Originally published at ACL
photo: Davide Lonardi
Listen to an exclusive excerpt of Leonardo Rosado’s The conscious illusion: homage to Bergman
The avant-garde of the 20th century radically expanded the potential of sonic arts in at least two important ways.
With the advent of sound recording technologies, figures such as Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were able to reconceive the building blocks of music through the creative use of devices initially conceived of as playback technologies. The resulting compositions, and the theoretical ideas underlying them, help to gradually shift the emphasis away from form and structure based on melodic and harmonic motion (arguably reaching its pique in the 12 tone and serial music popular in academic/classical music at the time). In its place was music organized based on texture, pitch, duration, frequency. These parameters would inform all electronic musics that were to come. John Cage and others also used playback devices, from phonographs to radios, during performances. Though their use was written into the score, their output was aleatoric, dependent on chance. Even earlier, the Futurist Luigi Russolo, (in)famous for his now century old manifesto The Art of Noises (1913), created his Intonarumori to create music with sounds that were more in line with the industrial sounds of modernity. These noise intonators were machines that produced sounds corresponding to Russolo’s six categories of noises, and there use caused a scandal among the concert-going public.
By manipulating, processing, and collaging recordings these early experimenters set the course for the widespread use of these techniques across a wide spectrum of genres.
The Futurists and the dadas disoriented poetry in similar ways that the musical avant-garde disrupted academic music. The gramophone meant the ability to write in sound, which allowed for poetry to exist as “pure” sound, the text becoming akin to a score. Liberated from the page, poetry could evolve again as an aural art form, but the dada’s also freed poetry from meaning and structure. Dada sound poetry explored the materiality of the sound itself. Decades earlier Stéphane Mallarmé, the French Symbolist poet, had made a similar innovation in understanding poetry as being primarily a text, anticipating what would be known as concrete poetry. “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard” (“A roll of the dice will never abolish chance,” PDF) was written taking the space of the page into account, and the significance of that work can’t be separated from its layout on the page. The white of the page was for Mallarmé what silence would be for John Cage.
The Futurists were inspired by this approach in their own typography and layout design, which would quickly be re-appropriated into the mainstream and radically change the approach to typesetting in all forms, from advertising to the gallery arts. Mallarmé’s poetic works “are an expression of the desire to break away completely from the phenomenal world and toward a poetry of absolute purity.” (Quoted in Johanna Drucker’s The Visual Word.) This purity is only an ideal, something to strive towards, but in fact this very concept of an ideal may distract from the fact that the poet was invested in a highly material practice. “Un coup…” exists as a visual object, and dada sound poetry exists as a sonic object. To paraphrase May Sinclair, a British novelist, poet, and critic, the sound “is not a substitute; it does not stand for anything by itself. Presentation not Representation is the watchword.” The poetry of fin de siècle Paris may have anticipated the intermingling of the arts that occurred during the Great War, but from there the hybrid forms went down more paths than I can recount here. For our purposes, what is most relevant is to understand the way traditional forms were re-imagined when confronted by new media that called earlier practices into question.
Music has been used to augment lyric poetry throughout history. Oral cultures preserved their poetic works through recitations, which were often accompanied by music to aid in memory. Lyricism can be in service of the music, but the contrary can also be true. Just confining ourselves to the 20th century, one can observe the great contrasts between the relationship between lyrics and music in opera, folk, and hip-hop. With the emergence of hip-hop in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in the South Bronx, the poetry of language began to dominate the music, the metre of the verse playing off the meter of the rhythm in a way very unique from similar techniques in rock music. Eric B. & Rakim are arguably the first mature examples of the potential of the art form.
One might argue that, in the United States at least, instrumental rock was on some level a reaction against the arrival of hip-hop. When Simon Reynolds coined the term post-rock in 1994, grunge was ascendant, and it was clear to any who took a close look that rock had become a reactionary, conservative force, squarely identified with a white suburban middle class. With language at the center of hip-hop as music, musicians working within the idiom of rock began to explore music without words. The racial boundaries separating genres weren’t so strict in Reynolds homeland of the UK, a key point of the “Post-Rock” article that often seems to be forgotten. Hybridity of forms and practices was far more common in the UK, therefore, than in the US. Post-rock, hip-hop and the various iterations of electronic music borrowed from one another, and samplers, MIDI controllers, and other electronic instruments were much more freely incorporated into rock performance.
The influence of sound poetry mostly followed a trajectory quite removed from the poetic use of lyrics in popular music. The dada sound poetry of Raoul Haussmann, and the post-dada masterpiece “Ursonate” by Merzmaster Kurt Schwitters, would serve as direct inspiration for some, like the Dutch sound poet Jaap Blonk, who is keeping alive this tradition is a very explicit way. Others have been inspired to simply challenge received notions or orthodoxies while striking out in their own direction.
What does any of this have to do with mainly wordless instrumental music? Lyrics music can be wonderful, but lyrics can also be restrictive. By introducing the art of poetry into music, the music is put in service of the interpretation of the lyrics. Now, if one is already working with words (as a poet, a journalist, an academic), when writing dominates so many aspects of our lives, music can be a a pre-linguistic refuge.
Leonardo Rosado is an experimental artist working in various media, including poetry, photography and music. Born in Portugal in 1975, Rosado’s creative practice was dominated by poetry. Though he explored the incorporation of music early on, it’s only been the last 5 or 6 years that he’s begun releasing his own music. At times releasing music under the name Subterminal, he began to develop a process of composing music using poems as a kind of compositional guide. This practice grew to use other forms of text to provide compositional structure, within which Rosado creates his own music. After completing his PhD in Environmental systems Rosado and his family recently relocated to Goteborg, Sweden. At first I found it funny, associating that city with death metal such as At the Gates, but the experience in Sweden seems to have inspired Rosado to engage new texts and mine sources rich with resonance, such as his engagement with Bergman.
One of his early releases was Mute Words, a striking work of ambient music released on his own Heart and Soul label. That work was accompanied by a book of Rosado’s poetry, and featured guest vocals from Alicia Merz (Birds Of Passage), Barbara De Dominicis and Michelle Seaman Leonardo. Perhaps the work truly lies in the interplay between the poetry and the music. Though much of his work is instrumental, it is driven by poetic associations, a form of poetry without words. His catalog also showcases his interest in word play and vocals in the context of music as well. It is no surprise to see the work of self-described poemproducer AGF (Antye Greie) in his mix for Secret Thirteen. Greie has developed similar methods, at one point activating lines of computer code to poetic affect in a not wholly dissimilar process. Rosado again collaborated with Merz for Dear and Unfamiliar, a collaborative album using the classic film Casablanca as its departure point.
Joseph Sannicandro: When did you get involved in making electronic music, and how?
Leonardo Rosado: I did several spoken word performances in 2001-2002 using other artists’ music and reading some of my poems and other poets. Back then I wanted to make the music and let others do the spoken work part. After that period I stopped for several years and one day a friend of mine told me that Vítor Rua (an important experimental musician from the Portuguese scene) was making this crash course workshops. This was by the end of 2008 and I said why not, I want to learn the basics for so long that I should do it now.
Did you play an instruments as a child? When did you become interested in recording?
I played piano for most of my youth though since I hadn’t a piano at home it was hard to practice, but nowadays the technique is almost gone, I just kept the love for the instrument.
Music always had a very special place in my interests – mostly attached with my love for poetry – Leonard Cohen, Ian Curtis, Patti Smith among others were always my favorite because they put music at the service of poetry mostly, and that was my main driver to make music to support my own poetic voice, literally. Later I found out that using sounds to convey my poems without actually reciting them is much more interesting. In that sense I am slowly moving away from actual words and directly into sound emotions.
Leonard Cohen – “One of us cannot be wrong”
I know Portugal has gone through many changes since the ‘70s and ‘80s but aside from Fado and the like, I’m afraid I don’t know much about Portuguese music. Is there an experimental tradition to draw on? Classical composition? It seems Lisbon has become a popular city in Europe for festivals and DJs and the like, but is there a network of experimental musicians as well? Or is this involvement more “European,” or trans-national?
In Portugal there has been always a strong influence on music coming from abroad (asides the Fado and some traditional / folk music) so what appears are often experimental musicians that are individuals and not so much as being part of a group. Again, the popularity of Lisbon for festivals is mainly towards the big names, although there is a lot of “indie music” love, but not Portuguese.
I did have some mentors in my path, first and foremost my father, my biggest criticizer, but always helping me in reaching better and more meaningful results, and Vitor Rua without whom I would never realize how simple and fun it can be to compose music. After all music can be just the decision of combining sounds in a way that for me they make sense.
Can you tell us a bit more about your personal background? You mentioned you were working on your PhD. What are your studies pertaining to?
I am an environmental engineer and have been working on R&D for the last years mainly on material flow accounting for urban areas, which is my PhD work. I have been creating a model that allow the characterization of inputs, stocks and outputs of materials in metropolitan areas. In simplified terms I am understanding the amounts of materials that are stocked every year, where are they going to, and when will they be obsolete and hence ready to be recovered for recycling or reuse.
That’s very interesting, and somehow seems fitting that your work has taken you to Sweden. Like a lot of other electronic artists who embrace a DIY approach, your work reveals a very careful approach to listening. How did you become fascinated with sound?
I don’t know how, why or when I became fascinated with sound, but I do remember always having music at my place, but also poetry, paintings, architecture, ancient civilizations and all kinds of literature, so I always felt drawn to all this universes that would appeal to this three senses (listening, seeing and talking). Always loved to delve into the details, the small differences that we can see if we pay enough attention.
What appeals to me most about working with electronics is the freedom in exploring. By not being bound to a particular instrument, or a set of sounds, I can always explore deeper and deeper into different universe. I do prefer to work alone, although I don’t mind working in a group, but then I will have much less freedom to do what I prefer.
Music is part of a larger concept, an artistic idea if you like, in which I am mostly interested in presenting specific concepts with sound. Therefore, the creative process almost always starts with an idea, some keywords, or more complex, images, a movie or a set of poems. With this in mind, I choose my sonic palette and then make several improvisations, at first to understand how I can explore the sonic material and afterwards to start constructing pieces of the album. Sometimes the concepts are changed along the way, because sound shows me different meanings that are normally associated with the first concepts.
After defining the concepts I choose the sources of material. When I started making music I used several iphone applications because they were easily accessible and usable, but lately I have been working with almost only acoustic / analog sources captured with a microphone in my studio. The choice of objects will fall under a set such as: a solo instrument or two, some percussion objects, and a drone machine of some sort. This are then explored with a Kaoss Pad a loop pedal and some built in effects in the DAW. I like to keep few sources of material, because I feel the real challenge is working with minimal resources. Keeping things simple always works better for me and that implies also the use of silence and very slow building sounds. With that I make several improvisation sets, and overlay them. Afterwards, I start cleaning the parts I don’t like, and if necessary I’ll redo parts I felt should be better and so on. The key aspect in my working process is how the different sources interact with each other. In a sense I am using my sensibility towards sounds to reach an aesthetic, like trying to measure the perfect dimensions for a figure.
What equipment and gear do you use?
I use a minimal solution, a Kaoss Pad, a Loop station, a mixer and microphone and the laptop with a DAW and some vst plugins. Sometimes, if I feel is necessary I program with Max/MSP but generally I prefer to keep things more spontaneous.
Improvisation is the most important part. For instance, I can first record some samples of a piano I play and capture samples in the sample bank of the Kaoss Pad, after that I start listening to the combination of the samples with the several effects of the Pad and when I feel I have something I like I start improvising with it and recording it in the loop station. The use of the laptop can be before or after the loop station, depending on I want to explore more. I take time to overdub several tracks, but lately I have been working on improvisation sets where I tried to emulate a live session. I am still working on a live setup, but it will most likely be a laptop centered setting with the Kaoss Pad to explore a bit more effects and beat sequencing and the loop pedal to build several layers in real time.
I reviewed For R for That Site Before this one, I saw a lot of nice press for Mute Words, and of course Dear and Unfamiliar was a big hit with us. You also released a record at the end of the year for Rural Colours. 2012 saw your record A Long White Sleep for the Laverna net label. What else can we expect from you?
For now things are very quiet in my end, I am working on a new set of pieces based on the idea of the Sea and the human condition, using Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea as main inspiration. Nevertheless, after Dear and Unfamiliar I released an album called Mute Words, in my own new label Heart and Soul that is specialized in releasing music and poetry joint together. Also, the Soaking Wet ep was released late December at Rural Colours but this ep is a collection of tracks belonging to the Opaque Glitter sessions that didn’t make it to the album, although I thought they had an enormous value as an EP. Hopefully, later in the year 2 collaborations will also be developed, the first with Barbara De Dominicis and the second with Monolyth and Cobalt.
Each release is has I mentioned before worked based on core concepts, even Dear and Unfamiliar was made in this way – the movie Casablanca was our (mine and Alicia’s) inspiration to make the music. But in terms of the collaboration, things work a bit differently, because since I make the music, I try to mould my way of making music to the person I am working with, although experimentation will always play a large role. Looking back, I think that Dear and Unfamiliar surely is an album that shows off at first the talent of Alicia, but if you dig deeper you’ll see that the music is far off her work, and in a sense it is also far off my own work. And that is the best thing for me, to create music not bounded only by my own personality, but gaining from working with others.
How long have you been practicing photography? Does your photography relate to your music in any way? Be it in the packaging, the general aesthetic, or do you think that sort of trans-media comparison is not apt?
I started working with photography in late nineties (I even had a B&W studio in my home) and ever since wanted to explore the abstract side of images, to explore images with blur, light effects, shadows, all the more hidden facets of our life. All my work seems to be conveying into a single language in different mediums, be it poetry, music or photography, they all are directly working together, sometimes one provides context to the other, than another time the opposite occurs. Actually, lately I started working on a project where I explore my ideas about colors so the starting point is images that remind me of an aspect of each color, and then I compose the music for that image, and now listening to the music I want to write poems about the music, and that can eventually lead me into new images and sounds …in a way it feels like working in a spiraling context every art feeds into another and provides me new insights that will lead me to getting back to the first and make new things.
Can you tell me a bit about the FeedbackLoop label and Heart and Soul?
FeedbackLoop Label started out after I helped Tiago Morais Morgado with his XS Records [portuguese netlabel] because I wanted to release music that I think has a quality feel to it and explores the world of emotions and everyday life through sound, it has become a stable and hopefully interesting place for people to go and download music they will enjoy. But lately I felt something was missing, and I think it has to do with the fact that digital files will mostly remain in the realm of portable players and computers. Having that in mind and also the idea that I want to make physical objects as beautiful as possible and combining them with poetry and photographs I started Heart and Soul and go into the realm of the pleasure to hold an object that can be surprising. For now Heart and Soul is releasing books of poetry with music but will soon expand to photo art postcards with a beautiful packaging I am working on.
Also I’d love to hear about your involvement with Exquisite What and with Barbara in general. Over the last year or so I’ve become a big supporter of what she’s doing, especially after learning so many of my friends and acquaintances are involved in her projects.
Some time ago Barbara De Dominicis listened to a couple of my tracks in soundcloud and we became friends. She soon asked me if I wanted to join this project where both musicians, photographers and video artists would embrace a Cadavre Exquis process, in which we would, as a community work on pieces of someone else’s music to build some kind of collage and simultaneously a modern Babel.
It’s really interesting you started using the iPhone when making music initially. I also have experimented with the iPhone. Just as cell-phone cameras are a lower-fidelity but always present apparatus to take pictures with, I’ve found it’s useful as an ever-present field-recorder that is always in my pocket as well. It’s not so much that the device is so innovative and opens new possibilities for music production (though certainly there are some really interesting possibilities for iphone/ipad controllers) but that its ubiquity seems to make it a useful tool.
In the beginning I was collecting apps like a maniac, after awhile I tired of it, but the main thing is that it is a good way of finding out some strange sounds that you can use. I remember enjoying Brian Eno‘s apps Bloom and some others, but they do have a very recognizable signature.
In what cases and how have you been using Max?
In my music composing learning process I wanted to use Max, to know what were the potentialities of the software so I did a workshop and by that time again I was excited in using it, but mostly I use it to construct some sounds, mostly by granular sampling.
I also record on the computer, even though I try not to use it for anything other than recording and editing. I like the fact that an artist like Steve Roden can use nothing but a microphone and some old pedals while still producing such evocative music. Still, I don’t have a strong inclination in the “analog” vs. “digital” wars that are often invoked. Are we simply past this dichotomy, or do you have a preference?
Well, maybe I am more inclined to use analog sources, but then, I always process them through the laptop, so most of the times it is always a combination of both signal types that interest me. But more importantly it is the dirtiness in the sound that I prefer, and I use the laptop to further explore it.
Can you talk a bit about some of your creative and musical influences?
Being trained in engineering and having had a long path in science coupled with the art explorations I have done for so many years are both the main drivers for my creativity, and it takes many shapes and forms, sometimes might start with something I remembered, or saw, or heard and from there I build up the whole foundations of a piece of music, or an album, but it can be otherwise, where I start with a concept and then I try to approach it with a logic where I set the sounds in motion, but then I let improvisation enter the stage and bring the composing into a level where it is both abstract and scientific. Anyway, what it becomes apparent to myself is that I am always exploring the threshold between opposites. Between light and shadow, right and wrong, clean and dirty, but always in the perspective that any opposite can be found within the other and vice versa. Regarding my musical influences, it is hard to say, because there is so much music I enjoy and so much music I would like to do, I find myself in a place where it is better not to follow any specific path because if I do, i’ll stray from it the minute I start focusing on what i am doing, and then all influences just vanish, because in the end I am following the sounds, and the sounds are telling me where to go next.
What influences cultivated your taste?
When I was a kid my father had a huge collection of vinyl, and through that collection I explored another world, a world of words and sounds. Furthermore, I was always inclined to all art forms, from contemporary painting to poetry, as well as a sense of reaching true feelings through arts. There was also a strong sense of understanding what some of the musicians wanted to say, for example the punk movement, and mostly what came after were full of relevant messages for a teenager as myself. So for me it was a normal path to listen to several different things, from pop, songwriters, art rock, indie, jazz, ethnic music, classical, electronic. In a sense, listening to music was like living a dream life.
How did you discover experimental music?
Actually, I have a hard time defining experimental music, because to my ears there is music that I like, that defies me, that draws me in, that stays with me for a long time, and maybe that is the only thing that I can define as experimental music, otherwise there is music that I just don’t like, or that it becomes boring and without surprises after a couple of listenings. I always enjoyed the indie pop / rock music in the 80′s, and then the trip hop scene in the 90′s, but my most preferred songs were the somewhat more experimental stuff. So it was always normal to go from one thing to the next and exploring and delving into more obscure and strange music, but always with a sense of trying to find the inner beauty in music.
You incorporate so many different forms of media into your work, I wonder if you have a preference, or how the format of a work may reflect your involvment with it.
Nowadays, listening to music has become I would say even more individual, more like a search into details, in a sense, though I don’t like too much the term a “spiritual quest”, like in my life I do tend to be much more involved with the little details. I could stand for hours just feeling the snow falling on me, or seeing the rings of a tree. At least at this stage I do feel involved in exploring the micro feelings, the sound of a word when writing poetry, the echo of a field recording or instrument, the blurred colors and shapes of a photograph. So I do tend to listen quietly to the music, normally with a pre-existing mindset, which in a way I guess everyone of us do.
What is your home listening situation like?
At home, with the kids around, I can only listen when they go to bed, and when they do, it is normally late in the day so I tend to put a vinyl record, or a cd and let the sounds fill the air.
If you have car, are there any records or types of music you feel are best heard in your car, driving around?
I used to prepare a lot of special compilations for trips by car. Normally in this cases some of the best tracks I enjoyed, with energy, not necessarily beat driven, but they can be pop, rock, electronic, jazz songs. But in my day to day car trips I usually take the time to listen to my own music, because I am alone and I can put it loudly and listen to the details in a different setup.
What about headphones walking around town?
I never use headphones when walking around. I used to listen to a lot of music in my walkman/portable cd player when I was a teenager, but nowadays I prefer to listen to my surroundings, and since I carry around my mobile phone there is always opportunities to record something I hear.
Thoughts on vinyl vs tape vs cd vs mp3 etc?
For a long time I used to not worry too much about the medium with which I listened to music, because in a way the need to listen to music, and the need to find new music was stronger. Of course I enjoyed a lot to see the cover, read all the information in the cd/vinyl, but listening was and is what is most important. Lately, I started changing a little bit, I don’t feel the urge to find new music so often, or in a sense, I prefer to focus on a different type of music. Long are the days when I wanted to listen to the new indie / electronica / rock / jazz music that was out, or that I didn´t have the chance to listen before. Nowadays I prefer listening to drone 7 ambient / electroacoustic / experimental (whatever names you like to call it) and that comes with a different attitude, I tend to just listen to the music, and I find it interesting that vinyl is the preferable medium, because it demands your attention, which perfectly fits to what I want my relationship with music to be, a personal exchange, almost like a dialogue, and that needs indeed attention.
This series is all about reacting to the idea of creativity and resourcefulness rather than expensive gear or virtuosic technique. Of course I felt a kinship with you work in this regard. Electronic music but with a punk rock sort of ethos. To end this discussion, do you have any reflections on this?
I am totally on the side of do it yourself electronic music, and I really enjoy the fact that nowadays anyway can make music. In fact, it is liberating to know that one can express itself anyway he wants, whatever the cons that might have attached. Anyway, I also think that it is good to restrain yourself from using all technology at your service, because if you do that, you will never achieve the full potential that is locked within constraints. And again, people strive when faced with constraints because they have to fully understand what they have at hand in order to do something meaningful and relevant. On the opposite side, if you do have gadgets that do everything, then you are faced with two big problems: the first is that the gadget is always more far from reality than using your own small resources, so in a way, gadgets have the tendency to sound more fake that genuine; and the other problem is that with gadgets you exponentially increase the amounts of sounds, setups you can use, so in order for you to just explore them and be lost in them, without actually bringing something meaningful to the world, is quite easy. And I believe that any expression we have as people, should always be meaningful, especially when it is some kind of art form.
Thanks for your time.