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An urban-romantic multi-musician

The city is in his blood, and he is an ever-returning customer at IKEA and any local hardware retailer, driven by curiosity and to quench his thirst.

Koka Nikoladze is a composer, instrument inventor, performing musician, programmer and music researcher. He was born in 1989, and studied violin in his home city of Tbilisi, composition in Stuttgart and music technology at the Norwegian Academy of Music. This is where he is now working as a PhD research fellow, studying how data technology can help move the goalposts as regards what it is possible for a practitioner to perform, as well as how composers can communicate with performers when music is created on the spot — questions on the verge of the unimaginable. Koka flourishes here. He is almost obsessed by ideas, he tells me. It’s just a case of keeping up with them, managing to realise them as quickly as possible. His maxim is to work 24/7.

The instrumentis the composition

Some rarities of contraptions are on display in the living room, objects you immediately bend over to scrutinise more closely: veneer, metal wires, a half-full Pepsi bottle, a keyring, a fork, coil springs, a snapped-off plastic ruler, a breadboard, matchboxes. When the various parts are activated with the aid of a handle, or a motor or computer, they make noises — funny noises that are repeated in creaky, blaring, grating, shuffling, distorted and odd rhythmical patterns.

“I started to make these machines without any inkling of what they would turn out to be, spontaneously and haphazardly, to calm myself down in a stressful period. But now that I’ve been busy on this for a while, I can see that what interests me is to take different objects you wouldn’t expect to be used to make music and use them in a musical context. How much music I can make with each instrument makes little difference. Composing an instrument is enough in its own right to satisfy my artistic thirst.”

The things and the ideas

He is very particular about the sounds, the colour and the character, and he is still on the lookout for parts to fit the mechanics he chooses. Then he goes to the Clas Ohlson hardware store.

“Not necessarily to buy anything, but to get ideas, to imagine the sound of different items. I expect I’ve tried every type of saw blade they have, every type of spring and screw... They sometimes have really gorgeous bicycle bells. I might also try Robert Dyas or IKEA. I just wander round, surrounded by these things, and think.”

Convoluted path

Koka Nikoladze first studied the violin at the conservatory in Tbilisi, but during his studies he became more and more taken with composition along the way. He sat his Bachelor’s exam anyway, passing with flying colours incidentally, before travelling to Stuttgart and starting to study composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Here he studied under Marco Stroppa, a composer known for combining acoustic and electronic instruments. After doing a Bachelor’s degree here, too, again with the highest grade, he applied to the Academy of Music in Oslo.

“I’ve learned so much since I haven’t touched a violin, about playing the violin."

Koka Nikoladze Composer

“I thought I would use the opportunity of moving in academic circles to learn something systematically, something I wasn’t so good at. Music technology was my foremost interest, so I did a Master’s in music technology.”

The PhD project he is now working on, about computer-aided real-time composition,is scheduled for completion next year. It may seem like quite a stretch, therefore, from the quirky instruments he builds – partly to entertain himself, as he says – to advanced music technology, but Koka doesn’t agree.

“The term music technology is usually associated with electronic equipment with cables and software, and everything related to computers. But music technology is more than that. Music technology has existed for a long time, taken various shapes in various periods of history. So I would definitely relate these machines I make to music technology. Not electronic technology, but music technology.”

Classical music

Koka Nikoladze has stopped playing the violin – for the time being at any rate. He realises he will lose some of his performing skills, but he also sees advantage sto having stopped. He has had a chance to move out of a domain he knew well and to view it from a distance.

“I’ve learned so much since I haven’t touched a violin, about playing the violin. So I don’t necessarily believe it was that stupid of me to stop playing. I gave up because I found it boring. I had to progress, in a different direction. But I may return to it when I have more time, possibly.”

Coupled with all this other stuff you’re working on?

“No, if I went back to the violin, it would be to playonly. I would start with Beethoven’s concerto and play my way through Bach’s sonatas and partitas. That’s what I’d have liked to do first. But not playing the violin hasn’t affected my interest in composing acoustic music. I have that, and I take that knowledge away with me.”

Folk music

Koka Nikoladze was born in Georgia and lived there until he was twenty. Georgian culture is part of him, he says, but as an artist he experiences some antagonism towards the culture. He has never used or referred to Georgian song or music in his work, as most Georgian composers do. A composer in Georgia is expected to refer to the existing tradition in some way. But it doesn’t come naturally to him.

“I think the old Georgian culture is a work of art per se, and I don’t feel strong enough to get involved in reworking it. I have a feeling that if I take something and reuse it in some way, I’ll ruin what once was. I don’t know if I want to do that, so I leave well alone. I admire it as it is.”

Would you be criticised in Georgia for not using the culture?

“I wouldn’t say so – who cares, actually? But when we’re talking about walking round a Clas Ohlson store looking at various things, I think it comes naturally to me. This is my habitat. These are the surroundings that influence me. We can all picture a romantic composer strolling through the forest, then writing magnificent music, inspired by nature. For me personally, such forests are towns and cities. I grew up in a city with Soviet architecture, big buildings and wrecked infrastructure. I grew up in a brick jungle, and this brick jungle inspires me. It’s what I take with me into my music. And when I go for a walk, I don’t walk through the forest becauseI haven’t learned to glean inspiration from forests and nature. I’ve learned to be inspired by things. So IKEA or Clas Ohlson, or some weird market or other full of all kinds of different odds and ends, that’s my forest. There I’m inspired by what I see. That’s my nature.”

Urban jungle noises

You’ve lived in Tbilisi, Stuttgart and Oslo. Which jungle do you prefer to live in?

“Anywhere. I’ve also travelled a lot, and I find my nature wherever, in any town or city whatsoever. When I moved to Oslo, I began making an instrument I call an infinity collector sampler, an electronic keyboard instrument. As I walk around the city, I make recordings of sounds. If a car drives past and if, say, it was a low C I hear, I cut it out, label it “low C” and put it in a folder. Then I hear a bird, a person singing, the sound of metal being struck, and place the sounds in folders, based on pitch. That way, the sound collection grows, and every time I depress a key, a new sound emerges. Randomly ordered. You know what pitch you’ll get,but not which sound. I have close on 3,000 sounds in the bank now, and friends in Europe and Asia help me to collect, so I add 35-40 sounds each month, and the instrument gets richer and richer, and acquires more and more possibilities. These sounds were collected from my jungle.”

What do you do with these sounds?

“I play mostly classical music with them.I love playing Bach on this instrument, and Scarlatti sonatas, because you can still hear melodies and harmonies.”


The norm for a musician these days is to specialise in one field rather than do everything, as Koka Nikoladze apparently does. Why does he do all this – compose, build, perform, research?

“My intention is not to do everything. It’s more a consequence of being curious all the time, and also of getting bored with things very quickly. I’m trying to specialise because I’m not satisfied working at amateur level, so I’m constantly trying to become more advanced. That can be mega-tough, in programming for example, and it takes a lot of time. But I can’t stop being curious. I can’t stop being preoccupied with ideas. And I can’t let the chance to realise them slip away.”

The plans for the future

Where will you be in five years, in ten years?

“I want to continue doing what I’m doing, and I would like to see how this develops, where it all ends. So I’m curious to see what will happen in five years’ time, and extremely curious as to what will happen in ten. What I’ve learned throughout my life is that there are no guarantees of happiness.”

This last sentence comes as a surprise. That’s how people far older than a man of twenty-six tend to talk.

“Neither wealth nor health guarantees happiness. I’ve seen ultra-fit people who are unhappy. But when you find something that makes you happy, you need to stick with it. Keep on with these kinds of weird, personal ideas, like making a rhythm machine, next year maybe compose an opera, in three years maybe do some research work again; this creative, active life — that’s what I want to do.”

On a quest for happiness, more than anything else?

“Yes, I presume so, in a way, or the quest for satisfaction, I’d say. Everything I do gives me satisfaction, so I’m just planning to continue satisfying my curiosity and my artistic, as much as my academic and scientific, thirst.”

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