Stefano Guzzetti: “By embracing simplicity you can embrace the complexity of life.” Interview by Innerversity Sound
Stefano Guzzetti is a composer, producer and sound designer based in Sardina, Italy. He has an ensemble that has released three albums, Home Piano Book (Volume One), Ensemble, and Leaf. He was previously an ambient electronic musician as Waves on Canvas. While not touring Stefano produces soundtracks and sound design for film, documentaries and video games.
Innerversitysound: Stefano, a bit of background first. You had a recent earlier electronic outfit called Waves on Canvas that produced electronic music that was received well enough given the scene. But nothing in comparison to the reception that your three albums with your ensemble. Can you tell us a bit about the departure from electronic music to a form of modern classical ensemble? What was the impetus for you for this break?
Stefano: Basically I had a graduation in electronic music from the conservatory in my town. I was very into electronic music and I had studied it a lot. But also from childhood I had a background in classical music because I studied organ, or an instrument with a keyboard. Then I made this Waves on Canvas project and it was very great for me and also it was a way of mine to give a rendition, or a proper tribute to what I was into when I was younger, especially 4AD stuff in the Ivo (Watts-Russell) era. But in regarding electronic music I’ve got this mixed feeling. Especially nowadays when everyone can buy a computer, a laptop and record some seagulls or birds with their smartphone and then download a version of Ableton Live, add some effects, some tweaks and then claim himself an electronic musician or a drone music musician.
One of the reasons for the change was I wanted to take a distance from all of this because now a lot of people, a lot really, are making electronic music. If you take an example of the 90’s when buying music gear was really expensive and it wasn’t something that was ready at hand for everyone, which wasn’t a good thing anyway, because in my opinion everyone should have the opportunity to say something musically. It was different, now everyone is making electronic music and to my personal subjective perception most of them sound the same. Because they are done with the same environment, the same software, a laptop and so forth. This was one of the reasons but I also just wanted to get back to simple things and try to say something musically, just for me. Interested in just a few things, natural acoustic sounds for instance, and I wanted to get back to my roots, because when I was younger I was just playing an instrument as well. So this is something that really made me decide to be just me, myself, and just work with simple natural sounds. From time to time I had some electronicia, some simple sine waves and simple elements, like little noises, but these are just things that in electronic music are considered a simple thing, a sine wave. These are things you can also find in the works of Stockhausen or Xenakis, basically in the pioneers of electronic music. So we are not talking about synthesisers or computers but more about tapes. So I just decided to change and I’m ok with this decision really.
Innerversitysound: In interviews you have mentioned a wide range of influences from industrial, indie pop, German electronic music, drum and bass, ambient, and the ethereal electronic pop of your teenage years. The early band of yours Antennah, what was the ideas that drove you and your friend Valentinno Murru?
Stefano: When I was a child I was playing the organ and when I was a teenager I discovered New Wave bands, Joy Division and that kind of stuff from about 1986. So my decision was to buy a bass, I was a bass player and we just formed this band. We just wanted to make something new, quite naïve. It was great but after about five years I just wanted to make something else and this electronic music thing in me started when I was very young I had this computer in my house and I started programming this computer to make simple sounds and to play by pressing the keys of the keyboard while I was playing the organ. So I was tweaking a home computer to make some sounds and noises and this was my very first approach to electronic music. So after I was in a band for five years, playing the bass, I felt a real need, an urgency to widen my palette of sounds so I decided to leave them and start making electronic music. From 1992 until 2006 I was making electronic music.
The last thing I did, apart from the Waves on Canvas project was a collection of remixes for Kirsten Hersch, the singer for Throwing Muses, because in a period around 2006-7 she was recording the tracks of her new album and releasing the tracks of the songs on the web. So I was just taking the vocal parts and doing the rest, a brand new arrangement with new chords, new tonal centre. Just then I was just starting to think differently about electronic music. So this is just my background, I was taught classical music, I played bass in a band but in the meantime I was still tweaking my computer at home, I embraced electronic music, but now it is like being back home again. Just being what I was when I started making music when I was a child.
Innerversitysound: So the immediate reception of At Home Piano Book (Volume One) on Home Normal was decisive in its endorsement of your new approach to music. Can you tell us a bit about this album and how the collaboration with Ian Hawgood came about?
Stefano: Basically I started making these little compositions on the piano, they were just little ideas. I sat at the piano when I had ideas and if I felt they were interesting I just recorded the scratch idea on the iPad. So then I started to compose them properly with a kind of structure and my idea was to make a collection of piano impressions, like little water colours, something like that. Nothing too serious. I sent a few of those tracks to Ian, about 5 years back and he was really into those tracks. Then we started emailing and I felt quite lucky, because when you have a label like Home Normal, which is kind of busy, there are a lot of people sending stuff, I felt lucky anyway. And then we became friends. Of course there is a mutual friendship now between the artist and the label as well. I wanted to keep that feeling of playing in a room, a very simple thing.
Innerversitysound: You are incorporating minimal electronic touches and processing. Has it receded so far into the background that it may eventually disappear? Or has the impression of the knowledge gained by exposure to these forms indelibly informed your composition of classic forms?
Stefano: There is a future release that will be out in September that is based on a work of a friend of mine who makes paintings and cartoons as well. He was living in Japan for about 9 years, he worked with Sakamoto, designed a Swatch and he made this last book about his memories in Japan. I was really inspired by his latest work because I love Japanese culture as well and then I wrote and produced this new album called Japanese Notebooks. It features some electronicia, but very subtle, there is also some in Leaf. It is just a little colour and nothing that characterises too much the overall sound. What I still like about elements that come from electronic are the sub-basses and that round warm feeling. And that is just from a simple sine wave, a regular oscillation of a wave. Yes there is still electronic music but very few and just in a very delicate measure. I am planning to use some electronic elements like arpeggios of simple waves to be a part of an arrangement in the future. I am thinking about this idea but mostly it is just acoustic music. I don’t want to be a second hand Max Richter or things like that because mostly I am still exploring and looking for a language of mine of course for otherwise it would not be very useful to be out there and be a clone of someone.
Innerversitysound: You formed an ensemble which is a change from the solitary electronic musician. It involves a good deal more interpersonal communication. How did forming this ensemble come about and can you tell us a bit about the dynamics of working with 3 other people in an ensemble has changed your practice?
Stefano: If you make electronic music for instance, you have a very immediate response to what you are doing because you are just playing sounds with a machine. You have got those sounds, just suddenly. When you score, when you write music on a score, yes you can make sounds to make a sort of pre-production of what you have in mind. But then again when you play with real players it will sound different again. So it’s really exciting and interesting because a player is not a machine and he will play differently every time and it will depend on how tired he is from his feeling of the day; a lot of variations can happen and anyway real instruments forever change. Yes the real feeling is in the score but the overall feeling of the track can change of course. This is something that fascinates me a lot because we are humans, we are faulty humans by nature so it’s great to transpose this aspect into music. We are not talking about recorded music that will sound the same every time you play it to your friends but music that will change every time and it’s great. I love this, I really need this aspect from music to be alive, in a way.
Innerversitysound: In Quiet Fracture on the Leaf album is the most sound designed piece of the recent few albums. Is this interlude kind of thing going to happen more often or was it something that just occurred in the making of the album.
Stefano: Yes, Leaf, it’s an album of that started when my father started being ill. And my father now has a very serious illness. And this illness was showing by some very strange events like from time to time he was falling but we underestimated what was happening. Quiet Fracture is about something that is very slowly starts to go, in this case it was my father, and then shows in itself completely. So there are some steps and some laughter from a few women. This is quite symbolistic about something that starts to show inside and then grows as a big laughter. Yes that album it is written, ‘from my father, to my father’ and it was a very bad time and for some reasons it still is. It’s quite personal to be honest.
Innerversitysound: In reading background material about what you do I stopped at you commenting that you had adopted a very simple attitude towards life and music generally. If you could elaborate on this turn to simplicity and its effects on the whole of what you do in life.
Stefano: Simplicity, simple things, it is a value that I make mine a lot. For instance my decision to move on from electronic music to apparently more simple music. Like the title Leaf, it is just a small green element that we see on the side of the road, in the trees, but if you move your attention to the inner structure of the leaf, in this structure you see a lot of little path roads and this is a clear symptom that simplicity shows us a different world if you take the right pathways and if you approach simplicity with the right attitude. I have been doing Zen meditation for about 10 years in my life so I am really attached to a simple approach to life which is not a basic approach. It is just simple because then by embracing simplicity you can embrace the complexity of life as well. So it is something very connected. Like for instance when I was making electronic music I had complexity at hand very easy because of sounds, because of all those electronic elaborations on sounds as well. But to me it wasn’t that interesting anymore. But if you use just simple sounds and you give them the proper attention to the inner structure of a simple acoustic sound, it has a lot of things that change every time. Like if you struck a note on the piano and every time it will resonate differently and this is apparently a simple sound which it definitely is not. This is an example of simplicity not being simple at all. Simplicity being a great and a good example of the complexity of life itself. Because simple things to me are just the first side of the real complexity of life.
Innerversitysound: Your album Japanese Notebooks is slated for later this year. Is it completed yet, or is it still in production or in Ian Hawgood’s very long cue for mastering?
Stefano: The album is just finished, mixed and mastered. I finished it in January and I am leaving it to ‘take the dust’ for 4 to 5 months and then I will listen to it again to fix a few things with fresh ears and a fresh mind because you have to take the distance from things at a certain point. Possibly, I don’t know yet, I will ask someone to master it. I still have to decide. I usually master things myself, I am very much of a DIY person, and I really love this attitude. I do almost everything about my job; like promoting, producing, I have my own label as well, Stella Recordings, for my stuff, so it’s really important for me to have most of the things under my control. I rarely work with people, one of these ones is Ian because I really trust him, we are friends, but I really trust Ian and his approach to music. So this album is basically finished, I just have to fix a few things here and there. But that’s it really.
Innerversitysound: In terms of ambitions, or strategies when this simplicity gets a bit tricky and demanding. Have you an escape plan lined up?
Stefano: My escape plan is that I will always have to be honest with myself and correct about what I am doing at the moment. And when all of this won’t work anymore I will ask myself what is happening and if I won’t have any reply for myself, I always tell myself and to my future wife as well, maybe I will stop making music as well. I hate the idea of riding the wave of what is going on at the moment because I wouldn’t be honest to myself and mostly I would be wasting my time. Because it is not written anywhere in the sky that I have to make music. Maybe there will be a time when I just have to stop, or maybe not. I don’ know. But what I know is that my only escape is just to be honest with myself and ask myself directly what’s happening and add a proper reply, never be negative or positive. I hope positive.
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