Originally published by A CLOSER LISTEN
Giuseppe Ielasi began producing music in the early ‘90s as a guitar player in the European free improv scene, but has long since been known primarily as a deeply skilled producer of inventive elecroacoustic music. He has also run several labels (Fringes, Bowindo, Schoolmap, and currently Senufo Editions) and thus was steadily mixing and mastering records for others. Ielasi has cultivated not only a keen ear for nuance, but an aesthetic of sonic space that lends itself well to manipulations in the tradition of musique concrète, a tradition that explicitly downplays, indeed seeks to abolish, the origin of a sound in favor of an openness to sound-in-itself. In an interview with The Wire (2009), Ielasi admitted a long-standing interest in musique concrète , stating that “For me it’s about making a strange balance of the planes of the image. That’s what I’m interested in, the spatial qualities of the sound.” Ielasi’s take strikes me as philosophically more sophisticated, as the move he makes is to acknowledge that even in this setting the hardware that captures, manipulates and eventually outputs the sound all leave their own mark on making the sound what it is. Ielasi’s output over the last several years has more than anything been about a careful look at those characteristics, both eschewing an interest in the “original source” while simultaneously drawing attention to the apparatus at work, the character of which indelibly shaping the character of the final product.
Over the years Ielasi’s tool kit has shrunk alongside a focusing of his artistic concerns, a true sign of any great artist. He has gradually articulated an interest in exploring not only the spatial aspect of sound but the hardware used to record and play media, creating a sort of interpretative feedback loop that obscures the role of the artist while sharpening an appreciation of the “sound-itself,” which paradoxically draws attention to the structure and technique employed by the artist as producer. Why pick these fragments, why arrange the piece in such a way, why develop a particular space? It is in these perhaps unanswerable questions that a deep appreciation for Ielasi’s output emerges.
Integral to the success of these manipulations remains Iealsi’s careful ear as a producer and his great vision as a composer. His skills in mixing and mastering have made Ielasi in demand on a wide variety of releases (from his own label Senufo Editions [see Gregg Kowalsy’s Battery Tunnel] to the recent release of the 6 disc Prix Italia box set on Die Schachtel.) Though fine albums like August and Gesine showed a melodic side of Ielasi’s personality, still rooted the guitar, since at least Aix has increasingly shifted his emphasis towards exploring rhythm. Tools showed Ielasi engaged in activities very reminiscent of the innovators of musique concrète, mining mundane objects much the way Pierre Henri, Pierre Schaeffer, and Luc Ferrari carried out in the Groupe de Recherche Musicales. Another strain of his work in recent years emphasized playback hardware over content, drawing on fragments of improv records to create unusual sound worlds. His three Stunt records explored vinyl, creating an idiosyncratic take that had nothing to do with hip hop or turntablism as traditionally understood. Meanwhile the sister releases 15 Tapes, 15(more)Tapes and 15 CDs explored their namesakes, transforming the for granted functionality of the devices (rewind, fast-forward, etc) to generate micro-compositions.
The latter was released on the Entr’acte label, and one couldn’t imagine a better home for the continued evolution of Ielasi’s aesthetic. Based in London and curated by Allon Kaye, the Entr’acte label reduces the object itself to its purest distillation. All releases come in disposable, metalic shrinkwrap, vaccuum sealed by Kaye himself in his flat, nothing else blemishing the release other than the barely legible uniform typeface legible, embossed in the wrapper itself. These two newest releases continue the relationship with Entr’acte, while furthering, in their own way, the same vision.
Untitled is arguably Ielasi’s most substantial LP as a solo performer since Aix, though it would be impossible to interpret in the same light without knowledge of those aforementioned shorter explorations. Like them, Untitled, is a defined by the underlying Process that gives the work its cohesion. Ielasi betrays his musique concrète allegiance however in his lack of transparency behind these processes. All eight of the tracks, like the album itself, is without title. We may know that a particular piece of hardware is the primary object being instrumentalized, but we have no indication of the sample sources or the editing and effects that may be applied after the fact. Perhaps it is enough to know, as listeners, that there is an underlying process, but we are forced to accept the “sound-in-itself” on its own terms, without any extra-musical context. In this regard, Entr’acte again seems the logical choice for such releases. In some sense the results are more musical, traditionally understood, while also maintaining Ielasi’s sense of uncanny uniqueness. From the opening bar’s lurch of a synth tone, it is clear that a melodic fluidity takes a more central role, but again it is the structure of loops, the regularity of the grid that is exploited to create quite irregular compositions. The metronome underlying track 7, the unease of repetition caused by seemingly restarting the track on 2, and similar moments throughout Untitled each take a chance to create something new but once recorded, forever looped and locked in a moment. This relationship creates an interesting tension for an improviser, and a fitting response. Some critics may hear a passage and attempt to describe it, making recourse to established instruments and so on, but this seems to me to be rather aside the point. Perhaps we can say “untitled 6” is clearly drawing on sustained brass, but thinking in terms of the original moment frozen on the source material Ielasi draws upon detracts from an appreciation of what he is creating.
Bellows continues Ielasi’s interest in exploring hardware, but this duo has of course taken on a very different aesthetic identity through the influence of second member Nicola Ratti. Particularly on his 2011 LP 220 Tones and 2010 collaboration with Attila Faravelli, Ratti has emerged as a formidable talent. Ielasi and Ratti first collaborated together to release the Bellows LP back in 2008, a merger of their styles and still very much operating in a sort of “post-guitar” ambient framework. A bellows can refer to the part an instrument that stands in for the human lung, for instance in an accordion that blows air through the reed. This simple apparatus is an example of an early step towards the disembodiment of music, and hence is a fitting title for this project.
The duo, both with long and critically acclaimed discographies, followed that debut with Handcut, and Bellows officially began to stand in for their separate names. Handcut used the forced manipulation and unintended uses of hardware to produce compositions, much the way the dropping of the stylus became fragmented to stand in for a kick drum on Stunt. One of the primary means of creating new textures was by manipulating variable speeds, which, because we recognize the effect initially as one of “improper” use, creating of a mood of slight queasiness while simultaneously creating a new, impossible space.
Bellows sophomore release was more akin to Ielasi’s recent études, focusing on the types of sounds produced by dragging contact mics across vinyl records. Though something of the process is revealed here, it isn’t process art so to speak as the real artistry of these gentlemen comes from the ability to curate/recognize sounds and order them in pleasing ways. Reelin’ is again a step away from the known, and is, oddly enough, probably the most original take on ‘dub’ techniques since the Chain Reaction label exploded that paradigm over almost two decades ago. On their website, the only information about the releases is a short list of the hardware employed. From the opening echoing chords, we can hear familiar filtering and effects techniques creating a very unexpected result. The soundworld is recognizably dub, but not the object itself. Both Ielasi and Ratti (dayjob: architect) pay exceedingly close attention to the spatial properties of sound, and Reelin’ takes on impressive new dimensions when listened to rather loudly with a good pair of headphones.
What could be more unexpected than a key change, in “03 Reelin’ ”? And “04 Reelin’ ” ‘s beeping and replaying calls to mind nothing more clearly, to my mind at least, than watching a film reel, as each take, each repetition, takes on new meaning in context of the last. Each replay adds a new layer, seemingly the result of bouncing back and forth between two recorders. This fourth track also calls to mind Ielasi’s solo work most clearly, though it doesn’t necessarily make the best representation of Bellows as a whole.
On their website, the only information about the release is a short list of the hardware employed. Here it is worthwhile to review the equipment list:
CDJ – a tool used to manipulate a CD as a DJ would a record on a turntable. [see what they did there? CD. DJ.] Crucially, this allows both time and pitch shifting capability.
Revox A77 – the classic German reel-to-reel tape deck.
Sony Walkman – the tape player that transformed music listening into a personal experience, severing the previously necessary social aspect of listening to music.
Memory Man – an incredible stereo effects pedal, creating delay, echo, loops and other effects.
CD, tape and reel-to-reel are all represented, though vinyl is noticeably absent. We are given no hint as to the source material being played, though this isn’t necessary. Now listen to track 6, with headphones. The music functions more geometrically than metrically, more through repetition than melodically. The bouncing bass line intersects with a faint melody, the two echoing back and forth across the stereo field. But in fact there is only one element, comprising fluid but wide melodic jumps. The dub treatment in effect seems to amplify the punching low end, giving it a driving, rhythmic function, while the higher frequency parts of the phrase are echoed around the field, intersecting with the bass line and creating a de facto contrapuntal melody. It is in this movement and layering that the playback devices and effects become proper instruments.
Reelin’, as a title, begs for interpretation. It seems to call to mind reel-to-reel tape, as if the very activity is one of playfulness. Rather than gone fishin’, the duo have gone reelin’. Or perhaps the title also evokes a sense of reelin’ from decades of Berlusconi, both dominating the media landscape with his conglomerates like Mediaset, as well as his political career. In both senses, the nation is clearly reeling. This may be a stretch, but consider it in response to Ielasi’s response to the role of the artist in a recent interview at Tofaki:
I know this will appear very simplistic, but I think that choosing to work within a non-mainstream system, self-releasing records (or releasing them on like-minded labels), playing low budget concerts is a choice that has very strong social implications. I’m not interested in using the word ‘artist’. What we do has much more to do with small scale economy, sustainability and the necessity to remain an independent individual.
Bellows takes on a politics of the everyday in this sense. Both Ielasi and Ratti, alone and as a duo, take part in the creation of impossible acoustic spaces, creating and sustaining a small community that is worthwhile in-itself, like an appreciation of the sounds they create. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Additional Audio Samples can be streamed at the Entr’acte site: