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Nicola Ratti is a multifaceted musician and sound designer who has been active for years in various experimental fields. His sound production creates systems that take shape through repetition and expansion, paying particular attention to the construction of environments that relate to the space and architecture in which we live and that balance the emotional and perceptual orientations to which we have become accustomed. Catch him at Sonica Festival in Ljubljana and an Out.Fest event in Barreiro soon.

“I’ve been dealing with sound as material for many years now. I’ve been releasing records and playing live since 2004, lately my works range from performing arts, theatre and moving images, intersecting collaborations with artists which like me are facing the difficulties of modern times.” is how you introduce yourself on your website. Your multifaceted career spans 20 years. How do you look back at these two decades?

I’m feeling old, ahaha…A lot has happened, a lot has changed, too, but I’m happy to see that music, with its different shapes and purposes, is still present in my life. It has also been interesting to witness how my artistic production, as if it were an element detached from me, has evolved over the years, sometimes ageing but always remaining so near and dear. When I say detached, I mean that there is a moment when what you have produced literally detaches itself from a kind of private sphere. If we’re talking about records, for example, this happens the moment the record is released; it’s as if it takes on life for others and no longer belongs to you. From that moment on, I no longer listen to it, not out  of principle, but because I don’t I feel the need to, and so I like to observe it as an autonomous object passing through other people’s ears. And yes, the “difficulties of modern times”, such as living in a capitalist dimension devoted to constant personal performance and productivity, have not changed either. On the contrary, they have worsened now that we are increasingly inserted into in a collective and socially shared dimension that clearly destroys human dignity and freedom, which sometimes alters the perception of who you are and what you do in this world, making you feel completely useless.

Do you feel that artistic work has become harder or easier as you’ve aged and as times and technologies have changed?

Actually, in 20 years nothing has changed so radically, for example, I began producing music by recording it in a digital domain, maybe with less and cheaper equipment, but in general I’ve never had access to a large amount of equipment. That was a fundamental element of my training because I’ve always had the habit of and interest in trying to make the most of the equipment I had available, with the aim of obtaining a variety of sounds that I liked or found satisfying.

Having said that, the evolution of production possibilities related to sound and music, especially at the software and consumer levels, has certainly allowed more and more people, though not all of them, to access new technologies, representing social progress and the expansion of a global artistic production. I am not only referring to the question of numbers, but also to the area of diffusion. Times have changed, yes; the so-called experimental music scene has become something different from when I started. It’s now much more permeated by a lot of other issues that concern society as a whole and therefore the music scene as well. I am referring, for example, to the necessary change of pace in terms of inclusiveness and geographical background, which is ongoing. I also observe with interest a transition, perhaps a return, to a more traditional instrumentation, to a musical dimension not only linked to soloism but extended to an almost traditional band dimension.

I also observe with interest the hybridisation of genres, where what we used to call experimental music is sometimes permeated with “pop” music. I don’t want to abuse the term “fluidity”, but it is certainly an interesting characteristic of these years in terms of musical production, too. I also appreciate the radicality of artistic choices that are luminous in their clarity and constancy and that delimit a recognisable personal artistic identity. However, I observe with less interest the tendency towards aestheticisation when I perceive it as a detachment between the shell and the content, both in terms of quality and of meaning. In general, I believe that what we do should be able to speak for itself, if it has something to say, without needing an introduction, explanation or explicit affiliation to a specific field.

Which aspects of your work do you most enjoy?

The surprise of discovering a sound that enchants me. The possibility of getting lost in the complexity of the sound events, whether created or already existing, that we are fortunate enough to witness every day. And the possibility, through a concert, a show or a sound installation, to share with other people a moment placed in a “unique present” and in a specific place, sometimes for a limited period of time. Above all, it is this characteristic of “being totally in the present” that excites me. The possibility of producing something that is not only designed for a human audience has also interested me a lot lately.

Last summer, as part of the Campobase festival, I made a sound installation called CIMA, which consisted of a 30-minute composition broadcast from the top of a bell tower overlooking the valley below. It was accompanied by a light installation by Andrea Sanson, which was also placed inside the bell tower and pointed towards the landscape. The installation was scheduled to start at dusk every day for a week. Being a fairly isolated place, there was only a real audience on a few days (such as the opening or the weekend), but it wasn’t until I experienced an activation myself as an audience member that I realised that the installation had its meaning primarily as a work not “in” the landscape but “for” the landscape. As if the absence of people gave this event a free space in which the landscape itself could become a spectator.

The opportunity to travel for concerts or shows is another feature of this job that I have always liked. Freedom of movement is a privilege that many people take for granted; being a white man with a random, safe Western passport guarantees you the possibility to move that many other people who do the same things I do, or any other thing to make a decent living possible, do not have access to, and that is awful.

“I believe sound is a presence able to inhabit, shape and characterize our context and, as it has always been, will survive ourselves.” Is another quote from your website. Could you elaborate? 

As sensitive beings, we have learnt to inhabit the context in which we exist on the basis of our perceptions; sound has the ability to illuminate, to make our surroundings “visible and viable”. Making music means being able to model this fluid in which we are immersed, conveying part of it towards an area dedicated purely to listening, it is then up to each of us, as listeners, to attribute meaning and emotion to this experience.

However, sound is an autonomous element and is only sometimes linked to anthropic activity. The sound world has existed since before the first living organism appeared on planet earth; a silence of humanity has existed and will exist again. In the same way, it relaxes me to think of a sound world detached from a human dimension, and to think that the music we have produced since it became possible to fix it to a support can somehow remain unheard by us but potentially audible to others, be they organisms or minerals.

How important is architecture to your work? 

I believe that the issue, consciously or not, concerns everyone who has to deal with the diffusion of a single sound within a certain space, be it a building or a forest. The sound-space relationship is so direct and immediate that it would be possible to discuss its characteristics simply by experiencing it, without “knowing” it.

I am seduced by the possibility of distributing sounds in a place according to intuitive principles, and to be able to correct one’s intuitions by direct experience is a privilege that is not often granted to you in the field of live music. I’m a big fan of the eccentric arrangement of sounds in space, of wrong reflections, always looking for that surprise I was talking about before. Theatre, for example, is one of those areas where it is possible to experiment with sound much more than in live music contexts, especially because you are required to use sound to create spaces and events and not just to produce tracks.

You’ve been a professor of sound design at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts since March last year. What are the most important aspects of this discipline that you convey to your students? (Sound Design).

For me it is a brand new and beautiful experience. You know, since there is no manual for designing sound spaces (this is my discipline), we start by trying to increase attention to listening to the context in which we live, and I still believe that that is perhaps the most important part of what I can share with other people about my artistic journey.

Do you feel your academic work influences your artistic practice, and vice-versa?

Very simply and banally I can say that you never stop learning 🙂

You were also involved in Standards, an artist-run centre focused on sound and space in Milan between 2015 and 2022. Are you involved in any other community-focused initiatives at the moment?

Standards was a part of my recent life that nourished me and introduced me to shared practices of organising and creating cultural events based on sound and music. I was already organising concerts before that experience, and even today, now that Standards is closed, I organise sound performances or concerts occasionally and only as a curator. The legacy of that experience is certainly very present in what I do alone or with some of the people who shared those years with me. A new shared experience has started in the last few weeks with a few of them; it is a cultural and editorial production and planning platform called LL, which at the moment has a very free character and is not tied to any specific spaces or economic needs.

What are your current projects? 

I am currently responding to this interview from the cafe of the Comédie Francaise in Paris where I’m working these weeks on the music and sounds for the theatre show Macbeth by Silvia Costa, an Italian director and performer with whom I’ve been happily collaborating for some time now. The show debuts on March 26th and will remain on the bill until July 20th. Then, I’m waiting for the release of the album of a new music project, a trio called What We Do When In Silence, consisting of Alessandra Novaga, Enrico Malatesta and myself, which will see the light of day next month on Holidays Records. I’ve just finished my solo album. I hadn’t made one since 2019, as I’d decided to dedicate time to collaborative projects, but it was time to produce one on my own. The title is already very explanatory, it’s called Automatic Popular Music and I’m looking forward to seeing it out in the world.

Meanwhile, the other collaborative projects are still very active and, although silent, are still hatching new developments. First and foremost is the duo with Giuseppe Ielasi Bellows, then the duo with Ma NR/MA and the sound and performative research project with Enrico Malatesta and Attila Faravelli, recently rebooted with the name Superpaesaggio. 

Interview Lucia Udvardyova
Photo Gabor Nemerov

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