The Italian composer who invented “pointillistic trance” owes the label of “Deconstructed Club Music” for putting him on the map amid an international network of experimental artists. Now, as he picks up his first love for photography through a collaboration with Californian artist John Divola, his newly launched album continues to vandalize the genre’s tradition.
Photography: John Divola Interview: Hans Ulrich Obrist
Hans Ulrich ObristI am very pleased that we can do this interview! I wanted to start at the beginning and ask how you got into music. What was your initial epiphany?
Lorenzo SenniTo tell the truth, I have to thank my father who, from the beginning, while working as a mechanic, has always been a huge fan of music. So I've always had records at home, and I've always listened to music, mostly Italian music: Battisti, Lucio Dalla, Battiato. When I started to be more independent in my musical choices, I immediately started studying guitar and being part of hardcore punk bands. Then I started studying drums and wanted to become a full-fledged jazz drummer; I studied many hours a day and continued to play in more or less experimental bands. At nineteen, I enrolled in musicology at the University of Bologna, so I experienced music in an academic setting. It’s also where I first discovered the pioneers of electronics.
HUOI’ve always wondered who your heroes or influences or inspirations have been, especially in electronic music. As Panofksky says, “The future is always invented with fragments from the past.”
LSI approached artists such as David Tudor, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage and Morton Subotnick in a very genuine way. It was very important to realize that all these great pioneers had a dual approach to their work: they certainly dedicated their lives artistically to what they believed, but they always managed not to take themselves too seriously, and always integrated an element of play and irony. This is why they managed to break the mold.
During my university years, I lived with my parents in Cesena and reached Bologna by train. Then, during a lesson in a contemporary art class, I discovered the photographer Guido Guidi—and realized that he was actually my neighbor, and formerly a family friend.
HUOThe great Guido Guidi, yes.
LSSo I went to my parents and I asked, “Is this Guido Guidi the same Guido we know?” My parents dusted off many photos that Guido had taken of my grandparents and my father. For some time, they had worked as laborers for Guido’s parents, although he, a young architecture student, was already a full-fledged photographer.
Through him I met Stephen Shore, John Gossage, Lewis Baltz and many other American photographers who came to visit him when they were in Italy. I discovered the music of John Cage and David Tudor through Guido’s stories, as knew a lot about this field, too. I learned, by listening to his digressions, how to talk about my work through the work of artists I admire.
HUOIn painting, there is the pointillism of Seurat and Signac, while in music there is the pointillistic trance of Lorenzo Senni. Can you tell me about the epiphany, the moment in which was born your “pointillistic trance,” your great invention?
LSIt was around 2011. I went through a period of “Pure Computer Music”: in 2010 ,I had published an album called Dunno with my label Presto!?, and it was totally influenced by those sounds: Florian Hecker, Curtis Roads, Russell Haswell, Pita, EVOL, etc. I used to program the software that I then used to make my music, and I was completely immersed in that idea of music. I was (and still am) a fan of the Editions Mego label, and I very much appreciated, in addition to their experimental streak, those projects that also included poignant melodies between glitches and noise outbursts. For this reason, I imagine, when by pure chance I met some trance pieces, I was struck by the sounds and melodies described by this genre, but above all, I was drawn to the build-ups, which are those parts in trance pieces that bring you back to the beat after the breakdown.
I realized, going through hundreds of pieces and build-ups, that it was the musical region that interested me most, because it was in this section that the artist expressed himself in a more personal way. The next step was to brutally cut and paste build-ups and create very long “studies” made up of only these cutouts—experimenting, and taking very bad reviews on The Wire.
HUOApparently, this was embodied in 2012’s Quantum Jelly LP, and then evolved into Superimpositions in 2014.
LSQuantum Jelly is the first official release of my music defined as “pointillistic trance.” I defined it this way because, in a very simple way, it describes my compositional approach: I used the synthesizer in such a way that it made the sound as short as possible while still achieving the note and timbre that satisfied me. In that way, I could have all the margin to grow my track.
When I released the tracks on Quantum Jelly, all recorded using a Roland JP-8000 synthesizer, I wanted them to give the impression of being a portion of a possible infinite continuum: many of them start as if the track was already in progress and end brutally with a cut. I also used the JP-8000 to compose the whole following album, Superimpositions. I think this record is the logical evolution of Quantum Jelly, as the tracks have different layers, rather than just one, as on the previous album.
HUOMy friend Oskar Sala invented the Trautonium synthesizer with [Paul] Hindemith in the ‘30s–‘40s, with which he created the sound of Hitchcock's birds; he was desperate, because he hadn't been able to find a voice that was sufficiently “threatening.” I wanted to ask how you make your music, with what equipment, and if there are musical scores. Do you write this music, or do you improvise it on the synthesizer?
LSThe interesting thing is that from Quantum Jelly on—since 2012—I’ve basically used only one synthesizer, which is the Roland JP-8000. It was released in the ‘90s, and was the first to implement a waveform called a "supersaw," which was revolutionary at the time. I started experimenting with it because it's the synth that was used to create all the trance of the golden years, but then I started using it my way, connecting six of them together. Before even working on the synthesizer, the first thing I do is write melodies on my computer, on a piano, then the chords and notes. I’m satisfied with these melodies only if I can listen to them for hours without getting tired. Then, as a second step, I move to the synthesizers and make the melodies magically become “pointillistic trance.” (laughs)
HUOYou worked with John Divola on the album’s cover artwork. I visited Divola in Los Angeles a few months ago, in his suburban studio, and it is very interesting, because he uses these abandoned houses and creates these graffiti situations which are documented afterwards. How is your relationship with Divola? Are you going to create graffiti together?
LSIn this latest album, which will be released this spring by the English label Warp Records, I wanted to highlight my relationship with photography and, in particular, with the images of John Divola, which I discovered fifteen years ago and have looked at persistently ever since. I have always considered my approach to be a bit like vandalizing the tradition of electronic club music, so I was drawn his work from the “Vandalism”
series, all his pointillistic graffiti, his views of these sunsets, all framed in a more real environment.
I have always appreciated this duality of Divola's work: the emotional side, but also the more conceptual and “vandalizing” side. It’s a duality that is also very present in my work and that I have always tried to highlight—but it is also a reason for continuous struggle with myself, as I am constantly looking for a precise balance between these two forces. I was with John in December; we were together in the abandoned George Air Force Base in California, where he has been photographing for several years. He took pictures of me in front of these "death mirrors," as he calls them: these silver windows that he has vandalized with his pointillistic graffiti.
HUOAnd the result will be a record and an accompanying book?
LSFor now, these photographs are the images I will use to promote my new record, Scacco Matto [“Checkmate”], which has one of his photographs on the cover—an old photo of his dating back to the “Zuma” series of 1977. The idea is that these photographs can travel simultaneously with the album, and that the influence that John's work has had on my music for years can finally be made explicit by this encounter and by the production of these images. I worked very hard to make this happen; it was important for me that the whole visual layout of the disc had a solid and coherent basis, and I wanted to emphasize the consonances that I see between John's work and mine.
HUOIannis Xenakis said that there are no places where we can listen to sound works, because there are no sound museums in our society. I have experienced your incredible, groundbreaking work in a performance that we did at the Serpentine, and in many other situations, but I have not seen any devices or installations. I wanted to know a little bit about this sound exhibition complex, and if you agree that this type of museum doesn’t exist (yet).
LSIf a composition is designed for eight speakers in a specific pyramid-shaped space, it cannot be presented on four speakers in a cube-shaped space; if it is designed to be heard on headphones, it is at the discretion of the artist to specify the model of headphones on which it has to be reproduced. When the music is being presented, there’s also the problem of what or where to watch while we are listening to it. This is because today it is difficult for us not to examine something that is not described also through stills or moving images. The only other solution would be to close our eyes. As far as I’m concerned, the album (in all its formats) is my output, and the accompanying artwork is the visual component that can indicate some imaginary features to the listener.
It is a very long speech, but I believe that every work needs to be expressed according to the indications of those who created it, and if we talk about sound recordings, then we can assume that the artist is happy to have his work enjoyed by the listener according to all the possibilities that the format offers.
HUOStockhausen drew his own scores. You work with the computer, but I wonder if you have any drawings or sketches? Gerhard Richter uses photography to make painting, for example. I was wondering if you have an atlas, an archive of photographs—and if you do, why have we never seen your photographs, drawings or paintings on display?
LSI have many notebooks where I record all my things, and I have many notebooks where I only draw black, white and silver, although lately I've added red, but they don't have the completeness of the scores. They’re collections of quotes from other artists, of insights I don't want to forget, of diaries. I have an archive of my photos which I have never exhibited; for the past fifteen years, I’ve also been developing films every week. I shoot with a Rollei 35—like the one with which Stephen Shore created American Surfaces (1999), a collection that I always have with me—or even a Pentax67, often used by Luigi Ghirri.
HUOYou’ve worked with other visual artists for covers, such as Anne De Vries and Ed Atkins. Could you tell us a little about these collaborations? Who are the artists that interest you today, in the sense of collaboration between art and music, visuals and graphics?
LSThe work of others has always been a strong stimulus for mine. I’ve always said that I put together Presto!?, my label, because I so respected the work of certain artists that I almost wanted to be them, but the closest thing to being them was collaborating with them. My relationships with Anne De Vries and Ed Atkins were born this way: I noticed their work, and for various reasons thought they were interesting and could dialogue with my music. So we got in touch, and luckily, everyone always responded positively. All aspects of my work must be justified by a coherent choice, and the connections I create must be able to find an objective response in my music.
HUOToday we no longer have movements, but we always have these relationships between artists. Who do you consider to be your peers, the artists most akin to you?
LSWhen I studied the avant-gardes, I was fascinated with how the artists of a certain movement found themselves in the same bar in Paris or Vienna, doing exhibitions. For us, there is a little more detachment, and I am sorry, because I would like to experience it in this slightly more romantic way, but our world is another one.
My music has reached the ears of more people. A few years ago, thanks to the very rough and questionable denomination of "Deconstructed Club Music," a group of artists, myself included, from different backgrounds and nationalities were put in the spotlight, as we seemed to be carrying on a musical approach that had common elements. In this case, we got a little closer to the idea of traditional movement, and also favored the fact that the public could discover all the artists that rotated around it. If I think of Arca, MESH, Lee Gamble, Gabor Lazar, Powell, Total Freedom, Sophie, Amnesia Scanner, Holly Herndon and many others, we were all part of a so-called scene: we often played at the same festivals and met around the world. It was described in a fairly controversial article by Simon Reynolds as “Conceptronica.”
HUOAs you know, I’m interested in unrealized projects, projects that have been too big or too small to be realized—as my friend Doris Lessing always said, the self-censored projects that we didn’t dare to do. What are Lorenzo Senni’s unrealized projects?
LSI believe that one of my unrealized projects is photography. Lately, I’ve been buying more photography books than records, and have perhaps spent more time looking at cameras than synthesizers on eBay—but this doesn’t mean that I’ve lost the stimulus towards music. Indeed, it’s the opposite: if anything, I’ve found that this latest collaboration with John has encouraged me to make more music. To me, photography is a project that I have not yet realized, because I have a sense of respect for photography, perhaps more than for music: where I hope to have managed to “vandalize” music, I am conservative in the field of photography. I often say that I am “a photographer who survives by making music.”
Lorenzo Senni (Italian, b. 1983) is a musician and founder of independent label Presto!?. His latest album Scacco Matto was released by Warp in April. Hans Ulrich Obrist is a writer, curator, and artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London.
Photography by John Divola Artworks by Daniel Sansavini