My title comes from the mouth of a wise nine-year-old child, who posed this open question to Alessandro Bosetti, a number of years ago. The question stuck in his mind, above all during the making of Arcoparlante, and so it should, for the rhythms of entropy, and the ambiguities and uncertainties of our human relationship to those rhythms, are everywhere resonant within his challenging, compelling and occasionally confounding body of play.
Inside Bosetti’s intricately enchanting polyphony, sounds and voices are forever in active dislocation, falling apart. Interactions collapse into each other, bleed into each other, cross each other, thereby turning into something or somebody else altogether. Voices migrate and mutate, whether in decay or in mistranslation, or through mistransition; on the way somewhere else, somewhere unintended and unexpected, be it transformed into shaped music or suddenly convoluted into an abstract babbling brook.
Fragments and debris will then often begin to reassemble, against the flow, like scattered bones pushing from the earth to become dancing skeletons. Then, suddenly, they are nothing but a pile of bones again, on the way to dust. Composed and then decomposed, Bosetti’s acoustic plays create worm-rich compost for the imagination; yet if sustenance is to grow from such soil, the listener must be willing to engage in a bit of digging, grubbing, mucking about. Bosetti is not one for those who insist on keeping their ears squeaky clean.
Bodies perform vocalizations and articulated instrumental music, to be sure, but are they alive? Do they have any existential reality? Or have they been crafted or re-birthed into strange ventriloquist dummies, spilling forth verbiage on the prompting of rules and instructions established by the author? Even the most casual conversation reveals itself as simulation; Bosetti fully understands that we are not always the origin of our own utterances, and that our most authentic voices are synthetic fabrications, mediated assemblages, composite portraits; voice prints with forensic histories we are unlikely ever to fully decode.
That said, the lingual/musical puppetry is complicated by Bosetti’s deeply humanistic and compassionate orientation to real speakers, in meat space and real time; after all, it is unlikely he could convince anyone to play along within his complex scenarios if he lacked the gift of connection face-à-face, and we sense this special gift everywhere in his work. He can be coldly machinic in the service of his artifice, though in the very next moment, we may hear the pure whistle, the pulsing heart, the open and inviting voice, beckoning us further into the mix.
In A Collection of Smiles, the performance situation is both manufactured and spontaneous, artificial and carnal, producing evidence both of obedience to the situation and real pleasure towards each other. Voices are arranged into a social nexus, proximate but not connected (or connected by knots), with microphones and earphones, attempting to have a “spontaneous” conversation that is necessarily contrived, given the thoroughly artificial and staged context for the communication. The resulting text then becomes the basis for an exacting musical replication, creating a secondary instrumental language for the discourse. Bosetti then subjects this more musically defined mosaic to further cuts, pastes and layers, the talking personae ever more disembodied in the acoustiplasm; abstracted, rendered into remote otherness.
Everywhere in Bosetti’s plays, conversations give birth to rhythmic and melodic patterns, lines that then take on a life of their own. Language seems to have some sort of ontological power over music, yet then swiftly recedes into the entropic void, and becomes a contingent material. Diverse languages, whether spoken or sounded, offer both transparent means of communication among friends and impenetrable acoustic barriers among permanent strangers; the transition between the two modulations is frequently abrupt, even violent, like a rockslide or an avalanche.
In The Whistling Republic, the nameless, timeless whistlers are provided with texts that are then mouthed off, wind funneled through shaped lips, eros on air; airborn across the landscape to ears who try to provide a translation back into the body of a different kind of speaker. The eternal philosophical question of the relationship between words and things haunts this subtle investigation like an owl over a freshly mowed meadow, though Bosetti provides no easy answers, leaving listeners with much to contemplate.
In Campanas, we are also in the landscape, further complicated by the amplified playback of recordings into the natural space, a superimposition that is then recorded as a live mix, the living and the dead, or more precisely, two successive generations of deadness; and no single generation in the tense interplay between the recording and real is given any special status. These recordings and re- recordings are then manipulated and shaped in the studio, creating a dense tangle of sounds, bodies, spaces, actions, accidents, distortions and decay. To my ears, it is not so much a tension between sense and nonsense as it is between coherent shape (alphabets, sentences) and electromagnetic dispersion. This is particularly so when Bosetti performs his own texts, such as in Campanas, where sequences of word phrases/words and phrases pile up like walls and then come tumbling down, in cadences reminiscent of Charles Amirkhanian’s masterful early experiments in text-sound: rainbow chug bandit bomb. Indeed, since the history of text-sound remains woefully and inexplicably thin, I am delighted to hear a voice pushing along the edges of this particular envelope.
The polyglot Bosetti appears most effectively when performing within the slips and slides of his mystery plays; an artist using time-based media, most at home in the gaps, the holes, the glitches and the growlers. He is profoundly suspicious and circumspect with anything that might be perceived as a fixed location, and any sort of acoustic specificity – of the sort that would allow classification or naming – is transient, and subject to rapid disappearance. Rarely do we hear anything (or anybody) sounding off in isolation. Bodies and languages are always coupled or pressed against each other into discursive interplay, through arrangement of excavated strata, though there may be no solid ground anywhere within earshot. The specificity of an acoustic space is obliterated in favor of the complexity of relational situations, a complexity which Bosetti celebrates with abandon, even though the final structure of the celebration may be tightly choreographed: a jazz funeral, where all the celebrants are automata.
In Gesualdo Translations, we are presented with a mimetic musicalization and subsequent re-performance of Carlo Gesualdo’s visionary madrigals, as first sung by well-intentioned though woefully untalented amateurs. The result is a strangely poignant acoustic purgatory, a sense of slightly unnerved discomfort (these notes are painfully wrong!) magnified by the constant restless shift of background atmos, deep in the mix. Where are we, and who is this singing? Bosetti has written about the influence of Giordano Bruno’s extraordinary Memory Theatre on this piece: Bruno, alchemist and intellectual omnivore, a kindred spirit. Gesualdo Translations both borrows and explodes the cognitive memory theatre, in a performance that puts a good deal of stress on any utopian notions of shared cultural memory.
The alchemist Bosetti often subjects himself to his own transmutations. Rules inside his music are never sovereign, and the composer clearly wants nothing to do with his own authority, and so restlessly moves on, into another language, another situation, another instrument, another poetic dimension. In this way, Bosetti offers the listener an elusive, demanding, frustrating and at times utterly sublime art of entropy, one in which nothing is ever what it started out to become, and where the position of all speakers and all listeners is therefore placed forever in motion – imprecise and unnameable.
Bosetti resists being fixed by any stable coordinates, either in the parameters of his practice or in his field of play. Is he a musician, a poet or philosopher, or a radiophonist, [or] a performance artist; a jester, a dramatist, or an agent provocateur? All of these; or none of them? In the end, his keen musical sensibility may prevail, though it is a music unlike any other, a music that often loops against itself, willfully decomposing and dissembling, following a dead end to the dead bit, and then pushing beyond, sometimes until the ear can no longer fathom.
Yes, I am aware that such hybrid identity and style is not unusual in the confused soup of contemporary art, but very few can pose the question with any strength, since a slippery identity requires competent projection of mastery when wearing each temporary mask. Bosetti offers one voice/body where each inflected pose seems credible, and carries a certain weight of performative credibility, even if it eventually dissolves into a steamy vapor. Like his games, compositions and plays, Bosetti’s artistic identity and his practice are constantly in the process of change, turning into something else, something both less articulated and more authentic. Is he suggesting to us that one may be the condition of the other?
Bosetti has referred to Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting In A Room as an influence, with the speaking sitter serving as a sort of Hannibal’s elephant that suddenly makes the Alps visible — or in this case, the elephant in the room. Are we only truly aware of presence when we take note of decay? The existential reality of decay (as very much entwined or twinned with lived experience) makes Bosetti completely at home, if not at ease, in the electromagnetic ambiguity created by his vast labyrinthine necropolis, one where the dead dance.
In Arcoparlante, the premise appears to be an innocent game of “telephone”, where utterances become more scrambled with each repetition, inflected by the preferences or prejudices of each speaker. Humans cannot be relied upon to serve as objective recorders: the road between ear and mouth actually passes through the entire organism, the whole sensorium. In Bosetti’s telephone, though, listeners are echolocated more into the position of cryptologists, trying to make sense of scraps of recorded radiocasts that are semantically inchoate, even when perfectly enunciated by a professional radio announcer. Here again, everything is turned inside out, yet his acrobatic flips and inversions leave acoustic imprints that are more complex than bouncing echoes. In a text that recuperates the highly intricate and charged broadcast that results from this process, Bosetti writes:
After that night I found myself sitting on a mountain of chaotic recordings and texts, all originating from the fragments I originally collected. I started diving into a reality that I’ve never experienced but that felt like an artificially and collectively generated memory. I investigated a strange sense of Sehnsucht – of longing – while walking this hall of mirrors that the piece was gradually becoming.
I hear that sense of longing everywhere in Bosetti – he wants wholeness, yet he is painfully aware that every whole note begins its decay at the exact moment of its sounding, and that the ground we wish to stand still upon, and make a stand, and say what we mean – all that terra firma is the ultimate illusion.
Where are we when we listen to Bosetti? I was going to write limbo, but possibly “limbic” is a better approximation, since there is something profoundly neurobiological in Bosetti’s text-sounds, the miasma of his collapsed acoustic space bearing striking resemblance to the murk of human consciousness itself: the fungal nature of memory, the loops and ruptures internal to the language of the self, the invasions of disparate time zones, and the radical disjuncture within our outwardly coherent identity.
Bosetti’s poetics center and then unravel around lines between pure sound and composed note; between sense and nonsense; between being present and being recorded; between the decadent echo and the incarnate self; and – most importantly – between knowing and unknowing. To my ears, his body at play vibrates with a sort of wounded episteme, a radical doubt that any sort of song or communication is real, that we are all nothing more than imprecise translations of texts whose source remains opaque. He has also written that he is not “safe in this story”, and it is this element of risk, his willingness to subject his own intentions to the same dispersion as his materials, that encourages the listener to hang in there, and try to find a way to cope, find a way through the labyrinth, even when lost in deep fog. The gaps and collapses are not held at arm’s length, but brought right into the heart of the matter, without camouflage or decoration.
Faced with a fluid and eminently unstable situation of recomposing decay, where there is very little in the way of fixed landmark or bearing, it is best to cultivate an equally mutable notion of the self: sometimes, it may seem right to take on the spirit of the explorer, at other times, the clown or the trickster, who knows what you will need, or who you will need, in the darker recesses of the labyrinth, and thus you must call on every who/you that you can summon into the flow.
As such, electromagnetic murk represents a sort of end game for an art of entropy, and Bosetti has made his peace with this most slippery sort of play. He is everywhere, and nowhere; everybody and nobody; sounding like everything and nothing. That is to say, he is exactly where he needs to be, performing who he truly is, and telling us everything he knows. As he writes:
Apparently I cannot just sing my song, I have to send it through this chain of misunderstandings and pretend it’s not me the singer, the teller, the creator. Nevertheless I am striving to create. To sing. To tell.
Bosetti gives himself up to the entropy of sound, music, voice, self and situation. He allows himself (while inviting us) to become lost, bewildered, disoriented. He wants to sing his own special song, and yet that song turns out to be a song of disappearance and dissolution. He sings through complex echo chambers and infinity mirrors, reflections of bodies and voices and “rules”, sometimes weaving, other times colliding, navigation by dead reckoning, and sheer intuition.
Either wearing a mask, or a series of masks, or hanging out on a limb with skin peeled away like an illustration from the hand of Vesalius, Bosetti invites listeners to enter into the flow, while at the same time making clear that there will be a price paid for entry, that the going will not be easy, that nobody is safe when swimming across the maelstrom. But if you can take the risk that entropy may indeed be your friend, well then: listen up, lose yourself, and become one with an open question.
© Gregory Whitehead, 2013.
Appeared in Alessandro Bosetti: Stille Post. Radio Works: 2003-2011. Bôłt Records.