The way I work lately is focused on a live improvisation approach. Streengs is my first solo work where I practiced that way of playing. It is a work made by a single concept and the same set of instruments done in the same period. This is very important to me. It’s like keeping focused on the same painting for days and trying not to disperse the intensity of the work. I’m no longer into producing an album made by songs, but much more into creating an album as a result of a single approach. It doesn’t matter which instrument it is. At the same time, however, it doesn’t mean that I won’t consider what I record as a song. What’s more important is how I do that and if I like the sound I create.
So Nicola Ratti announced in an interview with Canadian artist Mark Templeton following the release of Streengs, his previous solo record released on Senufo Editions in late 2012. Coming in just as End of Year lists were being published, that record slipped under the radar for far too many listeners. Streengs brilliantly produced unique sounding compositions based on improvisation, manipulating various signal-chains simultaneously through a resonant prepared piano and mixing board with effects. Initially it seemed like a complete left turn for Ratti. But this is why I love trilogies. In the middle chapter you can take risks, go for dark, while the final chapter ties it all together. What seemed like a departure with Streengs is brought into new context with Ossario, the latest LP from Nicola Ratti and a continuation of the practice he describes above. With this record, the circle begun with 220 Tones is completed, and suddenly the three records make a clear artistic statement.
It’s hard not to see parallels between Ratti’s development and that of his Bellows partner, Giuseppe Ielasi. That duo’s Reelin’ stands in productive juxtaposition with Ossario. While Reelin’ used dub techniques in the interest of creating new forms, here Ratti strips electronic music down to the core, more industrial-techno than dub. Each take relies on sparse loops with defined frequencies, interlocking into patterns with contrasting electronic tones. Like Ielasi, Ratti’s post-guitar solo work has grown spacious and open, meaning the details he includes have more room to shine, but requires more care in selection. In moving towards an improvised compositional approach, these skeletons come across as uniquely human in their development.
Ratti first came to my attention with his 2008 LP From the Desert Came Saltwater, a beautiful collection of ambient songs mainly revolving around his guitar playing. Even then one could sense Ratti’s vision transcended the traditional usage of the instrument, and like Ielasi his subsequent records have done away with the baggage of 6 strings. He continued to play guitar in the spacious rock ensemble Ronin until recently, and his duo with Attila Faravelli (Faravelliratti) featured the guitar in an ambient but atypical setting. Ode for Preservation continued in much the same vein, stringing together compositions of rhythmic patterns and field-recordings held together by melodic washes and ritornellos.
220 Tones marked a decided shift in his direction as an artist, doing away with the guitar almost completely and instead focusing on analogue synths and even gesturing towards the rhythmic grid of dance music. In fact, in many ways Ratti ditched instruments altogether, focusing on aesthetic strategies and finding the proper tools after, though of course the direction the final product takes is very much in dialogue with the choice of tools themselves. On that record, Ratti’s starting point was electronic tones as a concept. Often abstract and free flowing, 220 Tones drifted closer to cosmic than club. Its follow up, Streengs seemed like the real part of demarcation, announcing, as I quoted above, a new process, not unlike the approach taken on the two Bellows LPs, Handcut and Reelin’. Improvisation with loops means incorporating what might otherwise seem like failures into the real-time (reel-time?) composing. This doesn’t mean chaos, but it also means embracing indeterminacy, wrestling with it as part of the composition.
Ossario is Ratti’s music stripped to the bone. Ossario is Italian for ossuary, a site of rest for human skeletal remains, an entirely appropriate title for this kind of skeletal minimalism as compositional method. The cover, even the press release, are similarly stripped down, inviting a direct engagement with the music itself. Ossario is released as a double LP, with 10 compositions in total. The entire two volumes clock in at only 35 minutes, meaning each side is under 10 minutes at 45 rpm, allowing for increased dynamic range. Both A sides have two songs and both B sides have three, of similar respective length. This is only one of the structural symmetries of Ossario that hold together 10 disparate tracks into a rather cohesive whole. Not to push the skeletal metaphor too far, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Ratti had bilateral skeletal symmetry in mind. “1015” features 28 seconds of a rhythmic metallic pattern that comes to an abrupt end. Its twin “1016,” features the same 6/4 pattern, this time 54 seconds long. The flat sounding beat gradually splinters into a more complex pattern as the same synth tone from “1015” emerges from below. These structural limitations provide a compositional restraint within which the artist can work, not unlike Gabriel Orozco’s skeleton pencil drawings.
As we’ve come to expect, Ratti’s improvisation is deeply sensitive to sonic texture and space. Yet there is a surprising new aggressiveness, an abrasiveness and even anger at times that has never been perceptible in Ratti’s music before. The short electro-acoustic workouts are surprisingly muscular, almost a rival to Pete Swanson’s noise approach to techno.
Ratti works with a small modular synthesizer set up, tapes and samples, mixing together short Imagist narratives out of minimal patterns. Though some dub techniques stand out, Ossario really sounds quite unlike anything else. Ratti sharply carves out EQ space, carefully weaving together his different sources. Vol. II opens with the arpeggiated loop of “Tu” which is gradually overtaken by the squeaky but but confidently bouncing bass line. It seems in some way like the material from which Vol. I’s closing deconstruction “Roth” was culled. Some tracks like “Joy,” the second track on the A side of the second disc, are more driven by a prominent pulse or beat. The only track to sample vocals, it almost seems like a bizarre house track. The final quarter begins by establishing a more melancholy mood, with a slowly repeating loop of a melodic phrase. “Blossom” lives up to its name, beautiful and all too brief.
Though we are told that these tracks are merely “musical skeletons designed not to be covered in flesh and tissues, but trying to reduce everything to the bone,” I’d be curious to see DJs with more experimental leanings working with some of these tracks as raw material.
His conceptual and improvisational sensibilities have evolved markedly over the years, and his sensibility as a composer has been recognized by his invitiation to perform at the Festival Presences Electronique INA GRM 2014, Paris. There should be no question judging by his recent output, Nicola Ratti is an artist to watch. (Joseph Sannicandro)
300 copies on white vinyl, screenprinted pvc sleeve