EYE WEEKLY (Toronto) | Cover Feature | October 21, 2009
By Sarah Liss

With his new collection of piano pieces, Todor Kobakov is extending an olive branch from the classical tradition to the indie-rock world.

Todor Kobakov is reading to me from a well-thumbed, much-loved collection of poems by Pablo Neruda. We’re in his apartment on College Street, an amazing second-floor perch with a pigeon shit–smeared Victorian fantasy of a skylight. “Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,” he begins, “I cannot settle on a single one. / They are lost to me under the cover of clothing / They have departed for another city.”

The poem, “We Are Many,” inspired one of the songs on Pop Music, the collection of short, lovely piano pieces that is Kobakov’s solo debut under his own name. As soon as he’s seated in front of his piano — a 1948 Steinway rented “for really, really cheap” from a family that was using the instrument “basically as furniture” — Kobakov comes into himself.

“I wanted to be slightly more macho with this song,” he offers, emboldened as he prepares to play his version of “We Are Many.” “There’s a slightly Spanish undertone to it, like running with the bulls.” It’s his interpretation of a poem that, as he explains it, explores what it’s like to come of age as a young man and realize that, even when you fancy yourself very intelligent, you often run the risk of looking like a fool. The piece moves forward with swirling eddies of notes, punctuated by coy tone clusters that vibrate inquisitively.

Clearly, this is Kobakov’s most comfortable mode of communication. Even if you haven’t heard his name before, you’ve definitely heard the noises he’s made: he created the transcendent string arrangements for Stars’ Set Yourself on Fire album and helped flesh out the haunting songs on Emily Haines’ Knives Don’t Have Your Back. He’s provided vivid soundtracks for a score of commercials; as half of the alt-pop duo Major Maker (with Icelandic singer Lindy), he concocted that ridiculously catchy “Rollercoaster” jingle for Maynards gummies in 2007.

One can see why the Neruda poem struck a chord (pun intended) with Kobakov. Though he’s worn many hats within the Canadian music community over the last decade, he says it’s taken him until now to release something he feels is an honest reflection of who he is. “I sort of got tired of all the other stuff I was doing,” says the 30-year-old graduate of U of T’s classical piano performance program. (Sarah Slean was a classmate.) “The only way to portray myself musically was through the piano…. I think I needed to reach some sort of maturity in order to do that.”

Of course, Kobakov isn’t the first virtuoso who’s worked as a double agent in both populist and headier, more academic circles, nor is he the most recent. New music ace Nico Muhly has had a hand in creating arrangements for folks like Björk, Antony and Grizzly Bear; Owen Pallett a.k.a. Final Fantasy guested on Polaris Music Prize–winning hardcore punks Fucked Up’s 2006 album, Hidden World. The relationship between the genres goes both ways: last month, Andrew WK — once known as rock’s hard-partying answer to Tony Robbins — released an album of instrumental piano music. He was also trounced in a piano play-off with Canadian expat Gonzales, himself no stranger to the world of classical performance.

These disparate styles weren’t always such cozy bedfellows, says Gonzales. The Feist co-producer and creator of Solo Piano (a collection of delicate compositions that was re-released last month on local indie-rock label Arts&Crafts) says that while he was starting out in Toronto in the ’90s, he tried to hide his classical training from his peers.

“The fact that I had gone to music school seemed to repulse everybody, on the surface,” he writes in an email from Paris. But when those same musicians found out Gonzo knew how “to write string parts on their indie-rock anthem, they were impressed.”

Gonzales suggests that the historical dominance of “willfully simple guitar-based music in North America” served as a catalyst for the current explosion of classical-indie fusion. “Where there is hegemony, there is blowback.”

“I feel like the explosion of electronic music had as much to do with [the rise of cross-pollination] as anything,” suggests Richard Reed Parry. The Arcade Fire bassist and Bell Orchestre founder is bringing his own avant-garde orchestral project to Toronto Oct. 29. (See sidebar below.) “I think the nature of that form is all about pushing the limits and discovering new sounds. Björk played a heavy role in [taking it to a new level]. She was really leaning on electronics, and she used that to incorporate strings and orchestral elements into her pop music in very intricate ways.”

A piano whiz who started playing when he was barely out of diapers, Kobakov attended Bulgaria’s rigorous Sofia School of Music from age six and practiced up to six hours a day throughout his formative years. (“My grandma used to say, ‘You’re gonna thank me one day,’” he laughs. “I’d be like, ‘No, I wanna play!’ But now that day’s here. Thanks, grandma!”) His grandmother played in the opera for almost 40 years, but Kobakov claims it was his mother, a single parent who worked as a producer for a music television channel, who had the greatest influence on what he’s doing now. Growing up, his house was filled with massive books on the history of pop and rock music, and he’d tag along when his mom went to shows.

That confluence of high and low art has a direct connection to the democratic ethos that drives his writing and performances. Pop Music is made up of 11 pithy but complex compositions, short classical-inspired pieces that have playful echoes of Debussy and Satie, but also nod to conventional pop songwriting with their emotionally gripping melodies and accessible patterns.

Kobakov says his main mission with the project was to prove to “young people” that classical music doesn’t have to be “this boring, sterile awful thing. Even while studying it, I always found it so intense. You know, you’re performing onstage, there’s the audience over there, it’s quiet, there’s just polite clapping…. I really wanted to make it a more communal thing and break that barrier, basically.”

Trying to transform technically complex pieces into gripping live performances is one of the greatest challenges Kobakov and other artists face when attempting to interpret their work for non-classical audiences. Even Gonzales, a man with a knack for out-there showmanship, found it a bit tricky.

“There was so much to avoid. There’s the lack of charisma in most modern classical performances, the condescending predictability of it all. I played mostly on upright pianos to suggest that I could be your uncle playing piano in the hallway. I wore a bathrobe and slippers for the same reason. And the Piano Vision installation, with the camera aesthetically placed over my hands and the keyboard — that not only has a functional use of just SHOWING people what the hell I’m doing; it was also a nod to the ‘multimedia’ era of performance we live in.”

For the Pop Music performances, Kobakov has sought out unconventional spaces (his Toronto shows will be in a living room–turned–gallery space on Shaw Street) where he can maximize the intimacy. “We’re going to put the piano in the middle of the room and take the lid off so people can gather around me,” he says. “I’ll wear the clothes I wear every day, and I swear and say ‘shit’ and drink wine and have beer and stuff. It’s just me. I think that helps…. Sort of, the first impression will be, ‘Oh, a cool dude is doing this.’”

Ultimately, what makes Pop Music so special is Kobakov’s skill in composing songs that are profoundly and transparently emotional without coming across as sentimental or schmaltzy, and his desire to reveal the stories behind those songs to listeners.

“There’s no secret agenda or anything like that; there are just really, truly musical adaptations of my emotions — or my soul, if you want to get into that kind of language,” he chuckles. Kobakov says that the greatest thing classical training has provided him
with is the ability to let his mind move, to channel source material into compositions without having to overthink the process. Inspiration, however, doesn’t come quite as naturally.

Two songs, “Carpe Diem” and “Loving Hands,” feature vocal and lyrical contributions by Emily Haines and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, respectively. They’re two of the many people who helped encourage Kobakov in this project; as he says, his greatest inspirations “come from the living people around me.”

“The human soul is so fascinating and that really inspires me the most, because [people] can’t really lie,” he quietly states. And that’s possibly the most daunting thing about releasing Pop Music into the world: for once, Kobakov is communicating his own truth, not a story told by another artist or a moving picture. “I’m so emotionally attached to these pieces that I feel like I’m really sharing a piece of me, something that’s really private, with the world. And to do that, it’s not easy… I need to be brave.”