Postcards From Italy: Vercurago – Tiziano Milani
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Tiziano Milani, is an acoustic architect, based in Vercurago on Lake Garlate, south of Lake Como. He started making experimental music in the second half of the ’90. His passion for “collected” sounds led him to devote his work to this particular kind of music. “Nothing in the sounds I pick up is affirmed with will and enterprise, but rather whispered or murmured almost by chance, just like a conversation unintentionally heard on a subway train, or accidentally eavesdropped through the wall of an hotel room. The approach to sounds must not be simplified because every single sound is nothing but a small part of a whole, which should be considered in its own theoretic – and then mechanic – execution. Several different stages of work are stratified in every single piece (contemporary or not). In some cases, sounds are generated by touching, beating and breaking contact-miked objects. In other cases, they are the results of manipulated fluxes.”
To begin with, how did you get started as a musician?
I wouldn’t really describe myself as a musician. I did take a number of classes and seminars at the conservatory over the years, but I have no formal training as such. My attraction to sound comes from my job. I studied architecture at college and after getting my degree I specialized in acoustics. This has spurred my interest in the relationship between sound and the environment.
Like many, in terms of making music, I begun by playing in punk and hardcore bands in the early 90s. I then moved to more experimental sounds as a manifest shift within the scene led to post-hardcore and a sort of crossover with more innovative stuff. Also, I was also already familiar with some of the most influential composers of the XX century, people like John Cage, Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, all the usual suspects really, the same names that everybody seems to be trotting out… I didn’t tackle composition, though, rather I set up a sort of research lab, in a way, and for the past ten years I have been trying to develop a language combining electro-acoustic and digital music thanks to several collaborations with people who developed specific softwares. My starting point, I would say has been the work of Alvin Lucier and his study of resonance.
Speaking of which, some of your material has been used by Claudio Parodi as a basis for his album Horizontal Mover on Extreme Records, which is a homage to Alvin Lucier. How did this collaboration come about?
I met Claudio Parodi years ago, when I sent him a promo CD with a few track that were later to become my first release on Setola di Maiale, Chamber Music for Screeching and Artificial Insects. He used some of that material for his homage to Lucier.
How did you find the end product?
It is a good album and it was released at a time when I was going down that road myself. There is still a lot of work to be done in Italy in terms of investigating the relationship between sound and the environment. I believe that this kind of research pertains to musicians that do not have any academic background and who are more open to experimentation. I feel that, especially here in Italy, the electro-acoustic musicians working with pre-prepared instruments along the lines of John Cage, are far behind what can be achieved digitally. They should now take stock and reflect on the way forward in order to bring about a new Luigi Nono era in terms of experimentation. Times are ripe.
Who do you see moving in a new direction within the Italian scene?
I am thinking of Stefano Giust and his label Setola di Maiale, for instance. Giust comes from the impro jazz scene and is very open to experimentation. Indeed, his label is on a par with John Zorn’s Tzadik even though, the musicians on Setola di Maiale’s roster do not enjoy a similarly high profile mainly because of reasons that have to do with promotion. From a technical point of view they are highly skilled. Also, Attila Faravelli is another incredible musician…
La macchina della percezione della realtà (The Machine to Perceive Reality) and Nomadic Body have been released by a Virus4 a label I’d never heard of. How did this come about?
Virus4 is a very small label run by Dario Polvara who advocates self-production and even self-piracy. He’s from Lecco and for over a decade, we have been hosting together, a radio programme dedicated to metal on a local station. We have been going for such a long time that we still have the early demos from bands such as Sentenced and Amorphis. In terms of Dario, he has always been true to his principles and has even turned down a number of distribution deals in the past. He is currently very much into speedcore.
Anyhow, there is not much I can do about it, whenever I meet someone who displays such vitality and energy I always agree to release my albums through their labels even though they might not enjoy the same visibility as more established ones. The same happened with Fabio Perletta who was later to release Riflessione Compositiva di Assemblaggi Possibili (Compositional Reflection of Possible Assemblages) on Farmacia901. I met him at the TagoFest in Marina di Massa when he was just starting out and I was immediately struck by his enthusiasm. I saw a younger version of myself in him. It reminded me of when I used to send my tapes to music labels hoping to get my stuff out there.
Field recordings figure heavily in your albums and, in a way, they feel like the foundations upon which you build successive layers of sound together with concrete music. Would you consider them as a sort of starting block?
Well, let’s just say that after years of being overworked and underpaid at an architecture practice while studying for my degree at college, I was determined to combine work and music making by specialising in environmental acoustics. So if, for example, they sent me to a mountain hut on the Resegone to do an environmental impact assessment, I would take my recording equipment with me. I needed to find some positive aspects in my line of work so that, every time I got fed up with it all, I had something to fall back on which has meant that, over the years, I have been able to collect sounds from places I wouldn’t normally have gone to, but I knew I could use in my music at some point. To be honest, I would’ve already quit my job if I hadn’t been able to experiment with sound. So, yes, field recordings are important, even though my albums always start from a concept.
I see my music making as a sort of research process. I like going over stuff and rewriting it. In a way, when I put a fullstop to an album, I do so with regards to the music and not necessarily to the concept behind it, which I might go back to at a later stage.
Do you ever cannibalise your own albums?
No. When I talk about rewriting an album, I refer to its concept not to the music. I am not into remixing my own material, so to speak. When an album is released, I have already moved on. Having said that, I like to keep any discourse initiated with an album open and to develop it at a later stage.
In terms of my approach, I would say that the first few albums are predominantly digital with concrete music at their core. More recently, however, my collaborations with other musicians have taken centre stage.
I’d like to go back to an earlier album of yours, for a moment, Music as a Second Language, which seems to point to a departure from a strictly digital approach.
I did it almost off the cuff immediately after the first one on Setole di Maiale. In a way, it is a sort of b-side album to Chamber Music… and it also represents a kind of protoexperimentation of a more electro-acoustic shift in my music. I have come to the realisation that whereas one can create almost any sound by digital means, there is a limit in what one can achieve without it coming across as cold and distant, even though this might read as a cliché. Up until my collaboration with Luca Sciarratta on the album SIRR (Spatial Impulse Response Rendering), which revolved around digital errors and glitches, I used to favour algorithms, which is a legitimate approach, but ultimately a very mechanical and mathematical one, which only goes so far. I am now more into randomness and closer to John Cage’s aleatoric (or chance) compositions. Ultimately, there is more fun in dealing with the indeterminate. I like working with different variables, which is why I started experimenting with different spaces on Riflessione Compositiva di Assemblaggi Possibili, which is in fact a sort of first draft of Im Innersten, the album where I pursued this concept even further by placing microphones in different points of a room or close to specific objects in order to capture their vibration. Again, I was investigating resonance. By playing a clarinet line in a reverberating room, for instance, I could get drones. Also, it has to be said that if one was to base an album just on the sounds of a pre-prepared instrument, one would face fierce competition as a lot of people, like Stefano Bollani, seem to be taking this approach in Italy, and with excellent results.
There is a lot of scope for experimentation within different environments. Let’s say, I want to introduce a new rhythm, I can place a microphone by a window so as to introduce street noise. With Im Innersten, in particular, I was able to re-recorded the sounds I’d produced for the album in a semi-reverberating room that was used to test mufflers for cars and bikes.
Let’s talk about City of Simulation, which is a collaboration between you and poet Luca Rota. If I am not mistaken, the concept stems from a book by Giandomenico Amendola who teaches Urban Sociology at the University in Florence. Amendola, has charted the development of the city underlining the fact that the future of a city is no longer inscribed in its past. It is impossible to listen to your album, though, without thinking of its precursors, mainly, Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) and Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna’s Portrait of a City (1954).
The title of the album does indeed come from a chapter in Amendola’s book La città postmoderna (The Post-modern City) and is based on visual poetry. It consists of 14 Mp3 files for a total of three and a half hours of music all linked to 14 jpg files with words and images by Luca Rota. To begin with, I created a database of field recordings, taken in Milan, Bergamo, Lecco and Como and from other locations in the vicinity, together with others from a number of European cities, which I gathered from the Internet.
Depending on the type of visual poem I would then construct a specific track to go with it. Often I would ask other musicians to contribute some electrocaoustic sounds. Still, I wouldn’t layer the different tracks on a sequencer. Instead, I opted for an analog approach. I would play every single layer of sound, from concrete music, to filed recordings and digital processed sounds on different sound sources dotted around my studio. By moving around, or placing myself in the middle, I would recreate the same dislocation of sound found in an urban context. Finally, I would input the different channels into my computer and proceed that way.
Do you believe the listener is aware of this?
Not really, no. I am happy when someone does realize, but the main thing was that, even if I did not use analog machines in the recording process, by applying the same approach when layering the sound, hopefully, it doesn’t come across as cold as it might’ve had, had I opted for a strictly digital approach.
Was it the first time you applied this particular recording method in your compositions?
I wouldn’t refer to these tracks as compositions, since they are mainly an assemblage of sounds. Still, while many musicians seem to go from electroacoustic sounds to purely digital ones, I have started doing the exact opposite, going back to the original source of sound.
Also, I have to say that, I wouldn’t now be able to construct an album just on my own. I treasure the interaction I have with other musicians, and the way they interpret the concepts I put forward.
There is also the specific variable relating to someone physically playing an instrument, which I am becoming more and more interested in. In a word, I am rediscovering the human touch, and that is why my latest album is called Touch. I’ll give you an example. If I were to make an album based on a study of the technology of air-cooling systems, I would record the sound of a fan trying to isolate its components. I could then concentrate on the trembling of a metal plate for instance and measure its intensity. The next step would be to ask a percussionist to try and reproduce the same sound, which I would then process once more.
Had I not started going down this road, after two or three albums I would have exhausted everything I had to say through music.
As you write in the linear notes, Touch is the outcome of the union of thousands of very little musical fragments, performed by musicians and subsequently processed. You also appear as a conductor.
The most important thing on this album was the interaction with other musicians and that is way the album cover by Stefano Giust depicts a transistor. I also credit Koji Nishio, on piano, Hiromi Makaino on objects, electronic percussion, and rhythms, Lars Musikki on double bass and acoustic guitar, Cristian Corsi on tenor sax and Lynn Westerberg on violin.
What are you currently working on?
Amongst my recent projects I’m involved in a collaboration with a young guy from Pistoia who records under the moniker AdernX. We have produced a number of tracks based on short snippets from art house films, dialogue and all, which we have heavily reworked, but don’t ask me for the titles of the films, as I am terrible remembering this sort of thing. The album is about 45 minutes long and I’ve already done the mastering for it.
Does that mean you generally master your own albums?
Yes and I love it when they tell me that the music is either too low, or too loud, or just plain distorted and that it doesn’t fall within fixed parameters. My aim is to involve the listener as best as I can, I don’t believe in background music. I’m more into deep listening. For the past five years, safe for weekends, I have selected a number of different albums to listen to very attentively at night. If an album is interesting I can spend weeks listening to it. The whole experience of listening to music has been radically transformed by the Internet. People download so much stuff that they have no time to listen to, or otherwise they just play a track and then skip forward. There is little time to process this wealth of information.
Are you advocating a return to “slow music” much as in the lines of “slow food”?
Yes, it is way too easy to lose so much information when listening to an album.
What is the latest CD you have been listening to?
Actually, last night I was listening to Julia Holter’s Ekstasis, which has been labelled as “esoteric pop”. It is a really well produced album, really sophisticated and it recalls at times Meredith Monk and American minimalism. Other than that, I frequently go back to the classics, like Stockhausen’s Mantra or something by John Cage. There is always something new to discover in those albums. As an aside, I’ve just mentioned Meredith Monk. Her latest album on ECM is really good even if some people can be quite sniffy about the label.
How did your soundtrack to the experimental short film Terre al margine – Wasted by Alessandra Ondeggia come about?
Alessandra Ondeggia, the director, was making a film on the concept of “lands on the margins”, shot in Taranto, in the shadow of the Ilva plant, and she got in touch with me after having heard City of Simulation. She told there was no money involved so I said yes as whenever there is a whiff of money I tend to smell a rat… I’m on the creative commons side. One might get any financial gain, but it is great in terms of visibility. Also, I am sceptical about the whole question of the SIAE, the Italian Authors and Publishers’ Society, which covers royalties on music and recordings as it mainly works for big and established names. Anyhow, I sent Alessandra my complete discography and the music was assembled from my archival material. Wasted was shown at number of film festivals and it has been very well received. On the strength of that I got quite a few requests for soundtrack work. In terms of Alessandra, I might be working again with her on a new film she shot in Palestine.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
From all those musicians who may have a low profile, but make up for it in spades thanks to their energy and vitality. I love working with younger musicians, for instance, because they see things form a different perspective and therefore they help me to take my music in new directions. I love embarking on collaborations whenever there is a strong will to do things. Ennio Mazzon, for instance, got in touch with me a few years back after having heard an album of mine, which he liked very much. He was just starting out at the time and he would send me tracks for me to listen to and asked for my advice. Now he’s set up his own label, Ripples Recordings and he is even developing a custom made musical software for a project with Fabio Perletta of Farmacia901. I am sure he will go a long way, even though the current cultural climate in Italy does little to encourage talent.
As for myself, I consider music as a hobby. When I had the opportunity of doing a two month long tour in Japan, I had to turn it down because of work commitments. Had I been any younger, I would’ve jumped at the idea, but now, it is just not that easy.
Let’s talk about your hometown of Vercurago now.
I was born and bread in Vercurago and my parents are both from the area, so everybody knows me, even though nobody is aware of my musical work. I have attempted to incorporate traditional music from Lake Come into my experimental music, studying the metric of these folk songs by the Cantori di Premana but this particular project is currently on hold. I believe it is a worthwhile project, which could be promoted by the cultural institutions of the province of Lecco, but alas, I see it as an uphill struggle. Dissonant music is still frowned upon in Italy in many quarters. Still, what others may perceive as dissonant to me is harmonic and vice versa.
- Interview by Gianmarco Del Re for Fluid Radio
Discography 2004 La macchina e la percezione della realtà (free download) Virus4 | 2005 The Nomadic Body (free download) Virus4 | 2006 Piccoli e improvvisi punti sonori (free download) | 2007 :suoni:oggetti:risonanti: (3xFile, MP3, 160) Chew-Z | 2007 Chamber music for screeching and artificial insects (CDr) Setola Di Maiale | 2008 Music as a second language (CDr) Setola Di Maiale | 2009 Riflessione Compositiva Di Assemblaggi Possibili, (CDr) Farmacia901 | 2009 Im Innersten (Cdr) Afe | 2009 SIRR (spatial impulse response rendering) Tiziano Milani & Luca Sciarratta (CDr) Rudimentale | 2010 Tiziano Milani, Luca Rota – The City Of Simulation (14 Audio-visual Poems) (CDr, MP3), Setole di Maiale | 2012 Touch (CDr) Setole di Maiale