Susanna Persichilli interview with Luigi Ceccarelli
published on n. 39 (January / February 2001) of the magazine “I Fiati”
How did you get into electronics?
My musical studies were very special. I graduated, at nineteen, in industrial electronics; up to that age I had been a drummer in a rock band and I didn’t have very clear ideas about what I would do when I grew up, but I really liked being a musician. With these two professionals I enrolled in the Conservatory in the electronic music class, without knowing anything about written music. In 1973 electronic music had just entered the Conservatory and there was a need for new students interested in the subject, so I had no difficulty in being admitted; today this would be impossible because M.E. has become a high school and requires another conservatory degree to enroll. So I had to study solfeggio and composition at the same time; even if I didn’t know musical writing I obviously had the right “maturity” to be a composer. After three years I had reached the level of the other students, but with a technical background in electroacoustics far superior to any other musician who came from the Conservatory.
In your music, however, there are often references to the past, to Gregorian, for example. Why this return to the ancient by a composer who begins to take an interest in rocker electronics?
Because everything we do today is still tied to the past. I think that music, like all arts, must be a synthesis between present, past and future.
Why Gregorian and not the 18th-19th century tradition?
The first reason is that an artist with creative pretensions must necessarily go against the recent past. It always happens, in every moment of history: young people go against their parents, but they tend to reevaluate their grandparents. In aesthetics, but also in everyday life, this happens because to affirm a new and different idea you have to go against the dominant one; and then, wanting to recover history, he draws on the distant past.
The second reason is that for me a recovery of the sound dimension not affected by harmony is absolutely necessary. I think this is the main reason that forces me to detach myself from traditional music.
When I composed La guerra dei discs, for example, a piece inspired by the sounds and the world of rock music, taken from a novel by Stefano Benni, I discovered that what I could not use, of rock, were the harmonic cadences (fourth- fifth-first, first-fifth-first), because they immediately brought me back to what represents the banality of rock. Initially it was an unconscious choice, but halfway through the work I realized that avoiding harmony the whole piece worked well.
Have you ever thought of dealing with instrumental music?
Of course when I was a student I wrote several pieces for instruments without electronics including a string quartet and one for sixteen instruments. Then for various reasons, both aesthetic and contingent, I decided to no longer work with instrumental music without electronics. I like to work a lot on sound, and instrumental music doesn’t allow me that; the environment where the concerts are performed, for example, is almost always a negation of the sound dimension.
Working with electronics, on the other hand, I have the possibility to take into greater consideration the sound quality and the acoustics of the environment during a concert, and in the best cases even to modify it; it is a very complicated operation that requires more work, but it is generally worth it. Very often I think it would be easier to make instrumental music, but there is never the guarantee of an overall quality result. There are too many variables that are not controlled. And then my poetry starts in the first place with sound.
It seems to me that the attention to space has changed in recent years …
Yes, it’s true, thanks also to electroacoustic technology, musicians are developing a lot of interest in the space and the sound environment, and this also in a strictly ecological sense. But this can be seen above all outside Italy, where more electroacoustic music is made and where research also in the artistic field is greatly stimulated and financed. In Italy from this point of view we have fallen far behind both in terms of institutions and the environment of musicians in general (sometimes the weight of tradition can be a great brake for the new generations).
Very often contemporary music composers, the most academic ones (yes, there is also an academy for avant-garde music, and it is one of the most unbearable), write notes on paper without any knowledge of the acoustic result, transforming the music in an exclusive creation of signs that has no relation to sounds. Electronics easily leads to overcome this mentality. I use the computer because it allows me to work directly on sounds and not on signs that represent sounds and also very roughly. In the Conservatory even today future composers are not taught the art of sounds but the art of signs.
A very negative cause of this is the almost exclusive and indiscriminate use of the piano in composition classes. The piano is a stupendous machine built for nineteenth and early twentieth century music, conceived to develop harmonic and melodic relationships; but as far as sound quality is concerned, a piano is of no use to us nowadays, especially if it is a vertical.
I believe that the piano is the instrument that has hindered the development of music the most in the last fifty years, and it still continues to do so today … Of course I have nothing against the instrument itself which instead seems beautiful to me, but it is the use that most contemporary musicians do.
Didn’t you compose anything for piano?
In the 80s, inspired by Cage’s music, I wrote two pieces for prepared piano, working on the possible transformations of the timbre.
And then, to demonstrate that my relationship with this instrument is also one of great love, I am creating the music and sound design for a multimedia work conceived together with photographers Roberto Masotti and Silvia Lelli, and with the texts by Mara Cantoni. It is called “Bianco Nero Piano Forte”. It is a work conceived both as an installation and as a CD-Rom, starting from images of the piano strictly without a pianist; these are inspired by short stories, dialogues, poetic verses or comments where the fantastic dimension is intertwined with musical and literary references. The sound setting transforms the piano into a multidimensional instrument, revealing its most original and inner voice and transforms the written words into infinite sounds in dialogue with the instrument.
For now we have created a CD Rom presenting the work that we will soon realize in the form of an installation.
In 1990 I also composed a piece for flute and piano, “Aura in Visibile”, where the piano is never played on the keyboard, indeed, where the pianist almost never touches the instrument and the sound of the flute, by means of a system electromechanical invented by me, it sets the entire tailpiece in vibration.
It seems to me that a composer who deals with electronic music is more actively present on the performance scene …
Sure. With electronics it is possible to control many more parameters of the music, which normally the composer must leave to the instrumental practice. It’s an exciting possibility but also a big limitation, because it takes more time to compose a piece. My instrumental works are composed first on the computer and then transcribed in a traditional score. I am therefore forced to do a double job: first the realization of the piece with the sounds and then the translation for the performer. If we want to make a comparison with the past it is a bit like the music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, first performed on the instrument and then transcribed.
When there was not this rigor of the written paper …
Over time I have gone further and further away from the written sheet and compose directly on the computer.
It is another link with the distant past that we talked about earlier.
Sure. The traditional writing of music has allowed us to create great masterpieces; since the end of the 20th century, however, it has become absolutely inadequate to express the ideas and conceptions of today’s musician.
How is a sound born?
A premise: up to the Eighties electronic music had the claim to create sounds from nothing, that is, directly from machines; however, the variables of the sound are so many that to obtain music that is interesting from an aesthetic point of view, an enormous amount of data must be specified on the computer, and this becomes too long a job, possible for a researcher but not for a musician.
The sounds of my works always start with concrete sounds, because I consider them more interesting from an aesthetic point of view. Not only that, but also and above all because concrete sounds have a “memory”.
After all, making music does not mean so much producing sounds, but above all it means communicating, stimulating the relationship between our memory and the things that are outside of us, among the many sounds that we know and recognize or know only in an unconscious way; and we can do this only through natural sounds that we somehow recognize or at least already have a relationship with the world.
How are these sounds articulated within your composition?
At the beginning of a new composition I never know what will really happen in the end, what the final result will be. It’s like going on a long journey: you know when you leave, but then events and new discoveries lead you to change many of your projects (unless you take an organized trip, which I have always hated).
I don’t think, as it happens in a famous film by Milos Forman about Mozart, that a composer can imagine a whole composition in his mind. If it were this music it would surely be too banal. A musical composition for me must gradually grow over time, working on the sounds step by step, through assumptions, checks, errors, random discoveries, disillusions, illuminations. In short, without a rational logic, but with a constant and unstoppable growth process. In the end, the object is so complex that it cannot be contemplated all “in one go”. And for me too the only way to understand it is to listen to it again every time.
I tend, like many, to always look for new ideas that obviously I don’t know how they sound until they are realized; I have to discover them first. I can’t know what’s going to happen first.
The computer work in this helps me a lot because the possibility of representing sounds in images gives me the possibility to see the whole piece at a glance.
Can you “feel” the piece by looking at it?
This no; the visual representation of the sound given by the computer is however a convention that cannot be translated into auditory sensation, just as any writing of music cannot be instantly translated into sound. A global image of the piece cannot convey the precise sensation of the piece, but it helps me in my work, it is a very useful tool of the trade.
Salvatore Sciarrino, for example, who has a way of composing apparently very far from the world of computers, works on formal schemes that represent his pieces and which he graphically visualizes almost exactly as I visualize them on my computer. These are very interesting schemes that give the global vision of his piece, exactly like I do.
In your music there is a sort of background sound that is perceived only by paying attention to him. What is the reason for this presence?
This discourse refers to the conception of the sound space conceived as an environment that surrounds us and that is always present in my compositions. When I think * of a piece of music, I consider not only the main elements, but also the environment in which the sounds are located. I imagine – to speak very schematically – at least two levels: the main figure and the background. The background is hardly ever perceived clearly, but it helps to create the general atmosphere; the background gives meaning to the image, to the emotional meaning, above all. It is a very important rule of perception.
You have collaborated with many writers. What kind of relationship is established between the author of the lyrics and the musician?
The relationship with writers for me has always been born from the emotion I felt reading their texts, and from the feeling of sharing a world in common with them. The choice of the topic, of the stories, always came at a later time. Then from the operational point of view there has almost never been a close collaboration relationship, basically writing texts and composing sounds are technically very distant professions.
I usually start working when the text is finished, corrections later are only minor things. In many cases I choose a text already done, as in the case of the aforementioned “War of Records”. But even when the text is written with the precise intention of making it into a sound work, such as the texts by Valeri Magrelli, I never thought of discussing in advance, if not in a very generic way, what the text was supposed to represent. It is essential for me not to place any constraints on the writer, as well as that he does not place constraints on me, and for this we need mutual trust. What I always try to do is to transport the world of the written word into the world of sounds, respecting the idea of the text as much as possible, and to reach a greater depth of communication with music and the use of the “spoken” word.
In his vocal works there is a great attention to the spoken voice, which is manipulated in a very fascinating way. What procedures does it use to obtain these effects?
First of all, it is essential to have an excellent raw material available: voices. I always repeat to my students that to make a good piece the first thing, the most important and also the most difficult, is to start with quality materials and for this you need to work with very good interpreters. The voice recording work is very long. For this I need many hours of work with the actors, to get the right character and energy from them.
Then there is a phase of choosing the material, listening and cataloging, perhaps it is the longest and most boring part, but it is essential to know perfectly the material you have. Sometimes for a few minutes piece I listen to hours and hours of material.
The computer processing phase is the most creative and the one I enjoy the most. I can often change voices, not only in the timbre, but also in the inflection and sense of the sentences. What processes do I use to achieve this? I could list dozens of software that give many possibilities, but the most important thing is to try and try a lot and have a definite direction in which to go. As with any craftsman, more than the tool you use is your ability to create that matters.
Together with the interest in the theater, it is evident, from his catalog, a passion for dance that develops with the collaboration with Lucia Latour …
The first time I came to Rome was in 1979 to do a show with the “Gruppo di Lavoro Intercodice ALTRO”. In this group there were painters, dancers, photographers, graphic designers, musicians (many artists belonging to different artistic fields), who worked together to create something that was called theater, but it was also much more. The group was led by the painter Achille Perilli and Lucia Latour was one of the group’s dancers and one of the main creators. This experience was so extraordinary for me that I decided to settle in Rome, where I still live.
Later the group Altro broke up and the dance company Altroteatro was born, directed by Lucia Latour. I continued to work with her until the early 90s and we made a dozen shows together, some of which were very successful, such as “Anihccam”, a dance show inspired by Fortunato Depero and also represented in various cities European.
I am still very attached to this experience which I consider as the most important of my activity as a musician, and also the one that marked all my work afterwards. From “Altro” I learned very important things such as the rigor and precision of the work, the mental openness to the world, the awareness that music must not be made for the musicians’ environment (as architecture is not made for architects, and so on) but for the whole culture in its totality.
His music therefore seems to be closely linked to the visual element …
I believe that the visual dimension is important for music, because, like it or not, it is an unavoidable dimension of perception. We cannot suddenly decide to listen by abstracting ourselves from all other senses. Even when we close our eyes we always have a visual, spatial and tactile perception that strongly conditions listening. And then visual perception is very important in listening.
It seems to me that the increasing awareness of the laws of nature leads us more and more towards languages that consider perception in its totality. This is why I am very attracted to theater and multimedia. It is not for nothing that the art form that has gone in this direction the most has become the most important of this century. I’m talking about cinema.
With Altroteatro I mainly dealt with music but not only. We always discussed in a group the various creative and functional needs, and the design level was a moment of discussion on the global aspect of a show. An experience that formed me a lot and that I realize now I would not have had by remaining exclusively in the musical field.
In this period I also dealt with the creation of multivisions that served as a backdrop to the dance, building the synchronization score between sounds and images on the computer.
Later, for some of my works I also personally thought of a visual setting, which is an integral part of the musical idea, such as “Tupac Amaru” where an actress is filmed live by a camera and her image is electronically processed. .
But still I prefer to work collaboration with visual artists. I think I know visual art enough to understand what my limits are, and so I’m always looking for stimulating collaborations.
She composed a piece, Respiri, using a modified horn. Do you want to talk about it?
What prompted me to write a piece for horn is precisely this close relationship between man and machine, which in the horn reaches one of the highest levels, being the modern horn the most advanced instrument of the brass family. In a wind instrument it is the breath that generates the sound. Only after the performer has produced the sound can it be modified with the instrument through a complex technique that combines breath, lip tension, tongue and finger movement.
Respiri is a piece for horn sounds: a live soloist plays a horn prepared and amplified with various microphones. Other horn sounds, previously recorded and processed in the studio, are diffused into the space by a system of ten independent speakers.
How was the tool modified?
Three other independent bells were applied to the horn, with relative bore, which allowed the performer to freely decide which bell to transmit the generated sound to. The three cylinders of the horn pistons which are used to vary the length of the bore in F, and therefore the intonation, are unscrewed and opened at the lower end (those of the B-flat bore remain intact). To these are thus fixed three plastic tubes of section adaptable to the size of the piston which perform the function of additional bores and terminate at the other end with a funnel. When the horn player plays by pressing a piston, the relative bore opens and the sound no longer comes out of the original bell, but from the tube and the corresponding funnel.
The pitch of the sounds produced in this way no longer changes as before but remains approximately on the harmonic note of F, while the timbre changes according to the size of the tube and above all the shape of the funnel (obviously the sound that comes out of the new bells is of lower quality than that of normal horn).
This type of preparation was taken from an early 1980s composition by Canadian composer David Keane.
With this technique it is also possible to obtain sequences of sounds repeated at a speed normally impossible for the instrument, by performing a kind of tremolo between an amplified funnel and one not.
In Breaths great importance was given to the timbre, both in the live and in the pre-recorded part. The timbre varies from the typical sound of the instrument to the more unusual sounds introduced by 20th century music.
The horn still appears in L’Isola di Alcina, where it is compared to a “Romagna voice”. What is it about?
“L’isola di Alcina” is a show by the Teatro delle Albe by Marco Martinelli and Ermanna Montanari with the text by Nevio Spadoni in the Romagna dialect. It is the representation of the “stupidity” of Alcina, a sorceress / guardian of dogs of the Romagna countryside, inspired by the Alcina of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.
The show was produced by the Venice Biennale and the Ravenna Festival, and was performed for the first time in Venice in May 2000 and will be performed in various theaters in the coming seasons.
“L’isola di Alcina” is a theatrical work, and has as its subtitle “concert for horn and Romagna voice” which reveals its particularity. It is really a musical work with a solo voice, and the music, always present, is precisely made with the same horn sounds that I used for “Respiri”. The main voice instead is by Ermanna Montanari, an extraordinary actress, who uses her voice in such a variety of sounds and timbres as I had never heard before.
Among other things we have also made a CD of the work released in these days.
Let’s talk about another wind composition: Birds, which I found similar to Reich’s piece for bass clarinet.
New York Counterpoint is a superimposition of melodies that vary slowly over time, overlapping with slight differences. In my piece for bass clarinet, on the other hand, the variations are in blocks and overlapping are single sounds. Reich’s work could almost be performed by other instruments, as the musical idea is mainly linked to the gradual variation of the melody, mine instead is explicitly thought for the bass clarinet sounds, and could never be performed with a sax. for example, or with a B flat clarinet; it would change the whole nature of the piece. The two pieces have in common the rhythmic pulsation and the unmistakable timbre of the bass clarinet. They are almost superficial similarities.
I know the Reich piece very well, it is an exercise that my students often do, and I ask them to redo the part of the tape on a multi-track recorder. It is an apparently easy job, but it requires a lot of precision; synchronizing all the tracks is a serious problem, because if you are not very precise from the beginning, you will realize in the middle that you no longer control anything and have to start all over again.
The sounds of the instrument (noises of keys, breaths), often present in his compositions, acquire their own autonomy, an independent charm.
Working with the computer it is possible to consider these sounds as part of creation; in instrumental music this is not possible because obviously they are considered accessory sounds and not usable. On the computer I can safely isolate these sounds and consider them as independent. In the piece for saxophone, for example, I composed the reed and clef sounds separately; they are two completely different lines *. A completely different score for sounds and keys came out.
How did the work at Edison studio start?
Edison studio is an association founded together with other composers: Alessandro Cipriani, Fabio Cifariello Ciardi and Mauro Cardi. The studio was born more or less four years ago with the idea of building a laboratory where we can exchange technical knowledge, ideas, and where we can produce our pieces and * of other external composers. Over time we have transformed into a consulting group: each of us works at home, each of us has the same studio replicated for four, with the same equipment. In this way we can exchange data, software, sounds, skills. We no longer have the idea of the traditional studio, but of four small islands that work together from a technical point of view. We are now starting to update the site to give everyone the opportunity to take sounds that can be used for general use and to insert our music pieces.
What other centers do you collaborate with?
With the CRM, in Rome, with the Agon studio, in Milan, where the piece for horn was made; then very often al’Imeb, in Bourges, one of the largest French centers; from which in the last four years I have had three commissions and three pieces. In March they are usually there.
Does it become very difficult, without scientific preparation, to face music on the computer?
It is a matter of mindset, you need to have the foundations of a scientific mentality. To represent a sound it is important to know what a frequency is, a frequency, to know how to interpret the diagrams.
At the technical institute, many years ago, I didn’t understand what that studio could serve me for. I was not a model student, but I realized the fundamental difference between my mentality and that of a conservatory student.
Perhaps the problem is the same as for those who don’t learn from a young age and play an instrument. After twenty it becomes difficult.
Yup; once you have reached a certain age, automatisms are no longer so easily acquired, it becomes difficult to make a certain mentality your own, to master a technique without thinking about it, leaving your mind sufficiently free for musical problems.
Making music on the computer is a complex activity, but basically no more than writing traditional music, which we have been used to for centuries. For me it is much easier and more immediate to use the Cartesian representation system instead of the pentagram. I have always written music like this, even when I was a student: apart from the chorales or the harmonizations, for example, my pieces were always written on graph paper. However I try never to think about writing music, I use notation only as a medium; I try to work directly on the sound and to listen with the ears and not with the eyes.
How much do you listen to one of his songs?
When I have to make a master for a disc I have to listen to a piece for hundreds and hundreds of times because even the smallest mistake would repeat itself every time it is replayed. For this I am a perfectionist. I say the piece isn’t finished until I come to hate it, until I can’t stand it anymore. Then I never listen to my records again once they are finished. A piece printed on disk is as if it were no longer for me, but for others.
Instead in concert, live, every time it is a real emotion, every time it seems to me a miracle that repeats itself.