Andrea Valle

Andrea Valle is a composer, improviser, and researcher. Originally an electric bass player, he studied composition with Azio Corghi while attending masterclasses by Trevor Wishart and Marco Stroppa. His work as a composer is mainly focused on algorithmic methodologies, indifferently in the electro-acoustic and in the instrumental domain, with a particular interest in compositional methodologies for automatic notation generation. His work includes multimedia installations, film music, and more recently music for the theatre (Cotrone, by Marcel·lí Antúnez Roca, 2010, now published as Arsenale delle Apparizioni by Nephogram). He is a member of IVVN, a collective devoted to free improvisation, and he appears -performing the “Rumentarium“, his own-built computer-controlled mechanical ensemble- on Hopeful Monster (Die Schachtel, 2010).

On the topic of computer generated music, you profess not to be so much interested in sound synthesis or in a compositional approach regulated by algorithms as you are in learning from a computer. In other words you delegate the generation of sounds to electro mechanical systems, which you then control through your laptop. Does this make you more of a creator conductor rather than a composer? Also, could you illustrate how your Rumentarium sound mechanism works?

Well, while I’m not particularly interested in sound synthesis, I’m totally devoted to algorithmic composition. To such a degree that I included automatic score generation and typography into my compositional processes for acoustic instruments. So, I surely think about myself as a composer. It’s exactly this “high level” approach that pushed me to create my electro-mechanical stuff: this way, I can control those “instruments” like an orchestra, but using computational strategies. To be more specific, the Rumentarium is a set of electro-mechanical little percussions assembled from scavenged stuff. I’m particularly fond of its debris-like nature, because it is mirrored in the sound it produces. It includes various everyday modified objects (I tend to modify the setup for each performance/work, at least when I have time) that are excited by means of DC motors. The whole electro-mechanical setup is then driven in real-time by four Arduinos, that act like DACs. The software is entirely written in SuperCollider.

Over the past couple of years I extended this approach to other setups using different hardware systems both for control and sound production. So, I have now included into my personal sonic wunderkammer solenoids, radios, hair driers…. And I’m not using Arduinos anymore (although I might get back to them in the future) but custom hardware.

But I agree with you, delegating sound generation to other subjects (the objects composing Rumentarium) surely allows me to face uncertainty as there is always a specific electro-mechanical randomness I am not able to foresee, and thus to learn from it. Which is pretty a good side-effect for me.

Your installation La terra guasta is a good case in point to illustrate your approach to sound. This particular project, though, hides not only an ecological principle at its core, but also a poetic drive, as it is effectively composed by T.S. Eliot. Could you please elaborate on this for me?

La terra guasta is one of the two installations that are based on the Rumentarium. The whole poem by Eliot is scanned, letter by letter. Each letter is mapped into an activation pattern for one or more subsets of the Rumentarium. So, it’s like the Rumentarium is reading Eliot’s poem, enacting through its discarded, heterogenous matter the Waste Land’s critique to modernity. Technically, it’s a kind of sonification strategy. I like working with language strings very much because phonological patterns in languages show a very unique structure of repetitions and variations.

Scan rate for the text and subset composition to be activated in the Rumentarium depend on a function implementing a Brownian motion. I thought Brown motion was an apt control strategy as the subjects of the poem are wandering meaninglessly in the waste land around them. By the way, I don’t like the typical Italian translation of the title, with “waste” becoming “desolata”, which is, actually, “desolate”. Guasta is rotten, devastated: in my opinion a much more perspicuous translation (also from an etymological point of view).

From the perspective of the audience, the unheimlich (and fun, of course) aspect is that people see and hear the Rumentarium moving and buzzing at different paces and with different dynamics, but then sometimes it stops abruptly. This depends on the fact that blank spaces and carriage returns are mapped to silence, so long pauses of many seconds appear, for instance, between a section and the following one of the poem. At that point people typically think that a sort of performance has ended and they approach the Rumentarium. But, then, after an undetermined amount of time, it starts again. This animistic feature is quite effective.

You are also a SuperCollider buff. What does this particular software enable you to achieve that you couldn’t have otherwise done with other programs?

I’m not a fan of software apostleship, but surely SC allows me to do substantially whatever I want, because it seamlessly bridges state-of-the-art real-time audio with high level programming. SC is very elegant, and you can realize large audio and multimedia projects involving complex data structures and interaction with other programs and with the Unix console. While I understand for sure the theoretical argument that visual programming software (Max/MSP, PD etc) can be expressive at the same degree of SC in terms of Turing completeness, for example, when I am working I’m interested in typical logic structures that find their most natural expressive vehicle in a language: “Do something with that object having those properties under that condition until something other has happened etc”. In this sense, SC is also far superior to Csound, as the latter is mostly a descriptive language and not a programming one, having limited possibilities in data structures and information flow control. I’m using SC for very different projects, for real-time audio but also for scripting graphic programs in order to generate music notation, or for controlling the Rumentarium and other physical computing devices.

Moreover, SC has an incredibly competent and responsive community. And it’s open source. So, there’s no comparison with any other competitors from my (probably very idiosyncratic) perspective.

SuperCollider has also been instrumental in the implementation of GeoGraphy, an environment for algorithmic composition you worked with for almost a decade, which is at the basis of your work Acta GeoGraphica (2001-2007). As you explain yourself, “Each series is generated starting from a unique imaginary landscape, a sort of map of pulviscolar sound objects. The numbers of each series define different trajectories that literally explore the same space. At the end, the latter emerges as a virtual, “compossible” soundscape, unifying the different perspectives.” How important is it notion of landscape translated into sound to you?

I have now implemented GeoGraphy in SuperCollider, event though all the tracks on Acta GeoGraphica bar one have been generated without SuperCollider. Mostly in Csound, and one (Paesaggi su pergamena) directly in Python (a bizarre and instructive experience, as Python is designed to do exactly the contrary of number crunching required by DSP). So, GeoGraphy comes before SuperCollider and originates from two interests. The first is an idea of sequencing sounds following a generating model based on additive rhythm, the second -the one that you mention- is indeed a reference to landscape. I am not interested in landscape in terms of soundscape as targeted soundscape composition, for instance, that is, in terms of a figurative reference to certain real soundscapes. I’m definitively not a field recordist (not until now, at least). What I like in landscape is the notion of a point of view that it implies. A landscape exists by definition in relation to an observer. They are structurally coupled, to speak with the jargon of autopietic systems. Thus, in GeoGraphy sounds are organized in graphs, which are spatial structures with topological and metric features. The question is how to render the multiple relations that these sounds share thanks to their spatial organization. Hence the idea of literally exploring sound data. I guess a picture is worth a thousand words in this case:

In Acta GeoGraphica I am not interested in picking the best among the possible resulting landscapes, but to display their differences. Hence, the structure of each piece as a series.

You are also something of a music scholar. Could you illustrate how you approached the Musica per un anno project, a spatial and digital reconstruction of Enore Zaffiri’s work? Also, early Italian electronic music has been rediscovered by a new generation of artists thanks primarily to the work of the label Die Schachtel. What would you say its legacy has been and do you see your work owing a dept to that legacy?

Musica per un anno has been a real surprise for me. I have always been aware of Enore Zaffiri, since I was a child: he is from Ciriè, my hometown, and we live almost in the same street (and by the way, his wife was my music teacher at school…). But I never realized that Musica per un anno is such an impressive work. Totally algorithmic, radically using only sinusoids, it is a project for an ambient sound installation not far from La Monte Young’s ideas, like no other at that time (1968). It proposes a kind of occasional listening, but at the same time the sound material is very rich as it continuously changes during a whole year. The composition is completely formalized and accurately described: far from an ideology of mystery, Enore plainly explains in detail – with a sort of open source attitude –  how to create your own version of Musica per un anno.

The Zaffiri project started as the first local project resulting from the collaboration between me and my partner in crime Stefano Bassanese (we already organized the Italian Colloquium of Music Informatics in 2010 when he was still at the Conservatory of Cuneo). Stefano is now (luckily) teaching electronic music at the Conservatory in Torino, a teaching program that remained vacant for years, practically since Zaffiri’s retirement. Since Stefano has arrived in Torino, we have started sharing activities between the Conservatory and the University. Going back to our roots, we decided to reconsider Zaffiri’s output, trying to redefine and recreate a link between that experience and the projects we are trying to pursue now. Thus, we organized a two-day event including scientific works and music performances (we are now collecting the proceedings that will be available on the AIMI site and we will soon put some videos of the event on line).

From my point of view, I had to think how to contribute to the event both from a musical and scientific point of view. So, I started pondering about Musica per un anno and I decided to implement it on a computer. This kind of digital philology by reimplementation is very interesting for me, because you really have to understand what was going on in order to recreate it.

I used a literate programming strategy, mixing theoretical considerations to code implementation (another funny part of the project). The resulting software application is interesting for many aspects. First of all, Zaffiri had been able to generate only some “hours”, because working with tapes was quite time-consuming. Now, I can simply select the hour I want and it gets generated. This helps exploring the sonic potentialities of the work. Second, tape manipulation (e.g. bouncing signals from a track to another) by Zaffiri necessarily introduced a lot of noise into the sinusoidal signals: on the contrary, the version I presented was really pure, and the aural experience was really overwhelming in its abstractness.

Third, Enore had the idea of working with sound spatialization but he never had the technological and economic possibilities to realize this project. The imagery at the base of Musica per un anno is both combinatorial and geometric, as frequencies and intensities change following different paths (triangles, squares, hexagons etc) on a circle. So I suggested Enore to use exactly this information to define spatialization: each path on the circle that changes a sinusoid’s frequency at the same time defines its position in a simulated circular sound space (we used four channels in Torino). The result was very immersive.

In general, Enore was very happy of the digital version, and so were we. Now I’d like to publish a digital version of the piece, and I am looking for labels that may be interested in publishing it.
The Italian so-called regional schools (Zaffiri, Rampazzi, Grossi) are indeed very interesting, even if I cannot say that they have influenced me in depth as I have practically been discovering them only over the past few years.

Other composers that have influenced you are Cage, Nancarrow and Xenaxis. Nancarrow for instance was one of the first to use machines to play beyond the scope of human possibilities. Aren’t you  in danger of sacrificing the “human factor” in your own work?

Well, culture is intrinsically human (at least, providing that we mean culture as material culture in an anthropological sense). And machines are indeed part of material culture, like clocks, scissors, books, carpets, basset horns etc. And to generalize, the simple (which is not simple at all) act of selecting something from a world of facts is indeed a cultural – and thus human – position. A robot taking a random photo or capturing a random sound snapshot from the environment, far from doing something non-human, implicitly refers to a huge amount of cultural values, accumulated in centuries of technological development, that is, in a very long history of cultural competences. So, in other words, one cannot escape the human. Myself, I’m interested in exploring some fringes of music culture, in terms of sound production and listening attitudes. By the way, I consider technological experimentation as a liberating experience exactly because it allows me to find or show a human factor into it (well, of course in relation to my limited possibilities). It’s liberating for me also because of my personal history, as I come from “strict” humanities studies (I earned a PhD in Semiotics). And I really feel uncomfortable with the idea of technology in Postmodernism, I much more prefer Baroque!

You work a lot for the theatre. Most recently you have collaborated with Marcel.lí Antúnez Roca on Pseudo. How did this come about and what are particular challenges of working for the stage?

It’s the second work I’m doing for theatre and the second with Marcel.lì. The first one was Cotrone in 2010 and the occasion came out quite fortuitously, as the production was in Turin, he was in need of a composer, and my friend Antonio Pizzo, who collaborated on the text, put forward my name. Marcel.lì and I kept in touch and this year he asked me to work with Pseudo.  So, my experience with theatre is (I guess luckily!) limited to the very particular perspective of Marcel.lì. Working with Marcel.lì is quite demanding mostly because of scheduling. During the production he is continuously firing up new ideas (at various rates! Peaks are a bit of a nightmare…), and to cope with this attitude, together with the tight scheduling typical of theatrical productions, can be complicated. But I really appreciate his attitude, because he is really devoted to what he is doing and has of course a very strong personality. In relation to technology, he is always at the forefront while thinking and designing new stuff, but on the other side he is deeply involved in his own, very personal, archaic, primitive imagery. This feature definitively marks a difference with most tech-based performances, that are mainly interested in just displaying the technological aspect, typically resulting in a hyperbolically boring display of power. During production, we discuss in depth all the aspects of the show. With regards to Pseudo we talked about narrative and figurative elements, the general pace, and the sound spatialization over four channels. He is also very open to other people’s suggestions, so I feel very free to integrate my own sound ideas into the work, and I really feel at ease with Marcel.lì. We opted together for a very concrete, acoustic sound, making references to a sort of proto-instrumental imagery. On the other side, all pieces are strictly generative. So the result both in Cotrone and Pseudo is a sort of algorithmic concrete music, sometimes near to some free jazz stuff, or echoing Javanese music for instance.

For Cotrone I used recorded music, while for Pseudo I created an entirely generative setup that could be triggered and controlled via OSC. In each scene of Pseudo a different SuperCollider process is loaded and executed, thus performing real-time algorithmic composition. In Marcel.lì’s production, tech stuff must be integrated in a complex audio-visual-physical network and work with no glitches. This is really challenging. As an example, in the end Marcel.lì, whenever he reprised Pseudo he opted to use recordings instead of real-time sound generation, because if I am not with him for the performances, it can be more risky.

You are also big on improvisational music and you played in AMP 2 together with Gandolfo Pagano, Dario Sanfilippo, Domenico Sciajno and Antonino Secchia. AMP 2 then mutated into IVVN with the departure of Domenico Sciajno.

I have always performed improvisation with the bass, as I come from a rock music background, which is, in my view, a real oral tradition based on a listen-understand-play attitude that strongly focuses on variation. Also, improvisation is very near to algorithmic composition, because when you improvise you have necessarily to (re)define and use certain activity patterns, sometimes more abstract, sometimes directly related to sounds, sometimes including muscle memory. In AMP 2 and then IVVN, I always use physical computing systems. This is related to a clear instrumental organization, as Gandolfo plays his prepared guitars, Dario a computer, and Nino acoustic percussions. Luckily, this sort of balancing act has not been radically altered by the departure of Domenico (he was playing a laptop), even if, of course, I enjoyed his contribution very much. Thus, I am very happy with IVVN because of this real ensemble sound that yields to a great complexity and subtlety: I’m fond of a definition given by a reviewer of AllAboutJazz, “Think free improvisation meets Harry Partch”. Diversification in sound is important for us because we typically improvise with no previous agreement. But also when we played Cage’s Sculptures musicales with Thomas Lehn in Palermo, the quartet’s heterogeneity has been a key point. Unfortunately we seldom perform: as experimental music is a no-money venture, to move a quartet of musicians living in four different cities (and Nino is in Germany) can be very complicated.

Your work has been released by fellow musicians Franz Rosati on Nephogram and Ennio Mazzon on Ripples! amongst others. How important is it to have a supportive network of fellow musicians in the context of the Italian electro acoustic scene?

It’s fundamental. The issue is very complex, and I still have no clear idea of what to do with music production in current times. The most terrible Chinese curse is said to be: “That you may live in interesting times”. Well, our times are indeed very interesting. On one side, to produce music is now (luckily) a possibility that substantially everyone can afford (with electronic music you just need a laptop, that thing one uses for writing emails or chatting on Facebook… while the most advanced audio softwares are mostly open source and multiplatform). And to publish music with internet is again a non-issue (net labels, bandcamp, soundcloud, personal websites etc). This for the technical side. But, as I said, experimental music is a no-money venture. Nobody is willing to pay for music on the web, even if you ask for a couple of bucks, while physical supports (think of CDs) are rapidly declining.

So, a supportive network of fellow musicians as you said is crucial for me to ensure that at least my music can reach an audience that mutually shares the same interests and that have mutual respect.

Given the amorphous nature of the web, hubs that allow to define certain specific internal relations among their connections are crucial, even if I think that the audience (me included) have still to really understand this point in their listening practice. So, I am grateful to Franz and Ennio for their enthusiasm and help.

Torino seems to have quite a lively and diverse music scene, with people like Easychord, Carlo Barbagallo, and Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo. What influence has your hometown with its socio economical and geographical context had on your own music?

Torino indeed counts a lot of musicians. What I think is still missing is a real scene for experimental music. In order to have a scene you need at least a space devoted to the cause. You go there and you know there is stuff going on. So, actually you have many people involved in experimental music but mostly not really interconnected. I think there’s a club scene, but I’m not interested in it, and by the way I find it a bit too invasive for my taste, they are everywhere with their MIDI consolles…

Concerning influences, I don’t know. Surely I’ve been influenced by the rock scene from the ’90s when I used to play bass guitar. In Turin there were Negazione, Fluxus, other hardcore and grunge stuff, etc, but I also had many friends interested in John Zorn’s experiments with Naked City, NY avant-garde jazz (e.g. Tim Berne), and more remote experimental/avant-garde stuff, like Area (which is one of my favourite bands ever). I listened to my first contemporary live concerts thanks to the glorious Settembre Musica festival, which was a first class festival, with Xenakis, Berio, Nono, Donatoni, Ligeti, Reich coming here for dedicated concerts. Unluckily, it has undergone a teratomorphic process and we now have MiTo, which is just another, useless, classical music festival with big names playing always the same music.

If you were to take a visitor on a three stop guided tour of Andrea Valle’s Turin, where would you take them?

I’m fond of Torino, but I was born in Ciriè, where I live (the negation of nomadism… by the way I also studied with Azio Corghi, who’s also from Ciriè, and to be more specific from my very own neighbourhood, it must be a sort of curse…). So, “Ich bin Turiner”, but always from a sort of external point of view. Actually there are three places that I maybe won’t propose for a guided tour, but that I find peculiarly interesting. The first one is the Egyptian Museum (the third for importance in the world), because it’s a crucial element in the definition of the identity of the city while at same time being totally incongruent with it. Try figure, you are near some baroque building in a cold, industrial city of North Italy, then once you step into the entrance you’re faced with 3,000 year-old mummies from Egypt. It helps to put one’s own position in the world into perspective. The second is the XIX century gallery of stuffed animals at the Museum of Natural Science, where there’s also the skeleton of a whale beached in Bordighera and the elephant Charlie, that killed his guardian after 40 years of quiet service. It’s an incredible space, very high and reverberant where animals are strangely reconstructed (the taxidermists often didn’t know the shape of the living animals), it reminds me of Chris Marker’s La jetée, the sequence when he met the girl at the Museum of Eternal Animals. The third place is the Natural Park of Meisino and the Isolone di Bertolla. It’s the point of conjunction of three rivers Po, Stura and Dora. An impressive natural, aquatic place practically within the city, with migrating birds and pebble beaches. The Isolone is artificial, it has been cut by a channel for an electricity power plant. Hence on, colonies of migrating birds rest here. You’re driving in the city and, bang, you’re elsewhere. That’s what I need for my Salgarian attitude.

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  1. Very interesting article. I’d like to ask Andrea how he would characterise the relations between his various ‘source’ materials (the Eliot text, data topologies, and so on) and the sounds produced – are these acts of translation, representation, autopoiesis…?

  2. says: joe stevens

    Found these postcards from Italy to be fascinating. Lovely to hear from these communities. This one though is brilliant. Was not aware of this artist before & will definitely follow the links & find out more. Thanks for posting.

  3. says: andrea valle

    Thank you all and sorry for the delay, I’ve just noticed today the comments. Nathan,well, yes, being a semiotician, I tend to think in terms of translation, both in a strict sense of saying one thing into another language, and in a more general, etymological sense, with translation meaning moving one thing to another place, transducing one source of information into another domain. What is relevant for me in such an operation is that there is always a difference between the start and the end: it generates an asymmetry due to something lost and something new found in the process. If you allow me to be boring :-), this difference is the sense I’m looking for, an hollow space inbetween that leaves room for some new air to breath.

  4. Thanks Andrea, not boring at all! Recently I’ve been researching Robert Smithson’s concept of ‘site-nonsite’, which deals with how a geographical site may be brought into a dialectical relationship with an artwork displayed elsewhere (such as in a gallery or magazine). What you end up with if you follow the process through is a kind of map; what Smithson seemed to be interested in was the correspondences and differences between the map and the site it traces or points to. Maybe this is one more version of the translation or transduction you refer to?

  5. says: andrea valle

    Yes of course. Your example concerning geography is very interesting. “Map” is a remarkable term, because actually “mapping” is of course one of the trend-words of this Zeitgeist. In general, you have a certain domain (e.g. a description of a land) and you need to project some of the elements of the domain into a co-domain (e.g. a visual artefact). Now, there are two particularly relevant features here from my perspective. First of all, a certain “structurality” migrates from the domain into the co-domain, and -if you are the responsible of the mapping function- you have to take care of this, otherwise mapping is just a trendy way to do other things (you have to do a map, not a free-hand drawing). A second aspect concerns the mapping function: you have to select which elements will be projected from the domain into the co-domain (a political map is not a geological one). This act, a choice, is where various forms of subjectivity may emerge in a certain practice.

  6. Thanks Andrea, those are two very good points, especially the structurality one as I think this is often overlooked. But does the projection from domain to co-domain occur in only one direction, or is it bi-directional? It seems to me that a map can only be read or used by looking in both directions, by constantly comparing map with site and site with map (though I’m terrible at reading maps so maybe my experience is far from universal!). Would a political co-domain have the effect of politicizing its corresponding domain, for example, or is the political already inherent in the domain prior to any mapping?

  7. says: andrea valle

    I agree with you, as I’m on that side of philosophy that assumes that sense is just a chain of translations, with the plus/minuses that the derive from such a chain of acts. Moreover, sense is a constellation made up of an accumulation of “interpretants”, to speak with Peirce, that still bear a relation with the original source. But such a mechanism is a process ad infinitum, and this weakens the same notion of origin, indeed.

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