A clever blend of “delights” completely understandable but from which you will not come out unscathed.
Hello Emanuele and thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Let’s start from the beginning. Could you tell us how the WSR project came to be?
Hi Yasmine, my pleasure 🙂
The WSR project is something I started working when I first moved to Manchester-UK to study as a sound engineer. I left my home country with the intention to learn the technical aspects of sound, but eventually I spent a lot of time also making my own research and trying to grow musically.
The University I went to (SSR Manchester) has several recording studios with loads of good gear, I spent there many days and nights. I recorded loads of bands in the first couple of years, but in the last period I was really just making my own experiments and musical material, using everything that I could put my hands on: guitars, drums, organs, tape machines, expensive outboard etc.
This is also when I started using strings and rhythms as the main source. I worked a lot with bowed guitar, violin, cello, recording simple phrases by myself and then manipulated them. I also worked a lot with Tom Griffiths, one of my classmates at the time, who is a very skilled contrabass and cello player.
You are a qualified engineer and sound designer. You therefore seem to naturally approach music in an electronic manner. Could you therefore tell us what led you to use strings instruments?
Indeed, connecting to my previous answer: the thing that made me start using string instrument was the fact that I got very skilled in electronic production, even too much. I started making music, like many of my generation, with a computer rather than an actual physical instrument. I never took guitar or piano lessons or stuff like this when I was a kid. When I started my studies as a sound engineer I developed so much at using the computer as an instrument that I eventually got fed up with it. I somehow lost connection with my primal musical instinct, and when I did realise this, a series of events and encounters made me understand that in order to develop something that could really excite me I had to start from scratch, using an instrument that I wasn’t at all familiar with. There’s something about bowed string instruments that makes them somehow privileged – you generally need to study them properly in order to do something with them – so i got interested in using them without the skills, playing them badly, by ear, and make something with them that was somehow a bit punk and exciting. It did work for me, so this was somehow the start of it all.
Could you explain to us the idea behind the modifications to your bass and what these specific modifications are?
With great pleasure. I started building my own string instrument because I needed something sturdy and simple to play with a bow, live and in the studio. The first version are strings instruments made from scratch – a plank of wood with a high bridge, strings and tuning pegs- but the modified bass that I’m using at the moment to play live, however, is a bit more advanced than the others, because it has frets. I’m not a trained string player so frets really allow me to do melodies and harmonies in a way that my other more experimental instruments do not allow me to.
The limitation with bowing guitars – or bass guitars – is that they’re not made for this purpose, so the sides really get in the way when you try to bow the strings, since these instruments have a very low bridge. I solved the problem by simply chopping the sides, this way I can just reach the strings at a much better angle with my bow. The low string is a 5-bass big string, for the low register, while the high string is a cello string, for the high register. I change them every now and then to try different timbral combinations.
Could you explain us your way of composing which, I think, is pretty random. And would it be fair to say that your own pieces can surprise you and that your compositions are like a puzzle you solve without having a reference picture to start with?
That’s a very good and very accurate analogy. It is indeed quite random, I tend to write at different stages. I record quite a lot of material on a daily basis, I use a portable recorder which I use to record improvised performances of myself or friends of mine playing instruments that I or they own. Sometimes I make electronic sketches with my computer, which I tend to use more for sculpting the rhythms. Then it happens, in some days, that I sort of combine different sketches and ideas and I kind of remix/combine/arrange them together. It’s pretty random and totally out of my control, there’s a lot of trial an error and a lot of room for happy accidents, I try not to stress the compositional process too much – I don’t sit at my computer and start writing every day or anything like that, I just try to catch the inspiration train when I see it coming.
I have the impression that your live shows are more sustained than your productions. And from what I have seen, they are somewhat wild! I felt that you live your live performance. Is there a part of improvisation in your live performance?
Absolutely, yes. My first WSR performance was the presentation of the EP ‘Stainless‘ on Contort at Berlin Atonal 2015. Since I had been working with live strings when making my material, I prepared that performance together with Koenraad Ecker, who played live cello and guitar.
After this, I got really interested in exploring the performative side of music, the energy that somehow comes out of a physical performance rather than an electronic manipulation, so I started playing with my own string instruments, building them and playing with them, and a completely new world presented itself in front of me.
My first performance with a self-made string instrument was completely improvised, I just bounced out a bunch of rhythm loops and played them on the spot, improvising with my instrument and a loop player on top of it, they matched perfectly and it’s the simplest set-up you could ever imagine, because all of the energy and concentration of the live lies on the performance itself. Since then I try not to rehearse too much before every gig because I need to somehow find a way to surprise myself while doing it.
Let’s now talk about your beautiful Podcast produced some months ago for Secretthirteen. There I had the feeling that it was the opposite, and that you have spent a lot of time, finesse and effort into achieving a kind of sonic narrative. Could we say that you have more than one way for working? One aleatoric, one more precise and yet another that is completely liberated? Please expand on this.
Thanks! I did try to create a narrative, in particular I tried to make a sort of story seen from my own ears/eyes with my own music mixed with music from friends/artist who really inspire me.
I do enjoy aleatoric and free composition, I tend to steer away from controlling my own work as much as I can but I suppose that I eventually always end up controlling quite a lot of it anyway, at least to some extent.
This is probably because I’m a big fan, when composing, of structure. I love narrative changes, and exploring different kind of narratives: linear, progressive, broken narrative, therefore there’s always a part of me that tries to somehow control the course of it, so yes I would probably say that I have more than one way of working and I try to balance between all of them.
To humanize the synthetic texture with soundscape, closed environments recordings and re-amping is what you are doing with pleasure. Can you explain what fascinates you with this aspect?
One of the thing that intrigues me the most sonically is using physical space, natural reverberation to create and process sound. Re-amping (recording sound with a microphone as it’s being sent to a loudspeaker) is something I do very often as it allows to put something back into the real world. I suppose that what I’m mostly interested, in this sense, is creating a narrative, and since every time a sound is recorded through a microphone membrane in a specific moment in time and space (which affects its timbre) it has somehow a history, I like that to work with sounds that have had a history in the real world to which i am related.
What does the future hold for WSR? Do you have a new project for the near future?
I’m currently presenting an installation in Berlin – a generative sound sculpture using guitars, amps and feedback to create a mutating sonic environment. It’s the first installation that I work on and I definitely intend to do more work in this field as it’s such a different way to conceive structure and composition, at least compared to what I’m used to, since things that have to be translated into different dimensions.
WSR this summer. Are there any European festival dates planed?
Not at the moment, the big thing for me this summer will be a 2 weeks residency at Ems Stockholm in the end of July, which was made possible with the help of the Italian Cultural Institute in Stockholm city. I’m really looking forward to this one.
I wouldn’t want to close this interview without thanking you for all the information that you supplied, but also we have to mention your sister Elisabetta, who curated ‘Chambers‘ cover and the beautiful artwork “Damnation”. Do you have any projects planed with an audio-visual artist to accompany some of your tracks?
Absolutely, she’s so important in the development of every project, not only because she often curates the visual part of my works, but also because there is a constant feedback between the two of us as we tend to be interested in the same concepts, but from different angles – what I do sonically she tries to develop visually and the other way round.
I have also another project, still in progress, with a visual artist and light designer for a live performance, but I prefer not to disclose anything until it’s ready!
Photo credits: Elisabetta Porcinai (1st one), Düsto Photography (2nd & 3rd one)
Yasmine Van Houten