Postcards From Italy: Milan Part IV – Lorenzo Senni
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Lorenzo Senni is a multidisciplinary artist, composer & laser expert based in Milan, Italy. He studied Musicology at University in Bologna and he is author of electronic audio works. His research interests include algorithmic methods in the arts. He has toured throughout Europe, Scandinavia and Japan and has opened for Peter Rehberg & Stephen O’ Malley (KTL), John Wiese, EVOL, Dave Phillips, Lasse Marhaug, Giuseppe Ielasi, and Valerio Tricoli amongst others. As the founder of Presto!?, a record label focused on “New-Sounds” within the contemporary music scene, he has released albums by a number of artists including Carl Michael Von Hausswolff, Marcus Schmickler, Florian Hecker, John Wiese, Lasse Marhaug, Alberto De Campo, Werner Dafeldecker, Lawrence English, and John Hudak. This fall he is going to release an LP on Editions Mego, a tape on Alku and an LP+DVD5.1 on Blae…
Hi Lorenzo, to begin with, you have studied musicology at college, does your interest in music stem from a theoretical basis?
I never did get my degree. I only had four exams left but I found myself increasingly studying stuff that had no or little relation to the exams I was supposed to take and slowly but surely I quit altogether. My family was not best pleased, but there you go.
Does that mean it had little relevance when you started making music?
No, I discovered a lot of things, which I would never have normally been exposed to, but that is not how I really came to music. I was already playing drums by the time I had enrolled. Actually, I started playing the guitar when I was around 13-14 years of age in punk and hardcore bands. I used to sing in Italian and get up to all sorts of things. I then moved on to drums, and took it very seriously for about six years. For the first two-three months, I only had the drumsticks and would practice at home on a pillow. I took jazz classes and studied for about 4-5 hours a day. I wasn’t interested in becoming a drummer in a rock’n'roll kind of way, though, I was more interested in rhythms. More than anything, I would say I learnt discipline through the drums.
Interested in rhythms in a Steve Reich kind of way?
I was beginning to discover that world, but I was also into free jazz and noise music. I enjoyed the freedom of it. I started playing with Enrico Malatesta, who was a neighbour of mine and whom I’ve know since we were 5 of 6 years old. Over the years he’s become an incredible musician and I have now released two albums by him on Presto!?
Anyhow, from drums I moved onto computers. I was getting old and I didn’t fancy sweating as much. Also, I was keen to meet girls, and noise drummers haven’t really got a strong pulling power. I soon started discovering laptop music, and music softwares. At first I was more into the “easier” spectrum of things, people like Fennesz, 12k, Room40 and all those things that were flavour of the month in the early naughties.
So you just dropped the drums…?
Yes, I haven’t touched the drums for seven years now, with the exception of a few occasions when I played reunion gigs with my former band mates. So, instead of spending hours on end on the drums I found myself pouring over softwares such as Max/MSP until I switched to Super Collider. The Computer Music Tutorial by Curtis Roads was my bible.
In a word, you’ve gone from acoustic sounds to synthetic sounds?
Yes, I was studying sound synthesis and all sorts of things. I was a dedicated student.
You started recording your first album in 2007.
Yes, even though Early Works came out in 2008. Nobody really got the fact that the title was meat to be ironic. They were my “early works” for sure but, generally speaking, Early Works and greatest hits albums come out at a later stage of one’s musical career. Listening back to it, it becomes apparent how influenced I was at the time by Pita and the Mego sound. There is a definite glitch / digital aesthetic to it, with some melodic counterpoints and a bit of a noise thrown in. At the same time I was beginning to discover the work of David Tudor, David Behrman and early computer pioneers so I tried to incorporate traces of their influence into my music, but I think that only really happened with my follow up album, Dunno, as I still hadn’t fully digested their work.
You have also opened a few gigs for Peter Rehberg. What have you learnt from him?
I opened for him on two different occasions. Every time I happened to be in Vienna, though, I would go and visit him. He is an exceptional person and I have always loved the majority of his output. I also believe he has been under-appreciated, which is a real shame. Still he has released amazing stuff through his label. I once asked him, “Pita, when are you going to do an album for Presto!?” As he had a Zoom recorder with him at the time he just said, “It might just go out and do a few field recordings for you to release…” It didn’t immediately occur to me that he was only kidding!
I don’t think I learnt as much from him seeing him perform live, even if his sets are really intense, as from reading all the literature I could find on him on the net. Also, more than from a musical point of view, I learnt a lot from him in terms of label management. He is a real businessman and he is fully conscious of that. He has managed to combine quality with business acumen. There is no reason why this type of music shouldn’t sell, in fact. He did a very good job with Fennesz and, even though the label went through a rough patch in the past, he has set a very high standard.
Do you see your second album Dunno as a development of sorts then?
I consider Dunno to be more interesting from a musical point of view. Also, I am someone who likes to come out with a specific record at a specific point in time. There is a tendency within the electronic and the electro acoustic world to release large quantities of material, which I do not share. In a way, for me, recording an album is like closing a chapter or producing a synthesis of a period of research and exploration; it feels like summing up, if you will. I like to finalise the musical discourse I have been developing at that particular moment. Also, I have a very pop art approach to music and any release is directly linked to a specific visual style. Everything needs to come together and gel into one product.
As for the sound, it is pure computer music based on digital synthesis a wealth of frequency modulation, pulsar synthesis, and granular synthesis. And yet, I like to add that little touch of… Some people interpret the font of the title, and the photograph on the back of the album with me brandishing a kalashnikoff guitar as ironic, but more than anything I like to liberate computer music from the usual parameters of glitch, of digital music 0 1 and to move it towards a pop aesthetic even though the tracks have little or nothing to do with pop.
Could you tell me something about the titles? For instance, what does “101 103″ refer to?
Nothing, really. I just chose it because I liked the way the title looked. I merely chose the titles by virtue of but there is no relation. Take Pumping Geometries, for instance, there are no references to geometry in the track, or BurgerKings BurgerDreams… There is only one exception, “ntitled five”, that was a typo. It should’ve been “Untitled” obviously. Still, I believe I may have been the first one to use a YouTube link as the title of a track.
Well, yes, the YouTube link may point towards a pop aesthetic…
I wanted to move away from the geekyness and the seriousness of computer music. At the same time, often, the sounds produced through pulsar synthesis and Super Collider seem to coming directly from the world of animation. The Evol tape I released, for instance, make a lot of people laugh. What interests me, though, is the musical structure and the timbre. Different people then have different interpretations of a particular track or album.
To sum up, I would say that Dunno is all made along the lines of digital synthesis whereas in Early Works there are several samples because at the time I was heavily into field recordings.
What happened, did you loose interest in field recordings?
You could say that, even though it is not strictly the case. I have a vast collection of field recordings albums, much to my girlfriends concern… I used to carry a dat recorder with me with an expensive microphone I had bought. I have hours and hours of recordings, but I have never done anything with them. Who knows, maybe one day I will. The only use I made of them so far is to incorporate a few processed ones into Early Works but that is about it.
What interested you at the time about field recordings?
I think I was interested in the process more than anything. At the time I used to hang out with the photographer Guido Guidi, who was a friend of the family. It was quite funny, actually, as I came across his work when studying for a photography exam at college. I’d always assumed he was a wedding photographer and never suspected he was in fact one of Italy’s most celebrated photographers. I then started following him on photo shoots and I was struck by how pre-digital photography is so similar to the practice of field recordings. One needs a long time to set up a shot when working with specific cameras. Also processing negs is a bit like processing field recordings or at least that was the case in the pre usb download or memory card era. When one imported material in real time, one was more aware of the whole process and one would take more care while recording. It took longer to accomplish things, but that also meant that one was more focused. Lately I have begun using more and more softwares that do not operate in real time. When one knows that it might take half an hour rather than five minutes to import some data, one is indeed more focused. Nowadays we don’t even have time to wait for an Internet page to upload!
What will your next album sound like?
The LP/DVD5.1 on Blae will be a hybrid. I recently had a residency in Rotterdam where I have been using software relating to digital synthesis. At the same time I have only used analog synthesizers, which I have controlled via Midi Osc. The resulting album will be a digital-analog hybrid made through no real time and digital control of analog synths. It will be a crazy affair. To have two hands on an Arp 2500 is one thing, whereas having 16 hands on it, is definitely another and with the precision and speed of a computer at that!
Since the pop tag has been cropping up quite frequently, and considering you are a child of the ’80, would you consider yourself closer to Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol?
Save for the first few releases, which were quite minimal in design, I have tried to infuse a pop sensibility in the artwork, I am thinking of the inflatable dolphin on the Early Works or Claudio Rocchetti’s album cover, for instance. There is a sort of unresolved conflict. From a musical point of view the sound is very much digital and synthetic, similar to the albums on the Raster-Noton label, whereas the artwork suggests something that draws on the world of pop via YouTube and therefore poptrance, and all those things I listen to and which I try to incorporate.
What is poptrance?
Melodic rave music.
Each release has a specific and different format, how do you go about it?
There a re so many different formats nowadays and people who buy music accepts them all. It is therefore good to find the right format each release. I already have in mind a specific format when I approach a musician.
Do you always ask for original material?
Yes, generally speaking.
Do artists then tend to give you material they think you will like and in line with other Presto!? releases?
Good question. I have often approach artists with a view of taking the style of Presto!? in a new direction, hoping for a shift of some kind. What I sometimes get instead, is something that fits in perfectly with other previous Presto!? releases, even too perfectly, I would say. I don’t necessarily always want more of the same. I am now working on a triple box set of tapes by young American musicians all working with analog synthesisers. It will be a departure from the Florian Hecker album I have put out recently, which, by the way, has been my biggest selling release so far.
Carsten Höller also appears on that double vinyl release. How did the collaboration between Hecker and Höller come about?
It was Florian’s idea. It was also one of the cases where I didn’t have to suggest a specific idea for a project. I am such a huge Florian Hecker fan that I would’ve been happy with anything he would’ve come up. The outcome was a double 10″ vinyl. It has been financially onerous, but it has been totally worth it.
Do you also do digital downloads?
I have done so once a physical release was sold out. Also the tapes come with a digital release code. I still haven’t done the same for vinyl. I need to think about it, though, as it is a very time consuming process to set up.
Do you manage to balance your books?
As of lately yes, even though I will never recoup the first few thousand euros I have invested to begin with. Also, this will be the first year ever since I started Presto!? that I won’t be spending the summer working in a warehouse in Cesena loading and unloading 25kg sacs of seeds just to keep the label afloat. I do put in a lot of time and effort into everything I do and any money I make out of Presto!? goes directly back into the label.. I am now hoping to get someone to take care of the press kits and stuff like that, which takes an awful amount of time. I believe Presto!? has a lower profile than labels such as Pan, for instance, just by virtue of the fact that there is only me taking care of the promo side of things. Having said that, there are advantages from being an “underground” label. Just to give you an example, a big distribution company such as Boomkat takes also charge of printing albums, which means that the label has no say anymore on the kind of paper or material it would like to use.
Where do you print your vinyl?
I print all my vinyl in Germany. The one time I used an Italian printer, it was the one and only time I experienced some kind of problems. I may be forking out more money by doing so, but I believe that those who buy vinyl deserve a good quality product, which is what I get from Germany.
Many also print their albums in the Check Republic or in Poland.
Yes, but sometimes, when one tries to cut corners, one ends up with vinyl so flimsy that it feels like a piadina (traditional Italian flat unleavened bread from Emilia Romagna) and since I come from the land of piadine, I aspire to something better.
What about the mastering, who do you go to?
It depends. Lawrence English, for instance, did his own mastering. Many of the albums, though, have been mastered by Rashad Becker. It is often the artists who ask for a specific person and many, like Florian Hecker, have specifically asked for Rashad. My own album Dunno was mastered instead by Marcus Schmickler, who has also released on Presto!?. I also often go to Giuseppe Ielasi. It all depends on the specific release and the type of sound we are dealing with.
Have you ever gone to Taylor Dupree?
I have many of 12k’s releases and if I were to release a very delicate droney album I would certainly go to him. So far, the occasion hasn’t arisen.
What about the design of CDs and vinyl, I know you also design all the album covers yourself, how flexible are you in meeting the demands of the different artists you work with?
There always has to be a compromise, that is the beauty of working with musicians. Ultimately, both me and the artist have to love 100 % any given cover. The only exception so far, has been with Florian Hecker, who is very determined. It was his choice to have Tina Frank do the layout, and I immediately went along with it as I thoroughly respect Tina’s work. Once she sent me the design, we agreed on just a few changes. Having said that I never really give in as any release has to fit in with the label’s aesthetic. Presto!? is not like Vitamin where they only change the catalogue’s number. I want to be coherent with my editorial line, but I wouldn’t like to limit myself to one single type of design. It’s interesting, ’cause the biggest email exchanges with artists relate to album covers. Also, I have to admit that before I set up Presto!? I had no previous experience in terms of graphic design, I had to learn from scratch all the different programmes, like Photoshop and Illustrator, just as I’d done previously with the computer music programmes. It has been a steep learning curve. Every mistake costs money, so when I send something to the printers, I have to make sure I got it right. Florian Hecker’s release, for instance, hasn’t been cheap as it is on double 10″ vinyl. At the end of the day, one has to come to some compromise on some level, mainly in the choice of colours and printed matter.
What is the deal with the artists?
Up until Florian Hecker’s release, artists got 15% of the physical copies of the album, but I am hoping with my next releases to be able to pay a small advance to the artists.
It just occurred to me I forgot to ask you why is the label called Presto!?
Just because I liked the way the graphic design of Presto!? looked. It doesn’t have any particular meaning, even if it certainly comes from notations on classical music scores, like “adagio”, “fortissimo” and “presto”.
What is your relationship to classical music?
I have studied it for a while, even though I subsequently put it to one side until recently when I was asked by the National Symphony Orchestra to revisit Brahms’ Tragic Overture at Auditorium Rai in Turin.
Did you get stage fright?
I was shitting myself. It has been an incredible but challenging experience, as I didn’t want to use samples. One of the reasons being that if one uses samples to reinterpret Brahms, one only gives a rendition of one specific interpretation of Brahms. Instead I studied 10 different interpretations of it and read as much about it as I could in order to create an electronic version that would reflect the spirit of the original work. In the end it went well. It is only a 15 minute piece, but I would like to release it one day. I like the idea of releasing my own albums on different labels, the only problem is that, even though I leave other artists very little room for manoeuvre when it comes to releasing stuff on Presto!?, in terms of the artwork, I still like to retain control when it comes to my own albums. I have already tested the waters with Blae, though, and that shouldn’t be a problem.
How do you approach a live set?
I have my laptop and when possible lasers, but no visuals. I don’t like the idea of projections. I could project my own photographs and influences, but I would have to combine all the different elements in the way I did with the cover for Dunno. Generally speaking, while there are exciting exceptions, I must say I do not find sets with visuals particularly interesting. I can even experience a gig with my back to the musician!
A man and his laptop… why would one have to go and see you live, rather than just play your albums at home?
Because in a live situation one experiences optimal sound quality and conditions. The sound level is also important because it brings out the texture of a piece. Sure, one can listen to music at home on headphones, but the optimal situation is during a live performance when the sound equipment corresponds to the artist’s specs. Also, there is always about 15% of improvisation on any given set, I do. I may be just applying algorithms, but I also respond to the environment and the specific venue I am playing.
What are Presto!?’s next releases going to be?
The Detroit techno legend DJ Stingray just confirmed me an Ep on Presto!?, i’m very proud of this, he is great. Then a triple box tape with Outer Space (John Elliott, Emeralds), Elon Katz, Jeremiah Fisher, Alex Barnett, Positive Shadow and Sam Goldberg and the “Wall Noise” godfather The Rita on a 7″.
I will soon be releasing an album by Attila Faravelli and Nicola Martini. It is an incredible piece of work, which has been mastered to perfection by Giuseppe Ielasi. I had it for a while, and I am sure Attila will be cursing me by now. I perfectly understand his point of view as a musician myself I know how keen artists are to see their work released promptly. At the same time, though, I have also deal with everything that having a label entails. It is always preferable, for example to send two or three different releases to distributors, with the strongest one helping to shift copies of the lower profile ones. Attila Faravelli and Nicola Martini’s album will be a vinyl release with a booklet containing photographs of objects and materials they have used during the making of the LP.
What is your take on loops?
One could probably tell by listening to my albums that I am not a “loop-ist” so to speak. Also, there aren’t many loops to be heard on any of the other albums released on Presto!? either. Even Florian Hecker’s album, which may be perceived as a loop based work, in reality, it isn’t as there is always some shift within the sound, albeit minimal; there is always a slight panning as Hecker works a lot on psychoacoustics.
Having said that, I am not against loops as such, and, as a matter of fact, I am currently listening to a lot of clubby electronic music, which is all based on loops.
You have moved to Milan from Cesena, do you feel any particular connection to either city?
Presto!? was born in my bedroom at my parents place in Cesena. The only person I knew there was Enrico Malatesta, whom I grew up with. In Milan I met Simone Trabucchi from Hundebiss, with whom I shared a flat, Fabio Carboni from Die Schachtel, whom I always go to to discuss music, and others like Attila Faravelli and Giuseppe Ielasi. They are my physical points of reference, but I don’t consider my territory to be either Cesena or Milan but the Internet.
Which place inspires you the most in Milan?
The place that has influenced me the most on an emotional level is an ex paint factory in Lambrate where I lived between 2009 and 2011 together with Simone Trabucchi and a bunch of other guys. Before it was demolished, its owner, allowed us to live there rent free. We did an amazing job converting all the offices into rooms to the point where architecture magazines would come and photograph the space. Also, all the artists from Hundebiss’ roster would play there. It was a glorious place and that is where I met Giuseppe Ielasi, amongst others. Alas, it has now been demolished.
If you had to pick a name within the Italian electro acoustic scene, who would you pick?
I’ll go 100% acoustic. Enrico Malatesta, he is an amazing musician.