di Luisa Santacesaria e Giulia Sarno
[Experimental artist Oren Ambarchi performed at Tempo Reale Trenta in Florence on May the 20th 2017. We interviewed him when he was sound checking at Limonaia di Villa Strozzi. Photos © 2017 Giulia Sarno.]
Please tell us about your performance at Tempo Reale Trenta.
It is an improvisation. I have a particular tuning that I am working with. I’m using a lot of feedback, and I’m trying to mould the feedback into music in a way. My tuning gives the guitar a lot of overtones, so I work with these overtones and with feedback, which are totally connected. So I have sort of a framework of what I’m going to do, but how I will get from A to B, or B to C, or C to D, I never really know how that is going to happen. It depends on many things: the room, the space, my fingers, you know? If it’s working, or if it’s not working… I might switch it to something else. So it is quite open, but there is definitely a framework of what I’m doing. The gear that I am using isn’t super fancy, I mean, a lot of it is pretty basic stuff. It’s almost like I am looking for mistakes. Everything I do in a way is a mistake, or an error. An error in the equipment, that I am sort of turning into a sound palette. A lot of my sound palette is things that the pedals shouldn’t be doing. And I am trying to mould that into music. Trying to do things that sound good to me.
I would like to ask you about the meaning of Hubris, your latest album. The word hubris means challenging the Gods, a behaviour that defies the norm. This can apply to all your musical research, which switches from genre to genre. Do you feel like you pushed the limits more in this work?
Well, there is some humour in the title too. It has lots of different meanings, but for me it is almost like “Who does this guy think he is, getting all these people to play on his record!”. It’s kinda like a big ego trip that could fail miserably, you know? In a way that’s what music is, you are putting yourself out there and doing things because you have an ego, or you have an idea that you want to see through, and you want it to turn into something. But you have to have a bit of nerve to do that. So it’s playing along with this idea. And it also connected to my previous record, Quixotism, which is another concept that I think applies to people that make art as well, not being practical in life: trying to do this stuff and trying to live from it is the most unpractical thing possible, you know? But it’s idealistic, so the two concepts are connected to me, it’s like two sides of the same concept. It’s kind of a reflection on the way I live my life, but there’s humour too, it’s not totally a serious title.
There is also a very important rhythmical part in this record, which was there in your previous works, but this time it is really central.
Well, I am originally a drummer, and I still do a lot of drumming, so rhythm is integral to what I love and what I do. The last few years I have been doing a lot more gigs playing drums, for example with Keiji Haino and Jim O’Rourke, and that fuelled me to reflect on what I do as a solo artist and how to incorporate that into the abstract guitar thing. I love the sound of rhythms coexisting with abstract music. You can kind of do anything: sometimes when there is a pulse you can just do something super abstract, and the two together just fascinate me, I like that. There is also this sense of losing yourself in time, and I don’t necessarily mean just rhythmic time, but extended duration. I find, with some rhythmic music, it is really effective to sort of lose yourself from what’s going on. In the last few years I was also listening to a lot of disco and a lot of re-edit stuff: I was actually listening to an Italian track by Tullio De Piscopo, the track Primavera, it’s really great. It’s kind of disco track, but he has Don Cherry playing the trumpet, he has lots of interesting people playing on it. I have a 12 inch of it, and on the second side there is an instrumental version, and there’s two guitars, one in the left speaker and one in the right, and they are both playing this sort of picky rhythm, and I just love the sound of it. I was listening to this, and other tracks too, and I was thinking “Why can’t that be the focus of a track?” That kind of picky guitar thing. So that’s how I started Hubris, with that idea. Usually I’ll hear something in someone else’s music and it will be the smallest detail, and that’s what interests me, I want to hear it as the full front, you know? So Part 1 of Hubris has probably 50 something guitars just doing different rhythms, really picky kind of rhythms, going in and out of phase, doing different times, all mixed together, and it is influenced by that track and other tracks I was listening to a lot.
All the collaborations you have for this album: how did you choose the artists? Do you plan to keep some of these collaborations for the future?
I am always doing collaborations, it keeps it interesting for me, and fresh. For many years I made solo records, and they were really completely solo, I played everything. Now I am more interested in working with friends, bouncing ideas off other people. If I know that someone does something really exceptional… like, Arto Lindsay plays a guitar solo on this record, on the third track: originally I was doing a guitar solo and I was trying to sound like Arto Lindsay, and I thought “Why am I trying to sound like him?”, so I emailed him and sent him the track, and he said “Yeah, sure”, and he just did a guitar solo for me. So there is stuff like that, someone is really amazing at what they do, so if they are happy to do it then they can do it. But it’s also a reflection of my lifestyle, because I am always on tour, I am always travelling, and I am never in one place. I started some of the music in Australia, and then I was playing in London, and Mark Fell lives near Sheffield, he is a friend, and I knew that he would be great, so I just said “Hey, are you free next week?”, and he said “Yeah, I’m at home, come over”. So I went to his house for three days and we recorded. And then I was playing in Berlin and my friend Konrad Sprenger is there… so it just goes from one thing to another. I was playing in Japan and Jim [O’Rourke] lives in Japan… It sort of works that way, because I am just not in one spot for very long.
What is the relationship like between composition and improvisation in your works?
I definitely started off as an improviser for many years, so it’s integral in what I do. And a lot of my recordings, even if I have a particular idea of what I would like to do, usually it starts off with an improvisation, and then I start to shape it, or I might hear something in the improvisation and decide to focus on that. So the two are totally connected for me. Doing something that’s improvised in the recording or in the compositional context, just keeps it alive for me. If I am trying to do the same thing over and over again it just becomes a little stale after a while.
And what is the difference between when you are in the studio, so when you are recording something, and when you have to play it live?
Well, I don’t really do my albums live, it’s almost impossible. I do that piece Knots, from the record Audience of One, which has strings and lots of players, and I have managed to do it live a few times: it is very exciting for me to do my music in an expanded way with other players. But unfortunately there is not a budget for that normally when you get invited to do a show, so it’s just not possible. So, when I play solo it’s one thing, while the studio thing is kind of different, in a way. But it’s related in the sense that I guess when I make an album and when I do a gig, it really is one idea or trip that I wanna really investigate over like 40 minutes. I am really interested in things moving slowly and unfolding after a while, and the records do that and the live does that too, in a way.