Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Daniel Varela
(July 2004)

Unusual music resources and blurred boundaries between art disciplines are main factors related to the "genre" known as Sound Art. Starting from old analog synthesizers and cosmic rock improvisations, Giancarlo Toniutti studied electronic music at the Conservatory in Venice in early eighties. His interest in visuals, installations and other art forms has been reflected in many of his works like recent projects with Italian visual artist Luisa Tomasetig and other phenomena simply defined by Toniutti as "sound sites" as well as projects based on heterogeneous approaches to sonic acoustic materials.

His music has a unique character. An excellent example is his work "KO/USK," made in collaboration with Siegmar Fricke using a varied amount of stones as only sound source, without any electronic manipulation. Another remarkable sound experience is "Tahta Tahla," a collaborative work with Englishman Andrew Chalk, developing a very particular sense of sonic manipulations of natural sound objects.

It must be said that Toniutti's interests as an artist are involved within a more complex and integrative conceptual world. He is a researcher on Language studies, including toponymycal (place names) investigations and ethnographics. Siberia, Mongolia, Arctic, Caucasus and Native America cultures are of interest to him as well as Physics (especially theories by French mathematician René Thom) and Philosophy. Drawing from these varied sources, Toniutti has developed a strong body of work including personal ideas on composition and human behaviour.

PSF: How did you start with music, considering your studies in Philology (language) and Anthropology?

I have been dealing with music since I was about 14 (it was about 1977) when I discovered German electronic music (Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, and then Cluster, Schnitzler etc.). So it had been almost natural to me, when I got to the high school, to gather a friend and think (as many do and did in garage bands) of doing noise improvisations in his glassworks' shed. Then step by step it was natural as well to move into some more "serious" effort in composing. The anthropology, linguistics and so on studies came later on, and it was just another parallel interest in research about human beings and their world.

PSF: Could you describe how you plan a project? Have you some general kind of work approach or it is very different from each work to another?

I have been changing my personal attitude to music composing/working through these 28 years, of course. But I could say that generally I am now used to trying to settle some sketch of the compositional process as a first step into specific projects. So with that, starting from there and from a specific timbral and sound idea (the idea of a sound process, or a sound category for example), I usually tend to try to make these things go together, while trying to let any element, micro or macro-process of the project, canalize by itself with further steps into (the project). So, I think I can say that there is some general approach. And this has mainly to do with analyzing the final macro-structural idea (this depending on specific choices, basically linked to a specific project) through the lens of the processes I'd like to get involved into. But any project has its own characters, because of the sound "category" (or categories) I intend to employ as a basic feature of the project. So, there is a constant shifting from one plane to the other. From macro to micro and then back to macro and so on, up to a certain point when all the articulatory levels come into consideration so that I have to cope also with the mesostructural question implied therein...

In any case, most generally ideas start from specific sound timbral categories I somehow get involved into both for theoretical and (of course) accidental reasons. From such first steps (first structure of the processes), I gather ideas and reasons behind such structure and try to analyze it macrostructurally, in a way "composing" the general process. Then all the processes start.

PSF: Could you describe some of your projects and their structural ideas?

Probably I could write full books about each one of them, with interesting things and less interesting ones, because works depend on so many aspects and imply so many others. Concerning the strictly structural aspect, e.g. speaking of "KO/USK," there has been a double trajectory in composing/recording it. On one side, following a decision implying the use of such sound sources (stones), a decision linked to ideas concerned with low resonance materials, granular/dusty timbral nature and things like these (which of course implied many other consequential aspects on the compositional and structural level), I adopted the very nature of the material to have them resonating. I mean I accepted the limits (and character) of the material and their only possibilities to generate sound (by friction and percussion). This of course led me to the "collection" of material and recordings that already had a structural nature, depending on the very possibilities of their sound generation (in the specific context, some very pointillistic and at the same time moted organization of the sounds, with a short "envelope" - sharp attack, short decay etc.).

On the other hand, my interest was connected with the organization of sound forms provided with some sort of a layered continuum, with no single fulcrum, around which organizing the single structures. My idea was to have different attractors, different knots which would organize and canalize the micro-structural events and would give them single and multiple balances. So in the end, results would have been those of having some non-equilibrium of far-from-equilibrium forms within larger organized structures (macro-structures). This can be a general approach I mostly have, of course. And it gets different results due to the difference in the very nature of the sound sources which obviously modify the organizational landscape (because of their differences in envelope, in timbral qualities, in spatial characters etc.).

PSF: Have you some formal plans in terms of "composition"? Is your work based on juxtapositions/mixings of materials?

As I tried to explain above, I have mostly a composite approach to composition. It has to do with some formal technique (but not academic ones), and it has to do with also some kind of "juxtaposition" (more about this later), and it has to do with association and more. As I said, there is usually a general plan, I like to keep as a referent to the work, which I constantly come back to. But also there is, strongly considered, the force of the "accident" as part of the processes, so that when I put together recordings, I tend not to exactly plan where they cross each other, or how they do that, in terms of microcompositional articulations. I let the single structures try to find their own way therein and my role tends to be one of control over specific parameters (like saturation, density, velocity, dynamics, timbral nature, etc.) of the whole organization of the sounds. Articulation is a way I like to describe all this.

PSF: Have you some kind of affinity for text sound / sound poetry composition considering your interest in languages?

I have no interest in sound poetry or even the use of voice in music. I think voice is too much self-oriented, and it is too pregnant for the human ear, too charged with specific psycho-acoustical motivational backgrounds to supply a composition with something more then already-known parameters. Then texts etc. are even a step further into this. And I have no interest to work in sound like a narrative effort.

PSF: Abstract musics (drone, experimental electroacoustics, field recordings, sound art) have their own language, maybe their own flow and "narrative" in terms of presentation, development and transformation of sound material. Have you some reflection about this point?

Yes we could say that what you call "abstract music" could have its own "narrative" though I think that using the notion of "narrative flow" would be a bit ambiguous in this sense (at least concerning my work). I admit that some form of narration is part of any aspect in life and in art as well. But at the same time, I recognize some modules pertaining to the narrative form, which are not part of my own structural approach to the sound organization and composition. Narratives are part of a "flow" which is basically teleological, in that it starts somewhere with a sense to arrive somewhere else, whereas my music tends to be somewhere and remains almost there, tending nowhere in particular. In geometrical terms I would see (I mostly have ever seen) my music as a point, whereas many musics are lines. Narration is a line from A to B at least. Even deconstructed narration has the same teleological need. If I have this instance of "avoiding" narration within my music, I think it depends on the high value I give to narration (oral narrative especially) and its mechanics, which have their own field of action. I always thought that music is something else and being something else needs some other organizational/structural tool.

PSF: I'm very interested in your study of ancient languages and cultures. Could you comment on this focus of your work? Why do you have such a particular interest in arcane/ distant social organizations?

My interest in ancient as well as marginal social organizations, as you call them, is mainly dictated by a reason. I think we can learn more from marginal aspects than core ones because the centre is already well known and also it is very much open to constant mixing and re-organizing processes, while in marginal elements one can "more easily" discover different approaches to the world organization, to the view of the world. And this makes sense to me, because our view of the world and its reasons. are of course a product of our historical development, evolution. But it is, as a product of historical evolution, just one of the possible ways to organize the world. My interest in marginal contexts depends properly on this possibility to see that there are (there has been and there could be) different ways of looking to the world processes. which might cast a light onto our own ways, and onto more basically (deeper) fundamentals of the human thought processes.

PSF: Could you comment on what are these fundamentals? Are you interested in some particular idea/way to communicate experiences or human feelings? Or are you more involved in a kind of "abstract"/subjective personal experience?

I have a very little interest in subjective personal views. I mean, of course any view is a personal view, but have little interest in trying to demonstrate to the world that my personal experience can be taken as some form of example, especially because it is taken as such in any case. It is its nature to be taken as such, thus I wouldn't see much value in creating a discourse about this. Similarly I have a rather uninterested approach concerning the communication of experiences or feelings. Of course, I am speaking of the artistic field (in personal life, it is obviously another matter...!?!).

My interest in trying to understand and see (as much as this is possible and has some sense) what I called the fundamentals, is linked to a basic view. We cannot take ourselves as real parameters for the understanding of the world, because we are inevitably part of our own observation of the world itself, and we are so immersed in this dialogue between ourselves and the world, that each effort to see beyond the pure speculative side of the problem would only cast light on what we like to think, more than what we really think or the way we do this. By observing the world's differential characters, by observing the different cultures and the way they organize reality, through their linguistic differences and what's behind these differences and what they imply (e.g. in terms of the relation between genders, between subject and object or patient and agent etc.) I try to find forms of continuity which can cast some light about common modalities, common dynamics of the human psychism in general (and this could be enlarged to the animal world at least). The scope of all this is trying to understand more on some of the fundamental dynamics behind our own way of perceiving the world and the needs behind such ways etc. The needs for art (which is widespread in all cultures), the reason behind the insurgence of language in the humankind and the like. My idea is that by better knowing these mechanisms we could better find ourselves a place

PSF: Do you have some interest to "dive" in some deep human aspects? Have you some extramusical/ ideological/philosophical interest that support some compositional attitude? I think for instance of Francisco López interest's in Rumanian/French philiosopher Emil Cioran, or the many aspects behind John Duncan´s work.

Yes, in a way I have some "deep" aspect I am following with my work. Something has been said answering to your question number 4 (about planning compositions and use of juxtapositions). But I can add some more. I have a general interest in discovering what is part of the so-called "universals" of human beings as an animal (as a part of the whole living world), and what pertains to single socio-cultures. What is culture in anthropological terms, and then what is part of the universal psychism of the human being as a genus. My idea behind all this is to try to understand a bit more how we organize our human mind, generically said, basing on what and from what. That said, I must add that there is no strict philosophical "school" or single philosopher I am following. I can anyway refer to the work of French mathematician René Thom for some basic concomitant approach to many of these aspects. How much this supports my compositional attitude is difficult to say, if we analyze all this in strict logical terms. But certainly there is much from these perspectives which pours into musical and compositional attitudes of mine....

PSF: In which aspects does a mathematical/physical theory like Thom´s Catastrophe interact with your work? Could you comment about the "not so logical" terms of your work?

Thom's theoretical work (which goes well beyond his "catastrophe theory") has been quite relevant in understanding how forms organize. His models of the development of forms, definition of forms and their interaction, the dynamics behind forms and their interaction has been very relevant because it has led me to recognize forms, some kind of individuality and see them not as pure matter to be dominated by my hands, but matters which try to come in "conflict" with the rest of the world (myself included)- 'conflict' meant in the Heraclitus notion of it. I think this has enlarged my view of the structures into some very fundamental acceptance of what's behind structures. And in this sense I have slowly accepted to shift from a very rational and logical relation to the sound matter towards a "not so logical" (as you say) view of it. This has nothing to do with irrational thinking, especially in the "intuitivistic" view of Cageian school. What I am speaking of is a more deep though not mystic view of the problem. It has to do with the fundamentals I was speaking about above. With the fact that we act in the world not only because of our cultural or logical tools, but also because of some pre-cultural dynamics, which I like to see and recognize a place (for).

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