Influenced by the interconnections of past civilisations and contemporary ideas, Patrick Belaga takes a page from the history books, imagining what past people’s reactions would be to his music. His latest album, Blutt, showcases his admiration for how everything somehow intertwines with each other — the fact that by removing the ‘l’ spells ‘Butt’ also appealed to him. Although inspired and appreciative of collaborating with other artists, Belaga enjoys being a lone wolf, working better under solitude. He talks about his time composing the score for the Netflix documentary on Lady Gaga, Gaga: Five Foot Two, collaborating with visual artists and how he is a hippy at heart.
Was playing the cello always something that you wanted to do as a child? How has it shaped your personality and character?
When I was 4 years old, one of my older brothers had a heart condition that prevented him from playing sports or participating in group physical activities. In an attempt to find a community-oriented group for him to be a part of, my mother discovered the Suzuki method classical music community in Virginia/D.C. She started him on violin and it was a great fit for his personality.
Naturally, as the youngest of three brothers, I got jealous and wanted to play the violin as well, but one has to stand while playing and I was too energetic to focus while practising. My mother suggested that I should play the cello (seated), so I switched after a couple of months. After I started playing, I pretty much never wanted to put the instrument down. It became my singular consuming emotional outlet and allowed me to express things I couldn’t with words or actions in my tiny child body. Still to this day, playing the cello immediately unwinds my brain and feels like a hug from an old friend. I’m not sure who I’d be without it.
Your newly released album Blutt has many meanings to it such as it is an old German word for ‘naked’ or ‘bare’ and it can also mean ‘blood’ if it’s spelt as ‘blut,’ allowing people to interpret it as they wish. Is this something you want people to do with your music as well?
Definitely, the name came to me while working with one of my closest friends and frequent collaborator, Kandis Williams. The word having so many meanings: from naked/bare, to blood, and even to ‘butt’ if you remove the ‘l,’ which appealed to me. I’m a firm believer in the interconnectedness of everything, so it's fun when you find words that have many interpretations, depending on your perspective.
This ideology applies to music as well for me. I see no hierarchy in musical genres or musical intentions We have been making music since the beginning of human civilisation and it takes infinite forms that are all valid and important.
You are labelmates with music icons such as Beatrice Dillon, Elysia Crampton, Eartheater and Arca. Do you guys have a relationship in which maybe you discuss your work and jump ideas off each other?
The Pan roster is something I’ve been enamoured with for years. Bill Kouligas is a brilliant label founder and continues to inspire and nurture the music community via Pan, all along the spectrum from artists to fans. I know a few of the artists personally, some just online, and some I’ve only admired from afar while listening to their music.
My music-making process for recordings is very personal and quite solitary. Even when collaborating, I tend to get the recordings I need and squirrel away with them to hide and arrange, mix, produce, write, spiral. I like to emerge with a finished product. Once I’m done editing, I’m fairly stubborn about making changes.
I know that your inspiration behind your latest album was the mysterious music that you heard when you went on a road trip with your friend to the Byzantine town of Gallipoli, which even invaded your dreams about ancient civilisations. When you play, any of your songs for that matter, do you visualise such scenes in your head? How does this affect your playing?
Yes, definitely. I love ancient human history and tracing lines through the past to connect contemporary ideas with concepts that were just emerging as civilisation began to take hold. I often think, read, and write about pre-historic settlements and what life would have been like before we could use all the technology we have available to us today.
These ideas influence my playing in a sense that I like to pretend I’m performing for an audience of humans from around 10,000 BC and thinking if they’d connect with the music. Maybe they would find it threatening? Or inspiring? Or maybe they wouldn’t hear it in a way that I can interpret at all. So many mysteries.
Apparently, you have a ‘mild obsession’ with rocks and mountains which is also what influence the titles of your songs. What is the reasoning behind that?
At heart I’m a hippie: I love trees, rivers, mountains, rocks, animals... Being alone in nature is the only time I truly feel like my most authentic and uncompromised self. It’s a consistently reliable salve to my brain when I’m experiencing anxiety or stress. And for the most part, it’s free.
Apart from contemplative road trips and geology, what else do you look for as inspiration for your music?
Dancers and movers, I love to collaborate with visual artists and physical performers. Some of my absolute best friends in the world are dancers and I feel immensely blessed to be able to work with them, on and off stage.
Blutt’s nine beautifully haunting compositions fall into a very different category of music, if I’m not mistaken, we can refer it to leftfield-electronic-contemporary-cello-ambience. Can you tell us how this genre helps to depict what you are trying to convey with your compositions?
I am terrible with subgenre naming. Ultimately what I’d like to do is continue the musical conversation in an attempt to add something new. I want to expose people, who didn’t necessarily have the musical training I was lucky enough to receive, to other forms of musical expression that they can easily access and find comfort or stimulation in. I’m not sure if I’ve done that, but I’m happy just to try and let the listeners decide for themselves.
You composed the score for the Netflix documentary on Lady Gaga, Gaga: Five Foot Two. How do you think your genre of contemporary classical music marry with a documentary based on a singer who is known for her pop and electronic dance music?
For that particular project, I was hired by the director of the film. Chris Moukarbel had set out to make a portrait of Lady Gaga that was not skewed by her participating much in the making of the film. My music and musical supervision was something he saw as conducive to his eclectic vision. Although I spent a fair bit of time with her and her crew, we did not actually collaborate on anything musically. Funnily enough, the premier of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival was the first time she actually watched the film in its entirety.
The artwork for the album cover of Blutt is eerily breathtaking. I know that your career also takes part in bridging the gaps between art, fashion and music, what is your process in this and how would describe it?
Giovanni Forlino painted the album art, his work is beautiful, melancholic and haunting. It’s how I hear my own music. As for my career, I am a curious cat. I seek out new experiences constantly and often get restless if I stay in one lane or place for very long. So, naturally, I venture out to see who needs a cellist/composer for their projects in other industries. I’m a yes person when it comes to gigs. I’ve street performed in every city I’ve lived in.
Since your project with Lady Gaga, you have been introduced to a whole new audience and more people are constantly finding out about you. What are in the cards for the future and what are you looking most looking forward to?
The future is very ‘question mark’ right now. I think this is the state of the world at this particular moment in time. I’m sure it’s a universal feeling throughout history for various peoples and cultures but it feels like a global phenomenon right now. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. I really can’t say what my future holds necessarily, but if I could continue to support myself through music and collaboration with friends and artists I admire, I would be totally content with that life.