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Jack Ryan Smith

Jack Ryan Smith is an English music producer and A&R, currently based in Berlin. After graduating with a Master's in Musicology, he has worked across the music industry in artist management, marketing, and PR roles, before finding his home in recorded music. Follow Jack here 


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Let us start with Berlin. I love electronic music, and I know techno has defined the city's music scene for many decades. What's going on there currently? I imagine it's diverse, global, and thrilling. What are the sounds of Berlin that excite you?


Berlin feels like it is at a bit of a precipice right now. After being left alone to its own devices for half a century – half a century of shadows, experimentation, pleasure, pain – the poor, unloved, ugly child of European capitals, in the last decade or so, it feels the rest of the world finally noticed it was there. Or rather, certain aspects of the rest of the world have, as if the pressures of this new century’s advanced capitalism finally started to take hold.

The price and cost of everything has been rising for over a decade, separate to the current disease-and-war-induced inflation. Big business, big brands moving in. Of course this has an effect on the culture of a place. Property and rent increases mean the city is no longer the obvious haven for artists and those wanting to escape commercial pressures, try things out, experiment, have a safety net for failure. All those independent, niche shops, restaurants, clubs hang on for dear life whilst big, international chains pick off the stragglers. And the culture that is there, the clubs, the techno, the graffiti, gets quickly commodified, packaged, sanitised, and sold. A brand.

This sounds apocalyptic, existential, and entirely negative, of course, and it is, but the city is not dead yet. Not at all. Berlin still attracts artists, people of a certain creative, unorthodox bent. It still supports so many varied and alternative communities, spaces, experiences. It still tells Elon Musk to fuck off, denying him access to the clubs he tried to enter (whilst the city government bends over backwards to invite his business). It is still diverse, global, thrilling. It is just that it all becomes harder, the changes more obvious coming from the place Berlin was… is... The gradual slide into capitalist homogeneity, the Americanisation of European cities, the forces that have already killed off London and much of the UK.

As for music, techno has certainly defined the city’s sound in the popular imagination, but as far as clubbing goes, I find so much more pleasure off to the side, hidden in the industrial kitchen of what was once a huge factory, that has now been re-purposed and taken over by an eclectic mix of beat-laden, crate-diving disco, jazz-funk, soul; or the back space of a Neukölln bar with its small, sweaty rooms bursting with Japanese City Pop.

Naturally, given my job, I am more attuned to that other great pillar of Berlin’s musical culture, the classical world. Berlin is, of course, home to some of the best classical music on earth – the best musicians, spaces, energy – and, being Berlin, it is far more casual, broad, experimental than most. And excitingly, its borders are getting ever more blurred with its musical surroundings.

You are a trained classical musician (and academic). What instruments do you play? Do you compose your own music? Do you perform? 


Technically, I’m not so much of a trained classical musician. I can play the piano, badly, certainly not to any performance level, which is absolutely fine as I have no interest in performing, and never really did.

No, for me, playing an instrument myself is always the most intimate affair. I can’t bear other people listening in. It is also perhaps instructive that I rarely have any desire to perform actual piano repertoire – music written for, and to be played on the piano – a Chopin Nocturne or something like that. I find so much more pleasure in taking music from other sources, be it orchestral music, choral music, pop, jazz, and transcribing it, or translating it, for piano. Just for myself. Just to play on that day, and start again with something else the next. That is the personal joy, the magic, of playing music for me. Found somewhere in the blurred lines between performance, translation, composition.

Much like with literature, the line between translation and composition is an intriguing, deeply involved, and ever fluid one. I used to compose music in the more pure sense of the term when younger. All kinds of styles. For string quartet, for modern dance, electronic, ambient, musique concrète, remixes. I should probably do so more now, but as with all things when one is no longer powered by the infinitely burning fires of absolute youth, it is more a case of where to put my energy. And, luckily, for now, a good part of the musically creative itch is scratched in my job.


What led you to music production? Can you tell me a little bit about what producing music is like? How closely do you work with musicians? Do you critique their compositions/performances? 


I have always been music-obsessive, and from the very start, even as young as four or five I would be asking my parents to buy me albums and singles of whatever random music I liked on the radio (or my own copies of albums they already owned and I liked). A very early present was a good hi-fi for my bedroom to play all these on. Later in those formative years I would especially devour books, films, documentaries, any stories of musicians in the studio. The creativity, the experimentation, the ‘purposefulness’ of committing a recorded sound as a piece of art. There is a romance to that. Early acetate recordings and electronic experiments. Glenn Gould recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The Beatles in Abbey Road. Everyone has their own personal relationship to this art form, some cultural touchpoint to recorded music.

But what is ‘producing’? It can mean so many different things to so many different genres of music. My title is Executive Producer, which in the simplest sense means I have to head the production, putting together and taking the lead over a production team that consists of recording producers, recording engineers, editing and mastering engineers, and so on.

But that is boring. Artistically there are two main components to my job as a producer. One is discovering and signing new artists to the label, be that the hottest, young, new talent or just an incredible artist at the right moment.

The second is working with the artists already signed on their recordings.

What that looks like changes entirely depending on artist and genre. Even for the more ‘traditional’ classical recordings, each and every time is different. Sometimes artists come with a complete idea that is so well designed and thought out that the concept itself requires little-to-no work or editing at all. Sometimes artists present an idea that is only partly complete, or where the general idea and concept is there, but maybe the repertoire or music needs some work or polishing. And of course there are the times the producer will propose a concept to an artist, along with an idea of repertoire, to be worked on and completed together. However it happens, it must always feel authentic to the artist.

Then, when it comes to the studio itself there are far more decisions to be taken, like the interpretation and performance of the music, and the whole other level of artistry that is the sound of the recording itself. For the more non-classical and ‘neo-classical’ artists and projects, it is mostly going back and forth with demo recordings produced by the artist, talking about the composition, sound, and how the music fits together to serve the project and idea as a whole.

Ultimately, that is the key, regardless of genre, the main focus of my work as a producer is making sure the music, the recorded sound, the repertoire choices, everything, best serves the artistic idea.

However, speaking on a personal level, there is one thing that gives me the most pleasure as a producer when putting together an album. Creating the unexpected. This could be making the most seemingly disparate elements work together, perhaps two pieces of music from opposite ends of the spectrum, or from entirely different worlds, that have never been put together before, or shouldn’t work together on paper, but absolutely do in the context of the album. Or it could be the unexpected in terms of using the concept album as a vehicle for including repertoire rarely recorded or seemingly under-appreciated. One is able to include works that could be considered too ‘uncommercial’ to record on their own terms, but make perfect sense within the context and wider appeal of a mixed repertoire concept album, and thus expose this music to an even greater audience. 

Classical music

Listen to music Jack has worked on here.

So far, what albums are you most proud of producing and why? 


I am lucky in my job that I get to work closely with some of the biggest and most renowned classical musicians in the world. I could easily say any number of these albums purely on a level of professional pride for this reason alone. I sincerely believe that some of these albums will be reference recordings for generations to come. And given the digital nature of music consumption now, it is easy to check how many 100s of millions of listens all the projects I’ve worked on get in total. That is always something to feel proud about.

But I think, personally, it would be an album like Anastasia Kobekina’s Venice. From the very beginning, this was such a collaborative project, involving long conversations about music, philosophy, and all good things. The whole idea was that classical music albums about Venice are always so cheesy and same-y, so let’s do one that is the opposite, that challenges this tourist postcard idea of Venice, with all sorts of unexpected musical twists and turns. And Kobekina is the kind of artist that really wants to push things in the studio, so it allowed all sorts of fun and experimentation, taking works to the limits.


I listened to some of Pretty Yende's Dreams, Khatia Buniatishvili's rendition of Schubert, and Leif Ove Andsnes' Poetic Tone Pictures. It was beautiful. I found it uplifting. Forgive my ignorance, but are these Romantic compositions? What genre of classical music are you most interested in? 


Yes, these are all Romantic compositions, in the sense that the accepted period of the Romantic is music from roughly between 1800-1910. These three represent the broad range of what is contained in that timeframe though. The Schubert, from the early 1800s, is still contained in the structures of the period before, the Classical period (which is a confusing name, given we refer to all ‘European Art Music’ of the last 500 years as ‘classical’), though the Schubert shows the early signs of pushing beyond the tight strictures of earlier forms. The Dvorak comes from the other end of the century, and makes a point of turning its back on the classicism of earlier times, and is in itself far more programmatic, original (not a value judgement), and idiomatic to Dvorak and contemporary thought. Then, of course, the huge difference between the public spectacle of Romantic opera, those grand opera houses and huge, bombastic stories that you’ll find on Pretty Yende’s album, compared to the intimate, intensely personal, private room performances of Schubert (the piano sonata on the Khatia Buniatishvili album is one of the last pieces he wrote, whilst he was fully aware he was dying). One thing that unites all these works is an attempt to escape beyond the measured, formalised structures of the past (Franz Liszt’s quote, “new wine deserves new bottles”) and write music that was true to the individuality of the artist, emotional and programmatic, representing something beyond the notes themselves. This is a subject requiring far more time and space than I have here to properly answer, as all feeds into broader trends of the period, nature, nationalism, virtuosity, the artist as Romantic hero, and the like...

It is hard to decide on what period I am most interested in. The Romantic period is easily one of the most fascinating, just for the sheer philosophical scale of it. Personally, and not sure what this says about me, my two favourite periods to actually listen to, though, would be the Baroque and the Modern.


Here's a very very juvenile question. As a PhD researcher, I have learned that most academics survive on classical music to get through their days. While reading endless research papers, referencing and citing, classical music is a saviour. What genre of classical music would you recommend for say: focus; desperation; inspiration; rage. 


This isn’t a juvenile question at all. Just by virtue of containing a lot of quiet, intimate, non-verbal music, the classical genre is often being used just as you say. I do it myself. In the event I don’t have to listen to something specially for work, I will always put on certain classical pieces or albums that I know can just sit there in the background without disturbing too much (a lot of Bach on piano).  With regards to recommending whole genres for particular moods, that may be a tad too hard. Individual works or bits of music, yes, but genres or even single composers or single larger works will contain every facet of life within.


Focus: Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Desperation: The last movement (movement IV.) of Mahler Symphony No. 9

Inspiration: François Couperin’s ‘Les Barrricades Mystérieuses’

Rage: The last movement (movement III.) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata.”

Record Geijutsu
Record Geijutsu

I know you were featured in a Japanese magazine some time ago. What was that about?


The prestigious Japanese classical record magazine ‘Record Geijutsu’ (Art of Recorded Music) ran a cover feature in June 2021 about the idea of the ‘concept album’ in classical music, which was a privilege to be asked to be a part of. Rather than write out again here what a concept album is, it’s probably more interesting to just include the an excerpt from that article here:


“Nearly every classical album is a concept album to some degree. The moment an artist combines musical works that were not originally composed or designed to be heard together into one album, the artist is framing their own concept; inviting comparison and connection between the works, whether that is in purely musical terms or some extra-musical meaning. Even seemingly straightforward and conservative albums, such as ‘Schubert Lieder’ or ‘Bach Keyboard Works’, present a concept. Why were these particular works chosen? Why in this order? What is the artist trying to say here? 

Of course, not all concepts are particularly interesting or revelatory, and some concepts have been done so often we may take them for granted and forget that there was originally a concept there in the first place. When we speak of concept albums, we tend to speak of those with particularly original, complex, unexpected, or high-minded ideas, in which the artist is able to convey a meaning or idea in their musical programme greater and beyond that contained in any of the individual works it includes. It is in this that one finds the great appeal of concept albums. The new, the original, classical music made fresh. 

The art of classical performance is one of interpretation, an artist interpreting music that likely existed before they were born and will continue to exist after they have gone. The artist has to breathe new life into these works that have been heard and recorded hundreds of times before, and the artist is generally confined to the boundaries of the existing printed score. And we as the listener have a constant hunger to hear this music in new and exciting ways. The concept album allows the artist to give that extra meaning to their music making, to make this existing and well-known music say something different, to give different perspectives on even the most well-known tunes, even if the performance itself hasn’t necessarily changed. Furthermore, it allows far more scope for the artist/performer to present their own voice and artistic character to a much greater degree, rather than relying solely on the narratives and structures of existing forms, be it existing song or piano cycles, symphonies, or even opera. The artist is freed to tell their own story, create their own narrative, sculpt shapes and dynamics of their own across the artistic medium that is the recorded album. 

Furthermore, the concept album reinforces the idea of the recorded album as its own special art-form. The well-made concept album says, “this is not just a random live concert recording put on disc, or two works recorded and stuck together on an album just because they just happen to be in the artist’s repertoire at the time.” It says, “this album has been thought about in detail, designed carefully, sculpted from an artistic vision. This album is an artistic statement entirely in itself.” And I believe the audience truly appreciate that. 


Are you interested in "classical" music from other parts of the world? I have been trained in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam since the age of five. I often think that this has made me appreciate Western classical music more - because I love synchronicity, form and balance. Do you have any cross-cultural influences that have inspired you? 


Unfortunately, I know so little of other cultures’ traditional and classical musics. This is very different to not having any interest, but beyond the headline knowledge of being conscious of what raga and tala are, or the existence of polyrhythmic interplay in the drumming of various African cultures, I would never say I know enough to appreciate beyond the surface enjoyment of letting the waves of sound wash over in a uneducated way.


Do you miss living in the UK? Do you see yourself going back to the island? 


Not at all. If I find myself living there, something has gone wrong…


Finally, are you a purist or are you open to experimenting with classical music? If so, how does one push at the boundaries of classical music without breaking it down and diluting its beauty?  


Absolutely the latter. There is no music without experimentation. A purist approach is death. To all things, not just music. The moment one takes such an approach, the art form is placed in formaldehyde and locked away in a cabinet, a curiosity, a holy relic that has some vague interest only in that it was once living and breathing, once of some importance.

Of course – and I shall stick to classical music here – one can say, “but surely altering the forms, the sounds, the intentions of this beautiful art that has existed centuries also kills it, or robs it of its original meaning?” But what original meaning? Go to the concert hall and listen to fantastic recital of Bach, Mozart, Schubert on the best Steinway grand piano. You won’t come close to hearing how Bach, Mozart or Schubert originally wrote their music. None of these composers would have had, nor be able to conceive of any instrument sounding anything like this modern piano. Not to mention framing these pieces in a public concert hall setting removes any original performance or musical contexts. And our C21st ears, awash with the culture and sounds of a C21st world, doing a fantastic job of killing the rest. One can compare this to viewing a religious Renaissance painting in the foreign land of a modern gallery setting, but at least this painting stays still, is the same paint, the same image. Add to all the above that the Bach you hear in the concert hall will be different each and every time, and it is performed too with C21st hands...

The worst culprit, though, which I hear a lot of in the classical music world is, “I hate when the performer makes it about them, why can’t they just get out the way and let the composer speak.” Or, sometimes found in the form of, “the performer really got to the heart of the composer’s intentions.” How arrogant and ignorant does one have to be to think they can best know and judge the intentions of an artist dead some 300 years?

None of this to say listening to classical music in a concert hall on modern instruments, or streaming it on Spotify through small plastic headphones during the morning commute is not an incredible, worthwhile artistic activity – exposing oneself to an entire universe of expression, in which one can experience an ecstasy of excitement, peace, heartbreak, and everything in between – but let’s not get high-and-mighty about the absolute truths or meanings in any piece of music. This is a temporal art, and a piece of music only exists as long as one is listening to it being performed, and only the version of that particular performer at that particular time. The same for recordings. There is no single Bach Goldberg Variations. There are as many different Bach Goldberg Variations as there are performances of it.

Of course, one may prefer one over others. Maybe one performance goes too far from what one considers their hypothetical ‘ideal Goldberg Variations.’ Maybe another goes crazily far from the expected, but is considered exciting, full of life, makes one hear the music like never before.

This is a very long-winded way of saying being a purist not only kills whatever art form it is trying to protect, but what exactly are the purists protecting? What is pure? Their own, narrow, individualistic view of which style of performance they like best, masked as some great received wisdom? Fuck all of that. Tradition and cultural practices passed down in classical music are all well and good, and should even be respected for what they are, but not when they shut down everything else.

How far one can push the boundaries is entirely a matter of taste. Like with all art, one can burn down the reliquary with great thought, skill, and artistic worth – a celebrated, provocative addition to the canon – or one can burn it down so pointlessly and unimaginatively that everyone just shrugs and says, “actually, I preferred the old relics.” I personally don’t think there are boundaries. Nothing is holy. There is only the horrible cliché of ‘good music’ and ‘bad music.’ ‘Good art’ and ‘bad art.’ And that is entirely subjective to each of us. I would happily produce an album of someone farting all the arias in La Traviata if (a) I thought it was good art, and (b) I thought enough people would agree with me that it would sell.

Unfortunately the classical music world is still a rather conservative one, and I work for a commercial entity, so the selling part is always a hurdle to how far one can truly experiment, but one can make the case for things changing for the better. Streaming and easy, immediate digital access means new audiences find classical music, without having to make the leaps of faith of paying money (often a lot) to attend a concert or buy a record unheard. A lot of these newer audience won’t have the same hang-ups of what is and isn’t acceptable that often comes with a classical education. Add to this, the near-entirety of recorded music is available to hear online at just a few clicks. There are hundreds, if not thousands of recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Why make another? Who wants to listen to the same old stuff? What artist wants to make the same old stuff? This is where being a producer comes in, because if an artist wants to record the Goldberg Variations, or make an album about Venice, they will need to have something new to say. Otherwise what is the point? How experimental that new thing is can be 5% or 50%, but make it new.

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