Systems of interaction between acoustic and electronic music are the base on which the Twentieth century’s musical performance developed and grew. It is possible to find live electronic, namely performative, tracks, since the very beginning of experimental-contemporary music. In some cases even some of the very early works of electronic music, as Maderna’s Musica su due dimensioni (Music on two dimensions, 1958), are filed among the so-called live-electronic compositions, marking by using this term the performance aspect that used to conciliate the writing for an acoustic instrument with the magnetic tape during the live execution.
However, the actual turning-point happened when systems of real-time control where introduced by the Freiburg bureau and through the invention of computers or calculators, the first ones to be capable of managing instruments’ acoustic emissions and the electronic processing, thank to the fact that the time of analysis and possibility of intervention coincides with the time for sampling, this latter being necessary to structure the speakers’ location in the room.
The evolution of the performance phase increasingly led towards a research on sound and on the continuity between real and virtual, moving away from the aesthetics of pure sounds of the oscillators and from sounds/noises recorded in already hyper-characterized environments. The attention paid to the contextual aspect of performances, where sound can develop within space and generate experiences and emotions, became the key to attempt tackling an aesthetic discourse which would had conceived the relationship between composer, audience and location something, each time, in a process of definition.
We tried to dig deeper in this interweave of relations between composition, sound landscape, environmental sounds, photosouds and emotional relations of listening with Matteo Pennese, composer and performer focused on developing systems for live-electronic, especially with Max Msp, and most of all on new ways of interacting with the environment through new hardware and software devices, such as Arduino.
Simone Broglia: I would like to begin this interview asking you what you mean by sound landscape…
Matteo Pennese: Listening to sounds means to experience the environment they ‘inhabit’. And the emotional quality of that has extraordinary emotional repercussions on the act of listening, in the actual sense of drawing outside of the ‘ordinary’. But I also believe that the matter is not merely about listening to “the world’s soundgraph”, quoting a good definition from Shafer. A place’s very architecture entails emotional falloffs, either if they might be somehow marked by the defined role of the performative space (think about classical concert halls), or if they might concretize in environments for listening completely defined by chance.
Sound does therefore change, since the refraction/reverberation cavities differ, but also because the listener himself is not immune to the influences caused by the location, not only because of the architecture but also because of its destination of use, evoked by the space itself. Being more clear, it is hard to spot someone silently wandering around a classical concert hall while listening to the musical execution.
Such attitude, responding to the unwritten rules the location defines, is a behavior that is commonly deprecated and muted, rather than being tolerated. As well as it seems equally hard not to think that the act of listening, operated inside a small dark room, would,t be characterized not only by the dry reverberation but also by the experience of being closed inside a claustrophobically environment.
This to explain that our auditive strolling is led and solicited by a sum of conditions of social, psychological, phenomenal possibilities the environment defines. Such entanglement represents, for me, the “sound landscape”. Gernot Böhme ‘aesthetics of atmospheres’ represent efficaciously such sound-dust inhabiting the corners. We negotiate we the environment that surrounds us, thus the experience of listening becomes the same modification of the space experienced by the body.
The body, in its absolute and nietzschesque definition of ‘Leib’, prevails over consciousness. As pointed out by Böhme ‘ music forms and informs the listener’s perception of self within a space’; it directly involves his corporal economy’.
Simone Broglia:The elements that constitute the sound landscape and characterize it emerge clearly from the text and from the research concerning Shafer’s book : tonics, sound signals, sound prints. Do these three elements suffice to trace the main lines of a sound landscape in your opinion?
Matteo Pennese: Paraphrasing the answer I gave to the previous question, I would say no, the do not suffice. It seems to me that a sort of laboratory neutrality transpires, leaving aside what regards more specifically Shafer’s text: the theoretical pendulum oscillates between the sounds of the world that surround us and we passively perceive and between their symbolic interpretations. The main point relies, however, in my opinion, in what is between these two extremes of the oscillation: how our body is changed by the sound and how we are surprised. The process is consequently inverted: it’s the changed body that defines the landscape, it is a consequence of it, and is not presupposed by the change itself.
Simone Broglia:Is there a mode of interaction of the surroundings, beyond the acoustic, given by sound?
Matteo Pennese:Absolutely, and it is not necessarily explicit. Going back again to Böhme, the acoustic atmospheres, and hence the experience of the event of sound itself, are situated in liminal and ambiguous territories, that lie between human sensibility and qualities do the surroundings. Active listening should create new perceptions which are confusing for our being in its totality
Simone Broglia: What do you think about the theories regarding photo-music and photo-sounds by Riccardo Piacentini?
Matteo Pennese: It undoubtedly comes from instances which are present in our times and towards which composers definitely must have some sort of opinion. I wouldn’t be able to say much more to this, a part from listening to their creations and give my personal opinion. Theories, when I feel that these are coordinated upon a system of concrete elaboration, interest me always less. And the curiosity of listening the outcome increases, and this outcome is the only thing that musicians have to prove to be able to give. How one gets there doesn’t matter, in the end. If I may, I dare say that the risk is that environmental sounds (which are the initial starting point of the photo-composer) are treated with too much indulgence..
Simone Broglia: Do you know anything about what happened with the World Soundscape Project?
Matteo Pennese: That project (indeed founded by Shafer) consequences’s range is so wide that reaches us, thus testifying the worth of its intuitions. However, I was never personally really touched by the substance of such project; It has always given me the feelling that all contents were like wrapped in an aura of subjectivity which wasn’t adequate to the autocratic tone used to expose them. I think the time is gone.
Simone Broglia: Which possibilities can instruments capable of creating virtual sound landscape disclose and what sort of relation does arise from the relationship between the virtual and the ‘reality’ aspects within a piece?
Matteo Pennese: The issue about virtuality/reality never interested me at all when – I point out – applied to music. I do totally agree with Jankélévitch when he states that “Music will have earned its own specific meaning and even its metaphysics, only at the end of games, since whilst they’re still happening you can never describe their actual aims incontrovertibly. […] The meaning of music only allows to be defined retrospectively: music means something only in the future tense!” (la musica e l’ineffabile).
So, the landscape hypnotized before music’s intervention are totally virtual… and it doesn’t matter much wether sounds come out of instruments or loudspeakers, at the point that the latter have now the right to be considered instruments on the same level of the traditional ones. The in-lab built sound, created through sound synthesis techniques and that doesn’t exist in nature, is actually very real to the listener. This is, as a point of fact, what interests a musician: the concrete sound matter’s expression, whichever its nature is.
So for me a sound landscape is concreted moment by moment by the body transformed by the experience of listening, as I said. We’re not talking about a context we consciously enter being completely aware of its characteristics.
Then, if on the top of that the musician is also actively responsible for the location’s architecture, which defines a determined refraction and embodies or excludes all of some ‘parasitic’ noises belonging to that particular location, well, that goes by itself, but I would not, personally, assign the definition of ‘soundscape’ to that. Simple data, that’s what it is, to be kept in consideration whilst building one’s own music compositions. This does obviously not exclude that such ‘data’ might assume, within some compositions, a consistent structural weight.
Simone Broglia: A number of your works is based on sensors. I remember, for instance, The sad sink at Elektronica 2008. Would you ike to talk about that project?
Matteo Pennese: It was inspired by the an exhibition I saw in Basel, presenting works of the american visual artist Robert Gober ( the series of ‘sinks’ represents some of his most famous works). It was striking. The title The sad sink comes directly from one of his sculptures and I thought it was so beautiful and evocative, as it is this quote by Gober himself: […] What do you do when you stand in front of a sink? You clean yourself. I seemed to be obsessed with making objects that embodied that broken promise. […] (Robert Gober).
That altogether fueled the conception of a show where I could had been integrating a prop which would have functioned both as a quasi-totemic object and a sort of imaginary centre around which the other elements orbited (music, video and poetry – a series of recorded haiku by Matsuo Matsu Basho and Jack Kerouak that beated the distinction between sections).
Also, I was beginning to work on microprocessor Arduino, therefore I considered that as the right occasion for experimenting on stage. Sculptor Antonella Bersani created a beautiful work made out basiclly of porcelain – The large glass with porcelains, or the bride stripped bared by her bachelors, also – inside which the Arduino, with its position sensors was put.
During the show – which was hence very much characterized by a visual component both for the presence of the sculpture that during the projection of short videos – there were interludes in which one of the musicians ( me and Walter Prati and Xabier Iriondo) would stood up and stroll around the sculpture. With such movement a sensor activated some fragments of old tape recordings of Ferdinand Céline singing songs. That act was raised from the silence, since in those moments everything stopped and the sculpture emerged in its solitude, crossed by a shadow.
Simone Broglia:You use Arduino: could you tell us why the use of this tool became so important? Meaning, is there an ideal adhesion to open source or is it mainly used because of the option of having a modifiable code, adaptable to any kind of work?
Matteo Pennese: For those who have the passion, curiosity and natural tendency to experiment the so-called physical computing, Arduino represents one of the best existing platforms. It has very little cost, a vast community and moreover it is an open source project. Basically anyone is allowed to download the electric circuits and build his own microprocessor. The programming area is rather user friendly, it is a multi-platform and allows to interface the microprocessor with the main softwares used for artistic performances, either commercial or free projects.
However there isn’t by my side an ideological adhesion to a free software/hardware world. I surely glance at with favor and interest, but in the end my task is to create art and the mean that secures a fair compromise between ductility, costs and effectiveness can be a free project as well as one deriving from a commercial environment. These latter often have a well-structured documentation, a technical support that is effective and a user interface that fixes quite a number of optimization problems, especially when applied for live performances. For those reasons I prefer to use, for instance, MaxMsp, a commercialized software, rather tham its free step-brother PureData. At an equal level of efficiency, I prefer choosing the mean that passes from a shorter route to achieve the same result.
Simone Broglia: What is entailed, on the level of perception, by the multilayered, somewhat cynesthetical, involvement of the spectator?
Matteo Pennese: I don’t believe there is a substantial consequence. Layers are ambiguous, diversely multiple, actionable independently from the number of the means involved. Getting back to the aesthetic of atmospheres I’d say: ‘experiencing’ has subliminal, blurred outlines, as we said before. Switching from one to another one of a different type can nevertheless have shocking consequences for our consciousness.
I do not pursue the aim to outline a perceptional journey for the hypothetical listener/spectator. What I do actually believe is that the real dare for art is to recreate passages for the absolute zero; give back to experience the ability to operate an ecstatic hold. There is still space for what Canetti used to call ” love for the inner metamorphosis, for the unceasing becoming of the most diverse passions, [which] will allow us to then finally listen to world’s multiplicity?”. That’s still an open question, as far as I am concerned.
Simone Broglia: Have you ever begun developing a composition starting from the emotional peculiarities arisen by being in that particular soundscape?
Matteo Pennese: I do instinctively answer no, although I’m aware of the fact that shreds of things I might listen to, surely do have some sort of influence in activating the growth in me of musical imaginations. However, the very first step is the one I always find myself doing into an ‘aseptic’ situation, if you want; free from already auditory concreted influences. Two souls cohabit inside me, both requiring attention. On one side the immediacy, the amazement caused by the execution itself, by the sound growing within and from your body. On the other, the discipline of the phase of writing, that requires and develops the analysis of applied or potentially applicable operating procedures.
Simone Broglia: In your EP titled Eisverhau you develop a strong continuity between the electronic sound and the acoustic one through a trumpet and a bandeon. If this has an aim, it would be to rediscover and investigate an actual continuity in sound, or to highlight the encounter between these distant worlds?
Matteo Pennese:There is no aim; it’s about building a sound mechanism which the two souls I just mentioned well represent. There is no interruption between ‘natural’ and electronic sound, for me. These two natures contaminate each other bindingly.
For me, working on live-electronic, identifies with the process of building from scratch proper of sound processing techniques, of performance environment and the interfacing with the performer, that being me. Therefore, there is an initial work of analysis and research, which might seem tedious at first, as the sight of an algorithm could be. But then all this is introduced in the living stream of the execution and consequently activated by the bare, unsettled blow of the performance act. Building communicating vessels for this short circuit is anything but easy.
Simone Broglia:This matching through live electronics is enacted again in one of your recent compositions: Decisamente drappi bianchi made for Demetrio Stratos. How did you developed this piece?
Matteo Pennese: There was first of all one rule to obey to. It was necessary to use some sound fragments of Demetrio Stratos compositions, even though then the acoustic intervention on them could be operated totally arbitrarily. I have rather chosen to maintain their identity by immersing them into ‘noisy’ grain electronic flux, in the sense that the sound sources were noise-generators then variously processed. Following this direction I took advantage of all the emotional power of Demetrio Stratos’ voice, without almost even intervening on it.
To this we added the cornet part I play and process as well through the computer. The peculiarity consists in the choice to completely hinder to the listener the natural sound of an instrument. Which sound, therefore, not being representing a differentiated level from the underlying electronic, as often happens instead, in these kind of cases where the acoustic instrument gains a sort of gravitational role.
This mean thus acted as a hidden sound-source, the audible outcome of which consisted in its processing and not in its source. To endorse that choice, I had applied a sound damper on the instrument, that made the sound of the brass very feeble and in reality almost impossible to be heard by the public. That caused a rather peculiar distancing effect.
All the typical movements characterizing the execution could be observed: the usual positioning of the instrument, movement of the piston, the swelling on the neck during the inflation. But the musical outcome, as a familiar entity in its well-defined tone identity, was completely absent. Basically, the cornet was silent, even though it actually was not. That recalled me a quote from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy I really love: “ To restore silence is the role of objects”.