Xu is the moniker of Nicola Fornasari of Italy. “Whisper My World”, released on the ever consistent Eilean Records, is his latest release under said moniker. The list of instruments attributed to him on this new album is the following: “music boxes, singing bowls, piano, arturia minibrute, casio toy keaboard, fx and looper pedals, monotron delay, samplr and borderland granular on ipad, custom built pure data patch, tape recorders, tape heads, contact mics, field recordings, processing”. It’s an unusual list in that it blends instruments as well as the production tools used to augment the various sounds on display. Across the album’s 8 songs, most of those instruments are indiscernible, simply meld one into another, or are so heavily processed they are hard to identify. Sonically, the entire album feels almost otherworldly, but therein lays its allure.
“Whisper My World” bubbles its way into existence, almost literally. The processing tools and source sounds are not clear, and in truth Fornasari probably doesn’t want the listener to think about it too much. Those opening notes play out like a cacophony of sounds that refuse to be bound and constrained by anything so linear as the idea of a rhythm. There’s nothing specific to grab on to, but there are enough snapshots of melodies to evoke a feeling that we’re losing our sense of reality and being transported somewhere else altogether.
From there onward, “Whisper My World” sets up a sort of call and response between its two tonal worlds: the dense and murky subaquatic pieces and the almost childlike melodies that give the album its more optimistic cues. For example, second piece “Old People and Young Children” still has that same subaquatic feeling of the opener, but it’s even murkier – somehow deeper below the surface. Whereas the third piece, “Sea of cobwebs” has an almost spritely, open charm to it – the main sounds appearing to be some sort of toy piano or music box. Conversely, fourth song “It’s Been More Than That” slows things down and resumes the murkier, funeral tones of the second piece. And so on, and so on…
But in a way, “Whisper My World” is a further exploration of ideas Xu has explored before. In July 2017, Xu released a piece entitled “A quiet removal”. Describing the piece, Fornasari noted the lived experience that lead to its creation. Specifically, he notes that during one visit on semi-annual holidays to favourite spot, he heard his then 4-yeard old daughter playing with a music box. Moved by the moment, he captured it via the microphone on his iphone and then played with the production tools at his disposal later on and created improvisations around the source material. That notion of memory is an important part of Xu’s work.
To offer a parallel – years ago, an artist named Pete Asthon famously posted on social media site Instagram a video and photo montage that showcased what happened when a digital photo was re-posted 90 times. Known as “generational loss” what happens is that the photo becomes compressed and then over saturated until the lines and colours start to blur to the point the photo looks a horrible scan of the original. This is not something people contemplate much in the digital world. For most people, analogue sources, such as tapes and LPs, are much more prone to such degradation – or so the average person assumes.
In a sense, Fornasari and Ashton are exploring the same concepts. Part of what makes “Whisper My World” feel so alien is that it feels like a memory of memory of a memory. Or, put another way, it feels like each sound its sonic palette is derived from a fomula of reproduction multiplied by augmentation multiplied by original production all multiplied to infinity. But through that lens it becomes clear why Fornasari would list his production tools right alongside his source instruments because in many ways augmentation of source sounds is his main ‘instrument’.
But what’s amazing is that despite its permutations and augmentations, “Whisper My World” feels decidedly humane. Although it’s almost prescient in its consistent back and forth between the two worlds of sound, “Whisper My World” is so consistently immersive that the two worlds feel merged into one such that the back and forth never feels like a tactic. And for an album that constantly displays and exploits the machinations used to create it, the tone of the pieces is incredibly human and fragile. Xu has created an album that is both inviting and unsettling. It’s a fun ride from beginning to end and one that reveals Fornasari as a unique voice in minimal-electronic music that’s coming into sharp focus.