Postcards From Italy: Milan IV – Alberto Boccardi
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Alberto Boccardi is an electronic musician based in Milano. He is also a music composer for dance, theatre and short films. His first solo album was released in February 2012 on Fratto9 under the sky…
Let’s start with your background, like many you started playing music as a teenager in punk and hardcore bands. Could you tell me something about this?
Briefly, I started with the guitar as a teenager when I was about 15-16 and played in a crossover band. I then picked up the drums when I joined a punk band. Between the age of 18 and 22 I played bass in a band called Brainsick. We toured several festivals and recorded a couple of albums. We even got invited onto the Italian program Help hosted by Red Ronnie when I was 20, but you might want to omit this… I eventually gave it all up when I was 22 to pursue my studies. I went abroad and I quit music altogether.
Whereabouts did you go?
I went to Lisbon for a year with an Erasmus scholarship, which meant I couldn’t carry on playing. Also, I was tired of playing that kind of music, it didn’t interest me any longer. I’d reached saturation point. The band carried on without me, but once I got back they had also disbanded.
When did you go back to making music?
It took a while as I got a degree in aerospace engineering and the last few years at collage were really tough. On my final year I was in Rome writing my thesis. Anyhow, when I turned 26-27 I did what a lot of people do and bought myself a Roland Groovebox MC-909, and decided to experiment with electronic music on my own. Things gradually evolved from there and also thanks to a very close friend of mine, Roberto Lalli. Roberto is currently doing a PhD in History of Physics in the States at the MIT but he is also an actor and theatre director. Quite a few years back, having heard some of my stuff, he asked me to work on the sound design for a theatre production in which I was also performing called Eterefolli, a show about physics that combined theatre with dance and electronic music, which even got an award at the Ticino Festival. This is really what kickstarted everything. Aside from theater I thought, why not explore audio visuals as well? And together with Enrico Venturini I founded a project called anyBetterPlace with interactive sound and images, much in the vein of the Milanese group otolab. We actually both studied at the Casa otolab, where Enrico did video, and I did music.
You also work with a dance company…
Yes, with Cinzia Delorenzi, a great artist. She came to see me playing live once and asked me to collaborate. When I was younger I used to dance as well, but you might want to omit this as well… I did contact improvisation. It’s a free form of dance I found great release in. Anyhow, composing music for Cinzia has been a very formative experience, and it helped me a lot in my musical development. She explores emotional landscapes that she transmits through body language on stage and she would ask me to interpret her visions and images through sound. This was not easy because she tends to create a piece from a concept or idea, from something intangible, feelings and emotions, which aren’t concrete. For instance we did a piece on earthquakes and we explored the idea of vibrations through the human body. She wanted to translate nature’s force into dance so I explored ultra low frequencies, between 10hz and 15hz, which might not be audible but are felt through the body. This is an example of how I was then able to import this concept into my own work, since I then acquired a subwoofer, which is dedicated to the reproduction of low-pitched audio frequencies.
Let’s just stay with the earthquake piece you did with Cinzia, how was the creative process organised?
They already had a lot of material they were working on. The tricky thing of working with dance companies, and film-makers as well, is that choreographers and film directors always have a provisional sound track they work and edit on. To insert oneself onto something that already has a certain structure is really difficult. In the case of Cinzia they had structured the piece around tracks by Nicolas De Zorzi. What I did was to try and construct something that recalled stratifications of earthquakes. I took some field recordings from the Bovisa district in Milan, where I studied engineering, with the sound of trains and trams and added samples from my groovebox to recreate the sound of tremors and such like.
Even though I have now reduced my involvement with dance, trying to imagine a landscape and translating that into music is something I still carry with me. I am now concentrating more and more just on sound and on the music itself. I’ve moved away from visuals, the project anyBetterPlace is now over, and I no longer use projections in my live sets. I try to play in scarcely light environments, with the lights turned really low, but the idea is still to represent on a sonic level an inner landscape or a particular mood or frame of mind. I like my audience to concentrate just on the sound. If one wants to listen to a live show, I feel it is best to do so without images.
I watched a clip recently on YouTube where Ben Frost and Lawrence English discussed live performances. Lawrence was stating that he likes his audiences to lie down in the dark when possible, whereas Ben Frost was saying that he wants the public to be aware of his presence on stage. Which of these two very different approaches do you feel closer to?
Ben Frost’s. When I say I like playing in the dark, I do not mean that the venue is plunged in complete darkness. I am still very much present and the people do see me. Playing live is crucial to me and the reason why I make music in the first place is the relationship with the audience. My live sets are sort of rituals… There’s no greater joy for me than to play live and to feel connected to the audience. After that high, the come down can hit my hard and I feel drained and I can feel very depressed after a live performance. Like most, I have played in a variety of venues, from really terrible ones to great ones where the public responded very well. I have done terrible live sets I will always remember just as I have done really good ones I will also always remember.
At what stage do you realise you might be facing a terrible live set?
It becomes immediately apparent. The first warning sign is when you get to know the promoter. Second warning sign is when you get to see the venue. The third sign is when you see their sound equipment. It’s not the number of people that determine a good or a bad live set. I did great sets with 6-7 people. Whereas I did terrible sets with 50 or 60 people who never stopped chatting.
The other reason why I quoted Ben Frost is because you have played with him on his project Music For Six Guitars. Can you tell me something about that?
It’s been one of the defining moments in my musical development, like meeting Roberto Lalli and Cinzia Delorenzi. It’s been great and I love his music especially for his physical and direct approach. He works a lot with field recordings but he mixes them with violins, cellos, guitar etc. I try to do the same by mixing everything that I need for any particular project. I don’t just concentrate on a specific instrument or on a specific musical path. One of the great things of working abroad, – I work as engineer in Kazakhstan half the time – is that I can collect several different instruments from that region of the world. As you can see I do have a variety of “exotic” instruments here at home alongside more traditional ones such as a piano, three synths etc. Anyhow, going back to Ben Frost, I happen to know his Italian promoter and since were looking for guitar players they asked me to take part in his Music for 6 Guitars project in Milan. One of the things I noticed is how focused and driven he is.
We still haven’t talked about your debut album in detail. What was its genesis?
The album started from a need I had to do a solo project after the experience of anyBetterPlace. I wanted to give form to something that I’d been mulling over inside me for a while. The way I tend to work is by collecting different fragments and creating something cohesive from there. In this case there were several triggers. I had worked with Cinzia and I wanted to carry on working with her and therefore with her voice. The same applied to Luca Rampinini…
Let’s talk about the voice; vocals are not often used within electro-acoustic music. Why did you feel the need to include vocals?
I needed Cinzia, not just a voice. Her presence has a special significance for me in this album. She is always in it. Even when she doesn’t sing she listens and sometimes says a few words.
Aside from Cinzia, there’s also a distorted sax in the album courtesy of Luca Rampanini whom I worked with on anyBetterPlace. It is great when you meet a musician who may play completely different styles of music but it still curious and ready to venture into new musical territories.
The album grew organically from all the fragments I had gathered. I put everything in the mix and then went to a studio in Morbegno and worked with a sound technician, Lorenzo Monti, who is not just a studio guy but gets also very close to the creative process. I do need feedback in the studio and for someone to criticize me. I need to talk things through. This is reason why I play, in the first place, it’s the human interaction element. In my case, there I three types of relationship I draw on, the one with other musicians, the one with the studio technician, and the one with the audience.
So you don’t really see yourself as a bedroom artist?
No, the whole concept is alien to me. Also, what I wanted to add is that I do like to perform my tracks live. I don’t really improvise a lot in a live setting, I only do that when I first start working on new material. When I perform live I already know what I will be playing. Sure, there is still an element of chance, but I like to perform tracks from my albums and to let my creatures live, so to speak. I don’t understand artists who don’t play live their own tracks, that’s like child murder to me. To labor over something for any extended amount of time and then not to promote it, not to air it and make people listen to it, is something I cannot phantom. Also, I like to relive the same feelings that I went through while creating a specific work and to transmit that to an audience.
The album is also mastered by Giuseppe Ielasi…
Yes, Giuseppe is the guru, the master and he’s really nice man.
Did you choose Giuseppe for the mastering or was it your label who suggested him?
It was my choice. I have heard a lot of the stuff he’s mastered and it sounds great.
What are the geographical coordinates of the album?
Good question. I am not really sure what to answer… Well, this work is very earthy. The cover depicts a rapeseed field on the outskirts of Milan, and it has me with my face buried into the flowers, the whole sound is very earthy. The album might not be precisely located but it was completed in Valtellina where I spent two weeks holed up busy at work. It also contains field recordings, which I took on the mountains, above Morbegno. There is a lot of guitar in it, with effects and distortions, synths, the birimbau and other instruments…
You work half the time in Kazhakstan as an engineer, have you ever been tempted to take field recordings over there?
The wolf and stray dogs would be very interesting. Where I’m based I can hear dogs and wolves barking and howling all night…
That’s very Ben Frost…
Yes! There is a problem with wolves in that part of Kazakhstan and they have traps around town as in winter the temperature plummets to -30 and the wolves get very close to the urban centre. Still, I would need to take a good microphone to record them. I have a zoom h2n, but no micro and I would need to get closer to them, which means finding a local who could take me to the wolves. The other problem is that I work 12 hours a day and I would need to take field recordings in the evenings when I’m really knackered.
In my musical research there’s always something that sets me off, it can be anything, a particular sound, something I heard on telly, or at a friend’s house. I am really fascinated by the Sardinian teneros from Orosei, for instance. At present, though, I am working with sounds and people from Valtellina, the region in the North of Lombardy where I am from. I have asked a French Horn player who plays a classical repertoire and who also happens to be the barman from the bar next door to my parent’s place to contribute to two tracks of mine. He doesn’t improvise so I wrote down a few notes for him, not that I have extensive knowledge, but I jotted down some basic arpeggios and we took it from there. I then reworked the material at home.
Did he enjoy the end result?
Yes. It has also to be said that many people who are not familiar with electro-acoustic music are frequently reminded of Pink Floyd when they listen to this kind of music or the Beatles’ Song n.9 for its psychedelic sound. Different people have different reference points and make different connections.
The French Horn will feature in a new 7” split I am working on for my label fRaTto9 uNdeR tHE sky together with the autoharp, the cello, and the double bass. I love collaborating with other musicians.
Another musician you have collaborated with is Federico Visi…
He is a great musician and a good friend of mine. We had a project together but it never took off because of logistics time constraints. He is now based in Ravenna, and is more and more into classical music.
Do you listen to classical music yourself?
I like to listen to classical music live, not so much on my headphones. When I do it tends to be Mahler, Mozart, or Beethoven. In terms of contemporary music I would say that we are all indebted to minimalism, to John Cage and Terry Riley. I also like Maessian a lot and Satie.
What else do you listen to?
As far as the Italian electro-acoustic scene goes, I listen to Giuseppe Ielasi, who is a real master. Also, Nicola Ratti and Stefano Pilia – I really like Stefano’s project In Zaire. I also like Enrico Malatesta, Luca Sigurtà, Attila Faravelli, Andrea Belfi, Attilio Novellino, Fabio Orsi, Heroin in Thaiti, … there’s such great scene in Italy. Amongst the labels I would say, Boring Machine, Die Schachtel, Senufo, Fratto9 under the sky, Holiday Records…
You are also part of the Archive of Italian Soundscapes, AIPS, how did your involvement come about?
Through Attilio Novellino. I heard the album Loud Listening they released on Cronica and got in touch with Attilio and one thing led to another. Francesco Giannico and Alessio Ballerini are the ones who coordinate the Archive.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently hard at work on project with a choir from Valtellina the Coro Antonio La Motta directed by Davide Mainetti. We will be performing live on the 17th of November in Bergamo, Italy. For that particular performance I have also enlisted the help of Attilio Novellino, Nicola Ratti and Matteo Bennici who will also be playing… I’m really looking forward to it.
I have also a 12” split release with Lawrence English coming out in 2013 on fRaTto9 uNdeR tHE sky, which I am really excited about.