Pietro Riparbelli is a philosopher, composer and sound-multimedia artist based in Livorno (Tuscany). His compositions have been published by TOUCH (UK), Radical Matters Ed/Label (IT), Aurora Borealis (UK), Actual Noise/20buckspin (US), Afe Records (IT), Boring Machines (IT), Old Europa Cafe (IT). He shows his installation work at Enrico Fornello in Milano...
You have included three quotes on your website, which I would like you to elaborate on and tell me how these have informed your own work. I’ll start with the easiest one. When one enters a Gothic sanctuary, it is immediately noticeable that sound commands the space. This is not just a simple echo effect at work, but rather all sounds, no matter how near, far, or loud, appear to be originating at the same distant place… Chartres and other edifices like it have been described as “music frozen in stone”… (Bill Viola).
For a number of years now, you have pursued a project based on field recordings of Cathedrals, which has lead to your collaboration with Mike Harding of Touch. Where does this fascination come from?
I have always been fascinated by sacred places and by the atmosphere of contemplative peace and I have always listened to and recorded their acoustic environments. At some point I felt the need to transform this passion of mine into a proper project directly linked to my activity as a sound researcher. That’s how I started Cathedrals, which is a sort of sound archive collecting material from cathedrals, churches, and other sacred places. This material will be used in other projects such as sound installations or recordings. A first step was the 4 Churches album published by Mike Harding on Touch as a web edition with field recordings from the churches of Saint Germain de Pres, Notre Dame de Paris, the Duomo of Orvieto and the Basilica of Assisi. I subsequently opened up the project to all interested sound artists and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the level of attention it got. I received many contributions by artists the world over. I consider Cathedrals as a psycho geographic itinerary and at the same time as a linear and collaborative artwork, and not therefore as a simple sound archive since it is something which can develop towards other fields connected to art and the phenomenology of perception. It investigates two different topics. The first one is linked to the historical dimension of cathedrals over time, and especially to their function, as places for aggregation, dialogue and meditation. Cathedrals were sculpted books: they harboured biblical scenes or episodes of local history aiming at educating the faithful and divulging large narratives through a language of symbols. In fact, the architectural criteria for the construction of large cathedrals were linked to symbols and to precise geometric and mathematical calculations. “Divine proportions” were researched, which according to Leonardo Fibonacci (1175-1235) and other mathematicians over the centuries equalled the golden ratio. Cathedrals were conceived as “spaces for sound”, with organs constructed in situ and optimal acoustics devised for chanting.
The second topic of investigation is instead linked to archaeoacustics, which involves the study of the acoustics of archaeological sites in two ways, by exploring the natural sounds and / or the acoustics of the monuments and by measuring the acoustics parameters of a archaeological sites with electronic means and tools. The sound one can find inside cathedrals is directly connected to archaeoacustics in as much as the perception of their acoustic phenomena has remained unchanged over time.
Your most recent work, Three Days of Silence seems to stem directly from the Cathedrals projects and is conceived as a complete phenomenological experience of listening. The work was recorded at the Sanctuary of La Verna on the Mountain of the Stigmata in Tuscany. How did this experience come about and how did you negotiate the logistics with the monks and what was there reaction to the end product?
For sure, Three Days of Silence is not only linked to the Cathedrals project but it is an in depth elaboration of the same. It is complicated to educate oneself to the art of hearing, since western culture is so focused on seeing and anything that is visual and doesn’t place the same importance on sound, contrary to what happens in far eastern culture. A sanctuary is a privileged space for this kind of exercise and I can guarantee that spending hours immersed in the silence of such places trying to hear every single variation of the sonic landscape is a mind blowing experience that often makes one perceive silence as anything but silent. As for the monks, I can only say that they are extraordinary people and that they understood immediately what I was attempting to do and were very curious about my work. Naturally, I try to be as discreet as possible during my recording sessions so as not to disrupt their contemplative dimension and the energy released through the act of worship. Often, my recordings inside cathedrals are taken in a furtive manner, almost as if I was trying to steal those sounds without being noticed. This sometimes affects the quality of the recordings, but it guarantees their natural and spontaneous character.
Three Days of Silence is also reminiscent of Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning’s portrayal of the everyday lives of Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse high on the French Alps. Which leads to the next quote The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise, and noise of desire – we hold history’s record for them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence. Aldous Huxley. Many composers have tackled the subject of silence in their work, often with a spiritual connotation. I am thinking of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Silenzio, and the work of Peteris Vasks, Giya Kancheli, Valentin Silvestrov, and Alexander Knaifel amongst others. Is silence a spiritual element in your work as well? Also, could you tell me something about the collaborative performance you have done on the subject of silence Silenzio: Zero Assoluto –273,15 °C | – 459,67 °F?
Into Great Silence is a masterpiece and it has inspired me a great deal. I would also like to add the name of Arvo Pärt and sacred minimalism to the list of composers you have cited above as another source of inspiration. My interest in silence is both spiritual and philosophical and often these two worlds overlap. I believe that we are now facing a time of crisis in relation to words, which leads inevitably to non-communication and deception. The failure of logocentrism within modernity is a crisis of the medium through which modern conscience pretended to change the world and life in general. This is why we probably have to uncover a new way of listening in silence and rediscover the nature of words. The challenge is to find the ways of silence, not in relation to sacrifice and solitude, but as a space for hearing, as the dimension from which words come. The discovery of the depth of things is expressed through silence and hearing.
Silenzio: Zero Assoluto –273,15 °C | – 459,67 °F is a collaborative performance between three sound artists (Nicola Ratti, Lorenzo Senni and Massimiliano Viel) and a visual artist (Massimo Bartolini) centred round the concept of silence taken from Cage-ian philosophy. The three sound artists worked on that concept and performed live while interacting with a video piece by Massimo Bartolini. My role was that of the curator but I also acted as a conductor, in the sense that I received all the audio works in my audio mixer, which meant I could modify the overall sound in real time. It’s been an interesting experience and most of all a good way of experimenting with a new format. Furthermore, this project gave life to Aedo, a meta-curatorial platform I created together with two curators from Milan, Francesco Bertocco and Marco Dolera. Aedo aims to promote artists’ events that fall somewhere in-between visual arts and sound art.
And now on to the last quote this one from Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “Our experience of perception comes from our being present at the moment when things, truths, and values are constituted for us; that perception is a nascent Logos; that it teaches us, outside of all dogmatism, the true conditions of objectivity itself; that is summons us to the tasks of knowledge and action. It is not a question of reducing human knowledge to sensation, but of assisting at the birth of this knowledge, to make it as sensible as the sensible, to recover the consciousness of rationality. This experience of rationality is lost when we take it for granted as self-evident, but is, on the contrary, rediscovered when it is made to appear against the background of non-human nature.” Your practice is not just “observational”, so to speak. How do you integrate questions relating to perception within your work?
Merleau-Ponty wishes to begin in a dimension of experience which has not been “worked over, that offers us, all at once, pell-mell, both subject and object – both existence and essence – and, hence, gives philosophy resources to redefine them”.
This because before thinking the world, we inhabit it and perceive it and it is thanks to the fact that we perceive the world that we create it.
Therefore the role of phenomenology of perception is that indicated by a return to a world before conscience where one attempts a direct description of a subjective experience and reveals the mystery of the world and of reason.
The field where I integrate any questions relating to the phenomenology of perception is that of art, precisely because art is a discipline that holds the right to look at all things without the obligation to asses them.
According to Merleau-Ponty, the role of artists is to project what can be seen in them; artists have to let themselves be penetrated by the universe and they shouldn’t want to penetrate it themselves but, rather, they should try to give a visibility to what the “profane” vision considers to be invisible.
It is difficult not to talk about field recordings without mentioning the name of Chris Watson, amongst others. What are the most recent works based on field recordings that have excited you the most? Also do you see, or would you like to see any particular developments within this specific field or is it just a question of archiving specific soundscapes for posterity?
Chris Watson is without a doubt a great master and a veritable beacon in the world of field recordings. The coherence with which he pursues his work is second to none and the results only confirm the stature of this incredible artist.
Amongst field recordings, one of the works I consider a real masterpiece is 800000 Seconds in Harar by CM Von Hausswolff. Its simplicity and profundity are mind-blowing.
I don’t really believe in archiving material for future generations, though. This might seem strange as I have embarked on the Cathedrals project. I believe, though, this to be a good exercise to develop our propensity to hearing and by this I mean to get to know the time and space we live in and to communicate with our inner self and the world at large – and not just being a sound archive for future generations.
Aside from recording under your own name, you have also adopted the monikers K-11 and PT-R. What is specific about these different projects?
I consider the three projects as different parts of a unique body, whereby each one of them is expressed through different methods of communication and investigation.
PT-R is a project that utilizes field recordings to create rhythmic patterns and it is the one that remains the closest to my musical background as I studied percussions at the conservatory when I was younger.
With K11 instead, I am more focused on radio signals and in particular on the world of Instrumental Transcommunication (EVP) and on esoteric themes.
Finally, the works I release as Pietro Riparbelli aim to bridge the gap between the visual arts, conceptual art and sound art with specific reference on soundscapes and the phenomenology of perception.
You also work as an installation artist and you have been tackling instrumental transcommunication and composing tracks with signals from short wave radio receivers. Could you tell me something about these works?
I have always been fascinated by radio and by the old short wave receivers of the 60s and 70s and especially by the fact that they can transmit and receive information thanks to radio signals refracted in ionosphere for thousands of kilometres with the minimum effort of amplification.
Radio waves are all around and travel through us, but we only perceive them through the use of decoding devices.
The most interesting aspect of the way I use radio in my work is to search for a lack of information through frequencies; this lack of info then becomes sound and therefore it becomes a different kind of information.
When I started working with radio receivers I was shocked by the number of sonic possibilities they could offer me as an artist. The sounds produced by a short wave radio receiver are thrilling and comparable to those of a synthesizer.
My interests for machine based transcommunication and for EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) comes from meeting Marcello Bacci, director of the psycophonic group of Grosseto and subsequently from reading several essays on the topic by the theologician François Brume. Radio seems like one of the principal medium for a study on the subject and even Gugliemo Marconi had asked himself if this new type of waves could transmit information between our world and other worlds such as that of the departed.
What I find fascinating is the possibility of the existence of other dimensions that can overlap radio waves and the so called phenomena of “residual waves”, often beyond the reach of our senses and of our technological means. These waves can remain inside a specific place for many years situating themselves at a level of reality where time and space no longer exist; probably at a quantum level. Residual waves can manifest themselves through certain specific phenomena which can be perceived subjectively or captured by a specific equipment.
I am keen to stress, though, that my interest for this phenomena is exclusively poetic with no desire to communicate with other worlds nor of being a medium.
Sound artists frequently lament the fact that very little space is given to sound within art galleries.
Regarding the space given to sound art, I believe that after the initial few years of interest on the subject, any possible enthusiasm has progressively waned, which has meant that nowadays very little money is destined towards sound research and experimentation, but then again this is applicable across the board as investments in culture are diminishing.
Who do you consider the visual artists who integrate sound more effectively in their work?
The visual artists who I believe has best integrated sound within his work is indeed Bill Viola. I am very fond of his poetics and especially of his early works and I consider him to be one of the few living artists to have always tried to knock down any barrier between different artistic practices.
I am fascinated by your album The Sacred Wood, which was recorded at Bomarzo’s Monsters Park. How did you go about reworking the field recordings?
The Sacred Wood of Bomorzo is an interesting place full of cultural and poetic references. My experience in the park has been really exciting especially considering that at first Bomorzo only looks like an old and well-tended place full of really bizarre stone sculptures. Gradually, though, one’s perception of the space starts to change and one feels sucked in as if following a path, which goes deeper and deeper and becomes more and more psychedelic. I remember that at the end of my first recce I felt dizzy as if I’d lost my bearings, but at the same time I sensed a powerful force coming from that place.
The work I do on field recordings while composing isn’t always the same. As a first step I normally just listen to the recordings and carefully select the material. I will then use some of these recordings just as a pure sound source, while others will be modified through an analog system.
For instance, often, in order to create a melody within a piece, I utilise fragments of looped field recordings processed through reverb and delay effects or else I use a sampler to be able to access the sounds on a keyboard. The use of analog systems is a must for me, as it requires interaction, with frequent unplanned variables often coming into play.