The next chapter in the 'Postcards From Italy' series sees Gianmarco travel to Venice for an in-depth interview with sound artist Enrico Coniglio...
Q: There is a page on your website where you’ve collected a number of thoughts over the years, many of which are about Venice. In one of these notes, you write that “there are two different cities of Venice: “one ‘above’ and one below the surface.” The one above pertains to the picturesque and caters to the tourist industry, the one below is the “realm of sewers that overlook the exposed gums of the canals”. Where do you place yourself in relation to these two different cities? Also, you talk about grey areas, is there a grey area within Venice itself or is the grey area the one outside the urban centre, the one within the margins, on the outskirts?
EC: Being born and bred in Venice, I move between the two. The city above cannot be defined as a proper city anymore, not as such. It is like a theatre set, where the grotesque comedy of tourist exploitation is played out on a daily basis with colorful masks, clowns, doves and pigeons, while the residents try to get on with their lives. This whole jamboree, though, is what enables many to make a living. The same happens in all main tourist destinations the world over.
The hidden Venice is the one relegated on the outskirts, one of very limited interest to tourists. Still, it is here, in the suburbs, that the few residents left have taken refuge from what once was a real city. The suburbs are also, in a way, the bastion of true romance.
So, yes, the “grey area” I am talking about in my writings, is the one located on the margins, beautiful or ugly as it may be, but of undoubted charm, as opposed to the cliché version of Venice. However, this “grey area” is also a state of mind, which holds no geographical boundaries. It is the place where one takes solace from the banality of the daily “Death in Venice” experience.
Q: You also write: “Venice is sinking, it is a city where you have to pay an entrance fee. It is an old flooded shopping mall open 24 / 7. Venice gives the best and the worst of itself, every day, every month, and every season.” What is the best and the worst that Venice has given you?
EC: There is no doubt that Venice is a failed city in terms of its inhabitants, because it is not somewhere where one can live anymore. It has become like a courtesan you visit and you pay homage to. There are virtually no job prospects, the house prices are prohibitive and most of the groceries shops and convenience stores have turned into souvenir stalls selling useless trinkets. Unfortunately, this is the dominant Venice, a city that gives the worst of itself in its deceitful display of its falsity. It is a non-place, a prime example of how a real city can turn into a theme park.
Having said that, Venice is a truly unique place so different from any other city, it is my birthplace, and that is something that will always stay with me. Also, it has set me a part, in a way. Being born in Venice makes me feel like an alien having to endure this hanging feeling of frustration, almost as if I was sentenced to oblivion and yet, as Giacomo Leopardi put it “being shipwrecked is sweet to me in this sea”.
Q: Considering you have been integrating locally sourced field recordings into your own music, I was wondering if your personal topography of Venice has changed over the years. In other words, has sound-mapping your own city given you different emotional and psychological points of reference?
EC: A few years ago, when I was first started to focus on the concept of “topophonia”, (the wealth of indigenous sounds that pertain to a specific time and place), what I had in mind was a more imaginary city, more musical and naive, if you like. Nowadays, however, I am more interested in faithfully recording and documenting the transformation of the landscape. If any of my current musical works, which centre around my love and hate relationship with Venice, suggests imaginary sound itineraries, these have become closer to the real soundscapes of the city, even if this sonic world has been manipulated and rendered as something else. The theme of boundaries and borders, of the sound of the areas on the margins, is certainly prevalent in my approach to the territory, interpreted as a complex set of different areas characterized by special aural traits, which clash with each other, generating apparent “discrepancies”. The size of the areas and the size of the margins is variable. Central to this is the idea that the concept of “margin” may be used as a new model for interpreting the contemporary soundscape and this is something I am developing with the curator and music reviewer Leandro Pisano [www.leandropisano.it]. Venice is an ideal case study as it features different geographical areas that coexists with each other in the same terraqueous context.
Q: When you write that, “There is no longer a catalog of ‘sounds of the city’, ‘sounds of the countryside’, ‘nature sounds’, or ‘human sounds’, because all sounds have gradually blurred and became ingrained in one another”, I thought of Julia Kent’s album Green and Gray, amongst others, which articulates the now outdated dichotomy between natural and urban environments. Taking into account the fact that Venice is an atypical city in itself, because it is built on water and therefore it escapes the “standardised score” of the traditional city, what are the specific sounds that characterise Venice for you? The answer may be found in your track Fondamenta Nove incl. 130 cm s.l.m., but I would like you to elaborate a bit on this.
EC: I am very fond of that track, thank you for mentioning it. It mixes field recordings and musical musings in a narrative way. For quite some time now, I have been a firm believer that we need to venture beyond the traditional juxtaposition between “land-scape” and “man-scape”. The way I see it, the borders between the natural and the human habitat have become so blurred as to be almost untraceable. One only needs to think of the Venice lagoon. It is a unique ecosystem, with plenty of wildlife, and yet, it is not, and I would like to stress this, a “natural environment”. For centuries, Venetians have controlled the flow of rivers, diverting their estuaries to counter the relentless silting of the lagoon. This has saved Venice for posterity.
The concept of margin as a term of interpretation allows to overcome the seemingly naive idea that a soundscape can be classified by different themes. In the 20th century, with the transformation of the landscape in Italy, and in the Veneto region in particular, and especially after the Second World War, the distinction between city and countryside has become obsolete.
The richness of the soundscape of Venice is given on two different levels, the first one pertaining to the peculiarities that characterize the different areas that make up the system as a whole, and the second one relating to the complexity of the relationship between said areas. The specificity of the Venetian soundscape exists on the margins, where the different sounds come together creating dyscrasias, or even “schizophoniae “, and therefore contamination. But contamination creates a more complex and ultimately richer environment.
Q: Continuing on from this idea of music from the outskirts, could you tell me something about your experience of Porto Marghera?
EC: Porto Marghera is one of the largest industrial areas situated on a coastal line in Europe and it is now in irreversible decline. Of all the different landscapes that make up the Venetian environment, it embodies this grey area we were talking about more than any other. I started to explore Porto Marghera from an early age in search of “urban adventures”, but also to confront and stare directly at the “face of evil”. Even though Porto Marghera has given work to many, Venetians have had to pay a very high price for the privilege in terms of work related diseases. Furthermore, the pollution of the environment is something we, and the future generations, have to contend with on a daily basis. Returning to the same area as an adult and as a sound-seeker is just another way for me to perpetuate my childhood fascination with Porto Marghera. In addition to scouting the docks of large industrial canals, I was also lucky enough to visit some of the most important large industrial plants still operating. I have made recordings within factories, construction sites and warehouses. The history of Porto Marghera is very much the history of Venice in the Twentieth Century with its modern suburbs of Mestre and Marghera. Through music I try to render an alternative Venice, by creating an unusual guide to the sound of a city that is magical and mysterious, not only by virtue of its churches, museums and historical buildings, but also of its factory chimneys, cranes and large industrial plants where the picturesque takes on new forms. Alas, what prevails is still a taste for decadence, both in the old and the modern city.
Q: The region of Veneto is characterized by its urban sprawl that extends all the way from Milano, in Lombardy, right up to Venice. You also write that there is no distinction between the industrial landscape and that of the Venice lagoon and yet Porto Marghera hardly registers in the mind of the casual tourist.
EC: As we have mentioned before, Venice is atypical and quite different from any other city. The different areas are all linked by the sea. When I say that, one cannot differentiate between the industrial landscape and the lagoon, I refer to the fact that any terraqueous environment is extremely “promiscuous” by nature. The characteristic soundscape of shoals and sandbanks meets that of the industrial area along the waterfront. There is literally an overlapping of the different elements where the different sounds collide and merge.
Even though, over the years, industrial archeology has become a niche market within the tourism industry, most of the tourists “delete” the existence of Porto Marghera, because clearly inconsistent with the stereotype of the old city, in all its grandeur. This is perfectly consistent with the transformation of Venice as a theme park. In order to function, all theme parks have to “erase” their surroundings, as the anthropologist Marc Augè wrote. Therefore, Porto Marghera does not appear on tourist maps, one pretends it does not exist, even if it is only just under two miles away.
Q: This is one of the standard questions that I put to all electro-acoustic musicians: do field recordings trigger the idea of an album or of a particular track, or does the idea come first and then you go looking for the right sound that might evoke what you had in mind?
EC: A field trip is a trip, first of all! That is my motto. The so-called “sound-seekers” always travel with their own equipment. They probably have a plan of the kind of recordings they intend to capture, but it is the sound that eventually leads them. One must be able to listen, to adapt, to improvise and sometimes to take risks. The discovery of a sound often encourages one to build a concept around it. Or it could be that one already has a clear idea of what to look for, but it is not always as clear-cut as that. I feel lucky as I have the lagoon to draw from, which is an endless source of fascination for me. Of course when I travel I always carry with me the bare essentials in terms of recording equipment, but more often than not I return home empty handed. Last summer, for instance, I was on the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. However the wind swept with such a relentless force that it made it impossible to hear anything else. So, getting field recordings can be a frustrating experience as well, at times.
Q: And now onto your collaborative projects. You are part of the collective Archive of Italian Soudscapes (AIPS). What has your experience been and what do you see as a way forward for AIPS? Also, you collaborate with Giovanni Lami under the moniker Lemures, what is the specific of this experience? With regards to the project with Emanuele Errante and Elisa Marzorati, Herion, I understand this is a closed chapter, will it continue in other forms? Also, could you tell me how your recent collaboration with Katie English, aka Isnaj Dui came about for My Home Sinking…
EC: AIPS is an important initiative and a good opportunity for me to network with like minded musicians who operate within the same field. It was through AIPS, for instance, that I got to know Giovanni Lami. As Lemures we aim to work to process raw field recordings through a multi-speaker system in a live context. We have already taken this project to a couple of festivals including Flussi in Avellino, over the summer. We’ve just finished recording our first album and we’re now looking for a label. Anyone interested, just drop us a line!
In terms of AIPS, I am organising with Alessio Ballerini a group field trip to northern Europe. And, finally, my friend Alessandro Doni and I have prepared a manifesto on “live electronics” open to anyone who may be interested, which will soon be uploaded to the AIPS’ website.
With regards to HERION, Elisa Marzorati, Pier Gabriel Mancuso and I are currently deciding whether to continue with this project and, if so, how.
I will continue to make ambient and electro-acoustic music under my own name, whereas, with My Home Sinking, I would like to address the idea of a song in all its different “forms”. I am currently working on the album, but I hope to be able to finish the mix in a couple of months.
Katie English I met through Exquisite What, which we are both part of, and I was immediately captured by her sound, raw and harmonious at the same, and by her music so lovely and communicative. The project – ambient and folk-oriented – also includes the collaboration of Orla Wren from Britain, and Sean Quinn and Laura Sheeran from Ireland.
Q: You also collaborate with your sister who is an artist. How important is the visual element in your work?
EC: For the past few years, my sister Francesca has contributed with live visuals to my performances with short films and geometric shapes, and by digitally processing photographs, and manipulating live images through a digital microscope, to create slowly evolving abstract scenes. However, it has increasingly become a cliché to use film projections with live electronic music. Personally, I tend to listen to music lying down in the dark as I find it easier to concentrate on the sound, so I am not averse to the idea of dispensing altogether with the visual side of things. Having said that, I enjoy working with my sister and I try to leave her complete autonomy in what she does. I love combining the two approaches which is what I did with the live project “Quiet Area”, devised with the Italian net label Laverna, where the public was invited to lie down and let themselves be carried to the threshold of sleep by the music and visuals that were projected onto the ceiling of the venue. Moreover, Francesca is compiling a DVD with music by Ennio Mazzon, Under The Snow (the duo Stefano Gentile and Gianluca Favaron) and I, which should come out on Silentes.
Q: You’ve stated that your music is intended for the “mind traveler”. What paths do you take when you tackle a new composition or a new project? Do you generally have in mind the final destination you aim to reach or do you prefer to let yourself be led by the sound itself?
EC: Music is a powerful means of suggestion, with the listener being led on a journey through memory and imagination. But music can also be a means to better focus on one’s own reality through “escapism”. This could be summarized with the aphorism: to take flight in order to return.
As far as I’m concerned, I do not consider a new composition like a blank slate. In a new track there is always something inherited from a previous work, an idea which was not fully developed, a sound discovered by accident. It could even be that material previously discarded becomes the seed for something new. Certainly, there is the desire to create something new, and to escape the traps of routine. The options are endless, you just need a good compass and good navigation skills. It is up to the listener, though, to decide the final destination. I enjoy drawing maps, and indicating different paths but with the risk of sounding trite, to each their own journey.