The Music of Giancarlo Toniutti –
A four part serial conversation between 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.
The following interview with Giancarlo Toniutti was conducted in June 2011 in hopes of providing some context through which his sound art may be introduced and appreciated. As with all permanent works of art, continued engagement yields continued reward.
Aram Yardumian – First, regardless of how I may have characterized your work historically in the introduction, how would you sum up your mission as an artist/musician at the present time?
Giancarlo Toniutti – It is difficult to question one’s own “mission” because of various reasons. The point is that evolution, which of course still has to do with the notion of improving the fitness of the species, but also the singular “abilities” of each individual is always going on and is part of the goal. If this seems to be quite a bit ambitious or haughty, maybe, I understand the problem. But if we have to speak about a goal, we should also better specify the field, before specifying the “mission”. Limiting the idea of “mission” to “making music”, if there is any mission, or goal, this has to be included in a general idea of what an “artist/musician” is within a culture or a society. Given somehow for granted some of the definitions like culture, artist, purpose and so on, I can only mention that my idea of what I do (and maybe why) is functional to the idea of evolution of “culture”, and in a way a very general anthropologic idea of culture, which has to do with humankind and phylogenesis as well, This function is related to a certain idea of purpose, as I cannot see my sound working as devoted to just entertain anyone or even supply any sentimental journey, as much as I cannot see the second law of thermodynamics as entertaining, for example, or the Yenisey river as entertaining…. Of course the question is more complex than that, but maybe I gave you a hint…
AY – What are the most important basic thematic lines a listener should follow?
GT – Do you mean in musical terms? Or not only. In musical terms my issue with working with a sonic reality is anyhow to work with its morphology. I could mention from René Thom’s book, Structural Stability and Morphogenesis, a quote which, as general as it is, well applies to my idea of what making music is (for me): «One of the central problems studied by mankind is the problem of the succession of forms». So my “program” and my problem has always to do with forms, morphologies and how they interact, relate, generate, collapse, change, modulate, oscillate etc. From this basic program many levels should follow the fact that sounds are the core to the generation of music forms, the respect of their generative “natures” is fundamental to my working with them. That’s something I could call the “rights of sounds”, which has not to do with a “naturalistic” idea (representational or figurative) of the sonic phenomena, neither an impressionistic one, but with their rights to be treated according to their own morphological and morphogenetic dynamic features and fields. And in this sense one of my main ideas is what I can call “the accident as a necessity” (to paraphrase a lecture by Luigi Nono “the error as a necessity”), given the fact that the instability of micro-structural patterns has such a relevance in my construction of music. It is for this that the study of anthropology, morphology, acoustics (and more) are inevitably the rudiments for me. Then each work tries to investigate a specific question, from a certain quality of sounds, a certain quality of forms and their relations, a certain structural activity and so on (from macro- to microstructural questions). We could go into details for each work, if you like. But then we should also walk outside the musical field and into “sciences” -anthropology for example…
AY – You began reading René Thom in 1983. It seems apparent to me that his Singularity Theory provided a structural basis for “Metánárkosis” and “La Mutazione”, et al; as well his work as a topologist may have informed some of your more recent work. But I suspect his influence is more pervasive than I have detected. How would you characterize it?
GT – It is correct to say that René Thom’s theoretical approach to reality, his program of studies, as explained from his book “Structural Stability and Morphogenesis” on, has been very important for me to develop the fundamental tools to observe reality, which music is part of. His influence has been much more important from “epigènesi” on, in a way, as the previous works had more to do with a more elementary treatment of the sonic structures, from simple linear interactions, to surface modulations etc. Of course this doesn’t mean that I have closed my research within his system only, or that his system and theoretical approach is the only possible one. I find it a great investigative and generative system, but it is one of the many possibilities we have to investigate reality and as time goes on I have developed and improved my knowledges of other systems as well, which have become beneficially complementary to my work. Certainly he’s been and still is very important to the way I look into the complexity of things. It is a fact that complexity too often is taken as a problem more than a resource. But as long as we are aware of how reality works, we cannot help but recognize that what we deal with is only a limited part of the whole mechanics implied in a system, and that systems are porous, elastic and in constant mutation. Theoretical questions in general seem to me to be fundamental to our praxis, despite an always increasing anti-intellectual mood. To ask why and how things are the way they seem to be, and if they can be different, is as important as the practical choices we employ.
The Tree, La Mutazione (1985)
AY – Apart from your early interests in Schnitzler, Schulze, Brian Eno, et al, are you consciously aware of any specifically musical interests on the material you are creating now? Regardless of influence, what if anything do you listen to these days?
GT – Certainly I am still influenced, on some level, by what I listen to. And what I read as well. Positively or negatively said. And by attraction as well as reaction to what’s going on in the field or fields of music nowadays. Of course the great formative influences usually appear at the beginning of a “career”, when we are closer to an open system. But I have been constantly trying to inform my sound-working through what I can listen to, on certain levels. There always is a chance given to my ears, and mind, to learn a bit more about things. It is about forms, as said above, and as such it is about finding forms in things we perceive. All form dynamics help understanding forms. Certainly now I tend to somehow filter more than before what I listen to. It doesn’t mean I listen less than before or that before I was less radical than I am now. It’s not to do with that. I keep being interested in things because of their values and structural qualities, more than what I can simply judge as “what I like” which is a pervasive yet vagrant and arbitrary quality of things. But there is somehow a kind of professional by-product, which influences the way I listen … Anyway I listen to a certain “limited range” perhaps, in the eyes of many, if we think music as divided in genres,which I do not. I mainly listen to electroacoustic or avantgarde or experimental, or whatever the name, musics, with my ideas of them. I can listen to other things of course, but that’s mainly done as a research work. I am not omnivorous at all. That said, I also listen with great interest to non-western musics, especially from areas I am interested in (like Siberia or the Caucasus e.g., to name a few). I have learned a lot from these cultures, how they can structure music and sounds, how they relate to them etc., which can be very different from our ideas of it all, and this is always quite relevant to me, both in theoretical and operative terms.
AY – Barring some buried found vocal snips on “The Tree”, the human voice plays no role whatsoever in your music. Have you no aesthetic interest in it, or do you find its semantic values too specific to find a place in your work?
GT – Yes, basically the human voice has no part in my sound materials. I have used it a bit in the past – early days, before becoming progressively aware of the fact that our (acoustic and neural) physiology treats human voice differently from the other sounds. It is somehow impossible, or very rarely possible, to use voice along with other sonic phenomena, and not being mainly attracted by it, or not treating it separately. This has to do exactly with the fact that our perception system has developed to select voice out of the general sonic environment of reality, as we need semantically listening to it, more than we do for other sonic events. Its place in human evolution, language, vocal signals and so on, has taken such a large amount of space (also neural), that it is impossible to avoid being influenced or affected by it. It is impossible, or nearly so, to really abstract and move it on another level of perception. What music does is to abstract the sonic quality of a phenomenon and create complex relations between such sonic qualities. But this abstraction means we have to forget the representational levels of its original source, or at least put it in a lesser degree of perceptual cognition. This could be clear, I think, when we speak of sounds from a natural source e.g. When, as a composer, I am recording the sound of a creaking tree bent by wind, I am interested in that specific creaking sound, and not in its representational image (the iconic idea of the sound of the tree, bent by wind). But this is true and maybe even stronger, as an example with sounds from any musical instrument, like a viola, e.g. When listening to a viola playing a certain tune, we don’t have to concentrate our attention on the fact that we listen to strings attached to a wooden body and struck by a bow made of hair etc. But actually that is exactly what we are listening to. Should we stop at the “concrete” realm we would remain attached to that “idea” of sound and are unable to make the “music” experience. With voice this abstraction is much more difficult if not almost impossible to me. And that’s why it doesn’t work into my idea of music. Of course voice used to convey a narrative code is another question and I can enjoy this in other approaches to musics.