such a great place for opportunity because there's so few composers and it was so innate. I was there between 1980 and 1992. And I first met there. The people I met is Peter Cobbin, who later became 20 years the head engineer at AB Rhodes Studios, who then introduced me to David Yates and then I ended up writing with JK Rowlings for Fantastic Beasts Thanks to Peter Cobbin, who I met in Australia right. So then I met David Droga, who's now the CEO of Essenture Song, the biggest advertising agency in the world. So I did my very first advertising job for David Droga. He introduced me to so many people and after that I had a very successful career in New York thanks to him as a composer for advertising. We ended up buying houses in Hamptons, two apartments in Soho. I mean, I really had an amazing 10, 15, 10 years of making very good money and being very happy as a composer. I did albums on the side. Advertising is very tough, nothing to be laughed at, but really enjoyed. And so, again in Australia, I met this one person who then introduced me to other people that I ended up in New York doing advertising and then in Australia I also met Larry Mahobarek's son, jamie Mahobarek, who you know he produced with Trevor Horn. He produced all the album for Seal and he's actually Trevor Horn, the right hand man. He's an incredible programmer. And he told me in Australia you know, you got to get out of here, come to LA. And so this was a huge opportunity. And in LA I met Miles Goodman, the film composer, who then introduced me to other people. So this connection happened through just meeting one person who you know. You just need to meet two, three or four people in your life, maybe one person who opened doors. You don't need to meet 20 or 30 people. However, here's the really, really big thing. You've got to be very good at that point. When you meet that person, you've got to have something unique. You know, I remember Miles Goodman crashing his car in Australia and reaching out and asking to his seminar. He was giving like he was giving a talk and asking so who can anyone drive me? And I really wanted to drive him because I had a cassette player in the car and I played in my piano compositions that I recorded and he was so fascinated and by them that he then invited me to come to LA. Next thing, his agent, lynn Benjamin, who was Richard Kraft's partner, offered me the movie Babe to do the score, and I rejected it because I was going to be a concert pianist. And so I said no because at that point I was signed to Warner Brothers. So these connections happened because I had something to offer. I really had a unique way of playing the piano and unique compositions and I had a cassette player in the car and I played him to that person who then opened the other doors. So this is Jacob Collier's success story. If Jacob didn't put those videos out, he probably wouldn't be where he is at today. He decided to do this music and put it out. So this is what I mean by actually doing the work and being and working hard to create content and to do something creatively. And I think that's a very spiritual journey and it's very important for young people to realize that, instead of losing interest and procrastinating and finding it difficult because so many other people are doing it and whatever excuse one can have and give and sometimes you miss out on your own talents because of it, because it's not so clear how and where there's tendencies to intellectual, what is the word actualizing tendencies? Is that the word? Just the feeling of wanting to go forward and to this passion for progress and to do, to kind of ambition that one has? But we have so many. As a young person you have so many kind of blocks sometimes and you've got people who kind of don't listen to them and just you know you've got to be humble and just do one step at a time. So you know I'll do this today and I think that probably is a good advice for young composers or artists, musicians.

Andy Heise:

That's great. So, getting into sort of the technical aspects of what you do in composition, can you tell us a little bit about your workflow? Do you work in a digital environment? Are you sitting at a piano transcribing your compositions? What's that look like for you?

Mario Grigorov:

It really depends on the job. I mean, I started with electronic music in the 80s in Australia because they had the fair light, the very first fair light or the second one. The first one, I think, stevie Wonder bought and the second one was at the New South Wales Conservatorium and I remember spending a lot of time kind of learning it. And then later I bought a PPG wave, drummelata, chroma roads, many scenes. And when I went to New York I ended up having a Prophet Five, a mini-mooke, an Odyssey Oberheim. I had so many scenes during my lifetime. At the moment I have a couple of scenes, a small MOOG and a Juno 60, and that's it, everything else I do with inside the box. And I do have a piano. I just sold my piano in London. I'm about to buy a piano here in Berlin.

Nick Petrella:

So we're going to give a shout out to Danny Howard, who introduced us earlier this year. She said she was doing some work for you and it got me wondering when you realized you could farm out some tasks to free you up to concentrate more on your biggest value proposition, which is creating music.

Mario Grigorov:

Yes, danny, she's quite amazing. She's very mature for her age, I think, besides the fact that she's super bright and also very talented as a composer. So she kind of, to me, has it all in terms of she's very proactive and very so. What happened with her? She had this really big job to do the music for the Casabaya, and what she did is she got a group of people. She became the creative director of the project. She was barely 25. Like, how do you think of becoming a creative director at so young? But she knew that she needed to get other people to help her develop her end goal. So in other businesses you have directors and you have people who actually always reach out to other people to help them achieve their goals. But we as musicians sometimes forget that we can also do this. So I reversed the role and I used Danny Howard as an orchestrator for my jobs, because she's so brilliant and she wants to orchestrate, and so we work together. And so I have also other composers I work with probably about six or seven composers all over the world. Most of them are in Berlin and England, and some of the composers, like I've made the piano my instrument and I dabble with synthesizers. I humbly should say that Some of my composers have made the computer their instrument and they're so outstanding with that instrument that I don't even know where to begin. And it's very humbling for someone who grew up with intense classical and jazz, someone who has intense classical and jazz background, to meet people and really open-mindedly accept and understand that other people can be obsessed with the computer and make the computer an instrument to the degree of where it so leaves me behind what they do and how they do it that I don't even know where to begin. Sometimes I can touch a little bit. You know, if you give me a song I can copy it. Say a radio-friendly tune, I can copy a radio-friendly tune. But to actually be in that field and create radio-friendly music when I mean radio I mean pop music should be more specific here. I really have to say I don't know how to do that. So this is why it's important that I collaborate with people that are much better at me than me. They're much better than me at that and therefore I get to achieve greater things. I'm extremely versatile because of it. I copied the Hans Zimmer business model here.

Nick Petrella:

The word humility keeps coming up in the conversation, and are you not humble? If you don't have humility, you're not going to acknowledge that you need assistance.

Mario Grigorov:

Right, good point, but that also it's a work in progress, isn't it? Yeah?

Andy Heise:

So, when it comes to recording, mixing, mastering the scores, the compositions that you've created for TV and film, are you involved in the recording, mixing, mastering process, or do you just say here it is and hand it off?

Mario Grigorov:

Well, I'm not really a control freak when it comes to kind of overseeing everything, and that is not a good thing. I actually have become a lot more aware that I really, when it's my project, I need to really see it from A to Z, very, very important. So, although I do trust engineers, I have worked with some amazing engineers such as Peter Kovin, who is a genius, and then Olga Fitzroy, who did all the stuff for who's that group that wrote the song Yellow, with Chris Coldplay, coldplay, coldplay. She mixes for Coldplay and she's kind of also one of the head engineers at A studio in London. Who else I've worked with? Fritz forget his name incredible engineer from Bremen, from Germany, who is actually the name escapes me who does a lot of the Sony classical recordings and he kind of has a remote gear and he comes and does the remote stuff. But I recently recommended him for a job but he just blew me away because he does this he goes to all the churches in Germany and he gets these small groups of musicians and he records them for Sony classical, for Deutsche Grammophon, for the Keith Jarrett label. I mean insanely, and he used to be a bass player in orchestra. So when I work with people like that, I have to really, as good as engineer I am, I have to surrender to people who really know a lot more than me. But in the end you'd be surprised how much I change, not just volume. I really go through some stuff, because when I want something musically, it's not necessarily what other people who are involved with your music necessarily. The idea is a bit different and one of the big secret for Arvo Peret was that he was actually an engineer. He worked in the 50s in the radio station, I think from the town that he grew up in. He was in the Slovenian main engineer for the radio station. So he's engineering background allows him to not only create beautiful ambient music but to the way that music sounds, so very important to kind of get collaborations if you can't do it all yourself.

Nick Petrella:

When you think of the name. If you just email us, we'll put it in the show notes.

Bulgarian Composer Mario Grigorov's Musical Journey
Personal Growth, Networking, and Artistic Process
Collaborating for Success in Music
Trusting Genius Engineers and Collaborations