Stefano Pilia was born in Genoa and currently lives in Bologna where he graduated at the music conservatory G.B. Martini. His work draws on his research into the sculputural dimensions of sound and it’s relations with space, memory and time suspension both through instrumental executional-experimental practices (mainly on guitar and dbass) and investigations into the recording and production process. He is one of the founder members of 3/4HadBeenEliminated, a group that synthesises improvisation, electro-acoustic composition and avant-rock sensibilties. Since 2008 he's been part of the Italian band Massimo Volume and since 2010 of In Zaire and has collaborated with Mike Watt (il sogno del marinaio), David Grubbs (bgp trio), David Tibet and ZU (zu93), Rokia Traorè and John Parish, Phill Niblock, Marina Rosenfeld, Andrea Belfi, Valerio Tricoli and Claudio Rocchetti (3/4HBE), Giuseppe Ielasi, and many more...
You are involved in many different projects, six at the latest count… How do you manage to juggle so many different projects from a practical point of view considering that you are all living in various locations?
I like to work as much as I can, trying to have a discipline and a schedule, of course. For some of the above projects we meet a couple of times a year to work together (touring and /or recording or doing a bunch of gigs). With others, like my solo stuff or Massimo Volume and In Zaire, there is more continuity at present… 3/4 has seen strong continuous work, both with recording and composing, for many years, even if there hasn’t been that much on the live front… At present, we’d like to take a break for a while.
What would you say were the main characteristics you are able to explore with each of these different projects?
One can experience and experiment different processes and musical approaches, but mostly, for me, it is all about the possibility to connect with people and sharing ideas. This is something very precious. Something I can really learn a lot from. I usually do not like very much the pairing of long distance and short time collaborations. I always find it hard to work that way and the musical results are not always very interesting. Also I’m a slow learner, so I need to spend time with the people and to be with them on the material together.
There’s a couple of recurring names in your collaborations, mainly Claudio Rocchetti and Andrea Belfi which you have known for a number of years now. They are both established musicians in their own right with a number of solo albums to their name. What would you say you have learnt about your own approach to the music? In other words, what have you learned about yourself as a musician, rather than what have you learned from them?
We have worked a lot together, we are still doing and we still like it… I think they both have a great music sensibility and indeed they are close friends of mine… Of course we have influenced each other a lot. We actually grew up together musically and at the same time each one of us developed a unique musical vision. I think the communication with them has been always very interesting and stimulating.
You have recently been touring with Rokia Traore. How’s that experience been? Also, how did the current situation in Mali affect the tour and the way her music has been perceived? Was there any pressure on her to act as a kind of spokesperson on the political situation in the country?
I play guitar for her. Last June we recorded in Bristol with John Parish, and we will soon go on tour. She spontaneously feels she has to speak about what is happening in Mali and she is very opinionated and critical about the society and the politic situation there. She has a very strong personality. When she speaks about this, it is not for external pressure but because she feels her responsibility about this as a Malian citizen and as a person who deeply loves her country, I guess.
Contrary to many “bedroom artists” you seem to have a pretty good idea of what life on the road is like. Would you say that this has been an integral part of your development as a musician? And how has this experience filtered through into your own solo work?
Yes absolutely. Playing in front of people is something different. You need to communicate with the audience. There is a performance aspect involved. Music becomes something between the musician or the performer and the listeners. And the act of listening in itself is a very strong action, kind of a subtle one, but very powerful and plays a great role in the results of a music performance.
But there is also amazing music done in bedrooms from musicians that barely play live. Take for example “Plux Cuba” by Nuno Cannavaro, just to mention one name. I do not think he has ever played live as far as I know.
The relation between the musician-performer and the listener and the aspects that this relation brings in terms of music and musicality is something very expressive for me.
Your solo album Action Silence and Prayers out on Die Schacthel has been one of the success stories on the label’s catalogue. Has it allowed you to explore the more introspective side of your character? And also, how did the track Sky from the same album end up on a Doctor Without Borders film on Sleeping Sickness?
Well, I think that record and my music in general it is a consequence the way I am and I change… not the opposite… also in prospective all this work helps me to have a better consciousness about myself.
Some of the people that were working with Doctor Without Borders really liked my records, so they just wrote to me asking me to use some of my music, which I was very happy about.
Of your recent solo album Strings you wrote: “Strings is a composition which belongs directly to my “sound diary”, a collection I started keeping almost 10 years ago. The collection is formed by a certain number of tracks, which I consider as independent sounds pictures. I use some simple rules about how to select, cut and then play together the sound material I record. It is conceived to be a piece of work, which is getting longer in duration as time progresses. So yes, I guess Strings could be considered as a self-portrait piece made of sound memories.” I am really fascinated by this album and would like to know more about these rules and how you selected the field recordings for the three tracks of the album? Also, what are the actual geographical coordinates of this album and is there going to be a follow up to Strings?
The way I choose the recordings is mostly based on their sonic characteristics. I choose the ones I like the most. The real geography is not the direct criteria I follow in selecting the material. I deliberately avoid recordings which contain spoken language or any obvious musical idioms.
With the exception of some clear and naked nature field recordings, I generally choose sounds that carry some ambiguity: I like it when the source of a sound is not immediately recognizable and also when the recorded sounds do not express a deliberate act or a will to produce something with musical or linguistic purposes, since these have inevitably the tendency to impose themselves on the more “interrogative” material. (I guess this is the reason why urban soundscapes are much less present in my selections).
I found that these simple choices allowed for all the material I selected to work much better together and in greater variety of different combinations. I always cut and edit the material in order that every file can work as a little piece in itself, but this really depends on every single recording.
Strings is a continuously evolving work so, yes, I keep adding to the sound collection that constitutes the main body of the piece.
About Strings, you have also stated that: “My work has become progressively concerned with the research of the sculptural dimensions of sound and its relations with space, memory and time suspension both through instrumental executional-experimental practices (mainly on guitar and bass) and investigations into the recording and production process.” Is this something you are able to bring into your collaborative projects or does this only refer to your solo work?
I guess I always carry this approach with me, as this is how I approach my instruments of choice and my way of playing. This aspect is therefore always present, even when in the final results of a music piece, solo or collaborative, this may not be as evident. I always think first in terms of sounds rather than notes and I always bring this approach to my collaborations, trying to make everything work in the best possible way.
There’s a wide variety of influences in your work, from Loren Connors to Italian prog music, which makes it very difficult to place you especially given the rage of your collaborations. What do you answer when people ask you to describe the music you make?
Eheh, yes, difficult question. I say avant-garde and punk because that is my spirit and the main approach I always have had.
There’s a telling episode from your childhood that gives a clue to your relationship with sound. “My grandfather was a carpenter and lived in the countryside. In his workshop he kept many machines to cut and plane wood. On summer afternoons, I would sit outside while he worked, mesmerized by the sounds of those machines. In the meantime I would look at the sun, the fields, the lines of ants on the wall. When suddenly the machines were turned off, everything all around appeared renewed.” Daniel Barenboim refers to hearing as the memory sense rather than sight, would you agree with that?
I agree. Smell too has an incredible memory power, maybe even stronger than hearing. I was explaining my experience to Daniela Cascella a few years ago in an interview and she told me about some works by Max Neuhaus centered round this specific kind of sonic experience.
You are from Bologna, which benefits from a vibrant student population thanks to its university. Has this made things considerably easier for you as a musician in terms of finding other people to play and experiment with and how has the city shaped your outlook on music? Also, have you even been tempted to follow Claudio Rocchetti and move to Berlin, or are you quite happy to stay in Bologna with your friends and peers Luciano Maggiore and Francesco Fuzz Brasini, amongst others?
I moved to Bologna from Genoa when I was 16. Genoa is a beautiful town but kind of tough if you want to do something, or even if you just want to go to concerts and listen to music. Bologna is a smaller university town compared to Genoa, richer, less rough in social terms and less complex and problematic than a big city. Still, there has been a lot of interesting music going on with situations that gave satisfied and inspired my curiosity. I’m thinking about venues like the Link, the Angelica Festival, Raum, the TPO experience, just to mention a few names. I met Valerio and Claudio and Massimo Volume here in Bologna as well as many other interesting people and friends. Now I would say that the city got a bit down compared to 10 years ago… but this is not just a “Bologna problem” I am also traveling a lot more, so I spend less time in Bologna. Genoa, the city I born in, was virtually dead in the 90’s. Berlin is a great city but I do not that keen on it. The atmosphere there now is too easy and relaxed. I need some struggling more. I think it is useful for me.
Stefano Pilia is currently on tour with Rokia Traoré and will be playing with Andrea Belfi and David Grubbs at Cafe OTO on the 10th of June.