Giuseppe Ielasi was born in 1974, and has lived near Milan since 1990. He started playing guitar in 1988, and has worked for many years within the field of ‘improvised music’. Between 1997 and 2006 he has performed live with Thomas Ankersmit, Jerome Noetinger, Michel Doneda, Dean Roberts, Mark Wastell, Martin Siewert, Nmperign, Brandon Labelle, Nikos Veliotis, Alessandro Bosetti, Gert-Jan Prins, Phill Niblock, Oren Ambarchi, and many others. From 2007 on, his main interest has been in site-specific solo performances, sometimes using guitars as primary sound sources but also integrating microphones and multi- channel speaker systems in order to create complex networks for sound diffusion in relationship to space. He collaborates regularly with Renato Rinaldi (in the duo Oreledigneur), Enrico Malatesta, Nicola Ratti (as Bellows) and Armin Linke (ZKM Karlsruhe, Villa Romana Florence, Kunsthalle Berlin, Festival della Scienza, Genoa). In 1998 he started the “Fringes recordings” label, closed in 2005, and co-founded “Schoolmap Records” in 2006. He now runs Senufo together with Jennifer Veillerobe.
You don’t have an academic music background, could you give me an idea of how you ended up making electro-acoustic music?
I haven’t followed a linear path. Over time I have become more and more interested in difficult sounds, difficult in the sense of stimulating. I gradually moved from playing the guitar in a traditional way to playing free jazz and improvised music. At the same time I discovered “classical electronic” music and those contemporary works that were produced at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s. Around that time I was also running a label called Fringes Recordings and started recording and producing my own music. From improvised music the label slowly shifted its focus to sound art and people like Brandon Labelle, Toshiya Tsunoda.
My education really came from organising gigs, that was what Fringes originally started out as being, a series of gigs. Over the years I did over a hundred of them. The label went on ‘til 2005, but Fringes was also a mailorder business…
Back when digital downloads weren’t the norm…
Yes, we sold physical albums. Fringes releases were pressed in runs of 400 or 500 and they always used to sell out.
Yes, nowadays with my current label, Senufo, even if it’s going relatively well, we only release 200-250 copies for each title, about half of what I used to do with Fringes. Running the mailorder was also a good way to establish contacts. We also used to sell our distributed catalog in a bookshop, A+MBookstore here in Milan.
I remember walking past it a few times and asking myself how such a place was commercially viable.
Luckily we weren’t paying rent, and most of the business was via the mailorder. We could’ve easily just turned it into an office, but the social aspect was very important to us. Also that is were we used to host gigs and events. It got to the point though whereby I couldn’t follow the mailorder any longer and Fabio Carboni, from Soundohm and Die Schachtel took over. Not long after, though the bookshop closed down.
What did you learn form organising gigs?
As we were saying earlier, I don’t have an academic background, so I would say this is how I really learnt the trade, so to speak. Obviously playing and touring was important, but to begin with I learnt just by seeing how other musicians worked. I was doing everything from collecting the artists at the train station to hosting them and being the sound technician. I used to live in close contact with them for a few days. It’s been a great school.
Is there a particular gig that you remember most vividly?
One by the saxophonist Michel Doneda. It was also one of the first gigs I played myself. It wasn’t planned as he’d been invited for a solo, but he came a day earlier and we got chatting which led him to ask me to perform with him in the second half of the gig. It was great to see how a musician could be so open to collaborations. We also invited John Butcher for one of his first Italian gigs. At the time it was mainly improvised music, it was what I was mainly interested in.
Is it no longer important?
No, it’s not that, it’s just that I have changed path. I increasingly found that improvised music had become a musical genre, rather than an artistic practice where one could experiment. I still have great admiration for these people, though, but I’ve moved away a bit.
Going back to the gigs we did at A+M, I’d like to mention Akio Suzuki as well, whom we got to play in that really tiny space. Willian Basinski performed one of his first Italian gigs in the bookshop…
Organising gigs also means having a certain technical know-how. How did you apply this knowledge in your own work?
Good question, I can’t really say whether I’ve applied it in my work or simply used it when mixing and mastering other people’s work. With the live gigs, I was a one man band with no sound technician and had to learn the hard way. In terms of mastering, I’ve never thought of asking other engineers to master my own work, I wasn’t interested in that. I was really specific about the sound I wanted to achieve and gradually I got to the point I was happy with it. Friends then started asking me to master their own work and it just took off by word of mouth to the point that it has now become a parallel activity.
Has mastering become “just a job” for you or is it something you actually enjoy doing?
It’s a job, and at times it is my most regular source of income. I do like doing it, though, as I have never had to master works of musical genres that I didn’t care for. It’s mostly electronic and experimental music, improvised albums, and even techno and hip hop at times, usually stuff I like or that I am interested in. So, yes, let’s say it’s a job that I like.
There are a few recurring names in the mastering world, such as yours, Rashad Baker, Taylor Deupree, Lawrence English… what would you say is you particular strength?
There was a great dossier about mastering published in the french magazine Revue et Corrige which I would recommend on the subject.
Whether one chooses to ask Taylor Deupree or Rashad Backer, for instance, depends on whose work one feels closer to. Rashad is very experienced in working with difficult material especially when it comes to vinyl. Taylor usually works on softer materials. I wouldn’t be able to say what is my own peculiarity, though, as I don’t have a set way of working, it all depends on the album and the specificity of a particular work. Sometimes I only do minor adjustments on colour and timbre, but there are cases when there is a lot of work to do. The approach varies depending on whom I’m working with. Sometimes, I get guidelines from the musician but often there are no specific instructions. I generally come up with my own version based on my interpretation of what I hear. The artist can then ask for adjustments, they might want volume or dynamic changes, a brighter or darker sound, etc. I’m not precious in that sense. At the end of the day, it’s the musician who has to be happy with the final product, not me. What can also happen is that a musician might send the work back because what he really wants is an exact replica of what he sent me in the first place. It’s almost as if mastering was an obligatory step and that’s just not the case.
Speaking of Taylor Deupree, how did you end up working with him?
Initially we got in touch because I used to distribute 12k releases through my mailorder. After hearing my albums on Hapna, he expressed an interest in releasing something on his label. August was in fact an album intended for Hapna. Some of the tracks were even recorded in a studio in Stockholm together with the Hapna guys but when it came to it, they declined to release the album. In retrospect it made sense. Hapna had slowed down considerably in terms of releases and was moving into a “poppier” territory. So I sent it to Taylor. After that came Aix and Tools.
It’s funny because I don’t really see your work as being 12k material.
Not my more recent stuff, no. I think Taylor still likes what I do, but maybe it doesn’t fit in with the label, which is really specific. Myself, I do love 12k even though some of the newer titles are a bit too gentle for my taste. It is important, though, to work with good labels like 12k.
Define a good label.
A label that takes good care of an album, that gives you advise on how to master it and put the final touches to it and that has good distribution and promotion. It can be a really interesting process. 12k is possibly the most professional label I’ve worked with, one of the few “real” labels.
Distribution and promotion can be crucial especially for a young musician. On the other hand, I am also very specific about the album cover. That’s part of the album, and sometimes the label can distort the original meaning of your work. I know it’s a subjective thing, but it’s quite important to me.
In the case of Aix, I selected the cover photo from a large number of photographs from Taylor. The cover of August on the other hand is by Amedeo Martegani, the guy from A +MBookstore. He’s an artist and together we worked on most of my album covers.
Tools is a bit of an odd one. I would say that the cover is not really in line with 12k’s design…
True. I didn’t want any images for that album, but I was more interested about the quality of the paper and the packaging. It has to be said as well that Tools is one of a handful of albums that falls outside the label’s main catalogue, in a way, so it was ok for it not to “conform”, so to speak.
For Senufo Editions, we try to offer a nice good artwork (all of the cd releases have letterpress artwork, thanks to our regular collaborator Ben Owen in New York) and good mastering. The promotional side of things, on the other hand, is not one of our strengths.
Is that for time constraints?
Both time constraints and economics, but it is also partly a choice. What is important to me is for the label and the albums to grow organically, to build a relationship with our listeners. I’m not at all into imposing our presence with advertising or dozen of promo copies. I’d prefer to see Senufo growing slowly but gradually. In a way, that is what happened with Fringes too.
No advertising then?
An ad on a music magazine in most cases would be the equivalent of half the cost of a cd release and I prefer to release albums.
It all seems like hard work to me, why have a label in the first place?
Because I love records. My approach to the kind of music I play mainly comes from the albums I bought, and the magazines I used to read, rather than live gigs, because there weren’t many at the time in Italy (especially in the south, where I lived until 1990).
Would you consider yourself an album fetishist then?
No, I am just interested in the kind of listening experience that comes from having records or cds, from the fact of having to physically get up and put an album on your hi- fi system for time of its duration, rather than streaming music off the web. I never listen to music on my laptop, for instance. Whenever I buy digital downloads, which doesn’t happen very often, for example, I burn them onto a CD. The fact is that whenever you’re sitting in front of a laptop you’re always doing something else.
True, but in a similar way one can still put on an album and do the dishes at the same time…
Yes, of course, but it’s still a different and special kind of listening experience. Plus doing the dishes is generally more meditative than being on Facebook… Still, generally speaking, when I listen to music, I do just that.
You mean where does the name come from? It’s a great name, isn’t it ?
It’s the name of an African tribe…
Yes, it’s a tribe that’s no longer precisely localised geographically (between Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast). I am also a big fan and a collector of ethnographic records, especially African ones, and that’s something I wanted to pay homage to. There are some recordings of Senufo music, which are really alien, bizarre and fabulous.
What do you like specifically about African music?
To me, it’s about discovering new and alien aural territories. When one listens closely to this kind of music, there are so many great things going on and amazing technical aspects that go with it. Still, even if it is something I do read up about, I mostly have an instinctive approach to it.
How does Senufo work in terms of selecting the musicians on its roster? You seem to know most of them…
I know some of them, others I get in touch with directly. To give you two recent examples, Nathan McLaughlin and Joe Colley I got in touch with myself as I loved their work. Joshua Bonnetta, on the other hand, wrote me out of the blue, and I immediately loved what he was doing. I met Kassel Jaeger when I played at the INA GRM in Paris. I know Nicola Ratti since a long time, but I was less interested in releasing his previous albums, which are good albums, but Streengs was…
A Senufo album?
Yes. I also get many demos through the post, nowadays, even though it’s very rare for anything to come out of that. Some of the material might be good, but it might just fall outside of Senufo’s remit, or I might be already committed to other releases.
Do you have a set number of releases a year?
We used to release quite a few titles a year, but we’ve since slowed down as Jennifer and I now have a small child, which means we have less time and money. Anyhow, we released three LPs just before the end of 2012, one by Andrew Pekler, one from the trio of Takahiro Kawaguchi / Nick Hoffman / Aaron Zarzutzki and a new work by Kassel Jaeger.
You also take care of the artwork for all the albums…
We discuss ideas with the musicians.
What about Nicola Ratti’s Streengs?
Well, yes, I was about to say. In the case of Streengs, the artwork is by Sonnenzimmer, a design company based in Chicago, who also did the cover for Jennifer’s album Zweifarbige Gesten. I had done some mastering for them and in return they proposed the artwork for these two albums.
How do you go about choosing the format?
It depends. Vinyl is something we like, but there are limitations in terms of duration and sound, etc. Other things work best on CD. Cassette is a format I like very much, even though we haven’t been doing as many as we’d like to. It really depends.
Is there a lot of work to do once you get the material?
Again, it depends. In the case of Nicola Ratti, we selected the tracks and worked on the order and the edit together. Often though I get finished products with minimal work to do other than mastering. There are special cases as well, such as the album by Kawaguchi / Hoffman / Zarzutzki. I was in touch with Nick Hoffman and he sent me some material to listen to. I liked it very much but found the mix a bit problematic. Also, there was editing to be done as the tracks were from one hour long sessions. Nick agreed and asked me to do it myself. At that point we still hadn’t talked about releasing the album on Senufo.
Do you do the mastering for all your releases?
Yes, except for a few, that of Nathan McLaughlin who’s always worked with the same technician, and the two Kassel Jaeger cds. Otherwise, I prefer to do it myself.
Let’s talk about your albums now, what is your working method?
I try to use different instruments and working methods and tend to change my approach for each different album. Aix and Tools were laptop based. The actual recording session for Tools took about a couple of hours. After switching the microphones off, I constructed the whole album on the computer. Aix is almost entirely built around samples from other albums, or from previous recordings of mine. It was done in a very small flat in France where I didn’t have access to any instruments, and again it’s entirely computer based. More recently, I have been changing my working method. With Untitled 2011, on Entr’acte, all the sounds were generated from tapes, effects, cd players, etc. but instead of digitally reworking micro fragments, the album is constructed through several overlays of different tracks that were recorded in the same period. In the end I always resort to the computer for mixing purposes.
After working so much in front of a screen, I recently enjoyed trying out other processes that are new to me. This also means accepting limits. With Aix I could go for any colour and timbre I wanted, since it was all done digitally. Because of the way I work now, I may not be able to do this any longer. This also means setting up a process and pushing it to the limits to see where it can bring.
So you wouldn’t do another album like Aix?
It’s not that I reject that process, indeed I might one day go back to the same working method. What I would like to do, though, would be to avoid using all those samples and instead use more of my own sounds as a basis. It’s not something that is currently in the works, but I have thought about it.
So what are the instruments you work with?
Hmm… mostly microphones. It’s maybe my musique concrete heritage, as I do like the idea of having a studio with mics. I almost never use digital synthesis, but always start from miked up instruments or objects, or from analogue systems, tapes, etc… (I don’t have digital synthesizers and I have never used software to produce sound).
So, basically you are more of an editor?
Yes, in a sense. Well, I generate most of the sounds I use, it’s just that I don’t use digital means for that. There are great albums done that way, but it’s not my world.
You are more interested in…
Improvising. I’ve interrupted you because that’s precisely what I do in the studio. I don’t program, I improvise, more often than not with instruments I am not familiar with. I am not a turntabelist, for instance, but I’ve experimented with those techniques when working on ‘Stunt’.
How about Christian Marclay and other turntabelists?
I’m more interested in hip-hop turntabelists, like Mike Boo or Ricci Rucker. They were my inspiration for the ‘Stunt’ series, much more than the experimental music turntabelists. It wasn’t something I knew how to do properly though, and in that sense those records might even be a bad homage.
I get the sense that your albums are always linked to specific place and time in your life?
If I were to ask you which is the album that resembles you the most, then, your answer would be …
My latest one. I was recently asked me to reissue Gesine on vinyl, but it’s not something I am interested in. I am not a big fan of retrospectives, I want to release new albums. The old ones are just old. There can be exceptions like the latest Bellows album, Reelin’, which is currently being reissued on vinyl, but that is still a very recent production and the cd edition sold out pretty quickly.
So if a newcomer wanted to delve into your catalogue, you would direct them to your latest offering?
Yes, or to one of the recent albums, but I wouldn’t start from the first one. Having said that we all follow our own paths of discovery, and nowadays everything is digitally downloaded with very little attention to release dates.
Aside from Bellows, where you play with Nicola Ratti, you also collaborate with Enrico Malatesta and Renato Rinaldi. Is this a journey of discovery for you?
Absolutely. With Nicola we always try to explore a new technique to produce an album, something that neither of us would do on his own.
How would you describe the different collaborations?
Bellows is more of a tape loop based project, it’s about trying to find a way of interacting with tape loops in different ways. Handcut especially was linked to the idea of destruction or expansion of a vinyl record with contact microphones. Reelin’ was more about slowing down pre-recorded tracks and the degradation of sound through repeated plays.
The duo with Renato Rinaldi is rather vague in the sense that nowadays we tend to collaborate on installations more than anything else. Our latest album is rather old now.
The collaboration with Enrico is still in its early stages. Enrico plays percussion whereas I play small motors controlled by an analogue synth. The basic process for the cd (Rudimenti,on Entr’acte) was to overlay different rhythmic tracks in a non organized way in order to create random polyrhythmic sequences.
There are two other collaborations in the pipeline. One with Andrew Pekler, with an Lp for Planam/Alga Marghen and one with Kassel Jaeger, out soon on Editions Mego.
Talking about Renato Rinaldi, you mentioned field recordings. What is your feeling about them?
I am not that mad about them. There are approaches I like, with artists like Toshiya Tsunoda. I’m also a big fan of Transparent City by Michael Pisaro, which saw him working with very long takes of non treated recordings, that might be potentially boring, on which he overlays pure frequencies that interact with the material altering the perception of it. I like works that introduce a certain ambiguity. Another album I’d like to mention is Environment and Gesture by Pierre Gerrard. In that case, Gerrard was interacting in real time with the surroundings while recording. So again, it’s the ambiguity and the human touch. I am less interested in soundscapes as such and in the aesthetic aspect of environment recording.
So you wouldn’t use field recordings in your own albums?
If they are functional to what I am doing yes, but I don’t think I’d work on a soundscape album. I don’t find it interesting and I would even say that it’s something I find historically problematic, especially the idea of preserving the aural authenticity of a place, not considering authentic all those sounds normally described as sound pollution, such as the music played in a restaurant, a car passing by etc. The so-called purity of an aural environment is a concept I don’t really care for.
Talking about ambiguity, is that why your work doesn’t seem to be driven by any narrative impulse and why you often omit track titles?
I believe that some of my work has a strong narrative element to it. True, I’m not so interested in titles, in the sense that I don’t believe they add very much, or maybe it’s just that I don’t have enough imagination to come up with good ones. Still, it’s not that I don’t reveal things out of a sense of secrecy. If I had to talk in detail about the working process of any specific album, I would do it with no problem, but, for instance, to list the instruments I used for a record would be kind of meaningless because of the way I work, as I try and use them in a non-orthodox way. If with Stunt I had listed the turntable as main instrument, would that have told you anything about the album? Stunt is all about editing. Also, there are albums which I did without using any instruments whatsoever, such as Aix. With Tools, on the other hand, the instruments are precisely the ones listed as track titles.
How do you approach a live set?
I don’t do many live sets, but it’s something that I like doing. I find it difficult to talk about my collaborative live sets because they change radically depending on the musician I play with, on the space, and on the approach we decide to go for. I can use a laptop, or not, I can use pre-recorded material or not, sometimes it’s all acoustic, and at other times it’s all electronic. Nothing is set in stone.
On the other hand, for the past few years at least, I have been doing solo sets just with a mixer in front of me and a laptop by my side, which I use as a playback instrument to continuously stream several out-of-sync audio tracks. That also means I don’t always know how the balance will work. I often use very long tracks and when I decide to open a specific channel I never know what the sequence of sound will be at that particular moment. The idea is always to improvise with what I get at any specific time. Obviously, I am working with material I know inside out, but the result of the different combinations is unpredictable. My sets are never pre-organised in that sense.
The most important thing is to have long sound-check sessions whenever possible in order to try out the exact material that works well in that specific space. I never play on stage and never behind audio monitors. Because of the way I work, it’s important to be in the same listening area of the audience.
By the way, I cannot stand very loud sets where the musician stands behind monitors wearing earplugs. Sometimes I go for very loud frequencies myself, but I have to endure them the same way the audience has to. I never go for a loud volume just for the sake of it, rather only because it might work at that particular point. When possible, I prefer to work with multiple speakers configurations, 4, 6 or 8. Sometimes, the venue is configured in such a way that one is forced to face the audience, but generally speaking that’s something I try to avoid.
The traditional set up of stage and audience can work very well, but to be honest, live sets with someone with a laptop on a stage and some kind of video projection at the back, 99% of the time I find them very tedious. The problem is not the laptop itself, but the focus. This has to be on the sound and not on the stage. I think it’s important to share the same listening experience with the audience.
Do you turn up like Attila Faravelli with your own speakers?
No, I couldn’t do that as I need big and heavy speakers!
Going back to what you were saying about narrative…
I find that the both August and Aix are narrative in some way, even though I wouldn’t be able to say whether this is a linear one or what logic it would have. It takes you from one point to another, it is not an easily readable narrative, but there is an arch nonetheless, whereas albums like Stunt are constructed as collections of different tracks.
It all depends on the album then?
Yes, I suppose so.
You recently worked with the label Entr’acte, on a number of projects, if I’m not mistaken…?
Yes, we’ve co-produced a couple of albums with Senufo, I’ve released two albums and a tape with them and we organised some gigs together. I like Allon’s approach very much.
What other labels do you rate at present?
I wouldn’t be able to pick any specific label, it would be more like single releases. One of the labels I have always bought every single release from is Edition RZ.
Are you currently working on anything at present?
Yes, there will be a new cd on Senufo, out in February.
What is your approach to contemporary art and installations?
It’s not miles away from the one I have for an album or a concert in the sense that I am interested in creating a listening experience, which however does exist on a different timeframe. I would also like my next records not to have a set musical structure, no clear outline, to sort of exist as installations, as I would like to work on installations that have something to do with my albums, while still holding the two things separate. In other words I wouldn’t want one to serve as the documentation for the other.
Do you ever do the sound design for films?
I like to do it when there’s a good relationship with a film-maker, and not something I would do as a commission, as these jobs can be very time consuming. I am currently working on a mid-lenght feature with a young filmmaker called Sergio Canneto. At present I am editing the audio and adding some extra sounds.
One last thing, you are considered by some a sort of father figure within the Italian electro-acoustic scene. Would you care to comment on that?
Within my age group, I might have a bit more visibility than some, but that’s also because I’ve been organising gigs and releasing records on my labels for years, and I’m relatively prolific. I had the chance to release music on good labels, and that has helped too. Still I wouldn’t say there is a homogenous scene in Italy, but many different ones.
How does one sell young Italian musicians?
It’s really hard unfortunately. This is an Anglo-Saxon dominated world. A very good Italian album might get some attention but it will always be less than any mediocre one released in UK. Most of the information comes from there or the States, and the few magazines we have in Italy are simply clones of foreign magazines. Also, if one lives in London or in Berlin, possibilities for networking or performing are much higher compared to here, even if it’s not always under optimal circumstances.
Well, I don’t know, it’s not as if there were that many electro-acoustic gigs in London every night of the week…
Well, there might be a small scene in London or Berlin as well but it is still magnified. There’s also a larger audience and there’s more of an “infrastructure”. The venues might still be small and dingy, but at the same time there are a lot more galleries and other similar spaces. Plus, one might be able to get some public founding, difficult nowadays, but it’s certainly more likely to happen abroad than over here. My feeling is that one has to work harder to get a bit of visibility here, and we’re certainly more isolated. In a way that’s ok, though, as we are forced to try and come up with a more personal and less standardised sound.
So, in practical terms, when you released Luciano Maggiore’s album, you knew from the start…
That I would be selling fewer copies had he been a British artist? Yes. Still, I personally would like to release more music from Italian musicians. At the end of the day we’re talking about such a small business that one might as well do something interesting. With Senufo we have never gone for higher profile artists just for the sake of selling more records. Most of the times we released records that could be considered “difficult” from many points of view.
Still, everything considered I like living here… I know you are looking at me as if I was mad, but if I wanted to move, I could do it tomorrow. What would be the reason for doing this, though?
Because it would be easier?
Yes, maybe, but having said that, if there’s one interesting gig every two weeks here in Milan or in the proximity, I know that if I go, I will be seeing all my friends. One also appreciates gigs and events more when they are few and far and in between. It’s not like living somewhere where there are so many things going on and you end up not doing very much at all. I am happy south of the Alps.