Nicola Ratti lives and works in Milan. He works as an architect in Gru Architetti, a multidisciplinary team. He runs the art / installation branch of the office. Together with Fatima Bianchi, he is the co-founder of FeN Bureau, an art entity for the production of video and sound installations...
Q: How did you get onto electro-acoustic music?
NR: The first instrument I played was the piano. Alas, I “unlearnt” the grammar of music when I discovered rock music and I found a classical guitar at home, which I used to play, as if it was an electric guitar. In the 90s I was in a band called Pin Pin Sugar a “mathematical rock group”. At the same time, through musicians such as Giuseppe Ielasi, whom I first met at the local library, I became enamoured with experimental music. I found it mesmerising seeing people use unconventional instruments to produce interesting stuff, and I was captivated by the concentration of their sets and the way they used silence. It inspired me to create my own musical language and to venture out on my own. The first things I did were still very much guitar based. My latest album, though, 220 tonnes, released through Die Schachtel is the first work of mine where the guitar doesn’t feature.
Q: In what way collaborations are important to you?
NR: Collaborations have a formative value for me. I started collaborating with Giuseppe as Bellows releasing s/t in 2007 for the Swedish label Kning Disc. That album was a sum of its parts in the sense that it brought together what we did individually, whereas our latest album Handcut, (CD, Alga Marghen, 2010) is the result of “sonic research”. At the time, Giuseppe was based in Tübingen, Germany, and we used to experiment by placing a contact microphone directly onto vinyl as if it was a needle on a record. The mike picked up the tracks on the album in a distorted, but always interesting, way. All we needed to do was to record the sound onto magnetic tape. I then started to use the same technique in my solo work.
Giuseppe and I feed off each other. The same happens with Attila Faravelli, with whom I recorded the album Lieu, (LP, Boring Machines/Coriolis Sounds, 2010) as FaravelliRatti. With Attila, I am able to pursue my experimentation with the electric guitar, while he uses both a laptop and prepared speakers. In a sense, it is a three-way dialogue between me and him and this virtual third member of the group, which consists of my amp and his speakers. We converse as if we were a bass, drums and guitar trio. The focus, with FaravelliRatti, is more on the way sound propagates and inhabits the space.
On the other hand, Ronin is a more traditional group with whom I’ve been playing for the past six years. It consists of two guitars, bass and drums. It is a purely instrumental band with no vocals and it is lead by Bruno Dorella who also plays in the bands Ovo and Bachi da pietra. We play music for imaginary films, a kind of desert rock, even though we ended up writing the score for the documentary Vogliamo anche le rose by the Italian film-maker Alina Marazzi. Ronin are as far removed from the experimental music I play on my own as they possibly can.
Q: What is your approach to playing live?
NR: I feel the need to play an instrument. I normally play a small synth with some oscillators placed on a little guitar that I have constructed myself. It functions just like an electric guitar with pick ups and strings even though these are attached to a simple plank of wood which fits into a suitcase and is easily transportable. I do not play it, but I use it to harmonize the oscillations from the synth. It reduces the purely electronic sound creating a richer texture. Also, on a live set, I tend to have a record player with me.
I like the performance side of playing live. When I used to use a laptop I felt I couldn’t bridge the gap from the live instrument to the laptop in a satisfactorily way. There was something jarring, which didn’t quite work. Also, there is something quite cold about the musician on stage behind a mac. It depends on how it is done. When I play with Giuseppe and Attila, for instance, they both uses laptops, but Giuseppe does so in an enveloping way, whereas Attila uses it as a means to play his prepared speakers.
Generally speaking I would say that 80% of any of my live sets is improvised. I might know what my point of departure and the point of arrival may be, and I might have a play-list in my head, but most of music I play live is improvised. It is the way the venue’s sound system works that dictates the kind of performance I do.
Q: Your album ésope on the Italian net label Zymogen makes extensive use of field recordings, which is something you seem to have abandoned.
NR: I used to rely heavily on field recordings, as I was often asked to curate the sound design of shows devoted to the city as an architect and musician. Nowadays, though, I am more cautious, as I often find that field recordings are used primarily to embellish a particular track with no particular thought behind it.
I am currently working with Mark Templeton on a project about urban spaces that would connect Edmonton in Canada, where he is based, to Milan where I live. We are not just making recordings of the two cities, though. We are more interested in seeing how Milan and Edmonton react to sound. The idea is to record the music in the studio and then play it live in specific spaces in both cities, which we still need to identify. It is very complicated, though, to get public funding for this kind of venture in Italy, whereas the situation in Canada is far more promising.
Q: What is your relationship to the visual arts?
NR: Together with the visual artist Fatima Bianchi, we’ve set up FeN Bureau an art entity for the production of video and sound installations and we’ve done wok for the O’ Artoteca Gallery in the Isola district in Milan. It is something we would like to pursue further. One of the works we have produced is a video installation called Sedimentaria, which was filmed in the marble quarries of Carrara. While the film was projected, I was feeding three separate magnetic tape recorders, which had loops hanging from the ceiling. The image was then sent to a small monitor and the audio functioned as progressive layers of echoes. We always try not to use to image a backdrop to the music or viceversa, but to make them interact.
Q: What is the electro-acoustic scene in Milan like?
There’s a concentration of really interesting labels such as Fabio Carboni and Bruno Stucchi’s Die Schachtel, Lorenzo Senni’s Presto Records, Emanuele Carcano’s Alga Marghen, with an impressive catalogue of historical recordings by the likes of Charlemagne Palestine, Henri Chopin, Philp Corner and new recordings by Ghédalia Tazartès and Walter Marchetti. On a more radical and noise based level, there’s also Hundebiss Records. Then there are Holidays Records and other labels.
It terms of playing live, though, there aren’t any venues specifically devoted to experimental music. Giuseppe Ielasi used to curate a really interesting programme for a small art bookshop called A+M, which has since closed. Nowadays there’s only Attila Faravelli’s The Lift.
The only thing that seems to work are “special events”. It might be a cliché but there’s some truth in the idea that image and attitude are paramount in Milan. Trendy events draw crowds such as Mi Ami, organised by Rockit and Audiovisiva at the Palazzo del Ghiaccio, but there is nothing specific for electro-acoustic music. It is dispiriting, as I frequently get enquiries from musicians who would like to play in Milan. I would love to be artistic director of a venue, but alas, there is no chance of that happening for the time being.
Q: Is there a particular place/space in Milan that you find inspiring or that you’d take visitors to the city.
NR: I am fascinated by early XX century metaphysical architecture. Buildings such as those by Giovanni Muzio, like the Triennale, are quintessentially Milanese. I don’t find them inspiring on an artistic level, but to me they epitomize Milan. In particular there’s a residential building just off Piazza Repubblica in front of the US consulate called Ca’ Brutta (the ugly house) which I find remarkable. These are places that tend to be overlooked by tourists and occasional visitors .