TORONTO STAR | Classical training meets indie sensibility | September 12, 2009
By John Terauds

Todor Kobakov’s home studio, overlooking the bustle of College St. in Little Italy, is equal parts Romantic artist and Information Age communicator. Stacks of handwritten sheet music sit alongside well-thumbed volumes of poetry, two pianos and a jumble of hardware necessary to translate ideas and soundwaves into electronic data.

The 30-year-old, Bulgarian-born, University of Toronto piano-performance graduate has been thriving in the indie music scene, having hitched his star to some of Canada’s most successful musicians. In the nine years since leaving the confines of a classical music education, he has arranged music for and toured with, among others, Sarah Slean, Luke Doucet, and Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton.

He is also a founding member of Major Maker, a rock band that captured the attention of television viewers with its sunshine-bright music for Maynards fruit chews a couple of years ago.

Kobakov itches to move from living-room work desk to the adjoining room, which serves triple duty as inspiration chamber, practice room and recording studio. He wants to talk about stepping out onto centre stage with his first solo musical effort, a solo piano album, Pop Music. It hits the streets on Oct. 13, under the 88 Calibre label, which is distributed by EMI.

Despite the album’s title, Kobakov’s music owes more to turn-of-the-20th century Europe than the Toronto of 2009. He smiles when I suggest the 12 tracks are a cross between Erik Satie and Sufjan Stevens. His compositions also contain clear echoes of Debussy, Ravel and Chopin. “I wanted the pieces to be short,” Kobakov explains. He wants to get the attention of younger listeners who may not be familiar with classical music, and who are used to shuffling their daily soundtrack on an iPod.

Two of the tracks come with lyrics. “Carpe Diem” is sung by Emily Haines, while “Loving Hands” features the rough-silk baritone of Tunde Adebimpe, who usually sings with TV on the Radio.

Kobakov says the solo album builds on a long-standing love of sharing classical piano music with his friends. “On Sundays, I would do brunch and then play some classical pieces” in his living room. He would preface each piece with some background.

“People realized that classical music was not really boring,” he continues. “So I decided I wanted to do the same with my own music.”

The project germinated when Jason Collett asked Kobakov to perform at one of his mixed concert nights last winter. Kobakov came up with an original composition, and “based on that first tune, I sat down to plan it out.

“I wanted the music to be original, not too cheesy, not too traditional,” he explains. “Most important, I wanted to be musically honest with myself.”

That honesty is built on a straightforward structure of theme, development and recapitulation, as well as a clear story. “I have a strong inspiration for each piece,” he says.

Kobakov sits down at the impressive, black Steinway grand he rented for cheap after seeing an ad on Craigslist, and is itching to play his pieces. He worked them out through a process of improvisation.

“I’d record on my cellphone,” he says of piecing together the final product. When each piece was ready, he recorded it right there.

“I had to do a lot of it early in the morning, before the street noise got too loud,” he admits.

Although the composer didn’t want to tell a specific story with this music, each piece does have a concrete inspiration. “Panic,” for example, followed a painful relationship breakup. “I was looking for a way to distance myself from the swirling mess of emotions, to rise above it all,” Kobakov says.

Pablo Neruda’s poem “We Are Many” inspired a haunting track. “Tokyo at Night” was born from looking at an early-dawn photograph of suburban Japan.

As you would expect, “Self Portait” is the most personal.

“I was talking with a friend over coffee about how people perceive you differently than you perceive yourself,” he recalls. “So I wanted to show what I’m really like. I have to do it through music because that is how I express myself.”

The resulting musical picture almost evenly balances major and minor keys – light and dark.

Kobakov smiles. “I guess that’s the way I am.”