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.
Aram Yardumian – Throughout your entire career, there seems to be a search for common or fundamental dynamics in the human psyche. More recently you come to this as pre-cultural habitus. But to trace this to the source, surely there must be some recourse to symbols as C.G. Jung describes them.
Giancarlo Toniutti -Well, it’s not about Jung. Even though we can consider the recourse to some idea of archetype as (relatively) viable, actually what I am working with, my idea of what’s behind our surface has to do with the notion, though not absolutist, of something like the so-called universals. You are absolutely right when you say that my search is about fundamental dynamics behind human psyche and behaviour. My idea of search is exactly outside, but not against, the acquired (habitual) codes, at least favouring a re-examination of these common codes, and the same idea of common codes. Actually what any avantgarde has done, even though it’s been done in the footsteps of history (nothing can be done outside history), has been to break with the previous codes. This break, which can be more or less programmatic, is at the same time the gain and the problem of all “discoveries”. It is a gain because it can open new or different points of view on a reality or a view on an unseen reality, but it can also create “background” troubles because the previous shared codes are no longer active and there is always a period of unshared codes where things and their value (their signification) is less clear and less perceivable under common terms. But it’s something you cannot avoid, just by relying on tradition or conservatism. History works and what you always get is knowledge, which is the foundation of reality. I am not necessarily speaking of a rational knowledge. In fact, this problem of irrationality in the arts is a false problem and a relic of Romanticism. The fundamental question is that reality mechanisms are perceived through our perception systems and how (and how much) we are our perception systems. Symbols are not the point at this level. I mean of course we all rely on symbols, as part of our abstract thinking and relating. But falling back onto symbols only as a way to discover a deeper reality is just a way to escape it. Its “material side” is much more complex than we can think of and I believe there still is plenty of space to be investigated that any need to escape from it is just a way to cut it short and be somehow comforted by some assured (short-circuited) “truth”. No truth with the big T is out there. A large part of what we do is to work with doubts (unstable systems), and any doubt is necessarily the reality we live by.
AY – Space, or lack thereof, seems to have played an important role in your work from the beginning. Even prior to reading Thom the directions of individual pieces were minutely topographical. More recently, there seems to be a center-periphery perspective—the view from South India, the Caucasus, and elsewhere—using sounds from the periphery to reference an ostensible core. It reminds me of something V.S. Naipaul wrote about in his essay “Our Universal Civilization.”
GT – Well it’s very correct to say that space is central to my work. I treat sounds only as phenomena in a space. There is no sound if there is no space to it. I recently discovered a statement by Giacinto Scelsi (even though his view might be different from mine on certain topics) which fits well the question. He says (from his autobiographical book “the dream 101”, my translation): «the sound needs a vital space in proportion to itself to be able to resonate, vibrate and carry out its creative power». In this sense, be it dense or rare, space is never detached from sound. Or vice versa. That’s why it is important for me not to work with any electronic or artificial reverberation system, and this is why I am always recording my sounds each time in a specific space, I regard as relevant to the sonic needs I have. But then you touch a different point when you speak of the centre-periphery question. I must say that I totally disagree with Naipaul’s idea about his concept of “universal civilization”. He seems to point at one civilization as being the universal one, while I never believed that there can be one civilization which is better representing the relationship between man and nature (to say) or which is more apt to convey evolution, than others. On the contrary, my interest in marginal cultures is exactly to investigate and try to demonstrate that all cultures in the world do have tried to systematize their relationship with nature (with reality), and each one of these systems being one of the equally possible valuable ways of relationship. Naipaul’s view involves a hierarchy between centre and periphery, where my idea is not hierarchical at all. There is a relation or more than one between centre and edge, one that has been explained by Thom with his notion of catastrophe sets (at the border of systems the activity is greater due to a minor density and greater discontinuities) on one hand, or by Milford Wolpoff with his concept of centre and edge (the variation being greater at the centre due to major quantity of gene flow and greater interrelations). So my interest in marginal cultures has nothing to do with a hierarchy or with any notion of a superior civilization, but on the contrary with an abundance of qualitative “specimens” in variety. Variety is the question we have to deal with, or as it is so often called, biodiversity. One of my goals is to give notice of this also through my activities.
Qwalsamtimtukw?italuc’ik (And Now He Almost Did Make Himself Into Hemlock Needles, It Is Said)
AY – Émile Benveniste remarked that speech acts constitute discourse space, creating a speaker, a location, and a moment of utterance that are utterly unique and always changing. What are your opinions on this?
GT – I think that in Benveniste’s view there is a failure in that he seems to underestimate the role of the listener. Without a listener no speech act has any function and probably would disappear (from evolution) as too much energy consuming for the organism. So if there is to be a speech act, a discourse space etc. there must be both a speaker and a listener. In this sense, relating to music or any other sonic activity, sound is there if and only if there is a space to it, both meant as its resonating space and its listening space. So it looks like the old chicken and egg question: who comes first. The problem is how we define a chicken and an egg. If chicken is what we see and define as chicken today, and the same for eggs, which one comes first is then irrelevant (even though to me chicken comes first…). The real point is the categories with which we arrange reality. And through which we systematize it. The uniqueness idea in Benveniste’s view, anyway, is reasonably considered as a cognition space, as it always is unique and it is a (as C.H. Waddington would say) homeorhetic system. As such it’s always changing. The important point we have to consider is the relation. Meanings exist in relation, not in their absolute state. In a relation something can be taken as blue or white or loud or weak, because in relation we compare and in comparison we categorize. These categories shape (in some form) our reality. Of course also in this case we might come back to the chicken and egg question. Is our conceptualization of reality shaping our perception or our perception systems (their audible, visible etc. physiological frequency ranges) shaping our conceptualization of reality? In my view, this is an epigenetic problem, a question of interrelated systems growing up and developing into a constant process.Maybe the rudimentary chicken comes first, but provided with rudimentary eggs…
AY – Has the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis had any influence on your techniques or overall outlook?
GT – As stated above I do not think that language strictly shapes our perception of reality (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) or reality shapes our language systems. Both views are partly acceptable and both are limited. Of course the debate is not only linked to this question but also to a possible “pyramid” view of reality (societies, cultures etc.). In any case I am basically not in full agreement with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as I regard it a limited view of the problem, even though their contribution to the debate was great at the time. If we certainly understand reality with the aid of words (and linguistic concepts), we must say that our understanding is not exactly the same as the narration of it. So we certainly narrate reality through words, languages and thus a certain amount of differences do arise from each language’s specificity. But what we understand is comprehended through many levels includinglanguage. It is interesting perhaps to notice and analyze this problem viewing how deaf-born people do understand reality (starting from an absence of language, as we mean it). And it is interesting to notice that they elaborate a “language” (several kinds of sign languages) which has the same diversity from spoken languages as it has from non-verbal ones. In this sense, so, language is certainly a tool and such a profound one that influences a lot of what we do, but language is not the only tool we have and as such we come in contact with reality through the many possible tools available to us. This general question certainly had an influence on my own work. We cut reality through our categories, and that’s certainly part of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but these categories are not strictly dependent only on language structures. On one hand Sapir and Whorf opened a way to look at language diversity in a non-hierarchical way, which is an important issue concerning all cultures. No culture is underdeveloped or backward. Each culture has developed one way to relate to reality and each one is valid. We must not compare cultures, because it is not a competition to find which one is best. The point is which question do we pose to a culture to see if it’s able “enough” to respond adequately to that question. But the usual questions (technology, economy, education etc.) are very stupid ones and quite useless because they respond to our western needs and parameters. And even if we think we are in a globalized world today, this was the same (on other levels) also in the past, the very distant one. Usually we are quite short-sighted and ego-centred about differences between present and past, between here and there, between us and them and above all about dualism in general.
AY – Your use of micro-, macro-, and meso-structures again has a certain appeal to Jung, as well as to Swedenborg, Novalis, and others who traversed the depths of their own unconscious. Do you think your layered compositional methods have any spiritual significance?
GT – Starting from the question: apart from the fact that we should define this concept of “spiritual significance”, if I take it in its traditional sense, my work has no spiritual significance. There is no spiritual research or spiritual whatsoever. I say this in relation to your mention of people like Novalis and Swedenborg which are really very distant from my way of thinking. I have no romantic background, theoretically and practically. I think it is not necessary here to go into details over a debate for or against Romanticism. But what is sure for me is that reality, I mean the material reality has so many layers and possibilities that any “spiritual” level (provided there might be one, which as you guess I strongly doubt) is absolutely unnecessary to try to understand it. And what I am interested into is this: understanding, comprehending, investigating etc. reality, of which I am part of. The inner travel, inside me for example, has a limited interest for me, if it is intended as a way to elevate myself over reality (in favour of any golden age, or paradise or whatsoever) and detach myself from it. I see this form of escapism as a problem more than a solution. I am not religious in any sense. I wouldn’t call myself materialist because I do not share the whole of those views (it’s a historical label). And because it would be difficult to label ‘materialist’, for example, someone distant from western culture like a Nganasan, or a Ket people from Siberia. I don’t mean to compare myself to them. I just say that the question is (as ever) to try and see and define the basic concepts we are working with. Labels can be useful to help (heuristically) a discussion, but they are not reality. So what is important to me is not to look into my unconscious and discover from it anything about me. What is important for me is to work through myself and see and investigate what can be more fundamental to the human kind. Not forgetting we are part of the cultures we are raised into, but certainly understanding that this culture is not the whole world. And while it is only one way to look at it, and it gives only a portion of it, the answers we get from our reality (as well as from ourselves) can only be a portion of the questions. Finding knots, relations and structural sharing between cultures (as well as individuals) is the most important fact for me. Art is a collective activity, not a single personal travel to anywhere. So my micro-, meso- and macro-structural articulations are ways, tools and categories, I employ to segment the continuity of the real, to be able to work with it. And as a consequence to understand it and conceptualize. And in the end to apply all this to reality itself as a generation process (and a function both of this generation and its imprinting articulation).