I realized that it can take other forms, others than the one imposed. Not just a section, but a circle or an ellipse, a closed path where you may see a cyclic repeat of events where
not everything has a beginning and an end.
Hysteresis is an ongoing work by Giovanni Lami inaugurated in 2017. The first four installments have already been released by various tape labels, with more to come shortly and with no end in sight. As all of his creative projects tend to be, Hysteresis is based on a clear concept. But more than in the past, Lami has found a way to unify this concept with a specific sonic practice. I interviewed Giovanni back in 2014, along with Enrico Coniglio, to discuss their duo Lemures. In the course of that conversation, Lami emphasized the importance of physicality to his performance practice, as well as the central role that concepts play in creating his work. With Hysteresis, both of these ideas are brought to the fore.
Each tape installment of Hysteresis has been recorded on site in a particular location: in his home city of Ravenna, on the outskirts of Naples, in Valencia (Spain), and in Turin. In each case he performs using his Nagra, a high-end portable reel-to-reel tape recorder favored by everyone from Luc Ferrari to Marcus Fischer, loaded with nothing but blank tape and two pairs of microphones. One pair is trained on the surrounding environment, the other small a set of handheld microphones capturing the sounds of the the tape itself, occasionally manipulated by some small object or another.
Lami has explored the potential of the medium of tape before, as I detailed most recently in my review of Bias (2016). For that release the artist buried reels of tape in the earth and then later exhumed them, playing and manipulating the chemically altered loops in site-specific configurations. Several of the techniques that are on display in Bias can be found across Hysteresis as well, but the chemical transformation is swapped out for an exploration of yet another property of tape, namely how its material length may not directly correspond to its temporal qualities. The loops too are put away and instead Lami is working directly with reels, albeit in an unconventional way. A given length of tape may equate to a given length of time only if the playback speed is fixed, and even then micro-discrepancies contribute to sonic artifacts that have long appeals to tape’s fans (and tormented its detractors). Yet Lami is not just varying the playback speed but manipulating it in a variety of ways. His tape stops, reverses, slows down, bunches up, takes up in the opposite direction. This keeps the material from becoming monotonous or bland, giving Lami a means to interrupt a sound in a variety of ways. A quiet scene might suddenly jump to a slithering hiss, or twist between a puttering hum and chirping squeal. And a sound first heard in one context may recur in reverse, at a different speed, or simply juxtaposed to another scene out of time.
The term hysteresis is derived from an Ancient Greek word meaning “deficiency” or “lagging behind.” The sounds which comprise each performance of Hysteresis intentionally disorient the listener, confusing our sense of temporality through its multiple circuits. Sonically reminiscent at times of other instrumentalized tape experiments, such as Giuseppe Ielasi‘s 15tapes, Hysteresis is nonetheless distinguished by this aspect of its concept. I’m reminded in some ways of Toshimaru Nakamura‘s no-input mixing, for the deep exploration of a playback medium not ostensibly designed to be a source of “noise” in and of itself. And on a very different register, Hysteresis’ interest in temporal circuits recalls the Mirror Paintings of Michelangelo Pistoletto. First produced in the early ’60s, these works feature photorealistic life-size portraits painted directly onto large mirrors. In our present image-obsessed culture the nature of Pistoletto’s works seem to have been altered, as they might easily be viewed as superficial in so far as they lend themselves to innocuous, selfie-friendly public installations. Yet even still these works are only activated by the presence of the spectator, whose act of gazing upon the work triggers a complex temporal loop between the different planes of the image. I sense a kind of kinship with Hysteresis in this aspect of the phenomena. Even though Lami’s work doesn’t depend upon the listener in the same way, the act of manipulating and mediating the sounds of the environment and of the recorder itself through the process of recording and playback takes on something of an aural mirroring.
Lami’s technique in this series is to completely realize a unique means of improvising with tape. He demonstrates a set of actions and cultivates his own personal idiom of gestures. The success of these improvisations derives from his sensitivity as a listener and an improviser, his ability to react and respond to the curious artifacts of working with tape. As I suggest above, this is grounded in the temporal implications manifested in his sonic material, the lag between events and their recurrence on tape. Rhythms emerge intrinsic to the process, tape moving from one place to another, small objects being activated against the stream of tape and hiss. Fragments of environmental sound appear as untreated field-recordings, but do not stay so for long. Lami subtly and not-so-subtly disrupts these temporary moments of calm, and the final composition consists in the movement between pairs of microphones and the differences and repetitions of manipulated tape. The artwork of IV (the image at the head of this article) provides a nice visual interpretation of the temporal layering at work.
Lami has developed a flexible means of improvising in dialogue with the tape player as both a medium and as an instrument simultaneously. What we hear on each tape consists of merely a selection of the best parts from each on-site performance. There is no post-production, overdubbing, layering, or editing outside of re-framing these moments. The result evokes aspects of experimental electronic music and noise (in its arrhythmia and concrete collages), field-recording (in the moments when environmental sounds come through unobstructed), and especially free improvisation. It is the use of two small cardioid microphones in conjunction with the tape and player that results in a gestural addition to what might otherwise seem unrelenting in its abrasive qualities. These microphones allow a means to physically and sonically react to the tape in real-time, in remarkably expressive ways. Lami also plays with the stereo image to give the recordings additional dynamics. By recording onto tape, he also achieves his sense of “hysteresis,” a non-linear sound world that one can step into and out of at any point.
What influence each location has on the sounds produced is open to interpretation. Hysteresis II seems to have the most interesting site, as it was recorded at Solfatara di Pozzuoli, a volcanic crater to the west of Naples in the south of Italy. Images from this performance most conspicuously adorn the tape artwork and figure prominently in the accompanying video. This crater is part of what has been known since antiquity as the Campi Flegrei, or the Phlegraean Fields. Lake Avernus, itself inside a volcanic crater, was considered by the Romans to be the entrance of Hades, appearing in Virgi’sl Aeneid, and nearby Baiae was something like the Hamptons of Ancient Rome. II therefore seems to me to reflect the natural awe and foreboding status of its location, a place where a family lost their life only recently. IV also feels a bit more active, with faster cuts and a greater number of manipulation of the small objects alongside the tape. Again, we can only speculate what direct correlation there may be, but each tape does display a unique mood. I and III are relatively placid by comparison, and the reverberant sounds of voices suggest more enclosed spaces. These different are rather minor, however and the series maintains a kind of coherence across each tape. Each installment alternates between machinic rhythms, ambient stillness, and controlled noise resulting in an engaging take on improvised sound. Each side ranges from 10 to 15 minutes, substantial enough to to be worth our time but short enough to not wear out the material.(Joseph Sannicandro)