Describing himself as an imaginative kid, Nicolas Maldonado would spend his childhood days crafting make-shift wooden swords and shields, living out his Legend of Zelda fantasies and pretending to be in his favourite shows and games. His love for drawing and creating his own toys led him to think that ‘designing bridges or buildings would be fulfilling to [him].’ Besides drawing, which was his earliest passion, Nicolas started playing the saxophone around the age of ten – a hobby that led him down a musical path, which he is still on today.
When it comes to his background, Nicolas feels his father’s side as the traditional, warm connection to nature and vibrancy that ‘emanates from Mexico,’ and from his mother’s side he feels the strength and sense of determination that she herself found necessary to survive and grow in East LA during the 70s. “Both of those cultures stem from Mexico but each has its unique shades and colours. East LA Chicano culture is a very, very specific thing and I am very proud of having those roots.”
Growing up, and following his passion for music, Nicolas attended the University of California, Irvine for a BFA in Jazz studies and then CalArts for an MFA in their Composer-Performer program. “I loved both experiences,” he says. When reflecting on his university years, he realises he has been fortunate enough to be in programs that were very open and flexible and allowed him to find his own path as an artist. “My time at CalArts were two of the best developmental years I have ever had. I attribute this to the intensity and diversity of the art being explored at the school. CalArts showed me that I can be myself to the Nth degree.” There, he ended up creating many lifelong relationships with artists from all over the world, with whom he explored everything from lighting design to Indian ragas.
The Covid-19 pandemic was a shapeshifting time for Nicolas. “Live music had stopped, no rehearsals, no way to play with or for people. Scoring visual media seemed like a very fulfilling way to connect with people through music, so I set off on trying to find opportunities and build my portfolio.” This pivot led him to a mentorship opportunity through Movtogether, which introduced him to Syn. His career path to this point was winding – he started working at around the age of fifteen, cleaning horse stalls. And, his job after college was working at a music store repairing woodwind instruments. “I would say that was probably my first foray into the ‘official’ work of music.”
After a few sharp turns and a lot of lessons along the way, Nicolas is keen to admit that he hones his craft everywhere and all of the time! “There is no succession of practice, learning, or integration.” After years of playing music in tiny dive bars, concert stages and rehearsing in friends’ houses, he realises that all of these experiences essentially moulded him into the artist he is today.
However, the current most prominent lesson for him, is that ‘one must absolutely be centred in order to keep afloat’ – he always makes sure to start his day from a centred position and keep that centre throughout the day. “I learned that when I am lax on this, the days can be blurry and I am pulled in many directions, especially since all of my work is from home.” Indeed, many of us have found that finding your balance and sticking to it can be quite helpful in the dreary times of the pandemic, especially when the days meld together and dampen creativity.
When thinking back to his first professional project, Nicolas remembers recording with his first jazz chamber group, Glass Bead. With fond memories, he tells the story of working with a great group of friends and artists, that really helped shape and bring his music to life: “The pieces that came out of this session also helped spur me in the direction of scoring for picture. One of my mentors encouraged me to explore scoring because he heard and felt that the melodies and textures I was writing would translate well into that context.”
The most fulfilling part of this project for him was working in a large group of people within a jazz context, which helped him explore different possibilities – coincidentally, artistic collaboration is one of his favourite things about his job. On the flip side, the most challenging aspect of it is finding words that express the very intangible feelings that art evokes in people. “My ‘bright sound’ can sound too dark for another. Sometimes clients may not be well versed in the language of music so you have to find ways to communicate specific ideas in a more universally understood manner.”
In terms of the broader state of the industry, Nicolas, like many others that have spent time working as a for-hire musician, the volatility and lack of standardised pay for working musicians he finds demoralising and damaging. Being paid 50 bucks per gig or even worse, being paid in ‘exposure and experience’ to him creates a very unhealthy environment for artists. This, and the fact that artists are not simply ‘content makers’ that churn out their art is what really gets him riled up.
Nicolas says: “Art is a sacred form of human expression that we need in our lives.” And this is why, to him, both audiences and artists need to stay mindful of the beauty of those they work with, so that we can evolve in a positive direction and really create a supportive community in all ways.
‘Honesty,’ he simply responds when asked what he aims to achieve with his work, ‘to myself and whatever I am writing for.’ Influence is hard to keep away from, but going back to that centre and remaining true to his own aesthetic values always serves his work well. The all-consuming nature of his craft has made him aware and grateful for performing, working and telling stories. This is why, when listening to his father’s advice, which - like many other fathers’ advice is: ‘do what makes you happy’ - he feels that even though there’s a constant change in the definitions of ‘happiness’ and ‘me’, he always finds himself making art. Not only art, but the authentic, personal form of art that only somebody who is deeply passionate about what they do is capable of: “For me, everything is music!”