The will to keep learning is allowing Stefano Guzzetti to open up completely.
It must be a classic case of wishful thinking that the opening track to Stefano Guzetti’s Home – Piano Book (Volume One) is called “To Sleep for a Day”. Certainly, Guzzetti, to whom music is not just a life-long passion but also a full-time profession, hasn’t had much time to rest for quite some time now. Instead, over the past few years, the Sardinia-based artist has gradually established himself as an in-demand composer for a wide range of ads, promos, documentaries, short movies and feature-length films, allowing him to display his full creative pallet. Next to these challenging commissions, ranging from dreamy soundscapes to the experimental futuristic electro-acoustics of his recent soundtrack for sci-fi video game Zoom, he has also built a personal discography for which overly narrow terms like ‘neoclassical’, ‘ambient’ and ‘electronica’ seem desperately inadequate. In 2012, after a lengthy phase of conceptualising, composing and planning, all of these influences were amalgamated into the seamless journey of Into the Northsea under the moniker of Waves on Cavas, an emotional journey of dense arrangements held together by Guzzetti’s love for the catalogue of legendary imprint 4AD, classic songwriting and the voices of, among others, Ian Masters (Pale Saints) and Louise Rutkowski (This Mortal Coil). Piecing the equally complementary and contrasting pieces of this intimate puzzle together was as rewarding as it was depleting – no wonder Guzzetti decided to shelve the Waves on Canvas moniker after the album’s completion and concentrate on the more stripped down works under his civilian name. Home – Piano Book (Volume One) is the first result of this renewed focus, a collection of nine solo piano pieces composed and recorded within the space of his own four walls. The microphone is hovering over the keys like a pair of invisible ears, capturing every sound, no matter how quiet it may be – from the creaking of the wood, to the percussive movements of the fingers on the keys. The ‘realness’ of the recording, especially remarkable when compared to the meticulously crafted alternative reality of Into the Northsea, lends an intimacy to the album that makes listeners feel as though they were sitting right next to the performer. This, it appears, is what Guzzetti has always wanted: Creating a direct link with the listener, using music as a means of sharing precious little moments. And if achieving that vision means a serious lack of sleep, then so be it.
Why, do you think, did 4AD play such a vital part in your formative years?
When I was a teenager, after only listening to classical music (mostly Bach’s works), I accidentally stumbled on a C90 tape of a friend of mine. Side A contained the Cocteau Twins’ Treasure while side B had Dead Can Dance’s Spleen and ideal. It was about 1987 and this terribly poetic world totally blew me away. What I discovered was one of the most important things to me: music is not only notes, it’s a wider thing. It’s images. Vaughan Oliver, first with Nigel Grierson as 23 Envelope, then with others as V23, taught me a visual approach to music. The key word being: de-contextualise. You take a letter from a specific font, for instance, and create a graphic element out of it; you can only do this kind of stuff if you tend to give different meanings to things in general. I honestly admit that back in my youth 4AD was everything to me. I also did a sort of pilgrimage to Alma Road on my first trip to London in 1991 and I was given a poster set, one of those that now on eBay cost a fortune – I was in heaven. But I also went to Opium Arts, David Sylvian’s headquarters in Portland Road, because my music tastes where starting to change. Nowadays I exchange emails with Ivo Watts-Russell and we write about anything but music – a clear sign on how things can change their meaning. And that’s the beauty of life.
Your Electronic Music course at the Conservatory of Cagliari seems to have been a vital experience for you. What was your time at university like? What did teachers such as Elio Martusciello, Fabrizio Casti and Myriam Quaquero bring to the table?
It was and still is a vital experience, as I’m still studying and I think I won’t ever stop studying music in general, because it’s so important to me. This mostly demonized ‘academic approach’ is for me the only way to open the mind and then being able to choose and do things in a conscious and pertinent way. I mean … take Pollock’s action painting for instance … everyone could take a brush, drip everywhere and claim their aesthetics to the world. The difference here is that Pollock also studied the classics and the basics, he could paint portraits and the like … So he consciously decided on his way. You can decide to speak using your own alphabet, but first you have to learn how to write and read with the one we all use.
We live in the era of technological massification where everyone can buy a laptop, download a version of Ableton Live, some MaxMSP patches and do an ambient track or electronic music. This could be a reason, for example, why there is too much ambient music out there. I mean, there are some artists who create several releases in a year, not counting appearances and remixes. How much intellectual integrity and honesty is there? Sadly, in order to gain exposure fast, people choose to quickly produce things and release them, rather than stop from time to time and investigate the field they’re moving within. Let’s not forget that electronic music is about sounds and their nature, waves indeed. How they can be created and managed, how they behave in a certain environment. And again, let’s not forget the importance of some pioneers like Berio, Stockhausen, Xenakis; they were not tweakers or posers, they were people who really studied what they were doing.
So, to answer your question about my teachers: Martusciello unfolded to me the world of audio editing and manipulation, gestures and textures, while I was arriving from a world where the best I could do was to edit my sounds on a hardware synthesizer and play them via MIDI. Casti, also a great composer whose work has also been released on the ECM New Series, who hates any form of tonality, is a great reference point to me. Myriam is a teacher of music history; I’ve always been very passionate about that – one of my dreams, indeed, is to start writing something, putting on blank paper my knowledge – and she’s got a strong passion in what she does.
You’re capable of programing your own patches. Tell me about the importance of different interfaces / instruments for channelling your emotions, please?
Doing or programming your interfaces is like being able to choose your colours, and if you don’t have them, you can prepare them. That’s why studying music at the conservatory is so important. You are given the tools to choose what’s best for you and how to do it. Unless for you it’s ok to use presets and pre-cooked things; but in most of these cases you tend to change your ideas in function of what you find at your disposal. Which is not the best way to express your creativity and ideas.
Do you still remember the moment or process that you knew you wanted to put music first and turn it into a profession?
This has been a very slow process, as you might guess. During my recent past, I took on different jobs, the last five years working as a customer assistant for different big companies. Here in Sardinia there is a lot of unemployment, but on the other hand the setting is wonderful; you are ten minutes away from the beautiful sea, the mountains and also life is still cheap here. But the only kind of job at hand, if you want to gather some money, is putting a pair of headsets on and helping customers on different issues. I had to do this in order to buy the gear I needed to start doing things professionally. Then, with time passing by and after millions of emails with links and CDR-s given to everyone, commissioned works started to appear on the horizon and I had to deal with the lack of time, being most of my days at work. I had to make a decision then. I also had to start thinking: Okay, I won’t have a wage, I will spend less in general and I will do what I love most. I keep in mind the words I’ve been told by Teho Teardo, a great composer and friend. The last time we met and I told him about my decision, he told me: ‘Whatever will happen, don’t be scared and keep going with your decision’. So, that’s it. I always do my best, I trust in my future, I love my days.
In which way are the commercial projects you’re taking on just as personal and fulfilling to you as your ‘independent’ solo works – and in which way may your solo works even benefit from them?
Well, to me it’s just a matter of dealing with music, anyway. As long as I’m not asked to do things that are too distant from the colours I tend to use, it’s all right. There are times where I have this physical need to write something very cinematic, like Mediterranean stuff, or ancient music, orchestral tracks … it’s just like when you play with colours and you mix them and you wonder what can happen. It’s so exciting. Producing these kinds of tracks can also be a good way to keep studying music and harmony, to investigate how some sounds match with others, to improve your mixing skills and so forth … So years ago, after a while, I found myself with these collections of tracks – and I’ve got tons of them on my hard disks; then it happened that I started promoting them, and it all started my career as a producer for commissioned stuff. Which is good as long as I’m doing things I like.
I’m also mastering and that, to me, is a constant challenge, because I always receive tracks of the most different nature in volume, frequency range and so on, and my duty is to make them shine at their best. This is also a great occasion to improve my skills and knowledge in mastering; in the end editing the frequencies and volumes of a track and making it sound better can be considered quite related to my studies at the conservatory. I admit sometimes my ears are cooked. But luckily not all my days are in front of a pair of speakers at high volumes.
One of the things which I found interesting is that the release of Home nicely coincides with the publication of your video game soundtrack for Zoom. To you, if I understood correctly, these worlds aren’t opposites at all. As you put it: Kraftwerk is complimentary to classical music. In which way? Would you agree with Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s assessment that “writing for electronics requires the same knowledge as writing for orchestra”?
I totally agree. As far as you write something in music, whatever materials you’re using, you have to arrange, to find the right proportions between voices, volumes, intervals, spaces in the stereo field and so on. You’re really called to master an overall balance. Take the example of a videogame: you have to provide a 40 seconds loop that has to be played in the background. At the same time it can’t be anonymous and boring, but it can’t be invasive and too much characterizing and at the same time you also have to picture a mood at its best. Isn’t it a way of arranging? To me it surely is. And it’s not an easy task.
You fulfilled a lot of dreams with your first album as Waves on Canvas, Into the Northsea, working with Louise Rutkowski, among others. How did the album come together?
I worked so much on that record that now I can’t listen to a single track of it. It all started with the opportunity to do something with the Psychonavigation label, thanks to my long time friend Enrico Coniglio. I already started writing stuff, but this thing accelerated and amplified the whole process. Then I questioned myself on what I wanted to do and what direction to take, and I decided it was the time for me to pay the right tribute to a certain kind of sound I grew up with. Obviously it wasn’t meant as an emulation, but as my interpretation of that particular mood. I contacted Louise, who kindly accepted to be involved in the project. Hearing her voice for the first time after I downloaded the stems was such a religious experience to me, I was crying like a baby. Then I got in touch with Pieter Nooten and Ian Masters from Pale Saints. In the end what I have now is a few great friends. Ian for example came to visit me here in Sardinia and we had really big times together with our girls and friends. The cherry on top of the cake is being mentioned in the recent official 4AD biography by Martin Aston, published on Harper & Collings’ imprint ‘The Friday Project’. Now this chapter of my life can be considered really closed; this is what comes to mind when I look back at this project. I honestly don’t think I will use the Waves on Canvas moniker again. The older I get, the more I just write instrumental stuff to be played with acoustic instruments. Waves on Canvas is about a gentle use of electronica with a certain kind of sonorities. Stefano Guzzetti is just me and the scored notes.
Why did you begin playing within the pure realm of the solo piano for Home – Piano Book (Volume One)?
Sitting in front of a piano, it’s just your mind connected to those hammered strings, passing through your energy and hands. There is no VST, no synth or controller; most of all, there is no sequencer playing the hardest parts for you. It’s just you, the silence, and the possible music. It’s like telling to yourself: all right, I am not in that fast car anymore, I’m here in this street with just my legs. How fast will I go? How long will I resist? Then you start running, you breathe air and it gets heavy: surely heavier than expected. But in the end, every little improvement is such a precious moment to be treasured. There is also something to be said about the beauty of the sound of a piano, because it’s never the same and every time you play a note it resonates in a different way. I also love using the damper as a sound choice: I totally love the noises generated by the hammers on the felt. This will be quite evident in the next album I’m currently recording for Home Normal, which also features a string section. When I started to write the first sketches, the initial title was ‘Bedroom music’, as I wanted to capture and keep the intimacy of a music played in the warmth and safety of a bedroom. So the obvious step was to keep the imperfection and dirt of sounds and not going into a studio to record unnaturally clean and crisp tracks. The noises, ambient rumors, pedals of the piano, everything is strictly related to this decision of keeping things the most natural as they can be.
The music was realised within a remarkably short period of time.
The tracks of the album were recorded in a short time, but they all are the result of a slow process that lasted about a year and that I consciously stopped, otherwise it would’ve possibly lasted another year. I’ve got this application on my iPad where I record sketches and things … so when I sit at the piano and something interesting comes out I record it, otherwise I could easily forget it. That’s the first step. After months I listen to those clips again and work on the ones I like most. This second step can last more than I can think, so there has to be a moment where I stop the creative process, otherwise I can always keep developing an idea. It’s like when you mix a track: there is a moment when you have to stop.
So are you completely satisfied with the recordings today?
I think it would be impossible to feel definitely happy with something you’ve recorded and finished. Add to this that I am a Virgo, a desperate perfectionist, so you can perfectly picture yourself the whole thing. I still play these tracks from time to time, also because I have to be able to perform them fluently in any moment, and what surprises me is that I still like most of them. Of course time changes things, and I’m starting to slightly change some passages, the interpretation and so on: anyway the tracks are still there. Maybe now I would record them in a different way and surely this is what I would do for the second volume, for which I started recording ideas but now it’s really early for it, as I’m also in the process of recording a more structured work.
At Home – Piano Book (Volume One) would have made an excellent fit with various labels, but Home Normal does appear to be ideal. In which way does the roster of the label reflect your own tastes as a listener and composer?
Being part of the Home Normal family is for me a real honour and pleasure. First of all a word of three letters: Ian. This guy, the kindest giant I’ve ever met, is a true gentle soul. He really puts his heart in everything he does and this can be quite evident in label’s releases, the website etc. With Tania, my girlfriend, we were his guests in London in august 2013 during the Home Normalism festival. It’s been such a pleasure to realize how naturally we all happily matched together in that big house. To finally meet people like Danny Norbury, Jason Corder (Offthesky), Renèe Margraff (Pillowdiver), Clem Leek, Fabio Orsi, all artists I truly admire and respect and having big times with them, because they really are sweet chaps. I couldn’t ask for more. I also had the pleasure to know people like Ian M Hazeldine, Orla Wren and Jonathan Lees. My own performance was a mixed feeling of pain and happiness: I was so scared of playing in such a seminal place for music as Cafe Oto. After years of purchasing stuff from Touch, after reading that name so many times, knowing I had to perform there played a scary trick to me. Then I finally played my set and it all flew away, maybe a little faster than I meant. People were totally silent while listening to my music and I felt very privileged for their attention. It was really a magical experience. Anyway, if there should be only one Home Normal release I had to choose for my desert island days, that one would surely be Fires by Le Lendemain (homen007, 2009). I totally love Danny Norbury’s cello.
You recently said: “When you get older and maybe more conscious about things, you realize that silent and quiet things are louder than the rest.” How do you translate these insights into sound?
I really translate all this into quieter things. Into turning off all the electronic and amplified things, sitting on a chair, strumming a string of a classical guitar and listening to all the sonic world in there. In recent times my meditation master, who was a Jesuit father, sadly passed away. One of the exercises he taught us was to silence our mind for inner peace. Even if they make no sound, have you ever noticed how loud and noisy thoughts can be?