Vanessa Rossetto’s music is built on an astonishing diversity of sounds, a veritable parade of timbres and textures sourced from field recordings and performed on a variety of instruments and quotidian everyday objects. From her early self-released work to recent solo and collaborative albums on labels such as Kye, Erstwhile, Unfathomless, and No Rent, she has explored a unique approach to aural collage blending a documentary curiosity and attentiveness to the world with a strong personal aesthetic and ethos. How is this music made, and what concerns drive its creation?
Given the key role that field recordings play in many of Rossetto’s compositions, it might be thought that thinking about places would be important to her working practice, but that’s not quite how she puts it herself. “I don’t think it matters that much where you are unless you have a real yen to capture a specific sound that only occurs in a certain place,” she opines. “I feel like people often make too much of a fuss over where they do their recording, as though that and not they themselves and the compositional decisions they make are what will make the results interesting or not. There’s no need to jet around the world — it would take you a while, if ever, to even exhaust just the sounds inside your own house.”
This attitude speaks to another aspect of Rossetto’s music, the bringing to the fore of small, closely-miced sounds made by a plethora of ordinary domestic objects (see the photograph above for some of the objects used to make “Severe Liberties”, her collaboration with Kevin Parks). The exact identities of these accumulated examples of everyday paraphernalia remain hidden from the listener, but their humbleness and intimacy does not. These qualities might manifest in certain rough and ready timbres, or in flatness and lack of resonance, or in smallness of sound. The domestic space is one that recurs frequently in Rossetto’s work, perhaps because that’s where so much of her practice occurs, in a room working with physical objects, rather than in a sound-proofed studio with purpose-made instruments or digital conveniences. But what about the wider world?
I find myself more busy now so usually I will just record when I hear interesting things as I go about my normal business. I really think I’ve been capturing better, more serendipitous things doing it this way.
“For my own purposes, I’m much more a fan of human activity than of nature recording,” she says. “I like to record in places where people speak loudly. There’s not much I like more than the stereos of passing cars and the overlapping of disparate pop music from multiple people’s earbudless mobile phones.” Hence the title of her recent album for Unfathomless, the chugging bass of Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ bleeding into the music like the smell of cooking from a neighbour’s open window. “I used to go on outings specifically to record, but I find myself more busy now so usually I will just record when I hear interesting things as I go about my normal business. I really think I’ve been capturing better, more serendipitous things doing it this way.”
Other people’s voices
Most of the voices in Rossetto’s work are lost in the hubbub of the contemporary metropolis, their words blending with those of many others and becoming indistinguishable. But now and then there are clearly audible questions, tales, opinions, and words of advice, captured spontaneously in public spaces — sometimes addressed to unheard listeners, sometimes even to Rossetto herself. On “Adult Contemporary” we hear a 47-year-old lady explain how life accelerates as it passes; on “Earnest Rubbish”, Rossetto’s collaboration with Matthew Revert, a passerby in an outdoor crowd suddenly realises that her voice is being recorded. With the use of this material comes a certain ethical responsibility, as the artist is quick to point out.
“I feel tremendous responsibility to [the people whose voices are heard in the recordings], and using their voices in a way that is respectful to them is very important to me,” she says. “I’ve gotten some really great captures before but didn’t use them because I felt like they could be interpreted as making fun of the speakers, which I would never want to do. I just want to know about people and understand them and maybe understand something about myself as a result and work through it by constructing these dioramas.”
Voices are also sometimes heard at home, in the quiet domestic spaces that form the acoustic yin to the yang of the outdoor bustle: the voices of Rossetto and her collaborators, who over the past few years have included Revert (on “Earnest Rubbish”), Lee Patterson (“Temperament as Waveform”), and Kevin Parks (“Severe Liberties”). What has she learnt from working with others?
“One thing is that I have learned how to embrace humour in my work from Matthew Revert,” she explains. “It had always been there, but when working with him he acknowledged it and made me more overt with it. I also feel like my own performances prior to working with him had been pleasant but possibly drab affairs, but his exuberant approach to performing has made me excited about the idea and anxious to plan interesting things. Also fearlessness.”
Structure and narrative
Voices public and domestic, tiny scrapes and rumble of traffic, buzzes, tingles, and thick squelchy noise: Rossetto’s music is littered with a vast range of sounds, many of them appearing briefly for a refrain before falling silent, to be replaced by the next sound. With no traditional melodic or harmonic frame to guide each piece — no verse-chorus-bridge or dramatic tension-and-release — how is each of these “dioramas” structured? How are all these disparate sounds organised?
“I think I care less about sounds for their own sake than a lot of people might,” Rossetto asserts. “I want things to sound ‘good’ (by which I mean ‘the way I imagine them’), and I do care about aesthetics of course, but all in the service of the narrative of the piece. I do tend to start things with some aim in mind, but often the aim comes to me by chance, by hearing (and recording) someone saying something that triggers some idea in me, or relates to an idea I had already been thinking about.”
And when is a piece finished? “When the deadline arrives! Really, I tend to go over and over pieces adding more in areas that seem like they could use it until it sounds like it does in my head. My painter mother taught me to leave things unviewed for a while when you felt you might be nearing completion so that you can return to them with fresh eyes, and I apply this to pieces, too, ignoring them for a week or two and coming back more able to assess them accurately.”
Narrative dioramas, humour and fearlessness, the responsible capture of human activity: the music of Vanessa Rossetto celebrates the serendipitous hum of human life, while at the same time leaving a unique and personal sonic impression.