On the Return of Senufo Editions (Giuseppe Ielasi, Alessandro Brivio, Takamitsu Ohta)

Originally published by A CLOSER LISTEN

Giuseppe Ielasi has been one my favorite artists for a decade now, his reputation cemented in my mind by the blissful textures of August (2007) and the rhythmic sampledelica of Aix (2009), both for 12k. His Stunt series (2008-2013) further solidified this position with its singular take on turntable experimentalism. This series perhaps forecast two currents still dominant in Ielasi’s work, which have since diverged; those exploring the expressive potential of playback media as instruments for improvisation, and those foregrounding polyrhythmic grooves. Across all his work is a deep attention to sonic detail, particularly in the subtle use of spatialization.

Ielasi’s last proper solo full-length under his own name was Rhetorical Islands (2013), but the four years since its release have suffered no shortage of music from the maestro. There was a 7”, a pair of private-issue EPs, duos with Andrew Pekler, Adam Aslan, Kassel Jaegger, a new Bellows record (his duo with Nicola Ratti), a new project with Giovanni Civitenga called Rain Text, a performance on the acousmonium at INA – GRM in Paris, and an installation with Renato Rinaldi as part of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. He also released his debut as Inventing Masks, a new moniker for his more “pop” and hip-hop inspired grooves. (ACL had the honor of premiering that project in early 2016.) Not exactly a quiet hiatus by any stretch. If anything, he’s been as prolific as ever, but his artistic practices seem to have become more compartmentalized.

Ielasi’s influence is not confined to his own productions as an artist, but also as a mastering engineer and a label owner. He’s become the go-to mastering house for many in his native Italy and beyond, and has remastered many of the recent re-issues of unsung classics from the Italian sixties and seventies, including records from Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, Claudio Rocchi, Telaio Magnetico, and Lino Capra Vaccina. Since moving to Milano as a teenager in the ’90s, Ielasi has also run a series of boutique labels (Fringes, Bowindo, and Schoolmap) showcasing the work of some of Europe’s most interesting avant-garde composers and improvisers.

In 2010 Ielasi and his partner Jennifer Veillerobe founded Senufo Editions. Senufo takes its name from an ethno-linguistic group in West Africa which cuts across modern political boundaries, a pacifist people who value agriculture and are said to look down on excessive identification with work and profession, a group where musicians occupy the lowest social rung. This all feels strangely fitting for a label that has quietly put out some of the most singular and impressive recordings of the last decade. As a label, Senufo has supported many like-minded artists, united not by a common sound but in a common sense of formal experimentation. Senufo’s members tend to refine a process or set of limitations and see where it leads. Veillerobe’s Luftlöcher features only the sound sparkling liquids recorded through small holes poked in their containers, with no processing, overdubbing, or post-production. Nicola Ratti’s Streengs used transducers in the inside of a piano to capture one of the most interesting sounds in recent memory. Alessandro Brivio’s rhythmic explorations are intensively hypnotic and have gone critically overlooked by many. About half of the label’s catalog can be streamed or purchased at their bandcamp.

Matt Wuethrich recently published a very insightful overview of the label’s activities entitled “The Recording as Essay, or the Pleasure of Listening,” in which he considers the Senufo back-catalog as a whole. The metaphor of the essay is particularly apt. The form we now know as the essay was devised by the 16th century French writer Michel de Montaigne, and transferred into English shortly after by Francis Bacon. From the French essais, meaning “attempts” or “trials”, the essay tends to be loose and meandering, less formalist or goal-oriented in its method compared with other styles of writing. This spirit of open-minded exploration certainly resonates strongly with the Senufo aesthetic.

From the release of Seth Nehil‘s LP Knives in 2010 through Adam Asnan’s Mixed Occasions / Stryam CD in 2014, Senufo released approximately 55 releases before announcing an indefinite hiatus. This was not long after I interviewed Giuseppe for Sound Propositions. Judging from past Ielasi-helmed imprints, I feared it seemed unlikely that Senufo would return.

But then we were greeted by a pleasant surprise when, on 17 February 2017, the following was sent to subscribers to the Senufo mailing list:

dear friends

after a pause which lasted two years, we decided to restart senufo editions. we’ll surely release less than before, mostly our own works, and we’d like to limit our online presence, so most of the information will be shared via this mailing list. If you think that someone might be interested, feel free to invite him to subscribe. [simply write ‘subscribe’ to senufoeditions@gmail.com]

In our conversation for Sound Propositions, I noted that in 2013 Giuseppe had begun to issue some self-published miniatures via his wordpress blog. About these releases, he told me:

Before starting my blog and the series of self-released works (just two for now, but I’m working on some new ones) I had been thinking a lot about all the aspects I don’t like in the music ‘market’, and the way that even what used to be called the ‘underground’ uses (and is dominated by) exactly the same strategies / mechanisms as the ‘mainstream’ (promotional strategies and advertising, social networks hyper-exposure, sales directed mostly by very few retailer outlets, magazines, websites, limited and special editions…. and maybe it will be record of the week/month/year somewhere ?).

Those two CD releases were untitled (DC motor), an out of phase two-channel work for single DC motor controlled by an unstable LFO, and (or a set of models), an unedited suite of “performative pieces realised with a microphone, a revox b77 and various household objects.” Those were followed by Secondary Divisons, a 45rpm 7″ record with four pieces for two walkman cassette recorders and loop cassette. That release was notable for its accompanying four offset prints art-directed by Jessyca Hutchens and photographed by Traianos Pakioufakis, the latter of whom has contributed to various releases on PAN and Room40, among others. And indeed, they were available directly from the artist and received virtually no press.

In retrospect, this begins to make more sense, and the new Senufo feels as much like an extension of those private-releases as its first incarnation. This new phase in the label’s history was christened by a 3xCD box set from Ielasi. This was followed shortly afterwards by a cassette from the enigmatic Alessandro Brivio, whose two prior LPs remain favorites of mine. And note that the announcement email, this anti-press release, states that the new Senufo will be “mostly our own works,” so it is fitting perhaps that the third release is a 44-page book of the minimal sound art installations of Takamitsu Ohta. A fourth release is due sometime in the coming months, a solo CD from Ielasi called even when they speak of space which deals in subtle layers of electronic manipulation akin to his 2011 Untitled CD for Entr’acte. Looking very much forward to what the future may bring. (Joseph Sannicandro)

snf01: Giuseppe Ielasi ~ 3 pauses

What is a pause if not a break in activity? Thus a pause is something negative, defined only in relation to what it is not. Like silence, it is relative to what surrounds it. Like a rest or a comma, a pause signals an absence reconfigured as a presence.

And just like that (as if to say: “Here’s what I’ve been up to”) four years without a Giuseppe Ielasi album become filled up by these three discs. While each CD consists of one ~30 minute track, they nonetheless feel like a string of smaller vignettes, and all three flow into one another in a meandering but coherent whole. And while his last solo album Rhetorical Islands (2013) showcases Ielasi’s editing and sound design skills, with no small debt to the techniques of musique concrète and the GRM, 3 pauses instead seems like an exercise in leaving things be. One can easily imagine Ielasi sitting down in between professional and familial obligations to produce some calming loops over the course a several years, a catalog of which have been compiled into this charming box set.

These works feel closest in spirit to the mostly unedited recordings Ielasi issued privately in 2013. There is perhaps also something reminiscent of the unedited tape recorder improvisations that make up 15tapes (2010). Notice the homology in their titles, and that they are each comprised of a series of repetitive and curious rhythms made up of largely unidentifiable sources. 3 pause is nonetheless distinct in Ielasi’s catalog in its minimalism and quietude. The sounds that make up 15tapes are confident and often forceful, panning dramatically and frequently, often cutting rapidly from one channel to another. 3 pauses, however, is patient and unrushed. It doesn’t demand too much attention, and its sounds have an organic quality about them even in the instances when they are clearly electronic in origin. A gentle hiss, the peal of bells, racing wind coexisting in the placid margin.

How these compositions were made or what the sound sources are is not so important, but the title may tell us something about the sounds contained within. Each suite tends towards the minimal, with subtle variations and panning providing the only momentum. We are instructed to listen at low volume, which further discourages a close examination of the material. Yet these are extremely soothing pieces, without being too precious, tonal, or “ambient” in the cliched sense. Like the black-on-black cover, it would be easy to miss the details, to not see that there is anything there at all. Clocking in at 90 minutes total, 3 pauses feels much shorter. These tranquil pieces are deceptively simple and easy to get lost in, and therefore seem inexhaustible. The music of 3 pauses is at once static and constantly moving, a river of mundane sounds, shifting loops, and far off electronic signals that are positively inviting in their unassuming nature.

SoundOhm still has some copies AVAILABLE HERE

snf02: Alessandro Brivio ~ SB

The cassette case arrived with a crack in it. Limited to only 60 copies, my first reaction is disappointment that the release has arrived damaged. It’s not immediately apparent to me that this crack was intentional.

A clear case with one crack and clear cassette with only the “Alessandro Brivio – SB” printed on the tape. Ielasi’s box set is black-on-black, while Brivio’s tape is clear-on-clear. Fully transparent but inscrutable nonetheless. There’s not much to go off of, so we me must play detective. This cracked case manages to be a far more significant form of packaging than it may seem at first glance. What does it mean? Let’s look to the music for clues.

The A-side begins with a silent stretch of tape, the stereo image slowly tested before exploding into a series of stuttering short loops for which Brivio is known. Juke concrète, difference and repetition in action, not so much patterns as a sequence of constantly evolving hits. This we expect from Brivio based on his previous two LPs, but the feeling is markedly different due to the source material being sampled. There are pauses, stretches of silence, a snippet of looped music, squealing subway cars, and a cacophony of crashes. But at heart it is still mostly Brivio unpredictably manipulating micro-loops, a master of tension and release.

The B-side opens with a radio call sign and smooth jazz. The sound of a woman’s voice is mildly distorted with the resonance of a cassette tape saturation, her conversation gradually moving around the stereo field as fragments of speech at varying level of degradation are arranged without the anxious velocity of the first half. The foreground is dominated by the woman’s voice, fragmented and stuttering before being overwhelmed by traffic noise. There is the sound plastic cracking and snippets of a voice. “Listen.” A loop of unintelligible speech. “…Suffocate…” A silent stretch and the stuttering begins again, this time a male voice. “…can read my lips?” Unlike the A-side, these micro-loops are all cut from human speech, the dialogue mostly indecipherable. At 9:20, about halfway through the second side, the jumbled scene temporarily stabilizes to a slow loop of a car on an overpass. More arrhythmic loops enter, this time a sonic dissection not of language but of automobile noise, a cubist soundpainting of a highway overpass. “I can’t listen to this anymore.” A glitch car horn blasts and gradually the pace begins to let up. Loop lengths lengthen, traffic buzzes, and then fades into silence. A minute of silence, a young boy laughs softly, a car horn sounds in the distance.

We find that SB’s source material comes from the 2005 art-film Sound Barrier by Amir Naderi, accounting for the titular initials. This key bit of information also unlocks aspects of SB that would be impenetrable otherwise. As critics, we often argue that a piece of music should stand on its own, even if it is a soundtrack or other genre meant to accompany another work. SB is not a soundtrack, and should appeal to fans of Brivio’s previous work, or fans of experimental electronic music at its most rhythmic. Nonetheless, the resonance of the work changes significantly if one is familiar with its filmic inspiration.

An important filmmaker of both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, Amir Naderi is perhaps best known for his 1985 film The Runner. Long since based in my own hometown of New York, Naderi made the city of Manhattan the subject of a psychologically complex trilogy completed between 1993 and 2002. These films demonstrate a powerful sense of place, the city looming large in its abstraction. Sound Barrier too makes use of the city, but as more than just a subject. Here its settings (the NYC subway, a storage facility, and a busy bridge) are exceedingly claustrophobic and overwhelming. Shot on black&white film, it is the first in a proposed Sound Trilogy, in which sound itself factors as a character. The film consists of just two long scenes, with a brief prelude and epilogue. All of which lends itself remarkably well on a formal level to be translated to a two-sided cassette album, however the resonances don’t end there.

The film follows an 11-year old deaf-mute boy who sets out to find an audio cassette of his mother’s radio program which may be locked in a storage unit. Recorded shortly before her death, he hopes to find something, anything, in that tape, to connect with her again. Cassettes therefore serve a central role in the film thematically as well as sonically. We learn that the boy’s mother had a call-in radio show called “LIFE IN FRAGMENTS” and that in the final episode, after years of helping others with their problems, she finally spoke about herself, and her son’s trauma. Finding this tape, and thereby uncovering a repressed trauma, is the driving force behind the entire film. Hearing becomes linked in some abstract way to self-understanding.

The sound design of the film is attentive and close-mic’d, however the sound cuts out almost entirely when shots suggest the perspective of the deaf boy. This produces a fragmented and disorienting sonic experience for the viewer, one which exaggerates the tension and frustration. Sound is used poetically, as part of the language unique to cinema.

After a short subway ride scene, the boy arrives at the storage unit and begins to unsystematically search through dozens of boxes of meticulously labeled tapes. He grows increasingly frustrated and the shots becomes cropped closer and closer, the rhythm of the edits accelerating in tandem. Too much to bear, the boy begins throwing boxes of cassettes, again and again, plastic cases cracking in rhythmic cuts and crashes that he cannot hear.

Unusually, Naderi edited the film himself, which perhaps appealed to Brivio in his intense take on the material. SB thus takes on new significance, its free form given shape by the narrative. On the A-side we can now recognize the sounds of transit, of fruitless searching, of violent frustration, and cathartic discovery. And of the desperate search for someone to translate what is just out of reach.

Once the correct tape is found, he puts it into a deck just to feel the vibration of his mother’s voice. He hear smooth jazz intro music and the stations call sign. “Life in Fragments… we don’t gossip, we don’t read books, we don’t play music… I’m hear to listen.” What is the connection between understanding and listening? This questions seems equally apt for both tape and film. For a deaf boy, to understand what he cannot hear he must see someone else repeat the words. The second extended scene of the film is that of a heartbroken, lonely, confused boy searching desperately for some connection to his mother, unable to process his loss, unable to hear or to understand. He takes to a noisy bridge between Queens and Brooklyn offering passerbys $20 to recite the tape aloud so he can read their lips. There are always people in need of help in NY, but also always scammers and hustlers, clever and constantly evolving. We learn to ignore these demands on our time in order to simply get around. Maybe we’ll buy candy from a kid claiming to raise money for his basketball team even if we know it’s not true. But strange requests are most likely to evoke skepticism, and the boy has difficult finding anyone to pay attention to him. What’s more, he’s positioned himself in an extremely loud location.

Finally someone appears to have agreed, we see close up of lips moving, we hear muffled audio. Cut out to a middle aged man, straining to hear, a portable tape player against his ear, no headphones, waves of cars and trucks crashing past. Reading only the introduction we’ve already heard, the stranger with a hand over his ear, the boy a hand above his eyes. Straining to hear, straining to see, the man gives up in frustration, late for work. The boy grows desperate and eventually chases down the man from earlier.

“‘All I can think about is my son, Jesse.’ Are you Jesse?” She mentions something she can’t talk about, something that happened to her son. Something she never talks about. Someone hurt Jesse. “I look at him, I see that day. He went into shock. Jesse lost his hearing. He lost his voice. And he lost his father. All in one day. He doesn’t even remember it. I know he doesn’t remember it. God Bless him. He’s only four.” Jesse puts his hands on the speaker, we learn from his mother, that’s how he listens when she’s on air. She comes home, the show’s been over for an hour, and Jesse is still there with his hand on the speaker. The mother recognizes his innocence is gone, full of regret and guilt and self-blame. “I can’t listen to this anymore.” It’s a man’s voice now. He says all he does is listen, he can’t imagine not hearing, being deaf is his greatest nightmare, “I have to erase this tape.” That’s the end. There’s nothing there.

Has his search been as misguided as that little boy “listening” to a show that has been long over? Jesse has a breakdown, banging on the tape player and tearing sheets from his notebook as trucks blare their horns. He tears up the letter from a listener which set him on his question, and smashes the tapes in his bag, throws them around the sidewalk until they fly through the air like streamers.

Due to its stressful theme, tight shots, quick editing, and disorienting and dynamic use of sound design, Sound Barrier has been described as an extremely claustrophobic film. Catharsis is not to be had, at least not in the uncovering or revelation of some information or truth about Jesse. Instead Jesse finds release in the destruction of the material, in the obliteration of possibility.

With this in mind, the tape takes on a very different feeling. The B-side’s short bits of music, the resonant effects of cassette made all the more perceptible in the human voice, the odd sort of portrait of the Greenpoint Avenue drawbridge. SB sounds like Alessandro Brivio. It plays off of his strengths and the claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing aspects of his own music, but the grounding in the film makes it less abstract, plays off the pathos and trauma of the film. Brivio’s debut also bore the catalog number Senufo 02. Certainly more than a coincidence, SB is a perfect embodiment of the relaunched Senufo. A unique sonic object that derives deeper resonances from both its references and its status as a material object.

AVAILABLE HERE (As are, inexplicably, copies of Brivio’s LP Associazioni Poro. What are you waiting for!?)

snf03 : Takamitsu Ohta ~ Elemental Studies

The third of the new Senufo releases is not a musical object at all, but a 44 page book of photographs surveying Takamitsu Ohta’s wonderfully minimal installations.

Takamitsu Ohta is a contemporary artist born in Osaka, Japan, and based in Kyoto. A ” stone collector and designer,” his work is often conceptual without being overly cerebral and materially-centered without sacrificing human expression. Not unlike steve roden, his sonic practice is based on finding materials specific to each performance or installation site. He then devises means of defamiliarizing the everyday in order to draw attention to processes and phenomena made invisible by habituation. He often uses cassette loops and simple, everyday objects such as stones and combs, recording and playing back and recording again.

The works which make up Elemental Studies are of a different order. These art installations may have sonic elements, but when they do they tend not to be the focus but just one among other material elements. Each installation explores materials in site specific contexts, creating beautiful machines without explicit sentimentality or heavy handed political messaging. Nonetheless the works by nature respond to social and environmental realities, contexts which they effortless slide into in clever and elegant ways.

Invite Winds uses wind blowing outside to generate electricity to power fans inside, an attempt to transcend the internal/external division particularly prevalent in modern architecture. We are presented realizations of this work in both traditional and modern buildings in Japan and Germany, showing the flexibility of the work. It’s not so much a commentary on architecture as a simple gesture to include what has been excluded. Catch the Sun accomplishes a similar rendition with light and the movement of the sun and shadows. Plant Light uses potato battery powered LED lights to encourage the potato itself to grow in a clever kind of feedback loop uniting the modern cult of electricity with agriculture. The self-generation of electricity becomes key conceptually as well, as electricity is so often associated with centralized bureaucracy and environmental degradation. Water Cycle brings that big process down to a smaller, more approachable scale, as water turns into humidity and condenses back to water in minimal and refined arrangements of glass vessels and circulatory tubes.

Natural flow is perhaps a better conceptual key to Takamitsu’s practice than feedback, though both concepts blur the natural and the human structures in subtle ways. Flow of Wind and Form of Air each make the invisible visible, the realizations of the former visualizing what we can only feel, the latter making present the respiration of space itself. These works seem kindred spirits with Stephen Vitiello‘s Fear of High Places and Natural Things and Speaker Drawings, works which in different ways make sound visible. The choreographed silent vibrations of hanging speakers or the drawings resulting from pieces of paper and powdered ink placed atop a speaker each make use of a form of translation, and it is the system of translation which structures the form the work of art takes. Takamitsu’s work is engaged in the same sort of translation.

The materials of the book itself are likewise considered and well chosen, the white cover and blank pages exaggerating the impact of the photographs, the feel of the paper and artful construction of the book resonating with the artworks. The works contained within Elemental Studies do not draw firm distinctions between elements and senses but demonstrate precisely their intermingling and coexistence. Takamitsu Ohta’s aesthetic seems to carry with it an ethos of care and attention, maximizing impact through thoughtful and dynamic yet often minimal constructs. Work, therefore, perfectly suited to the Senufo family.



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