Sound Propositions is an ongoing, semi-regular series of conversations with artists exploring their creative practices and individual aesthetics, conceived of as a counter-narrative to a dominant trend in music journalism which fetishizes equipment and new technologies. Rather than writing copy that can just as easily have come from a press release or a consumer electronics catalog, this series tries to take the emphasis away from the ‘what’ and shine light on the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ You can find the previous thirteen conversations, as well as additional articles and features, here.
In October of 2017 Nicola Ratti released his latest solo album, The Collection, courtesy of Lawrence English‘s Room40 label. I’ve been following Ratti for some time, now, and have written about his works, solo and in collaboration with others, periodically over the years. I even had the chance to include an unreleased track “Sawdust” from his duo with Attila Faravelli for a double compilation I produced in 2010, and finally had the chance to meet him in person in 2015. I had been in touch with English (more on that later), and so leapt at the chance to feature Ratti for Sound Propositions.
Over the course of his career, Ratti’s music has moved from playing guitar in a math rock band to crafting exquisitely off-kilter, rhythmic electronic music. His solo work has become increasingly stripped down over the years as he moved closer to an improvisational approach. Following the release of Streengs on Senufo Editions in late 2012, Ratti announced in an interview that this record marked the beginning of a new artistic process for him:
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.
Compositions were shaped out of improvised manipulations of various signal-chains simultaneously through a resonant prepared piano, with a mixing board and effects. This clever set up resulted in a unique sonic palette, a level of detail that has become Ratti’s signature. What initially seemed like a departure with Streengs was brought into new context by his subsequent works as they continued to explore the practice he describes above.
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 his subsequent records have done away with the baggage of 6 strings. He continued to play guitar in the spacious rock ensemble Ronin until a few years ago, and his duo with Attila Faravelli (Faravelliratti) featured the guitar in an ambient but atypical setting. Ode (2009) 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 (2011) 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, Ratti largely ditched instruments altogether, focusing on exploring 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, announced a new process, which Ossario (2014) 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. These structural limitations provide a compositional restraint within which the artist can work, not unlike Gabriel Orozco’s skeleton pencil drawings.
Ratti works with a small modular synthesizer set up, mixer, effects, and tape, mixing together short abstract spaces out of minimal patterns. Though some dub techniques stand out, his records since Ossario sound quite unlike anything else. He’s in the same wheelhouse of minimal programmed synth as Caterina Barbieri and others, but his gestural vocabulary and tendency to create spatial environments rather than narrative song structures makes his work easily identifiable. Ratti’s style of improvisation is deeply sensitive to sonic texture and space. The short electro-acoustic workouts of his recent albums are surprisingly muscular, almost a rival to Pete Swanson’s noise approach to techno but too heady for all but the most adventurous dance floor. That orientation is maintained on his solo work since then. Pressure Loss (2016) was born out of a limited time working at Worms studio in Rotterdam, and is a deep dive into the nuances of rhythm, tone, and texture. Of that record, Ratti writes that “the creative and compositional process took place via a very limited palette of sounds and elements. The aim was to achieve a complex rhythmic ensemble whilst limiting myself to 8 low frequency oscillators through 8 modular filters patched together with few variations.” Ratti’s work continues to develop through his intense research within imposed constraints.
Ratti is also one half of the duo Bellows with Giuseppe Ielasi. The pair first collaborated together to release the Bellows LP in 2008, a merger of their styles and still very much operating in a sort of “post-guitar” ambient framework. That was followed by Handcut, and Bellows officially began to stand in for their separate names. Handcut (2010) 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 Ielasi’s turntable experiments for the Stunt series. 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 new sonic spaces.
Bellow’s Reelin’ (2012) used dub techniques in the interest of creating new forms, and Ratti’s solo music since has instead stripped electronic music down to the core. 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. Moving towards an improvised compositional approach has ensured that these electronic sounds carry the trace of human gesture.
The Collection is a fitting companion to Pressure Loss, beginning with the same palette but with a much less goal-oriented approach. No concept, no advanced planning, but instead the exploration of the possible. (Joseph Sannicandro)
I grew up in a mostly amateur approach, I’ve been studying music for a very short period of my musical life and my way to approach any kind of instrument has always been empirical and rather experimental. So the binary you see between the professional and the amateur finds me more focused on the second than the first, for example I never believed that virtuosity, as a professional achievement, ensure a good result in term of creativity. At the same time I consider the amateur approach more as curiosity, attempt and making mistake than inaccuracy and lack of identity or goals which can be even pay the rent.
Absolutely, creativity and curiosity are so important. The opportunities in Italy for live concerts seems to have really improved in recent years. The first time I visited in 2004 (and I was 20 years old at the time and admittedly not so plugged in) it seemed like nothing but tacky DJs and punk bands and very mainstream, big concerts. Even in Milan in 2011 I remember musician friends complaining about the death of venues and the difficulties in Italy with lack of spaces and cultural funding, difficulties with SIAE [the Italian copyright collecting agency], etc. Matteo [Uggeri] introduced me to O’ and some more temporary venues, but since then the situation has improved dramatically. Am I correct in this feeling? Milan seems to have the highest concentration in Italy of musicians and artists doing really interesting work, often in relative isolation. If we cannot speak of a “scene” necessarily, there is at least a certain amount of activity. And in any case, you and Alberto [Boccardi] recently started a new venue called Standards together. Can you share with us why and how Standards came to be? How are things going? How have things changed in the city over the years? Do you and Alberto take care of all the bookings? I’m curious to hear about the “institutional” side from someone who is also an artist and sound technician.
I think there are differences between the increase of musical events, artists, venues and the actual number of people attending any show. If a scene has grown up it doesn’t mean the audience did too. So, from outside, it could look like since there are many shows and artists passing through Milano and few local names got well known there is a prolific “scene”. Actually the musicians that are into this scene are active for years and very few new names came out in recent years, and, talking about audience, if you refer to the experimental ambient the numbers are more or less the same as 5 years ago.
On the other side there are new realities that established themselves in the last 2/3 years. I’m talking about Macao, Terraforma Festival, Auditorium San Fedele [an auditorium with an acousmonium founded by priests with adventurous tastes in contemporary composition], or smaller like Standards too. Alberto and I started Standards two and a half years ago [in 2015], since then we organized together events for one year but now he works and lives in Cairo so he cannot organize stuff here anymore, but since he left the Standards family has grown.
Now I share my studio (since I also work there) with the others members of Frequente (the art organization) and the space with another group of promoters, S/V/N/ , with whom we run the space and organize the events schedule. Alberto meanwhile started a series of concert in Cairo called Canale 11 which in our idea is a kind of an overseas Standards.
Do you have a favorite piece of gear you’d care to talk about? I am interested in gear, but I try to not fetishize equipment the way that often happens but rather to try to demystify the creative process. Not necessary from a technical standpoint, but as a piece of equipment that you’ve developed a kind of relationship with.
I can firmly answer that my favorite piece of gear is the mixer, I know it’s unusual to say but it was the first machine that I touched back in years that allowed me to mix different instruments from different sources. The possibility to equalize each channel separately, send it to different outputs, using aux, sends, groups, the feeling you have when you move the fader or knob and you hear a change in the room. I know it seems banal but I dare you to live without it.
One of the tensions Sound Propositions is concerned with is the difference between working as an artist in the studio (producing records and compositions in “fixed,” recorded form) and in performances. You’ve already confirmed some link between The Collection and your live performances in that period, but how have you approached recording versus performing across your career more generally? I think of your records and compositions as being very studio centered compositions. That said, since your music has at a time very vital, loose, energy that recalls real-time performance, whether solo, or with Giuseppe or Attila. Do you approach to a live situation in terms of improvisation as opposed to how you work in the studio?
Lately my approach to the live situation has changed very much. Until a few months ago I thought the live situation and the studio situation both as creative moments or rather moments where you compose and produce sounds “live” but now I think the live set more like a live composition of material recorder in studio using a software and a MIDI connection with a very simple monophonic modular system. So they’re still very linked though. Before they were because I was using the same approach or gear to produce both in studio as in live [performances], and now because the link is the sounds I’m using have been produced in the studio.
There is also the idea of making the album living longer than it does once is released. As we know the life-cycle of an album is incredibly short, it last for few weeks than is over not really in term of sales but more for the nowadays over-production and then or you have it or you listen few tracks on the web but basically is dead for the rest of the people. I also like the idea to listen to the sounds of the records in an acoustic situation much different from your home, giving the chance of a new dimension to the record.
Bellows, your duo with Giuseppe Ielasi, is rather well-known, but you also have a duo with Attila Faravelli. Will we ever get another record? And with Attila and Enrico Malatesta you have ~Tilde, electro-acoustic trio. Anything in the works?
~Tilde is a stand-by collaboration but related to research more than music production. I don’t know if Faravelliratti will have another chapter but who knows, Attila is sharing Standards and the studio with me so it could be possible.
Since you mention composition earlier: How do you approach or conceive of composition? Does the process of composition happen when you’re programming patterns and sequencers, or arranging the pieces in the DAW? Do you approach music production as an act of composition or conceive of it as something else entirely? Since the live experience is a kind of extension, in various senses, of the material, how important is the spatialization in terms of composition? Do you often perform with multi-channel speaker systems?
About composition, it depends from what you’re producing for. If I’m producing my own music I usually start from the sound source, starting from a single sound or a a small group of sounds that I find interesting and almost self-efficient that I would record at once trying to get something which is more than a starting point to develop on but a single cluster around which other smaller clusters can move generating a subtle dynamic which at the end create the whole composition. Lately I’ve been producing a lot for other purposes like movie or theatre and in that case you would start from someone else suggestion. Doing so I start to imagine in advance what the result can be and then how I can achieve that using the tools I got in my hands at that moment. It is a nice way of producing music that I’m discovering more and more lately.
The editing process can be invasive or totally shady, it depends from the material I recorded. I prefer when once the recording process is finished I already have a 90% of the final work made, that’s why I curate a lot the sound source part of the composition.
About spatialization: Since I play electronic music through electronic devices I consider the diffusion as the final part of my gear chain, the PA is actually part of the instruments set up as much as the room is part of the experience that the audience attend. I like to think about it as a whole technological system that includes the instruments I’m using to create/diffuse sounds and the amplification/diffusion gear, as an acoustic instruments such as a piano that uses the room as medium to reach the listener.
I played in some multi-channel environments like GRM festival in Paris and San Fedele in Milano but I’ve been always diffusing a stereo materials then organized through different speakers, I never composed a multi-channel work so far. I think the diffusion is important in term of its ability to create a proper relation between the listeners’ ears and the output signal considering the room/space you’re into and the sounds you’re diffusing.
You had previously trained and worked as an architect, is that right? It is easy to speculate about how these two kinds of space might relate. But, as a musician, how do you approach “space” in your work? Also, more practically, did you have a role in the design of Standards? How has the space of your studio and performance space influence your work?
Eh, that could be an endless talk so I’ll try to be synthetical bringing one of my last space/sound curiosity. Obviously the space you’re immerse in shape the experience of the sounds you’re listening at. Talking as I musician I often imagine “how it will sound in this room or in that one” while I’m playing something in my studio. It means that in that moment my brain it’s trying to create a sound-image of what is listening through the projection of the sound it is processing in real time in the studio but related to another different environment where this sound will happen again. I’m referring the the situation of a typical rehearsal that take place in your studio for an upcoming show that will take place in a venue. You’re playing the same sounds but the results will be different because of the space and the amplifier/diffusion system you’ll find in the venue. I find this incredible fast exchange of informatio~n and perceptions between the inside (brain) and the outside (space) mixed to the effort of imagination of an unknown situation extremely intriguing and I’d be curious to ask to other musicians “how do they imagine how it will sound”.
Standards has been my last architect design work though.
Thanks for speaking with me!
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