Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast: Making Art Work

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

January 01, 2024 Nick Petrella & Andy Heise // Mario Grigorov
Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast: Making Art Work
#255: Mario Grigorov (Composer & Pianist) (pt. 2 of 2)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This week on the podcast is part two 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/

In an intimate conversation with the illustrious film composer and pianist Mario Grigorov, we peel back the curtain on the sometimes spontaneous, sometimes painstaking art of musical invention. Mario shares with us the beauty of yielding to the subconscious mind in composition, and reminisces about the thrilling unpredictability of jazz tours, which taught him that the most genuine artistic expression often comes from the chaos of live performance.

Navigating the film industry's tides can be akin to hitchhiking through a desert of creativity, not knowing where the next ride might take you. Mario Grigorov lays bare the professional trials and triumphs he's encountered in shaping his cinematic sound. With a blend of humor and hard-earned wisdom, he discusses the pitfalls of revisiting past compositions and emphasizes the importance of crafting music that adheres to the unique vision of each film. His stories reveal the sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes liberating discovery that a piece rejected from a movie might just be the seed for a new musical endeavor.

We round off our chat with an exploration of the personal hurdles artists face, the doubts that can derail us, and the missed opportunities that come from playing it safe. Mario opens up about instances when his own hesitations led to lost chances, offering a candid reminder of the importance of faith in one's work. He encourages emerging creators to absorb the lessons etched by the successes of others and underscores the profound impact that sharing our art can have not just on our audiences, but on our own spiritual paths. Join us for this heartfelt exchange that is as much an ode to the art of music as it is a call to action for artists to embrace their craft boldly and share it with the world.


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:

So, mario, we all know the concept of writer's block and we've had guests on the podcast who, they say, just keep creating on a regular basis. What's your approach to creating music and have you ever had writer's block?

Mario Grigorov:

So interesting question. No, I don't think I've had writer's block. It's just that when I don't use my intellect, when I improvise and compose, I actually write better stuff than when I kind of try to force it out, and sometimes I would write all day and hate everything I've written. So I guess you could call this writer's block. And then by the evening I'm so exhausted that I'm just saying, okay, screw it, it's just a movie, this is not brain surgery. And then, voila, I come up with this composition out of nowhere. So it's to trick myself to be unaware of when I write is impossible. So I don't know what technique I could recommend, and for me the absence of presence is the only way that it allows me to actually compose. So almost subconsciously, If you want to call it that, yes, without getting philosophical.

Nick Petrella:

Many years ago, a couple decades ago, I was in a small chamber orchestra playing with Dave Brubeck. Okay, we're out by the loading dock, I don't know what it is, and he's there and I asked him basically the same thing that you just said. And I was like I don't know, when you're thinking of improvising, do you see theoretical, the intellectual, or do you just hear it? What do you do? And he looks at me and by then he was pretty old and he says his quote was bulls*** theory. That's what he said. And I was like thank you and just laugh it.

Mario Grigorov:

Yeah, very interesting. I mean, I have to say that sometimes on stage when I was improvising and I have like 500 people at some small orchestra concert hall, I have to because some of the stuff was written and then the improvisational part comes when I improvise, I always felt sense of relief. But the written part I had to kind of get it right. So what will happen is I try to really, really focus, and by focusing, by the process of focusing, I wasn't sure exactly what I'm focusing on and I think that also gave me this way of not be present mentally. So therefore the stuff flowed. Or if someone makes a noise, if there's a coughing or the attention gets away from me and it goes towards some noise, like someone slams the door, something like that instantly this thing of perfection gets broken. And then I feel when I make a mistake after that I say screw it, now, I've made the mistake now, so go for it. And then I relax and so it's an interesting. Creating is a very interesting process because I'm not sure that it's so controllable and I think from the same place where the initial, the same place where the initial gift as a composer comes, comes also the gift of. There's this same place of where you have to tap into that thing of having to create some good stuff that you then know afterwards is good, but and so therefore, I just don't know if we, as creatives, should really take any credit for our creativity or just have like an element of just being thankful you know just that we can do it but not to actually kind of take credit for it, because it's not really something we can really control. It's interesting.

Andy Heise:

How did you get into touring as a pianist for some of the iconic artists that Nick mentioned in your introduction and your experience doing that? Would you rather be on the road or sitting behind a piano, or sitting at home composing in your studio?

Mario Grigorov:

Well, I was when I got signed to Warner Brothers for Re-reprise Records, I think someone, I think the producer, miles Goodman and Oscar Castroneves, who was actually kind of one of the founders of Bossanova. He was a good friend with the guy that wrote the Go From Ipanema, tom Jobim, yeah, so those guys knew this Michael Davenport manager person, michael Davenport, who actually already had quite a few very well-known artists on his books and jazz, legendary jazz artists, and he kind of opened some doors for me in terms of booking. I was still I was completely unknown so a booking agency wouldn't look at me, but he. So he then opened, knowing that I was on Warner Brothers and that was the selling point. And then he kind of introduced me to some. For some reason he knew I just ended up playing with all these jazz legends. I mean I remember doing a Jewel show with Elise Marsalis, so Winton's dad. So he placed the piano, like Tommy Flamingen. He is so original in all the original chord progressions that are so lost. It came from the Broadway tunes and all that. I mean he was probably the most the foundation of kind of this, the standards of jazz music. It's incredible pianist. And so we ended up doing a Jewel concert where I play first and then he'll play it and I'll come back. I do another thing. I was kind of the younger improvised classical jazz kind of performer with lots of technique, and he then was the old wisdom and stuff like that so, yeah, the problem with live touring, with live performances, is the touring. Yeah, that's really tough and I was always by myself. When you tour with a group which I've not, I have not done a lot that's a bit more, probably a bit more durable, but very, very tough to be alone on the road. And so when I got married, I kind of had piano. I basically decided to go into production because my wife, you know I wanted to have a family so I didn't want to be on the road. So that's a really big decision to make, and some artists do manage to have both, and I wasn't lucky to be that person.

Andy Heise:

So yeah, Sure Mario, can you talk a little bit about mirror tones? What is it? How did you develop it?

Mario Grigorov:

Yes, well, that's an interesting story. So in the mid-90s my wife worked in fashion houses in New York. She worked for Romeo Gili and then Comdi Gaston and so many different kind of top notch, mostly European fashion houses, and I was stuck at home before I kind of dabbled into advertising and I was really frustrated and so I used to practice a lot and I came up and I wanted to improve my left hand. So I figured out that you're hence in symmetrical, you know your thumb is on the inside and your pink is on the outside and the piano is also symmetrical. If you divide it in the middle, d and A flat, there's two places where, if you put a mirror on D and A flat, you could see that the piano is in perfect image or you can just actually look at it. So I trained my left hand to copy the right hand completely mechanical, without first thinking that good music could come or digestible harmonic structures could arise from it. So I kind of started playing in contra-emotion and mirror image and developed these mirror tones, these compositions that actually were very digestible, through a lot of foraging through the forest and figuring out what harmonies would work without breaking the form. And the form is when the hands have to completely be both rhythmically, melodically and harmonically. They have to be in a mirror image. And then I found out I actually can also write backwards with my left hand, and I'm not sure because of the results of the mirror tones, I don't know. But next thing I was mirror drawing with both hands. So the mirror drawings came from the mirror tones. The two-handed mirror drawings derived from the mirror tones and to this age I'm completely fluent in improvising with both hands in opposite directions. So whatever I improvise with the right hand or the left hand, the other one can copy in a complete contra-emotion without any mistakes. Of course sometimes the huge hiatus and jumps are difficult, but I'm sure with a lot of practice I could achieve those. I just haven't got the time to do that. I've been doing like six or seven or eight films a year. It's really hard to practice your mirror tones.

Andy Heise:

Wow, yeah, you go to the music director for the film. Hey, I've got this thing called mirror tones.

Mario Grigorov:

Yes, you're fired, exactly Not over my score.

Andy Heise:

No, no, no, no, no. We want that other thing.

Nick Petrella:

Ariel, how do you approach artistic differences when you're composing for films to the producers, whoever? Do they give you total freedom, or do you work with directors and producers much like one would order a bespoke suit?

Mario Grigorov:

Yes, that is correct. Every single job. It's very, very different to the point of where it's very, very difficult. As a film composer and I'm sure this is true for other composers is to learn something from the experience. Directors, composers sorry directors producers, editors and everyone else involved sometimes are so crazy that you as a composer and you as a creative person want to be the crazy one so that you can kind of, you know, show your creative outlets and let you hair down. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. You become this conservative, very kind of, almost like a therapist kind of person who has to manage he has to always keep completely professionalism and manage the entire group and also make them feel calm so that they know that you will create their favorite piece of music is about to arrive. But on the other hand, when it comes to the actual business, is how that will grow into them giving you the next film or whatever else you may want out of this experience, not just getting paid but to kind of grow you that it's also extremely unpredictable. I said to recently to my friend John Axelrod, who is an incredible conductor who lives in Europe now. He had his own orchestra in Austin, texas sorry, in Dallas Texas and he asked me what it was like to be a composer, after having spoken to him for 20 years, and I said it's like you hitchhike and you hope that you pick up a Mercedes, but instead you get some old Toyota that's, and in the Mercedes you wanna be taken to not the next town but the next country. Meanwhile you pick up some Toyota and it takes you literally 20 kilometers and then they kick you out of the door. And this is what's like to be a composer. You absolutely have no control of the situation and it's very, very tough. So but when it comes to actually the composing, the biggest advice I would give to anybody is don't use, don't try to reuse the old compositions. It has backfired on me so many times. I think what's really important is to understand the genre and especially to discuss with the director before you start composing, what kind of music they want, what is it that they like, to really kind of understand also the dynamic between them, not for political reasons, but to understand exactly where the producer's director and the editor are coming from musically and what they want for their film. And then you can really kind of know where to start not to have in the back of your mind, all this old composition, this old composition that's gonna work. I'm not hearing what the director is saying. This old composition is really gonna work, because you think that that composition would work on this particular movie. And nothing could be further from the truth.

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, and so I'm just curious for some of the other younger listeners who want to be composers. Can you cite how that has backfired on you?

Mario Grigorov:

Yes, by you thinking first of all, by morphing the composition so much, thinking that you can make it work in this and first failing at it and all you're starting to romanticize that the actual music it is good, and only to find out in the first time you actually presented to the composer if you're lucky for him to be next to you or you can do it over Zoom or whatever that while he's listening to it, you're realizing that you've done the biggest mistake in your life, because all of a sudden you have this objectivity or they think this is absolutely not what I want, and because you're not even hearing what the director wants, because you're so determined to sell your own, because you're exhausted, the money's never enough, or whatever it is, you think this whole composition, or you think this whole composition is so beautiful and it belongs in the movie and it's gonna make you famous through this film, and yet you're not realizing that, first of all, the composition will be reused at some point by you making your own album and putting it out there with a little bit of extra effort, instead of trying to slug it in into some film that doesn't belong there and so forth. It's just a really big kind of block that I've had to overcome many times because, as you can imagine, I end up with so many extra pieces of music For every film. I would write at least five to 10 to 15 extra compositions, and when you do six movies a year, you end up with an hour of music that some of it's really, really good, and so what I'm thinking is maybe I should release music, to call it like rejected cues or something, rejected film, and start a kind of a record label with that stuff and putting it out because, instead of trying to put it in other films, I think it's a big mistake. It never works.

Nick Petrella:

Interesting Music that didn't make the final cut. You can use that for free.

Mario Grigorov:

That's great, thank you.

Nick Petrella:

What do you wish? You learned as a student that you hadn't spent much time on, but you do spend time on it now.

Mario Grigorov:

I would. I could give you kind of a technical answer to these in terms of how to improve your craftsmanship. I think probably the biggest thing that I regret is not being more confident. I think I remember doing on a Cubase on Yatari. I remember speeding up tracks in Australia and I came up with the most insane piece of music that only 10, 15, 20 years later heard it from SquarePusher and I was like why didn't I release that back then? I would be the first SquarePusher guy. So I never believed in myself as much as I should have, I think, taking this risk with yourself, because art is kind of very elusive. It's sometimes art that is not really fully developed. You don't have to play jazz piano like Oscar Peterson or Jeff Kees or Keith Jarrett to actually make albums. I think this is so important to realize that art is not kind of something to strive for, for perfection or for great technical abilities. I think art is more untouchable in that way and I think how arrogant for you to think that you would know if that art would succeed or not. How arrogant of me to think that that music of speeding up those early Cubase Atari files were crap. Who I was comparing myself to, only to hear then SquarePusher making a career out of it, later Recording concerts like recording some footages of video, with me sitting with Carlos Santana. I supported that band with another band in Australia called the Goanna Band. I had a camera there and I didn't give it to my friend to say, take some shots of me and Carlos on stage. That's a missed opportunity out of being shy and being not confident. Again, after a movie called the Third Wave that Sean Penn took to Cannes, I went to Cannes and there was opportunity, after meeting Bono through Sean Penn, who they're very good friends to go on the boat of Paul Allen's boat called the Octopussy, which was just a ginormous boat and we had to take a smaller boat to get to it. And again I was shy, I didn't want to go with everybody because I was the composer in the film. Meanwhile I worked very hard for this movie as a composer and I deserved to go along with them. So I missed out on going with Bono and Sean Penn on the Paul Allen's boat. Missed opportunity. Who knows who would have met there. Just the experience alone would have given me kind of interesting outlook in some other world that only a few people get to see. So believing in yourself at a much younger age, I would say would probably be very important and releasing a lot of music and going and putting stuff out. I'm sure there's a lot of kids that have great ideas for their TikTok startups and, out of lacking confidence, they don't do it and I'm still guilty of this. The list goes on and on, even from not doing the Babe film after Lin Benjamin offered to me to LA, to then recently in Berlin not signing up with Annette Gaines, this amazing manager here that I kind of well do. I want to give a percentage of my income. I started thinking and again, out of this whole pattern of this kind of fake humility or maybe just shyness and this voice that maybe I'm not good enough didn't let me so this self-sebutage. So, talking about working on yourself and working on your professional self, learn not to self-sebutage. I think it's very important. Hard to kind of understand, because you've got to go through so many areas of life to figure that out until you.

Nick Petrella:

It's very insightful.

Andy Heise:

I think we're calling that imposter syndrome now a little bit maybe. I mean, I think it's something that certainly my students talk a lot about. They don't feel like they're worthy of opportunities that maybe aren't part of them. Mario, we've reached the point of the interview where we ask all of our interviewees the same three questions, and you sort of just touched on this, but maybe there's something else you want to add to it. What advice would you give to others wanting to become an entrepreneur in art?

Mario Grigorov:

So, uh, I think find out who's done it before you and really study them, read their biographies, go on YouTube and find their interviews would be very important, really really putting the effort, even though that sometimes it's boring. If you find it boring, then you know that you probably have a bad idea than them and therefore you've got to kind of really jump out at whatever you have to offer. I think the creative content is huge and then putting it out there very important. And then, I would say, making connections with people in this film, in this field, and try to keep in touch with them by email. I think when you, the people that keep in touch with me, always, for some reason, I always remember who they are because they, every six months or three months, they send me a gift of a book or something little and this is so important, all of a sudden I'm thinking of that person. I don't know why, but because they've actually, even as long as you don't overdo it, it is important to keep in touch with these connections you've made so that you're in front of them, because we live in a very kind of chaotic, busy world and it's really important. So I think those three things would be probably my advice.

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, that's great. What can we do to ensure the arts are more accessible and reaching the widest possible audience?

Mario Grigorov:

In what way? You mean in terms of we as the humans on this planet.

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, however, you want to answer because there are a variety of different ways that you could do it and I don't wanna prejudice you by suggesting something.

Mario Grigorov:

Oh, interesting. Okay, Well, I've come to this depraization that the arts is very closely linked to the spiritual growth of humanity and I think the importance of our spiritual kind of self-awareness of that, the importance of our narrative in our own heads of what we believe in and who we are as humans, and whether it's religious or philosophical, whichever way, I think the arts is kind of the heartbeat and probably the instigator sometimes, and it's very, very important for the arts to continue playing that role. I think it's a very important role because otherwise we really very lost.

Andy Heise:

Lastly, what's the best artistic or entrepreneurial advice you've ever been given?

Mario Grigorov:

It was from Jamie Mahobarek in Australia. He came to do this band called the Girlfriend. The Girlfriend was a band which was the first Spice Girls and unfortunately Girlfriend should have been bigger than Spice Girls because they had real talent but it didn't happen for all those reasons that the world is just like that. And so I met him because I was producing some of the songs and he came as a producer and he's that Larry Mahobarek. He was always presently MD for nine years. He's an incredible orchestrator and composer in his own right. So Jamie came and he said to me move to the USA, right, or just in one month you gotta get out of here. And at the time that was a great advice and I moved out of Australia. Today I would say stay where you are and just put stuff on multimedia and just stay where you are, don't move anywhere. You have a different way of to kind of just get stuff out there. So that would be the best entrepreneurial advice I could say is just to keep releasing things and keep producing things. So many composers I meet who have not done a single album and when they reach out to me they are saying what they've started or they write all these things about them and I can't find any music from them that they've done on their own rights. It's like where's your gift to the world?

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, mario, it was great hearing your fascinating journey and the importance you place on networking and humility and persistence. It's been a lot of fun.

Mario Grigorov:

Thank you. Thanks, mario Thanks.

Announcer:

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Creating Music
Challenges and Advice for Film Composers
Regrets, Self-Sabotage, and Artistic Advice
Importance of Composers' Work and Support