Joseph Sannicandro interviews Italian soundshaper Matteo Uggeri (Hue, Sparkle in Grey) in the second installment of an ongoing series searching for a relationship towards technology that doesn’t fetishize equipment, but rather valorizes the creative process itself.
There is a long tradition of fetishizing musical equipment, be it as artists, fans or hobbyists. Just a casual glance at the world of guitar blogs should be enough to confirm this, from the obsession with “authenticity” of pedals to the absurd names of all numbers of products. This fetishization goes far beyond the typical masturbatory relationship with that great phallus of 20th century popular music, and perhaps even more so pervades the world of electronic music. Commodities become imbued with great symbolic power,or so it seems. One might think, “if only I could acquire such-and-such an amplifier I may achieve a great tone,” or “if only I had the right sampler I could produce great beats.” This can be distasteful in part because such thoughts stifle actual creativity, but also because of the broader media ecologies these devices are embedded in. They rely on materials that are destructive to the environment to mine, produce, and dispose of, regardless if they are encased in a lovely wooden box. Like so many of our modern technologies, the development of electronic musical equipment can be traced to military research, born out of the impulse to destroy rather than create.
Following the end of the Second World War, the German invention of magnetic tape supplanted the inferior wire-recorders of the Allies, opening up sound to new, more flexible and material manipulation. Musique concrète, the grandfather, so to speak, of so much of today’s music could not have developed its techniques without the tactility of tape. The most creative minds continue to take the radical implication of this material change as a starting point for new artistic exploration, often with the barest of resources. The cost of electronic musical equipment, from tape recorders to synthesizers and beyond, has continued to decline throughout the last several decades, encouraging more artists to experiment and innovate. We seem to forget that there is a detriment to this as well, that we may not be witnessing a democratization but making technology companies rich while artists starve. Rather than foster a truly democratized artistic production, the increased participation in electronic music actually encourages more and more of us to become consumers, endlessly buying the latest gadget. This is as true for listeners as producers, as we buy blank media, playback devices, home audio equipment, and data subscription services. Still, there is something redemptive about re-purposing technologies for creative uses, and this tension, between production and consumption, between being captivated by the fetish object and resisting it, animates so much of the most interesting electronic music.
In many ways this is also the larger narrative of the European avant-garde (another military term, for what it’s worth) and contemporary art in general. Marcel Duchamp’s infamous ready-mades changed the art world by claiming that the lens of the artist defines what is art, and that simply by reframing an existing object it can be transformed. This attitude had a great impact on a young John Cage, and music has never been the same since. Beginning in the late ‘60s in Italy, the arte povera (poor art) movement continued this radical tradition by incorporating found objects into the work, rejecting conventional styles, materials, and artistic institutions. The political tradition of anti-institutionalization declined in the late ‘70s as far-left groups turned to terrorism, but the autonomist spirit represented by arte povera continued on as an aesthetic philosophy in the ‘80s. Mail Art found a tireless and prolific (self)promoter in Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, and Arte postale flourished in Italy, despite or perhaps because of the legendary inefficiency of the Italian postal service. These artists rejected the established hierarchies and institutions of the Art world, and gave birth to the tape trading culture that fostered the early Noise and Industrial music scenes. William Burroughs and his cut-up technique influenced this emergent culture, and despite their radical aesthetic differences, the same techniques influenced avant-garde electronic music, Techno/House, and hip-hop. In all these traditions, the artistic pioneers were driven by creativity and a deep knowledge of music, relying on their resourcefulness to make due with what they had, not on crass commercialism or on a drive to acquire the latest musical equipment designed for obsolescence.
When Matteo Uggeri first began experimenting with producing music of his own, he sought to emulate the artists he loved. Without “proper” equipment, he marked up crappy vinyl to make cheap loops, and used headphones “turned backwards” as microphones. Though these early tracks, Poor Loops for Krishna, may not be his strongest work, they show the determination of a resourceful and creative artist in the nascent stage, a creativity which has been in full bloom these last few years. Never trained as a musician, the results are highly original and compelling on a deeper level than mere technical virtuosity can achieve. Uggeri translated his passion for records into creating his own work, establishing the labels Moriremo Tutti and Grey Sparkle to release both his own work as well as that of his friends. As Der Einzige, Uggeri explored his interest in industrial music, while Hue allowed him to explore more serene aspects of his personality. With his group Sparkle in Grey, electronic manipulation and field-recordings are combined with live musicians and more conventional song-structures, resulting in some of my favorite records of recent years.
Uggeri has continued to fuse theanimus that drove these early inspirations into his collaborations with a wide variety of artists, including De Fabriek, Claudio Rocchetti, Punck, Cría Cuervos, Nicola Ratti, OvO, Andrea “Ics” Ferraris, Andrea Serrapiglio, Bob Corn, and many others. His recent collaboration with Luca Mauri and Francesco Giannico, the fourth and final installment of the Between the Elements series, was recently praised by The Wire and included in their Wire Tapper 28 CD. (As well as by this very publication, review here). That quadrilogy was initiated alongside the industrial tape-trading pioneer Maurizio Bianchi/MB, who has been an inspiration to the present Italian scene in all its manifold glory.
MB also contributes to Uggeri’s recent video art project, Remote Control. As the liner notes explain, “Remote control has a double meaning of ‘control from a distance’ and ‘tv zapper’, and even if it has a strictly political message, at least is a sarcastic attack on TV, a scorn for the broadcasting system, especially the Italian one.” This project also has a double manifestation, as a live performance and as a double VHS tape. I would argue that Remote Control is the clearest articulation of Uggeri’s artistic vision. In it’s live version, Uggeri and collaborator Luca Sigurtà (Harschore, Luminance Ratio) create a cloud of noise against the backdrop of live TV zapping projected behind them, using junk electronics and processed fragments of the broadcast audio. The tape format is deeply symbolic, as well as a touch nostalgic, defying easy commercialization while harkening back to the glory days of tape, the first technology that really liberated media from the producers. Attacking the vapidity of television, particularly as it has developed in Berlusconi’s Italy, this work takes the idea of participatory culture to a level that completely resists the trappings of commercialization and advertising so often associated with “interactivity.” Uggeri acts as a curator, bringing together an international crew of artists using noise as anti-institutional catharsis, their various tracks set against the random zapping of Italian television.
The effect of tearing these images from their original context – freed of their accompanying sound, of temporal location in a broadcast schedule, from narrative context- and randomly paring them with noise music is surprisingly effective. Just as protesters banging pots and pans in the face of police in response to Quebec’s recent controversial anti-protest “special” Law 78 robs the police of their legitimacy by exposing their powerlessness, Remote Control robs these base television programs of their social and political capital. Uggeri is operating within a tradition of the Italian experimental musicians that broke decisively from the high cultural output of the pre-movement of ’77 days. The anti-institutionalism of that political and cultural moment eventually self-destructed, but lived on in the aesthetic realm of Mail Art and industrial/noise tape culture. It’s no surprise then to see music journalist and Mail Art pioneer Vittore Baroni providing fascinating articulations of these ideas in the liner notes. Barone’s enthusiastic response to Uggeri’s project draws a connection between that earlier time and today’s experimentation, and demonstrates that today’s new media can still be used in novel and subversive ways.
Joseph Sannicandro: Can you describe what led you to be interested in making music?
Matteo Uggeri: I loved music since when I was very young, a kid I may say. My mother and her brothers were all fond of music and I grew up listening to Inti-Illimani, Italian folksingers (eg. Guccini and De André), and some prog stuff (early Genesis and PFM). Apart of the latter, I still like all of these… but I started to think about creating my own music in the middle of the ‘90s when I discovered early ’80s industrial artist such as SPK and Cabaret Voltaire, and most of all Controlled Bleeding. I wanted to do something similar, and I thought I could. I don’t have any traditional musical background, I learned how to read music only four years ago, and so I loved the idea of playing in a rough way.
You began with poor equipment and loops, releasing the results under the monicker Der Einzige. How would you describe your creative process at this time?
Yes, at the very beginning I just wanted to imitate the sounds of what I listened, stuff like those of Cold Meat Industry label… but I didn’t have any sampler, just two crap Walkmans and a very basic IBM PC (in 1996 was a good one, I think a 286, but if you think about it now…!), that was my father’s PC, being honest. I didn’t even have microphones, so I used headphones used ‘backward’. And to create loops I tried to use the turntable. I wanted very harsh sounds, so I tried with adhesive stripe on vinyls. The result was pretty good, but I didn’t want to use my LPs, so I got one from some hare Krishna guy that was selling them door to door. That’s why in the CD-R card Early Poor Loops for Khrisna you can listen to some sort of mantra between a jump of the needle and the other!
Download: Der Einzige – “Cabaret Montesquieu” (mp3)
To create percussive sounds I used a tent’s bar stuck against a heater. My parents weren’t too happy for this, but they let me do it. Later, at university, I knew some ‘real’ musicians, like Icci, to whom I asked for recordings of guitars and more, so I’ve put his stuff (a bit manipulated through the PC) in the first tape. He even borrowed me a drum pad (that I didn’t like very much).
I think the use of field-recordings demonstrates a careful way of listening. What are your early impressions of sound and music? What lead you to treat sound as you do?
Yes, I think I’m a careful listener. I always loved to record sounds around me, and in this case – I must say – without any imitation purpose. I didn’t know artists such as Francisco Lopez or Chris Watson (apart of his activity as a member of Cabaret Voltaire) when I decided to take a microphone (a real one, but cheap again, a Sony mic usually done for interviews and similar purposes) with me when I was around. I always loved the sounds of the objects also, like the things I had in my house (tools, home machines, washbasins…). But it’s difficult to say what lead me to treat sound… most of the time I don’t treat sounds in terms of ‘effects’ like distortions, granulizers, echoes… I did in the past (not so much, usually, except for reverbs and delays) but now I usually prefer to let the sound recognizable. I just cut and eq, or compress it a bit. I like to preserve the identity and the memory of the sound. For me each field recording has a specific link to a place and a situation, and often to people (relatives, friends, somebody who was with me at that time). I’m a sort of sensitive researcher and collector of sounds, not a scientist or a experimentalist. A sound is beautiful to me especially if it has a meaning to me, and if possible to the potential listeners too.
I dunno exactly what brought me to the love for sounds in this sense. Maybe the fact that I’ve never been able to play any musical instruments, so I searched for something in the air that I could grab and use into my compositions. At the same time, I notice that I record a lot of human voices also, and that I like the emotional and even semantic value of these speeches…
Do you think of your process for creating as being, artistically, fundamentally one that takes place in “the studio” (that is, editing, mixing, arranging) or a “live” process that takes place in real-time.
For Sparkle in Grey is mostly a live real time process, so this means that we meet and play improvising into the rehalshal room as a way to ‘invent’ new songs/tracks, but afterward there’s a loooong studio phase that is really fundamental to us. And for my solo projects or for the projects I do in collaboration with other musicians is 90% studio (home studio, BTW).
And what projects you have coming out soon?
Yes, the [most recent] one is finally Pagetos, with Luca Mauri and Francesco Giannico [released by Boring Machines]. But I have also another very strange one with Bob Corn (Tiziano Sgarbi), an Italian folk singer which is really a good one, in the style of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, with whom I made a sort of “folk singer field recording album”: the idea was to let him play and sing ‘en plein air’ while I recorded with binaural mikes, often in movement. I also got my first sort of solo releases, one is Four Steps on Points, an EP based on strings (not played by me!) and Untitled Winter Nights, a full length CD based mostly on acoustic sounds of several instruments. The first should be out on Fluid Audio and the second on I don’t know yet.
Moreover, with Sparkle in Grey, we’re working on three albums, that will be issued very sloooowly in the following years – I hope.
[Update: The CD Fields of Corn, by Bob Corn & Matteo Uggeri, should have been published on May 25th, but was delayed due to the earthquake that struck the central region of Italy. The copies had laid unassembled in Tizio's house in San Martino Spino, until the last edition of Tagofest, where the two finally had the opportunity to meet and put together about 100 of the 500 limited edition copies of the record, which you can order here.]
Do you have a way of working that you bring to all your different projects? Or do some releases take on a specific process?
The process changes all the times according to the collaborators. I usually take care of field recordings and mixing, but not all the time and the sequence may change. For instance for Autumn is Coming… Andrea Ferraris recorded his guitar parts over tracks that I already prepared for him, mostly fields and little drones, then I mixed the whole stuff and then we also re-arranged it all together. It also depends on where the buddy lives: with Andrea we met two times, he’s not too far… For Pagetos it was different: I never met Francesco Giannico face-to-face, and he never knew even in internet Luca Mauri (that is a good friend living 40 km from my house). So in this case Francesco was the real initiator of the sounds, as he sent me piano tracks. Then me and Luca went to a sort of ‘studio’ (the Silos, in Merate) and he improvised on the piano tunes. We even get a track from Francesco while we were in the studio, by chance, in real time. Afterwards I spend some months in mixing the piano and the guitar and adding my sounds, then me and Luca reviewed the mix… And one track is just from Luca’s guitar. There I asked to Franz Krostopovic to add his violin and I played (much later) drums and trumpet here and there. Yes, it really changes all the times!
Can you further elaborate on some of the specifics of your working process?
I may say that in some other case it’s different again. With Alessandro Calbucci, for The Distance, I just gave him some of my field recordings and he did everything: he played the guitar drones and did the mixing. At the end I just added some more sound, did a basic EQ and a mixing between the tracks.
The Der Einzige EP with Harshcore comes just from 2h improvisation session in the same sort of studio above mentioned (the Silos), with some light editing months after, and that’s it.
Download: Der Einzige – “Yellow Six Meets Yellow Swans” [mp3]
With Sparkle in Grey it is much different, with improvisation sessions to generate the tracks and lot of creative and re-writing process later, always together until the final recordings in a real studio (that changes all the times) with real sound engineers (so far Giuseppe Ielasi and Cristiano Santini), and help in the mixing phase by Giuseppe again. In this case it takes years!
What equipment and gear do you use?
I just have an Apple laptop (but I’m not an Apple supporter, not at all!) Previously I had a PC and I still use a PC for the graphic work) with an Edirol FA 66 external sound card. But the most loved tool is a wonderful MIDI controller by Doepfer : both it and the Edirol have metal case and they’re lovely at touch. It’s important for me as my approach to ‘gear’ is not really physical as you can imagine. I also use some object (toys, polystyrene cubes, rubber bands…) with contact microphones, but they’re so delicate that sometimes I prefer to leave them home. I can play a trumpet and a bit some very very easy drum stuff, but I’m not really good with it!
And how do you use these? As you collaborate with more diverse artists and acquire new skills and techniques, how has your set up, and approach to music, changed over the years?
It changed a lot, of course, if you compare the very basic set to make noisy lo-fi loops with vinyls and adhesive stripes of Der Einzige and this Mac and audio device. In the middle you can find the stuff I played with various PCs (not laptops) in the ’90 as Normality/Edge and for Norm (the pre-Sparkle in Grey band I was playing with). My first software sequencer was Fast Tracker, a DOS program that ran with these old machines and that I had partially to setup with number and codes (in sexagesimal units, God! It was 90% random for me). I was not an expert, but I made as much as I could to build up patterns and rhythms that I liked, mostly in a dark EMB style music. I even had a :Wumpscut: like project with a mate at the university, Human_Against_Hope… I was singing/screaming. Real teenager ugly stuff!
Later, with Norm, I used shareware or free version software of Cooledit and mainly Goldwave to edit sounds, and ACID to make loops and record the instruments of the other member of the band (Agostino Brambilla, Andrea Zoia, Emanuele Nardini and at the end also Cristiano Lupo, that is still in Sparkle in Grey). It was a really funny and creative process. We spent days and days in summer in my parent’s house (when they were away, on holiday) recording day and night and processing the sounds. Nothing really listenable, but funny, yes.
Then I moved to Fruityloops, a completely different and easier and flexible software, with whom we decided also to go to a rehearsal room/studio (always the Silos) to improvise in a way that is similar to the Sparkle in Grey creative process, but much more radical. Only improvisation, each time different.
How does it transfer to a live setting?
It’s difficult. Now it’s rare for me to play alone, for instance. When I played the trumpet often I started to do live acts as Der Einzige based on trumpet, objects and laptop processing. It was funny to do and (I think) to watch and listen. Very short gigs, 20’ max, sometimes 5’.
In the past I also did laptop+contact mikes live acts, but I didn’t enjoy them very much, I had to prepare everything before and there was little space for improvisation, for ‘real’ playing. With the band (SiG) everyone plays is instrument (Franz Krostopovic the Violin, Alberto Carozzi the guitar and the bass, Cristiano Lupo bass, drums and guitar) and I use my laptop to provide rhythmical and melodic patterns, and some contact microphone is used too. So I don’t get bored because I need a lot of concentration to not make any mistake and the audience has someone to watch playing (them). It works, and it’s difficult too, as it’s not too easy for them to play with electronic paces all the times.
Some other project does not has a real live set (Autumn is Coming… or Pagetos, for instance) but we can think about it… Now I’m preparing a sort of field-recordings showcase. Not a concert but a sort of trip in sounds recorded all over, with no melodies and no rhythm, only field recordings. Maybe it’ll be very boring. The best live stuff is probably the performance related to “Remote Control”, that I do with Luca Sigurtà. In that case we use a real TV set with a spectator that does zapping all the time and we process the TV audio through various devices, showing the TV transmission to the audience through a beamer. This is funny.
Any tour plans?
Unfortunately not. It’s getting more and more difficult to play around in this period, especially for those like me who have a job in a completely different field. But I’m doing my best.
Any other albums or collaborations in the works?
I’m working to the second collaboration with Andrea Ferraris, and I’m helping a singer, My Dear Killer/Stefano Santabarbara to mix his album. I love working with non-strictly experimental musicians. Moreover I’d like to issue some noise stuff from Der Einzige, including a solo trumpet and bagpipe record we made years ago and a live album with Harshcore. I still have some record into ‘my drawer’ ready, like my first solos I already mentioned and a very good collaboration I’ve done with the Portuguese musician NunO Moita, called “Batalha”, but I can’t find a label for it.
Ah! I forgot Sparkle in Grey: we’re working on three records, as I mentioned, but very slowly. One should be recorded at end June 2012 by Andrea Serrapiglio and it’s called Thursday Evening. It’s a heavier one than Mexico.
A Closer listen whole-heartedly thanks Matteo Uggeri for this interview. All images courtesy of the artist.