The Music of Giancarlo Toniutti –
A four part serial conversation with TQ’s Aram Yardumian and Italian electronic musician Giancarlo Toniutti.
This in-depth discussion is focused on Toniutti’s composition techniques, theoretical underpinnings and the role of language in the arts.
Introduction Essay by Aram Yardumian
Giancarlo Toniutti began conducting sonic experiments in late 1977 with his friend Tiziano Dominighini in a glassworks owned by Dominighini’s father. With the various tools, machines, surfaces, and sheets of glass, as well as a few traditional instruments, they began making “not exactly free music”. By this time Toniutti had discovered Conrad Schnitzler, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, et al, but found these things too easy and took little inspiration from anything but his own ideas, and a desire to create his own listening world. He soon began taking his own practice of composition more seriously. In 1980 he obtained a synthesizer and in 1982 began studies of electronic music at the Conservatory in Venice. There he was introduced to the music of Ligeti, Nono, and Xenakis. At the same time he began corresponding with Maurizio Bianchi, who helped him attain a presence in cassette culture, and with the labels who would eventually release his records. On a superficial level it is not unreasonable to characterize Toniutti’s music as a bridge between the dynamic formalism of the modern Conservatory and the claustrophobic parallel universe of early Bianchi, but this would be to pass over the living world to which his sound structures are a gateway. That Toniutti began thinking and composing as a teenager unguided by any musical lantern but his own interests is essential to an understanding of the directions his musical output have taken.
The evolution of Toniutti’s oeuvre is as fluid as the work itself. I divide its course into three phases, early, middle and late. The early work (1981-84), consisting of three cassettes of treated acoustic source material and synth sounds serve as a kind of foundation for the mid-period works for which he is best known. Each of these early tapes is a kind of phenomenological assault on lived experience—time, space, structure, poetics, being, and perception—an ascent to Seinsverständnis. On a superficial level it is not unreasonable to characterize this early phase of Toniutti’s music as a bridge between the dynamic formalism of the modern Conservatory and the claustrophobic parallel universe of Bianchi, but this would be to pass over the deep living world of his sound structures. You will find the pieces on these cassettes are remarkably structured and nuanced, and if you are prepared to listen to them again their complex evolutionary patterns will continue to unfold. The first of them, entitled Wechselwirkung (1982) is a series of mechanistic exercises whose complexity is derived from aleatory encounters of dual cyclic sonic lines which in time evolve from linear to granular motion. Metánárkosis (1983), in spite of its title, feels warmer, more organic and more spacious than its predecessor. Here, for the first time, we see Toniutti using specific asymmetric syncopations to dispense with linearity in favor of three-dimensional motion. It is as if you are listening to the secret interior sounds of complex cell growth. On each side of Das Todesantlitz (1983) there is one long synth-based piece of a more confrontation nature, both in terms of inter-structural elements with each other, and the overall structure. Increasingly complex, Toniutti with this cassette, as with Metánárkosis, seems to be settling into a multi-level approach to composition, one which he retains even as his intellectual and timbral modes expand and change with each subsequent release.
Toniutti’s mid-period works demonstrate a refined grasp on complex forms and their interactions, much as Xenakis did with “Orient-Occident III”. With La Mutazione (1985), his sole LP release for Gary Mundy’s formidable Broken Flag label, he reached what I would consider the apex of his density, velocity and saturation. This, along with the Bianchi-esque Epigènesi (1986) represent the middle phase of Toniutti’s discography, and a partial return to linearity. Dark underground streams weave for miles through the remains of buried ancient villages whose abandoned technologies speak in proto-languages to us as we pass, but soon we find we have moved only a few inches through a vast microcosmos of hypothalamic symbols. La Mutazione’s B-side track, “Nekrose”, continues this morphing abstract discourse on psychic fundamentals while also paying occasional tribute to the cosmic synth sounds of the 70s German underground. A more dedicated search for universals than in the first three cassettes, these mid-period works look to new emotional territory, especially with the mournful sounding “Ethmòs-Crivèllo”, the B-side of Epigènesi.
Nekrose, La Mutazione (1985)
These works stand in stark contrast to later works such as Tahta Tarla (1993), an LP of collaborations with English sound-artist Andrew Chalk. Here, Toniutti’s interest in anthropology and human-landscape dynamics becomes overt, even as his grammatical categories become covert. Taking geographic totems as a principle, the album’s sounds are treated field recordings relating to Warkswood, Northumberland, and Tienalauami, on the Slovenian border. The places themselves are circumscribed in the sound-work as a parallax of space/perception/memory: topology and internal morphology, reminiscent of the Psychophysics of Boas and Peirce. As with his *KO/USK- (1997), a collaboration with Siegmar Fricke, the limitations of the sound sources themselves provide a framework for the compositions, and thus the modes of transmission.
Toniutti releases and distributes his own music according to his own timetable. As a result, all his works feel fully considered and perfected. Following *KO/USK- he released very little for nearly a decade. Since 2007 there have appeared three CDs (two 3” and one full length) continuing in his mode of treated field recording explorations of complex forms, each with its own theoretical and geographic orientation. He has also contributed increasingly to print media, as well as branching into radio works and multi-media events.
Personal explorations into the sciences are the foundations of Toniutti’s music—ideas built into discourses in the halls of the Ivory Tower here receive adroit articulation in the layered soundscapes of a lone electronic musician working from his second story home studio in Udine. What is more, the attractors, knots, canalization, balances, equilibrium, Heraclitian imponderables, macro and micro structure shifts—all his hard work—may remain a technical backstage mystery without diminishing his chops. His compositions, increasingly organic as they are, give off the stench of life. Even thirty years after their creation, their stench is vital. To listen to Giancarlo Toniutti is to witness a complex metastasis of form, something evolving and growing, but like all natural life, without teleological imperatives.
 Each made in editions of less than 100, and now very difficult to obtain, these have been rereleased in their entirely as part of the 3xLP + 10” boxset entitled The Early Tapes Period, on Frank Maier’s Vinyl-on-Demand label.