Interview with Alessandro Bosetti
A conversation with the musician, composer, sound and radio artist Alessandro Bosetti, around his latest creation Journal de Bord, hörspiel for sound, voice, noises, text and music made of words and fragments of living reality premiered at the GMEM Centre de Creation Musicale in Marseilles.
What happens when we open the mouth? Where do words come from? From inside, but how inside? Is there somebody inside saying them for us? And there’s somebody inside that somebody saying it for him? And so on until a voice, a thought, a word are reduced to a point with no dimensions? Deeper than this you cannot go. And still you have said “point”. Which is a word. Start over and repeat this once again.
– Alessandro Bosetti
Piersandra Di Matteo: I’d like to begin with your latest creation Journal de Bord. Some of the elements that coagulate in this work include a tendency towards a random and heterogeneous collection of vocal materials, your interest in living language captured in situations of spontaneous dialogue as explored with the deployment of Mask/Mirror, the chance-determined sequences of I could see the clouds over Neukölln, with its snapshots of the various modes of human communication, and the attention you give to vocal polyphony in the cycle of combinatorial works Plane/Talea. On the whole, these elements form a strict monodrama built around a pre-existing text, which becomes the spinal column for further inquiry into the musicality of spoken language and memory…
Alessandro Bosetti: The journal de bord written by my mother in 1978 is a libretto that I had in my hands. I’ve been questioning Opera from afar since a while. At the beginning by opposing it: I could not relate to the music of “singing” but I could relate to the music of “speaking”. This was before figuring out that it is very difficult to separate speech and music on a theoretical level, to find an essential difference between them at the root. The closest you look the more they become the same thing. My practice originated from that supposed opposition between what you choose to be sung and what you leave out in the undifferentiated mare magnum of speech. I instinctually opposed Opera by picking random fragments of speech from daily life and thoughts, also my own, and even basing a few projects like Mask/Mirror and Acqua Sfocata e Altre Risposte Concentriche on talking about the first thing that comes to your mind. The first thing that filled your mind has always been a rather serious statement for me in regard to these projects. Once the choice had been made, I had to respect it regardless of the context.
If the first thing that comes to your mind on the stage of Philarmonie in Berlin is lasagne, well, you have to talk about lasagne no matter how trivial it may seem. Most of the time it comes out as funny, but the whole process is not especially about being funny. It’s more about the aboutness of being about and the questioning of relevance. It’s about the impossibility of founding aesthetic choices on relevance. (BTW: I never played MaskMirror on the stage of Philarmonie, but I would definitely by up for it).
PDM: This Journal-libretto condensed such issues into a whole…
AB: Journal de Bord is based on the journal of my mother’s sailing trip, a trip she took at the beginning of her separation from her family and her little children. It had been given to me a few years ago and it traces a missing segment of my childhood. She didn’t delve too much into her personal issues but rather just chronicled her trip day by day, the sea, friends, food. Trivial things, somehow irrelevant if you like, but still extremely beautiful and powerful for what they do not say, for the space they open and the expanses they cross.
In this process of reviving, the sonic nature several lines became one and the same: the boat route is tracing, the calligraphy that the pen is tracing on the paper – forcefully incorporating some of the physical movement of the boat – the prosodic line of the voice of my mother reading and recording the whole journal many years later, and finally the prosodic and melodic line of my voice tracing and singing it along the full recordings of hers. One very long, gigantic, space which makes up the monorama.
PDM: The twenty days of navigation by boat from Gibraltar to the Canaries (January 1978) narrated in your mother’s diary materialize here in a twofold set of vocal tracks: the live voice of a son (your voice) over-dubs and over-writes the recorded voice of your mother. Its singsong pace and inflections, its timbre and the texture of the intonations and pulsations of this maternal voice are punctuated by a calligraphic intervention that turns to imitation and dissociation and gives precedence to the musicality of the words rather than their meaning. What does it mean to “take up” a maternal voice? More generally, what relation exists, for you, between the voice and a maternal language?
AB: I need to symbolically repeat that trip along with my mother. I was not with her in 1978 and this has created an empty spot in my past. I have no memories of that period. Today I appreciate the chance I have to travel that route myself with my voice as many times I wish. This is what I do along with her voice. Our voices run side by side. Every time I travel along that itinerary I generate memories and experiences carved out of the darkness of the past.
The maternal voice is the first music one hears and in Journal de Bord I take a long ride along with the first example of music, which I ever encountered. Music itself takes me for a trip and tells me, in the most mythical fashion: “you cannot be me” or “you cannot be music otherwise that would not be music”. So I have to be exact and at the same time, I need to find a way to break that fidelity, to sing my own song out there. It’s twisted and scary but after all it’s what we artists do, the core of it. Fidelity has to be broken.
More technically I proceeded from asking my mother to read the full journal written over twenty days, from January 8th till January 24th 1978. I recorded her first attempt, with all her hesitations and surprises, sometimes she didn’t recognize or remember what she had written so many years back. Them I transcribed the text and again I transformed it all in musical notation – as a way to prepare the canvas – and I started to learn it, to speak or sing it in the most accurate way possible, and by doing so a lot of musical elements emerged, little details or melodic fragments. Some of them took monumental proportions and paved the route for orchestration and musical composition. My mother read something she wrote when she was much younger than I am right now. In the piece, my mother’s voice is both older and younger than mine.
PDM: In the sound score – Kenta Nagai (guitar), Carol Robinson (clarinet), Laurent Bruttin (clarinet) and Alexandre Babel (percussions) appear on stage with you – a minimal and sober acoustic scene unfolds, a fluctuating soundscape able to produce and re-establish an atmospheric and meteorological complexity. A crucial role is played here by your work on the amplification and spatialisation of sound, inverting the relations between foreground and backdrop, intimacy and distance.
AB: My theatrical references are so often non-visual, and for some reason I’ve always been fascinated by how radio and hörspiel are able to create a sort of theatre of the mind – a distant relative of Giulio Camillo’s Theatre of Memory maybe, of Jean Paul Sartre’s “huit clos” – a play in which some characters are locked in a room with no outside, – or maybe of Liebnitz’s Monads, enclosed unities with no windows to the outside and where everything can be ignited out of nothingness. In that sense, I pay a lot of attention to the perceived spatiality of sound in the use and position of microphones and loudspeakers which almost become characters on the stage. I never start imagining my pieces out of visual elements: the visual comes later and it’s somehow accidental or contingent. I always set the stage for a “play,” a set of relations or a field of forces, a dispositive that can eventually sustain a situation.
So, radio is my school of theatre, radio considered as an invisible stage where close and far can short-circuit (and I think of several masters balancing the two stages such as Heiner Goebbels, Gehrard Ruhm, Robert Ashley, Luc Ferrari…).
Another big source of inspiration is oriental theater and storytelling that I came across in the long lasting collaboration with fretless guitarist and shamisen player Kenta Nagai and by having the privilege of studying korean Pansori through a scholarship of the National Gugak Center in Seoul – the main institution for traditional music in Korea – and through the meeting with Bae Il Dong, an almost miraculously powerful singer and one of the most generous musicians I have ever met. As a practitioner myself, I’ve only scratched the surface of such a tradition but I could observe from a very close distance a form of theatre where there is an extremely minimal use of costumes and scenic dispositive, where the simple pairing of voice and noise generate a narrative landscape. Voices become sometimes detached from the body, instruments become organs, limbs, landscapes and sceneries. In the Japanese Bunraku puppet theatre, singers and shamisen players sit on the side of the stage, very far from the puppets that are in the middle and this creates quite a radiophonic situation. I do not think that my music could directly resemble Pansori or Bunraku, although these form are an important inspiration for the roles held by voices and instruments in them.
PDM: In Journal de Bord the role played by typography is also prominent. The uttered text (Italian) is indeed also projected (French) or printed on panels, thus becoming a “character”…
AB: The whole piece is presented with French subtitles: it is very important for me to give to the spectator the possibility of reading the text from beginning to end. The original text is in Italian but when I will present it in Italy I’ll also project the Italian text as I consider the active reading an important part of the piece. Subtitles are more than just subtitles here as they are the most conspicuous visual element for the spectator to engage with.
Journal de Bord is presented in two steps: the first in May 2017 and then in a full premiere in may 2018. For the full premiere we are going to elaborate the text with a typographer able to connect with the voice-calligraphy character of the piece.
PDM: After many years in Berlin, you have settled down in Marseilles. How has this city modified your acoustic awareness?
AB: Marseille is so much louder than Berlin! It definitely has exposed me to a new sound environment. It is the sound of a koiné of languages melting into each other, the French words encrusted within the frantic Arab phone calls, voices melting into traffic and mechanical noises, screams and rage in the street, coarse violence but also joy expressed in all the messy ways possible. It is the wind in ears, coming from the openness of the sea and resembling the non-sound of air crushing a microphone’s membrane. A metaphor for an unacceptable sound, an open sound that cannot be captured by machines because it is not simply a sound, it is also smell, touch, risk, flying garbage. It is the Provencal accent resonating in my backyard – there is a guy who has such a low pitched voice, amazing, coming from a window behind the medlar three – so different from refined and idealized francophony, which pretty much sounds written!” – since I moved here I have taken immense pleasure in savouring literary classics such as Flaubert, Stendhal, Maupassant and also more recent writers like Annie Ernaux or Pierre Michon. It is the sound of a growing Lp collection of Italian music from the 70s, a sound that is probably stemming from nostalgia and that matches the era of Journal de Bord. I decided not to include these references in the work, maybe they will resurface somewhere else. Marseille is also the silence of the studios of GMEM – Centre National de Creation – where I’ve been working for countless hours alone and with the precious assistance of Charles Bascou and where many other projects saw the light before Journal de Bord. And very recently it is also the sound of the voice of my newborn daughter. Voilá, I can hear other things in Marseille.
PDM: Your work rigorously reconsiders and explores, at times with caustic irony and at others in a poetic vein, the aesthetic categories and traditional postures of listening. Could you explain the nodes around which this research gravitates?
AB: What you call nodes are active joints of ambiguity in between intimacy and distance, between live, recorded and broadcasted sound and most of all between a “linguistic” listening mode and a “musical” listening mode. I think that huge tensions between language and music and between meaning and voice are happening in our time. They can be regarded as catastrophic splits resembling what happened in the late 16th century in western culture and that by no chance provoked Opera’s birth. This tension is potentially fertile and dangerous at the same time and we should pay attention to it on every level. Voice and language are not the same thing: today, language is heavily colonized by power and by technology which are thrusting a surplus of meaning over it, while voice stands its ground as an enigmatic vanishing point where subject and life proper can take shelter and find some existential space.
PDM: Do you mean the usage of voice as tactic of subjectivation?
AB: I consider the voice as one of the ultimate loci where looking for the subject. A subject removed from politics, technology and from the body itself, and therefore even more interesting from a political, technological and existential perspective. I see irony as a parasitical aspect of my work coming from displacement of meaning, the musicalisation of lasagne at the Philarmonie, we have been mentioning before, is the result of a window that has been left momentarily open, lasagne sneaked inside as anything else namable or unnamable may have. That open window, that empty space that created a way-in is not assimilable to any aesthetic category but is rather a lack of it. I’m realizing – while answering you – that irony in this sense is still in the realm of language while the poetic feeling of it is more projected in an open and empty territory we cannot comprehend. In Journal de Bord there is a lack – a lack of explanation, relevance, memories – and as the premiere has just happened and as I saw some of the audience going out in tears, I realized how something that sits between tragic and poetic may have started to happen in the work without me pushing for it, but simply by leaving some open space for an undetermined subject to emerge.
Alessandro Bosetti, Journal de Bord, 2017 Photo credit: Pierre Gondard
Alessandro Bosetti. Composer, performer and sound artist whose works delve into the musicality of spoken language, utilising misunderstandings, translations and interviews as compositional tools. His works for voice and electronics blur the line between electro acoustic composition, aural writing and performance. He created a vast body of work of hybrid, award winning, text-sound and radio compositions for the main Radio’s and Electro Acoustic Music studios in Europe as WDR, Deutschland Radio Kultur, Radio France, ABC Australia, ORF, GRM Paris. Current projects include the abstract polyphony dispositive Plane/Talea, The Notebooks based on Leos Janacek speech melodies archives, the monophonic extravaganzas Mini and Maxigolf with Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and Journal de Bord a music theatre co-production by GMEM/CÉSARÉ/La Muse en Circuit (centres nationaux de création musicale) 2017-2018. He also created Mask Mirror an instrument and software that reorganizes speech for musical purposes enacting a form of electronic ventriloquism. www.melgun.net
This interview is part of the series VOICETOPIA.
Conceived for NERO and curated by Piersandra Di Matteo, it is a space dedicated to the performing arts, contemporary theatre, performative formats as procedural phenomena, the topology of speech and tactics of interaction between practices and theoretical hypotheses, a platform for dialogue with artists, curators, performers.