Sonic Close-Ups – Marco Donnarumma

Where performance art and sound art converge through technology, here lies Marco Donnarumma’s work. Italian born, living and working in London, Marco focuses on how to configure human bodies and machines through sound. He uses biotechnologies, software algorithms and body sensors to create intensely physical performances, concerts and live installations

Marco Donnarumma started off playing the bass, an instrument he loved but that he grew increasingly frustrated with, when he realised that there was always part of the audience who would concentrate on technical set-up and pedals rather than the actual performance. He then turned his attention to the body and developed the Xth Sense™, a biowearable musical instrument, which, by using original bioacoustic technology, amplifies inaudible sounds such as blood-flow, the heartbeat, and contractions from the muscles.

Could you begin by describing your creative process?

My creative process is very organic, it doesn’t always start with an idea. It often starts with a vision that I might have at night or when I am travelling on a train or on a plane. I just see things and I work in a way to make them happen. Many times it’s like that, other times I might just be reading some theoretical papers of book and some ideas might capture my attention. Some other times I might be working on some piece of software or some sensors and then start thinking, “if this piece of software does this, or that sensor does that, maybe this would allow me to do something and I would go on exploring that. So there isn’t really a linear process. I get inspiration from things that are around me and then at some point the whole clouds of ideas you have in your mind all of a sudden take shape and you can see that thing is what you want to do. That said, I always develop performances that have a strong concepts. It doesn’t matter if the concept comes before or after, but I just hate so much when you go and see a show and it maybe it’s just a very nice technical exercise but it’s not telling you anything. That’s just an incredible waste of technology, of money and of people’s time as well. That’s why I think it’s very important to have an idea behind what you are doing. It’s very important to be clear about what your work is trying to say, then you don’t need to say anything specific with your work, but at least give something to the people, give them some room to understand and to be critical about what you are doing. Nowadays, most technology within interactive arts is very focused on the spectacularisation of the work, which is good, even if it’s not my kind of thing, but then at the end of the day, the audience doesn’t really have anything to think about and that’s a shame.

How important was biofeedback for you in developing your work?

One of the starting points back when I was still a student in Edinburgh, was biofeedback, and specifically music in biofeedback research. Biofeedback is a method whereby you capture physiological data from a body and transform it into sound and / or visuals so that a person can perceive the physiological processes happening in his/her body. Over the years there has been a lot of research in the music application of biofeedback. People like Rosenboom, Alvin Lucier, and even John Cage, have left us with a lot of interesting knowledge in this respect. David Rosenboom, for instance, is still performing with his brain pieces and doing awesome stuff. While, I do use some of the methods from biofeedback, in my case, it’s more about the principle of capturing some biological data and transforming it. In most of my performances, biofeedback is only one method amongst others. One exception could be Nigredo, an installation work I made in Amsterdam with Marije Baalman. With Nigredo I combined this idea of biofeedback with torture techniques and studies of self-perception to create a temporary zone where you are sitting alone and you perceive your body in a different way. It’s a very physical experience, very hard to describe. It happens in the dark while you are facing a mirror and the sounds from your body are not only amplified exponentially but they are also translated into physical vibrations that displace your internal organs. It’s not harmful but it’s very strong, and it causes a series of dysfunctions in your body, and that’s how your self-perception gets tricked into feeling different things.

How important is self-awareness for you?

I’m not trying to increase the awareness of one’s own body, although that is something that happens when you experience my work, but that’s not a goal I have. The main goal for me is to create an experience that you will remember, for one reason or other. I don’t care whether you like my work, as long as it gives you something to remember, I’m happy. It’s not about increasing awareness of oneself, it’s not about making visible invisible things, it’s not about telling any kind of truth to and audience, although this can happen. It’s really about exploring what can happen when you put the human body and machines together and configure them in specific ways through sound. So, sound is not only a means, it’s not an output, it’s the actual space where things happen, at least in my work. Now, this approach comes from an idea of sound as something that is crucial to the development of society and every individual. We hear sounds every days, ok, that’s obvious, but our body makes sounds as well, the heart beat is probably the most symbolic sound that’s ever existed, and we propagate our memories through sound, when we listen to a new piece of music in a nice moment, we are going to remember that piece of music for ever and when we are going to listen to it in 20 years’ time, we will just propagate our stuff back in the past and possibly also the people that were with us. But sound is also an affective force. Just thinking about these aspects you can see how sound shapes and sculpts our everyday life and it’s there with us, and it’s there because of us, and that’s the way I try to approach sound in my work.

Does the music form your performances work on its own and will you be releasing any of it at any point?

Most of the music that is being recorded from my performances has not been released yet as a proper music release. It is something that I am interested in and I will do an album at some point, but it’s challenging because this is music that exists only because there was a body performing it in that way, which means that when you just listen to the sound you are missing something very important. Having said that, I did a few collaborations with other musicians using the Xth sense, not during a performance but rather to record music, and that’s been interesting because I just was focussing on the music, but that’s a different kind of approach.

To what extent there’s room for manoeuvre in your performances?

The way I perform any given piece can be very different. There are pieces where the structure is more determined than others, but it’s never a fixed structure, and it’s never a fixed piece of music. Generally speaking, what happens is, I set up different scenes within a piece. This gives me some benchmarks throughout the performance, which means that I know more or less what can happen, and the extent to which it can happen. I have also developed the software in a way that I have great freedom in playing the same piece in very different ways, especially because I use the sound of my body which is not controlled by the software, therefore, all the data that originates from this process is the same. I can then play the same piece either very quietly, if I wanted to, or extremely loudly, without changing anything in the software or in the structure of the piece. I like to create this kind of freeform approach whilst still having a loose structure.

How can you tell if a specific performance is working or not?

I can feel how a performance is going quite easily just by referring to the feeling that I have of my body. During most of my performances I always play with my eyes closed, because this allows me to have an increased confidence in the perception of what I am doing with my body. So, it’s not to isolate myself from the audience. Somehow, I actually feel more connected to them without looking at them, because I know they are looking at me, – hopefully [laughs] – and by closing my eyes I can also concentrate on the sound much better, and by this I mean not just the sound from my body, which I hear through the speakers, also the sound coming from the audience. I love that feeling when you are about to start a performance and you can feel whether the people are being attentive or not, even with your eyes closed. It’s probably best not to play in a place where there is a bar, but sometimes it can be great, because you can make the first movement and can immediately hear whether the audience naturally starts to quieten down and that makes you go like, “Oh yeah, that’s working, I am gonna give you my all now.” Then there are some other occasions where you shouldn’t have played at all, but that’s another story.

What are the main technical requirements for your performances?

It really depends on the kind of event I am playing, how much money is involved in that event, if the audience is paying and if so how much, who is the organisation behind the event… I think it is important for every artist to consider these aspects because not every place if the same. Having said that, my technical rider is relatively demanding. I know of colleagues who are much more demanding, but I started years ago by just asking the bare minimum and quickly realised that that wasn’t going to work. So, the bare minimum right now, is a quadraphonic system with four subs, unless it’s a gig organised by friends in a pub or by people I really esteem and we make it punk or whatever, and I can even play with just an amp, but for a serious performance it’s a quad system with four subwoofers. Furthermore, it also depends on the specific piece. Nigredo is the most demanding. Hypo Chrysos is also a large-scale piece, which I perform with eight speakers and subwoofers and a panoramic screen. Other pieces like Ominous and Music For Flesh are much more flexible and I can play them in most venues. I care about having these possibilities because I just love to perform and I like to do it as much as I can.

How political would you say is your work?

I am highly engaged with politics, which doesn’t mean I am engaged with politicians at all, I don’t care about that kind of stuff. When I say politics I talk about power strategies, the social fabric and what happens between people. I am interested in finance as well, so a few years ago, before I started focussing on corporeality and the kind of performance I am doing today, I also used to make works that were straightforwardly political using automated software, things like that. For instance, I made a work called Golden Shield Music, which got a lot of hype because it was very clearly political in that it used the IP addresses of the top 10 black-listed websites from the censorship system in China, the Golden Firewall, and used those IP addresses to feed a synthesiser that would automatically create a music composition with them translating the IP addresses into midi notes. I really liked that piece at the time, but now I am not interested in doing that kind of work any more because it’s just too easy. It’s a very easy way of being political, and in being so, the political message gets lost in transition, because it’s too clear, it’s too straightforward. You are not giving something to people that they can think about you are just making a statement and that’s it. I appreciate that kind of work, but I am not going to do it anymore. It’s now been five years since I’ve solely been working with the body and there is a massive risk of making extremely political but also very cheesy stuff with your body. I don’t want to insult anyone, there is also work that is meaningfully political and which deals with the body out there, a lot of it, but there is a very big risk of doing stuff which is not very meaningful. So, what I am trying to do, is to brew my ideas into this political conscience that I have, let them mature and rot in these thoughts and experiences I have from around the world when I tour, and in the things that I read and study. Once these ideas have macerated you pull them out and they still smell of politics, and when you present them to an audience they can still perceive this political scent. The public has this intuition that there is something there that is political but they don’t know exactly what it is, it has to decide for itself, and that’s my point, making work that enables people to decide for themselves whether something is political and whether that political thing is important to them or not.

In a way, one could say that you are collecting personal data just like facebook and the NSA are doing, are you not treading a fine line by doing so?

Of course I capture data from the body as many other security and defence technologies do with immigrants or refugees, for instance. So, yes, there is definitely a parallel there and that’s exactly why I am doing this, because I can show two things in this way, I can show what are the means to do this and I can show that you can do it for something creative that has nothing to do with defending your country or enslaving refugees.

Marco Donnarumma will be performing at NIME | New Interfaces of Musical Expression in Baton Rouge, US, 1-3 June 2015.

A new version of the Xth Sense is scheduled to be launched in Summer/Autumn 2015 under a Creative Commons Licence.

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