Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Daniel Barbiero
(February 2018)

It's been said that music is really just applied mathematics. For Cristiano Bocci, an instrumentalist/composer/sound artist from Follonica, Italy, that statement is true in ways that go beyond the obvious. For in addition to being a musician, Cris is an assistant professor of mathematics in Siena, specializing in a field of geometry.

As a musician, Cris is involved with many different kinds of projects. A multi-instrumentalist who first studied guitar at age six and electric bass at fourteen, he records and performs on guitar, 6-string electric bass, double bass, theremin, and now with a recently-acquired electric viola da gamba as well. His 2013 release Instruments, a collection of work for electronically-modified acoustic instruments, is what first brought him to my attention.

Cris's mathematical background has come into play not only in his work as the creator of practical computer programs for managing, modifying and manipulating sounds, but also in his way of conceptualizing sonic behavior and the role that can play in composition. He has also recently translated into Italian Miller Puckette's classic The Theory and Technique of Electronic Music.

Many of Bocci's pieces take source recordings of acoustic instruments and then, using electronic tools of his own or others' design, deconstruct and reconstruct them according to his compositional sensibilities. No matter how abstract it gets, his electronic work always retains a connection to the human, to the rhythms and patterns that permeate "natural" music and that often provide the foundation for the sonic architectures he designs.

I first met Cris in person in August of 2017--three years after we'd done Nostos, our first collaboration together, and just a few months after the completion of Non-places, our second and most recent album. Cris stopped by the Washington DC area on his way back home after working with an academic colleague in Alabama. It was a welcome opportunity to get to know in person someone I'd known, if at a distance, for years.

Falling back quite easily into our usual method of working via internet, Cris and I discussed his work by email during December of 2017.

PSF: As both a mathematician and a musician with a long history of playing conventional acoustic and electric instruments, you bring an unusual dual, but at the same time holistic, perspective to composition and performance. It seems to me that with your electronic compositions in particular, you've taken as your point of entry the natural voices of acoustic instruments--their ranges and especially their timbres--and then found ways to extend them organically through electronics.

CB: Yes, exactly. Let's say that both for electronic compositions and performances with live electronics, my main interest is to transform the usual sound of acoustic instruments, to narrate an unexpected sound evolution. Sometimes, I come to completely destroy this sound, and then, especially in the compositions, recreate it with a new voice, but at the same time, it manages to make you perceive the original instrument.

Undoubtedly having played for many years both acoustic and electric instruments allowed me to identify my personal point of fusion between the two worlds. But let's not forget, to return to what you said at the beginning, that I'm also a mathematician and I can assure you that I use, perhaps indirectly, a lot of mathematics, when I apply transformations to sounds, when I dismantle them to disclose their essential components. This is to say that, in the end, what I do can be seen as a meeting between acoustic instruments, the electronic world (i.e., sound synthesis) and mathematical theories.

PSF: Some of these mathematical theories might even work analogously to describe what you do. One could say, for example, that the sound sources you process are like geometrical objects that undergo continuous deformations--being stretched, bent, compressed, and so forth--but still conserve some underlying property that remains constant.

CB: I work in projective geometry. Projective geometry is a kind of geometry without the notion of parallelism (for example, two parallel lines meet in a point at infinity). As in any other geometry, we study the properties of an object that are invariant during certain transformations. In projective geometry these transformations are called projectivities. Compared to Euclidean geometry, projective geometry offers a greater scope for the transformation of geometrical objects.

I admit that I like to think of my sound objects as projective figures: I can modify them without having to worry about their magnitudes, or their positions in space, but only about what belongs to the "sound figure." This gives me an almost infinite freedom for transformations.

For example, from a projective point of view, I can transform the line:

Into this curve (which is called a twisted curve):

In both cases I move in one dimension, and with only one free parameter, but in the first case, I have a linear behavior (for example to go from point P to point Q), while in the second case, I pass through points of my space (and therefore sonority) that I could not have in the case of the line.

PSF: These extra points in space give you a wider range of possibilities for changing certain elements of the sound--let's say pitch, for example, or timbre. Would this work for one sound parameter at a time, or would it work for multiple parameters?

CB: This is complicated to explain. If you think of the straight line as an object in its own right, you are only moving one parameter. Suppose this parameter represents the pitch:

Here, passing from point P to point Q corresponds to passing from A to C in pitch. But if I think of the line as embedded in a space of three dimensions (but could be of any number of dimensions), then a point on the line is expressed by three coordinates. For example, they could be pitch, amplitude and amount of reverberation. So when I move on the line in this three-dimensional space I'm moving the three parameters:

What changes when I move to the cubic, for example, is that I no longer have a linear relationship between the two points P and Q; instead, I'm making curves that involve different, and perhaps more interesting from a compositional point of view, choices of the three parameters:

Obviously I could always work with these three parameters, but move along a surface. Having two degrees of freedom, I have a wider choice for my three parameters:

PSF: Something that's struck me about your electronic work is the way that rhythmic cycles and regularities often emerge as a result of the processing. This seems to be true even when the source material is arrhythmic--a drone, for instance--or follows an irregular or variable measure such as the length of a breath.

CB: When I was a student at the university, I read Case and Chaos by David Ruelle. At one point, the author jokes about his colleagues saying that from their play as children it was clear what their job would be: if they preferred to make mixtures or burn things, they would become chemists, if they cut everything to pieces they would become physicists, and so on. When I was six, I tried to give a logical explanation to a man dressed in red who manages to get down chimneys and so, according to Ruelle, a predisposition for reasoning was clear. But I remember that from that age, I liked to divide my steps into regular sequences, to find an irregular symmetry in the number of rings on the phone (for example: 8 rings = 1 + 3 + 3 + 1 rings), and to put in sync my heartbeat with the breath. Now, when I analyze a sound source, I like to find within it a micropart that can provide me with some rhythmic structure, not necessarily percussive, but that allows me to build a regular or irregular pulsation, but still repeated. And you've hit the point when you're talking about breath length, because the creative process of many of my compositions is based on the breath, or heartbeat or steps: if the song I'm composing aligns with my breath or my heartbeat, then I know that I'm moving in the direction that suits me best. Sound synthesis is very helpful in this context: even a long bass arc sound can be broken down into microsegments to build a rhythmic cycle, perhaps to overlap or mix with the cyclic noise of an old steam train.

PSF: Some listeners have remarked on the way that your music, and your electronic compositions in particular, stimulate the mind's eye as well as the ear. For myself, I think of you as having what I might describe as a cinematic ear, or a sensitivity to the way that sounds can evoke dynamic visual images. This certainly was the case with Non-places, which at one level can be listened to as a kind of audio film shot on location, but it also comes out fairly explicitly in the idea behind Old Postcards, and even in Instruments, which you've described as a series of "sound pictures."

CB: You're right: there's always a visual aspect in my compositions. Let's say that every piece I create is in some way connected to a landscape, or rather to a landscape photograph, dreamlike or real. Consider that when I was younger I was a landscape photographer, I was in a photo club and I also did some exhibitions.

Sometimes, when I compose, I have in mind a precise landscape that becomes a source of inspiration for the construction of the piece. Other times, the opposite happens: first I compose the piece that then evokes an image.

To give you an example, in early December I was in Rome at Maker Faire, the diy electronics fair. To enter the fair area, one had to pass over this overpass:

I liked the symmetry of the structure, with these semicircles that become smaller (to put it as a projective geometer: that go to infinity). I then took the picture to remind me of the place and to have it both as a source of inspiration for electronic compositions, and to add it to an eventual video of one of my songs, which, as you know, are often enriched with static images. I have a vast archive of images taken during my hikes or my business trips.

However, it must be said that the creative processes of Instruments, Old Postcards and Non-places were different. Instruments was a work of deconstructing acoustic instruments. So the songs evoke for me images that are often associated with the musicians who provided the audio material. And the same happens with titles. For example, the title of "Coconut biscuits for a young malamute" comes from the fact that Emiliano Nencioni (my luthier at Biarnel), who played the trumpet in the song, has a malamute dog, and his mother Patrizia Rassetti (among other things, an excellent writer of historical thrillers) had offered me some coconut biscuits one day. It is also true that a piece like "Old Memories" is associated with a specific piano by Giacomo Dal Pra (the pianist on the piece), but it also evokes the image of a dusty piano in an abandoned house.

In Old Postcards, with Tobia Bondesan, we started from the idea of telling six stories, which then became six postcards, to be imagined stored in a suitcase, along with other travel memories. Here, pieces like "Into the storm" or "Santa Barbara" manage to evoke respectively in-progress-images of a storm or a mine. "Into the storm" always inspires in me the image of a person watching the storm at the window while listening to the radio. "Santa Barbara" is dedicated to the miners who died in 1954 in a mine gas explosion in the Ribolla mine, so I do not associate with it a single image, but all the images that I saw in this regard in the history books. I am very attached to the subject of the mine in general because my grandfather worked there.

In some reviews it has been said that listening to every piece of Non-places, you can imagine that place. As far as I am concerned, this means that I have achieved what I had set myself to do: to describe different non-places. Moreover, in Non-places, unlike the other albums, some aspects of the soundscape composition, as theorized by Raymond Murray Schafer, are respected: keynote, signals and soundmarks.

For example, the song "Bruxelles Gare du Midi," could evoke any train station, as the noise of the train (the keynote) is common to all stations. The announcer's voice, in French and Flemish, as well as the French voices, suggests that we are in a Belgian station. These are foreground sounds, which are listened to consciously (signals). The announcement itself, which instead indicates a precise railway track that passes from the Gare du Midi, is a soundmark, that is something that characterizes uniquely the soundscape. In a certain sense, even the choice of the Arabic scale you played with the double bass in this song can be considered a soundmark because the Gare du Midi is located in the Arab quarter of Brussels.

PSF: Well, having that scale occur to me was the kind of seemingly-preordained coincidence André Breton would've ascribed to objective chance! But now that we've transited through the way-stations portrayed in Non-places, what's your next destination, musically speaking?

CB: To tell the truth I do not know.

Let's say that depending on the inputs (a book that I read, a theory that I learn, a software that I discover)- the journey takes unexpected directions.

Lately, I'm working a lot on sound synthesis from a theoretical and informatic point of view. With Giorgio Sancristoforo, I have applied tropical mathematics to the usual additive synthesis, discovering a new and very efficient synthesis that we have called Tropical Additive Synthesis. We plan to submit the first paper by the end of January. A group of computer scientists and researchers in the department at the floor above mine have developed Udoo X86, a very powerful single board computer. With one of them, Ettore Chimenti, and also with Giorgio Sancristoforo, we are thinking of creating a wearable multi-effect, equipped with motion and position sensors, in order to change the parameters of the effects according to the movements of the musician. I would like to do something very versatile, which can be worn by a saxophonist or a double bass player.

I'm working on my second solo album, but very slowly, since I give precedence to other projects. In particular, I am making a "stochastic" album recording the performances of the musicians as they listen for the first time what other musicians recorded before them. All in a circular way, recalling the same musicians even after months. Finally, together with Christian Spinelli I founded a duo of free improvisation. Christian plays drums and I play my 6 string bass and live electronics. As you can understand, it is a very minimal duo, based mainly on the rhythm.

Hence, let's say that at the moment the journey is assuming precise characteristics, but the destination is unknown.

Also see Cristiano Bocci's website

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