This interesting chat with Italian composer and performer Alessandro Bosetti came after listening to his recent release, “Plane/Talea” (released by Holidays Records), reflecting his interest in vocal polyphonic music in his own words. Let’s check why.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi, Alessandro! How are you?
Alessandro Bosetti: Hi there. Doing good, thank you. Happy times. How about yourself?
Chain D.L.K.: I’m feeling fine, thanks! Even though I guess some readers of our zine may know your name and your art, could you introduce yourself? How did you get closer to music in your very early stages?
Alessandro Bosetti: I am an Italian composer and sound artist, balancing my way between speech and music. I had been living in Berlin since 2000, and now I am based in Marseille in the south of France since 2014. I have no idea how I got close to music early on. I just did, but somehow there’s been a glitch in the process of identification of what is musical and what is speech; the two fields stayed anchored to each other and never really separated. Very important figures, quite early, have been Steve Lacy, the improviser and the composer attentive to poetry and text. Luc Ferrari, Robert Ashley, Italian pop from the 70’s, lot of modern jazz and a lot of literature, and a quite early discovery of sound poetry and related experiments – Henry Chopin, Arrigo Lora Totino, Luciano Berio’s Laborintus 2 etc. I have been a saxophone player from the 90’s and left the instrumental practice in favor of composing and performing in non-saxophone settings from circa mid 2000’s.
Radio-space has been my favorite and utopian playground for the past 15 years, and most of my pieces are experimental hörspiels, even if they are probably way more abstract than what most people have in mind while thinking of a “radio-play”. There’s a constant ambiguity in regards to what is intimate and what is distant, what is live and what is recorded, and most of all, on whether they should be listened to in a “linguistic” mode, hence paying attention to meaning, or a “musical” mode where meaning plays no role. However, I do perform live a lot and conceive pieces for the stage.
Chain D.L.K.: Voice and language had a primary role in your sonic research. Just out of curiosity, what was the spark for such an interest? Your voice or someone else’s?
Alessandro Bosetti: I receive this question a lot, and for a change I will answer in regards to what is meaningful about voice and language for me right now, and not about the past, which was a while ago; I am not that young anymore.
I think that in our time, there’s a huge tension between language and music and, similarly, between meaning and voice. It’s a catastrophic split, and we have to pay attention to it on every level.
Voice and language are not exactly the same thing: while language is heavily colonized by power, technology and by a surplus of meaning, voice stands as an enigmatic vanishing point where the subjectivity and life can take shelter and find some room in order to exist.
I am especially interested in how voices can exist together, even communally and polyphonically in the sound-space, and behave as living entities, and how ultimately such behaviors come to terms with language and meaning (or not). I try to look at this type of “life and subjectivity” from the perspective of the voice, and in this sense all my pieces are reflections on such possible communities of being, especially so with Plane/Talea. Translations, misunderstandings, counterpoint, speech, prosody are all tools that come in handy in the process. Many composers have treated musical objects as “characters” or living entities; someone like Elliott Carter (not exactly my favourite composer), has developed many pieces out of this principle, and most recently I can find this type of obsession in the most favorite work of Rashad Becker, Hannah Hartman, Sebastien Roux or Marcus Schmickler.
Michel Chion and Mladen Dolar have famously shown that “ultimately there’s no such thing as an deacousmatization of the voice” in the sense that, even if we can clearly see the mouth of the person whose voice we are listening to, we still do not know where that voice comes from. Saying that it comes from “inside the body” is not enough, as there isn’t a complete correspondence between voices and bodies; most times, they don’t exactly match.
In that sense, I see voice as an ultimate locus for where to look for the subject. A subject that is detached from politics, technology and from the body itself, and therefore even more interesting from political, technological and existential perspectives.
Chain D.L.K.: How did this search change the way you perceived your own voice over the years?
Alessandro Bosetti: I didn’t know I had a voice (or that I was a voice), and now I know it… but don’t take me wrong, I am no singer, never really trained my voice; I just happen to have one and I try to use it in a personal way. I try to take care of it, to give it space, to free it. It’s not easy, though.
Chain D.L.K.: You made plenty of really interesting voice-driven works… In this specific historical period, your “Children’s America” could come to mind… Can you tell me something more about that nice project? How would it differ from contemporary America?
Alessandro Bosetti: Well, talking of voices and bodies not matching anymore… The piece is from 2009, and all these kids are way older now; some are even starting college, so definitely their voices have changed. Children’s America sonically depicts a dystopian USA solely inhabited and governed by children, and once again creates an imaginary community which plays out on the level of the voice. I am no political theorist, anthropologist or philosopher, and I have no idea how this could help with making things better. I am an artist and I function along that logic (if any). For sure, that piece feels extremely poignant today as we are forced to look and listen to such a terrifying split between the body and the voice of the US (if you allow me the metaphor). They just don’t match.
Chain D.L.K.: If I remember well, you made a sort of reinterpretation of some outputs by Italian composer Gesualdo. A pretty unknown one to Italians as well… How did you discover his compositions?
Alessandro Bosetti: Gesualdo Translation is a piece from 2017 that has been recently re-issued in a box-set collection of radio pieces titled “Stille Post” and published by Bolt/Monotype records.
Gesualdo’s music is just sublime, and you bump into this figure as soon as you take an interest in Italian early music, early 1600s. That is another culturally cataclysmic time with a huge tension between language and music that needed to be addressed. I think this tension participated in a larger clash between magic and scientific thinking that played out in the renaissance and early baroque times.
On one side, at the beginning of 17th century you have, with Monteverdi and Caccini, the sparkling birth of melodrama and opera, indeed a major wrestle between language and music; but on the other side, each and every one of these composers dealt with vocal polyphony, sacred and mundane – in particular Madrigals – and that’s where you bump into Gesualdo.
In “Gesualdo Translations” I reconstructed several madrigals from Carlo Gesualdo’s sixth book through the voices of many chance-encountered persons I found in Napoli – the city where he used to live – and who were asked to sing individual lines from these compositions, although they were completely unprepared to do so.
Madrigals are vocal pieces of music where a group of unaccompanied voices are intertwined together to musically illustrate a text, all voices independent from each other, all saying something meaningful musically and semantically, all harmonizing with each other (or conflicting, for that matter). Moreover, I find it very interesting that madrigals were often sung in private, in the sense that singers and the audience were the same persons. They raise some interesting questions regarding co-existence: To which should we listen to? Are we able to embrace all voices at the same time? How is it that such a tangle could be of such extreme beauty?
Chain D.L.K.: Another amazing output you made, I remember, is “Alpine Flip-books”, where you made a sort of vocal collage of repeated common words related to mountains by using five minor languages of that geographical area. Like other releases, you focused on somehow exotic languages. Is there any language you particularly love? If so, why?
Alessandro Bosetti: No, every language can be beautiful (or unpleasant) in its own right; I do not have a favorite one. And what’s exotic for me may not be exotic for someone else. Each mother language is neither beautiful nor ugly for the speaker; it’s a given, a true world. That’s a pretty basic consideration always worth repeating.
In “Alpine Flip-books” I observed how slight variations in words along a landscape created interesting rhythmic and musical effects. The same word for “house”, for example, may sound slightly different in a village, even more different in a village a few miles away, and so on. What if you could listen to all such slight variations in a row? That’s the core of the piece, and indeed, that difference is the very sonification of a linguistic landscape.
Chain D.L.K.: You managed to find a sort of inner music or rhythm in the languages you focused on. Is there any language whose sound is impossible to run into something musical, in your opinion?
Alessandro Bosetti: To answer this question, you should own a precise and normative idea of what is “musical” and what isn’t. Luckily, I don’t.
What is really interesting is that to operate musically – whatever that means – on every material there are endless techniques and solutions, from Monteverdi to Trevor Wishart via Leoš Janácek; the musical genius has given us so many brilliant examples of ways to wrap around the “language” object.
Going back to your question, I do not want to sound too much like a hard core experimentalist – of course there are sounds and combinations of sounds which I find more pleasant than others, and I do not want to force myself or other people to listen to unpleasant stuff just because the idea of what is “musical” has to be militantly deconstructed. Still, I know and I take very seriously that there are shifts and changes, really deep and meaningful ones, that may even happen in times shorter that a lifetime. Each time I look at a language as a musical material I know that what I find musical in it is not a “truth” in a general sense, but at the same time, that is the only fixed point I can use as a fulcrum for aesthetic leverage. I know that there’s no foundation whatsoever, and still, like the Baron of Munchausen, I can pull myself out of the swamp just by pulling my own hair (I do not have that much hair, though).
Chain D.L.K.: You also developed an app for your art, called MaskMirror. Can you explain it to our readers? How did it enhance your activity?
Alessandro Bosetti: MaskMirror is an instrument which reorganizes many semantic and vocal particles – thousands of tiny recordings of my voice – in order to interrupt, interpolate and interfere with a flow of consciousness I enact on stage. Unlike Plane/Talea, most of these are fragments.
I have a keyboard in which each key corresponds to a linguistic category; for example, there’s a key for verbs, and each time I press that key a recorded version of my voice pronounces a verb chosen by chance; I never know what verb that will be, but I know it’ll be a verb. In the latest version of the instrument, there are roughly 90 such categories.
The flow of consciousness is always completely free and unplanned; I just start talking about whatever crosses my mind in that moment, no matter how trivial. And as in other pieces of mine, like “The Pool and the Soup”, that plays out on a sort of continuum between music and speech with no clear border-crossing.
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s speak of your last release “Plane/Talea”… Why such a title?
Alessandro Bosetti: No idea where it came from. Sometimes my relation to language comes to that.
Chain D.L.K.: Regarding how you treat all those vocal fragments, would you prefer to say you organized them, or you let them flow chaotically?
Alessandro Bosetti: I can organize them, but just in very limited ways: speed, volume, regularity/irregularity (following a certain order or jumping around chaotically) and range (choosing a limited amount in every set of fragments). That’s it. It reminds me of the gesture of spinning some wheels, or that of throwing confetti in the air. There’s no sound processing at all, just recombination.
Chain D.L.K.: Besides your own voice, what were the other sources?
Alessandro Bosetti: There are many other voices. Lately I’ve asked people to “donate” a few hundred extremely tiny fragments of their voices, as if I were making a portrait of each voice by extracting some of its genetic material. I know whose voices they are, but it’s not important for the listener to know. Finally, they exist in the piece simple as voice-beings; I used to call them with letters, just for convenience, A, B, C, C1 C2, etc. …
Plane/Talea is also an instrument and not only a series of pieces, as it’s made up of a growing pool of voice-fragments that I can organize differently each time. Sometimes I interact with the audience in possible arrangements; some other times I insert a real-person choir whose instructions are triggered by the same “wheels of fate” that run the inner engine of the instrument.
It’s a growing pool of voice fragments, so if anyone reading this interview is interested in donating bits of her/his voice, please let me know. I am interested in all sort of voices, trained and untrained!
I see it as a growing series of situations – I am working on a radiophonic version for Radio Savvy at Documenta 14 where each day for a month, different guests could immerse themselves into a universe just made of voices, and will explore possibilities of affecting such a universe.
Chain D.L.K.: How does “Plane/Talea” differ from your previous releases?
Alessandro Bosetti: There’s no intelligible language this time. And yet, it’s all voices and all on the verge of speech, ready to pop. I really appreciated how Stefano Rossi of Holidays Records had no doubts in conceiving his beautiful cover design as a strictly typographical affair.
Chain D.L.K.: A flash from the 80s around the seventh minute on Side B… That sound you matched to different kinds of human meowing… It reminded me of a sort of whisper children can find as a gift in the chips… Am I right? 🙂
Alessandro Bosetti: Ah! I have no idea what you are talking about 🙂 But I would love to hear if you ever manage to come across one of these whispers or a recording of it!!
Chain D.L.K.: Any other bizarre entity that is hard to recognize in “Plane/Talea”?
Alessandro Bosetti: There are a few environmental recordings that are placed in there just as rudimentary screens or background to give a sense of perspective. And a vacuum cleaner.
Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?
Alessandro Bosetti: Beside Plane/Talea, there’s an ongoing composition called Journal De Bord/Diario di Bordo that will probably keep me busy for over a year. Journal De Bord is basically an opera or monodrama.
It’s based on a journal written by my mother in 1978 at the time of her separation from the family, and of a long sailing trip on the Atlantic Ocean. This journal is my libretto and amounts to quite a lot of text, which I’ll be restituting (or appropriating, if you like) entirely. Once again, it’s an attempt at channeling existence through voices in an autobiographical and, at the same time, calligraphic work very much connected with the city where I live. Because it’s the main object of a very tight and precious collaboration with the GMEM – National Center of Musical Creation here in Marseille, and because the sea is just a few meters away.
It will have a pre-premiere in May 2017, and a full premiere in 2018 with Kenta Nagai on guitar, Carol Robinson and Laurent Bruttin on clarinets, Alex Babel on percussion, the electronics of Charles Bascou, me on voice and the live typographic work of Alaric Garnier.
visit Alessandro Bosetti on the web at: www.melgun.net