Processes behind the analogue lullabies of Alessandro Cortini
Alessandro Cortini’s musical ventures are as colourful as the equipment he uses. Mostly known for his hypnotic and dreamy analogue compositions produced under his own name and extensive touring with American industrial rock legends Nine Inch Nails, Cortini has also participated in such projects as The Mayfield Four, Modwheelmood as well as elaborating his solo output under the guises of SONOIO and blindoldfreak. His “Forse” series released on Important Records is a brilliant exercise in the aesthetics of simplicity using emotional atmospheres transmitted by the famous and ultra rare Buchla Music Easel. Similarly, his recent output on Hospital Productions is an attempt at inducing in the listener mesmerising trancelike states or daydreams through the combination of repetitive melodies wrapped around hazy soundscapes. Cortini’s work has a strong visual element as well. His excellent performance in the hangar of Krakow’s Engineering Museum during UNSOUND festival 2015 was a nice showcase of it.
In this interview taken during the Unsound festival Cortini explains his attitude towards the diverse pieces of gear he is using, the lessons he learned during his extensive touring and how the inability to sleep informed his “Sonno” and “Risveglio” material. He also sheds some light on his intriguing future plans and releases.
Paulius Ilevicius: What was your first most impressive sonic experience, which made the first impact to be involved in music?
I wish I could tell you some crazy story, but the thing I remember the most is my mother playing records, particularly The Beatles. That was responsible for a lot of my melodic content. I try to put melody into whatever I create and do it repetitively most of the time as I tend to end up with one melody that is worth repeating for a long time. But I think the memory of my mother putting on records and singing is probably the earliest thing that I remember. The thing that made me start making music was the Club Scout camp. I remember seeing one of the older guys playing guitar and that’s when I knew that I wanted to make music. I did not know if I wanted to be a career musician at that time. I think I started wanting to become one when I started playing guitar and shredding like Steve Vai, when I was 13-14 year old. It was the thing I fell in love with. But it did not take me too long to realise that guitar is just one piece of mosaic. There are plenty of other instruments and for the time being it is definitely synthesizers or electronic instruments.
PI: As your music is quite related to hardware and technology, how much are you dependent on technology and how much are the new technological inventions important for developing your sound?
Alessandro Cortini: Technology itself is very important to me in the sense that I feel I am more creative with a piece of electronic gear. In any phase of my life things might change and I might go back to acoustic instruments, but at this point I feel more excited by electronic instruments. It took a while to realise that it is not really the instrument that defines what I do, because for a long time I’ve used the Buchla instrument. I still use it, but not in the way that the people would think - that the reason why I do things is because of the instrument. If you listen to everything I’ve done from the first “Forse” album to “Sonno” and other things, I think it is a common denominator, you hear that it’s me while the instrument is just a color. In the same way a statement, a phrase or a book might be translated to different languages. It is the same message, but generally speaking German is assumed as a harsher or a ‘mechanical’ language to people who don’t speak it as opposed to French or Italian or English or whatever. But the message tends to be the same usually. And I see the instruments in the same way, particularly in the way that I work, as I am really fascinated with the idea of getting as much done by using one instrument as opposed to utilising a studio. I own different pieces of equipment and I can create a record which has specific part from one instrument while another record will have something from the other one. But I feel that my creativity gets pushed to the limit when I try to use one instrument only, and at the same time I try to push the instrument to its limits. I feel that the limitation of one specific instrument tends to allow me to be more creative.
PI: What are the main challenges in composing music with the Buchla synthesizer, customising it in the way you want and getting from it the things you want?
AC: Well, unlike a lot of colleagues I don’t really know what I want until I approach the instrument, unless it is a job that I need to do and I might know what instrument to use. When I sit in front of the instrument, it is more like a chess game in a way, where I don’t know where it is going to lead, it really depends on what the instrument allows me to do. I might have an idea what I am going to do, but just because the way the instrument is designed or because it is broken, it won’t allow me to do this. Then I have to decide if the idea I have is strong enough to find the way around it, whether the idea that my instrument forces me to apply is something I can relate to. When I answer these questions, I just go with it.
I see the instrument itself as a bandmate, which still gets you angry when it does not work, but it does not talk back. And I do have a soft spot for older instruments as opposed to new ones, because I feel that old ones and their components tend to sound a little different. I feel that most of the modern analog stuff is still very precise. It sounds very precise and while there are plenty of options, I should say I don’t end up using a lot of the modern stuff, particularly a lot of the Eurorack stuff. However, I still use the gear of a few manufacturers that design instruments as a collection of their modules, but in the end it is the instrument. Companies like Make Noise, Verbos Electronics, LiveWire present instruments which have a voice. It’s not just from an audio point of view, but it is also from a visual point of view. I feel that aesthetic also comes with the instrument. I don’t like those kinds of messy situations, when you have different modules from different manufacturers and one has a specific knob and it’s placed somewhere else in a different color. I don’t like having a little bit of everything. I like to have one instrument and get as much as I can out of it. And all the instruments are more or less designed that way. Functionality depended on how much money a company had in order to make an instrument, so most instruments were unable to do everything. For example, there were great polyphonic five note synthesisers like Prophet 5, but they did not have a sequencer built, no effects or anything, so you had to do that somewhere else. And the same with modulars. The Buchla spoke to me more than others simply because it is an instrument that is not tailored or directed to keyboard players and I was never a keyboard player, so the Buchla looked more like a toy. And that was the beginning for me, it kind of took my life away.
PI: Were you also involved in some educational activities?
AC: Yes, I did a synthesiser course in the school in Los Angeles called “The Musicians’ Institute”. Later on I did more things in such colleges as Berkley College of Music or Concordia in Montreal and various other universities. In the USA most of them have an electronic music studio, where sometimes even older machines like Arp 2600 exist. I still do it on occasion.
PI: What are the main challenges in teaching people and making them understand things you say? Is it a difficult job?
AC: It is difficult if you are faced with a class of people you have to conquer. I have been lucky, because most times when I do it, I get invited and people know what I do. I talk about things that they have already studied in a way that they might not be familiar with, and I do believe that things that I talk about are very simple. I am still very connected to the person and how they use an instrument as opposed to the technical aspect of instruments. And the concepts can be applied to any kind of instrument, they are not limited to modular or to electronic instruments. They could be applied to guitar or whatever, it is not very technical. It is more about the human approach to the instrument itself.
PI: Do you think classical training is important for a musician, who creates analogue electronic music, which relies on improvisation a lot?
AC: I think education is important. I don’t think it is essential. I think education may allow you to put labels and names on things that you are familiar with or it may allow you to develop certain schemes of a way of working. But it can also be a prison in a way. If your creativity is not strong enough to the point that you are able to use the rules as a reference as opposed to just the way things are, then you might be just a slave to them. I have gone to school and I have studied music, but I can’t tell that I think of it when I make music. I think some information stayed with me to a certain extent, but I don’t remember anything. I mean, just few names, but it did not stay with me. It allowed me to know things that I like and things that I don’t like. I don’t want to tell you that it is not important, I think everything that makes your brain work whether creatively or just schoolwise is good as it makes you think. But then it is up to you as an artist or as a human being to question and ask if it helps me. Sometimes learning something is necessary for you to know that you don’t need it. So that’s the key. For me it has always been like that, the moment that I realised that I don’t have to say “Fuck this, I don’t need it.”. You have to see what it is first. I will learn it if I will need it, but at least I will get the doubt out of my mind.
PI: During your Unsound 2015 performance I saw that there were very impressive visuals. There is an increasing presence of a visual element in your sound which is quite cinematic in itself. Could you tell about that visual part? How was it made and what is the story behind it?
AC: The record itself, when it gets out of my hands and comes to a listener, it is really up to the listener to create the visuals. I don’t think that any of my records lend themselves to active listening sessions. They are more meant to be the music you play when you go to bed, they are more of a soundtrack in my opinion, something that allows you to augment everyday life in a way.
From the get-go I knew, that I wanted to have a visual counterpart and also it has to do with the years with NIN, I can’t deny it, I learned how important and effective it is to have a very very defined and studied visual counterpart to even a rock band. To a show it is very important. So I took the time to think about what to do and I was lucky to team up with an artist called Sean Curtis Patrick. Sean basically lived with my records. First with “Sonno" which was the record where the visuals were born, then we had a pieces from “Risveglio”. He lived with it and then he just started filming content. I was lucky, because he understood that it was not going to be just straight content projected. He was able to treat it in a way that reflects this state of half asleep, falling asleep. You kind of know what the image is, but it is not clear, it is out of focus or evolves in a very slow way. Then it evolves into something else and it might be dreamlike. So I was very lucky and then from there I decided what the setlist would be and he developed a conversational visual piece where all these different elements were connected in a way til the end when the show ends with the tape recorder that stops.
PI: Are you going to elaborate on this in the future? Are there any upcoming visual projects, for example soundtracks? \
AC: I am definitely gonna do something else after this. There is a record finished. I don’t know how and when it is gonna come out, but I already have a record that is finished. It is done on EMS Synthi. I don’t want to say it is in the vein of “Sonno", but it is a melodic record with no drums or anything, it is still very atmospheric. Then I have a collaboration with Merzbow, which will come out on Important Records next year. There will be a collection on a quadruple CD - there will be three records on three CDs with an extra cd of pieces from the same era, that did not make the record, and some live recordings. And there will definitely be more stuff on Hospital Productions too. There is a record I hope I will be able to make and the project I have been working on for a long long time. I found an old Super 8 film that my grandfather recorded from 1962 to 1982 and I finally found a VHS, where it is transcribed. I hope I will be able to score it, but the thing is I would like to score it all and it is about a three-hour long video. That would be my personal score of my family’s life. From my mom being a child and family life. It has this Super 8 video quality and there is also footage of me as a baby, Christmas, crying. After two years of looking for the VHS I finally found it. After many years we did not know where it was and I finally found it during the trip last week. So that is the thing that I am excited about now. Hopefully I will be a able to do 180 minutes of music for it. Just like everything else I am not too concerned with what happens when it comes out, I am more concerned with doing something that would enrich me as a person and make me feel that I do something that my heart is in.
PI: The first album for Hospital was called “Sonno”, which means “sleep” and your new album is called “Risveglio” which means “awakening”. Could you tell me a little bit about the narrative and how these albums correlate between each other? Why are there such titles and what do symbols of “sleep”, “dream” and “awakening” mean to you in general?
AC: The concept of “Sonno" came from how the album was recorded. They both come pretty much from the same recording session. They are all pieces, or I would say lullabies, for myself that I developed on tour with NIN and it was always hard for me to sleep especially when I travel, so I had Roland MC 202, an older synthesizer with portable battery power, and I just connected it in my hotel room to a speaker and a delay pedal and set up little sequences that would repeat. I tweaked them a little bit and then I just left them on overnight and just used to fall asleep to that. And then I started recording them. And I realised that I created a whole environment, they sounded ready, they did not sound like a demo. They sounded like something I could listen to the way they are. And then Dominick Fernow heard them and wanted to release them. So there was no idea of releasing them as a record in the beginning. Not because I didn’t think they were good, but it was the first time I realised I did something just for myself as a human being. I made music as a remedy for myself, which would make me fall asleep when I find it difficult to do that.
I would say that “Sonno” is more about quieter pieces, while “Risveglio” is more about the awakening. It has more of a rhythmic element that could remind the act of waking up, but still the wakening that is not complete, taking place in the middle of the night, jet-lagged and you wake up, trying to go back to sleep, but you can’t, because your heart is beating, you had a nightmare or something. So definitely the second one is more like a daydream score and that state between falling asleep and not being able to fall sleep.
PI: Will the third album continue the same concept?
AC: I don’t think those sessions have enough material. You see, the “Forse” records came out pretty much from all the same sessions aside from a few pieces that were made later. So I don’t know. We were talking with Dominick in Rome yesterday about doing something else and if it is supposed to be the third entry in the series or not, but I am not too sure if it’s going to be another one. Because what happens is that you get to the point when you think that you have to do the third one. And I don’t want it. There are plenty of other records that I can do, even if it would be the same instruments. But they don’t necessarily need to be connected with those. Those two made sense, they were from the same session and they do make sense even visually, how the vinyl looks. I don’t know if the third one would fit. Early to say, because on top of it I started working with other instruments, so there is other stuff that is definitely going to come out before that.
PI: There is a two-fold distinction in your catalogue. There are “Sonno" and “Risveglio” which came out on Hospital Productions and the “Forse" series of albums released on Important Records. Why is there such a distinction and why are these series separated?
AC: They were years apart. “Forse" was done earlier on and they were all done on Buchla Music Easel, which took years to find and when I found it, my friend Mark Verbose repaired it. I spent two weeks recording pieces on it and the bulk of those pieces became the pieces that you hear in all three volumes. The same process happened with MC 202 and the “Sonno” series. It was an instrument new to me that I got excited about, that I had no background with whatsoever and I approached it in a way that was unfamiliar to how it was used before. I did not know the Easel well, because there was not much music recorded with it that I have known of aside from a few cases. And the MC 202 was more connected to techno and acid, which I love, but it is not the way that I ended up playing the instrument itself. So I would say the common ground between these two series is the way that I approached the instruments. Like I said before, it is the same approach, but different languages. So that would be the difference, and then destiny led me to release the “Forse” series on Important and I was very happy how John became passionate about the project, how much attention-to-detail he had. Just the same as Dominick. Both approaches were very organic, very unlike anything I had to do before, trying to get something to be released, which was like either you do it yourself or raise your hands and be like “Me me me, look at me”. None of that, I was just very lucky. The response was very good too. I was surprised that people related to it and it made me very happy. I realised this pure connection that I have with the instrument, the stuff that I do that makes me happy. There are people to like it. I think it is the ultimate Holy Grail for me. I’m not saying this in an ego way, but when I make records and I don’t think about the people who are going to listen to that record. Then it is a lost battle, because you cannot make music for people, you make music for yourself. Then people can relate to what you do, because maybe their feelings are the same or maybe they can adapt the music you make to their feelings. And maybe they have different imagery when they listen to it than the one you had when you wrote it. But it is ultimate, because whatever comes out of me, it is always going to be me.
PI: So when you compose, you do not have any set concept in mind?
AC: Yes, that’s the fun of it, unless I am working on a job, where I am asked to do a specific thing - whether it is advertising or scoring or specific collaboration where I go for something in particular. I don’t know if a lot of painters do that, but I assume a lot of them don’t know what they are going to paint until something strikes and I feel similarly when the instrument calls for a specific mood or a few notes. And what happens to me is that maybe in a week’s time I have a few pieces. Some pieces don’t fit, but then you have three who work very well and that becomes the bulk of some future project. For example, the “Forse" stuff stayed on my hard drive without me knowing what it was going to be for few years. It was a record that I originally approached Kranky to release and they kind of held it offstage for a year asking me to edit it down, the tracks were too long. And in the end they did not want to release it, because they did not really think that it was finished. They did not understand the fact that it’s the simplicity that makes it special and it’s not just a demo that you need to add something to, which disappointed me in a way. Well I respect the decision, but it disappointed me, because it was my first record, so maybe it was not good to release anyway. But then John from Important Records listened to it and he really liked the bulk of it and he allowed me to do triple and double records. And that validated me, that there are people who understand and feel the same as me about what I do as opposed to feeling like “oh, it’s not finished”. What does it mean “it is not finished”? Did you make it? It’s something that I should say. Believe me, I would know if it’s not finished because the people will not hear it in that case. Anyway, I don’t want to insult anybody, I just speak in general. I love Kranky, some of my favourite artists are on that label. Tim Hecker and Grouper are on Kranky. And the reason why I approached Kranky first is that one of my favourite bands, Belong, who released a record called “October Language” on Carpark Records, released their second album on Kranky. It is still one of the few labels that do stuff in a way that I relate to. They just don’t relate to the way that I do things, which is totally fine because there are plenty of other opportunities.
PI: Now that you’ve finished touring with NIN, how have things changed? Did you get more freedom to create?
AC: We toured two years non-stop and to me it was the best time that I had with NIN. And at the end of it we were tired, but we were not hating each other. It was pretty much that we have been everywhere we wanted to be, tried plenty of things. I was at the point that a few of my records had come out already and I kind of knew what to do after. I had support from Trent Reznor. He has always been very supportive and responsible for the way that I evolved. Everybody thinks that Trent is a dictator or thinks the way that he wants to. No, he is just a person who has very clear ideas about the things he wants to do. When I stepped in, he was able to see that whatever I can do I do for him. When I worked with him, I was always trying add a layer that is comparable to his creative output in a way that he can augment it. It is never like “oh, this is what I do, I want people to hear me”, it’s never like that. It is more about the sum of things, you know. So from the beginning in 2005 he pretty much allowed me to evolve creatively within NIN as a family and was supportive of what I was doing outside of it in a way that was extremely helpful. Even just for my confidence point of view. It was just very helpful to have a friend like him, because in the music business it is very important to have support. Sincere support, not just somebody saying “oh, that’s cool”. It was a priceless advantage from a personal point of view to know that I can do what I want to do without feeling like it is wrong.
So it was fairly easy this step, obviously it is completely different from when we were in NIN. I don’t know if and when we are going to do NIN again, there are so many things for everybody. I am sure we will work on stuff together again. It was no break-up of the band. It was just that we toured so long and started doing other things. Trent is involved in Apple Music, does a lot of scoring, has a family to take care of. He lives on a 30 hour a day schedule. I am sure that something else will come up and I am excited for that prospect too. Because every time we started touring or started to work on something together, it was always new, it was always a challenge, some problem to resolve, some way to rehash old stuff in a way that was creative to us. Not like we are just going out to make money, we have never felt like that. It was more like we are going out to make a statement, because other people are not making any. But in the meantime my plan is to continue doing this, I don’t know where it’s going to lead, but I am very happy, that I had a chance to do music in the way that I have been doing in the last few years, that is on my own. I will be doing more of that and there is a possible move to Berlin this year, simply because I relate to it as a city more than I have related to Los Angeles in the last few years from a human and from an artistic point of view. They have a proper winter there, so we are probably going to go there in January to see how we survive for a few weeks being there. Plus it is not that far and I can still go and work in LA, just need to catch a flight.