interview with Stefano Isidoro Bianchi

for Blow Up magazine, June 2005

SIB: Paul, I know Richard has a career as a teacher and contemporary classical composer but I know very little about what you did before you joined him for FURT. Can you tell me?

PO: Richard and I formed FURT in 1986 shortly after I finished college, when I was only 21 years old and R was 26. So FURT has really been the cornerstone of my musical activity more or less from the start. This isn’t quite true for Richard who, as you say, has also (vigorously!) pursued writing instrumental music in parallel to FURT. My other main musical activity these days is the BARK! trio with Rex Casswell and Phillip Marks, which you know all about.

RB: I know that’s not a question for me, but I should point out I’m neither a teacher nor a “classical” composer! The word “classical” for me implies a different kind of relationship with Western art-music history from the one I actually have. Although of course I’m often writing music for “classical” musicians, those compositions are really more closely related to what FURT does (which presumably nobody would call “classical”) than they are to what the composers of the past were doing, and for that matter what most living composers are doing as well.

SIB: FURT seems to be the perfect conjunction between improvised and structured music. But how can we say that improvised music has no structure, at least in the player’s mind? I mean, nothing can ever be really improvised; the player has something in mind (a structure?), at least during the moments that divide the thought from the action... Shouldn’t the difference be between “scored” music and “non-scored” music?

RB: FURT is not so much a “conjunction” between improvised and structured music, but a situation in which this distinction has no meaning. In any case, the distinction would be more precisely phrased in terms of music which is structured before or during the performance, to which FURT’s answer is: both.

PO: Some people’s way of relating improvisation to composition seems to be to regard composed structures as “ordered”, and improvised ones as somehow “disordered”. But that’s wrong. One kind of structuring is arrived at through reflection, planning, and more or less precise coordination; the other through (apparently) “intuitive”, spontaneous activity. But I see absolutely no reason to imagine that one way produces music that is necessarily more “structured” than the other. (Human brains cause it all in each case, after all.) In fact, in FURT we often compose things to achieve a degree of disorder that might be hard to achieve through “pure” improvisation. The kind of music we want to make requires us to consciously engage with both approaches - and in particular with the ways in which they “interfere” with one another.

RB: The presence or absence of a score is a secondary issue - plenty of electroacoustic compositions, for example, are far more “structured” than notated pieces could ever be, but still have no score.

PO: I’d also like to say - at this time when people seem so keen to theorise about improv practice - that, for FURT, how sound-forms are arrived at is also only of secondary importance. What matters to us most is what music is heard in the end. Music only really comes alive in the active minds of listeners. And we employ both compositional and improvisational methodologies to try to enable that to happen.

SIB: The “classical” Academy has never really accepted electronic music, even if many composers like Stockhausen or Xenakis seem to be well accepted. In other arts - and I think of painting, or sculpture, or literature - every avant-garde novelty has been accepted as a step forward, but in music it seems that there has been a break between “high” and “low” music, and no natural lineage has been recognised from classical to “new music”. Do you think that’s true, and if you do, why has it happened?

RB: Personally I don’t think that’s true, since, on the one hand, there exists in the musical world (simultaneously!) every shade of transition between “classical” and “new” music, and, on the other, literature (for example) is on the whole more conservative than music, in so far as the traces of the innovations of Joyce, Beckett, Schwitters and so on are hardly to be seen in most contemporary writing, which is still concerned with simplistic narratives (or is consigned to even greater obscurity than is contemporary composition). The break between “high” and “low” music consists in how electronic technology has been adopted - in the former case it has affected composition on a deep structural level (think for example of Stockhausen’s vocal/instrumental work) but not so much in terms of production modalities (people still write symphonies and string quartets), while in the latter case the situation is reversed: amplification and electronic instruments are used as a matter of course, but “song” structures remain essentially the same as they have been for hundreds of years. Both “sides of the equation” could learn from one another in these respects, a process in which FURT of course is taking part.

SIB: I agree with you, but when I say “Academy” I mean those places and people that take money from the establishment (La Scala in Milan etc), and they still go on presenting music no less than a century old. Nothing that came after Schoenberg is ever played, nothing electronic. You couldn’t say the same for literature, or painting, or sculpture, where every 20th century innovation and avant-garde movement has been accepted in the universities and venues have exhibitions that “recognise” 20th century art. When I was at university I studied Joyce, Beckett, Celine, even Thomas Bernhard - a really “contemporary” and “difficult” writer. At the same time, my friends who studied painting had courses on Picasso and Bacon. The ones who studied music were still stuck firmly at the end of 18th century, and learnt just a few notions about dodecaphony and serialism, and nothing on electronic music. This is what I meant.

PO: Well, there is surely something in that - although, for the record, La Scala Milan did give the first performances of three of Stockhausen’s Licht operas (all with extensive electronics) back in the 1980s.

RB: And don’t forget that during the many years when electronic music required a great deal of specialist knowledge and expensive equipment, most of it was actually made in academic institutions! Apart from that, though, I’d also say that the permeation of electronic technology into the way we hear and think about music at every level (beginning with recording) is such a fundamental shift that it isn’t surprising that more conservative institutions haven’t caught up with it yet, especially maybe in Italy where music education is particularly focused on traditional skills. All the writers we’ve mentioned were still writing books and the painters still using oil on canvas, while Pierre Schaeffer was doing a more fundamentally different thing from his predecessors. I mention Schaeffer because he is very clear in his theoretical writings that the new technology requires radically different skills for which conventional musical training is completely inadequate.

PO: Aside from which, Stefano’s examples go some way to demonstrating how different art forms actually function in different ways in this society. My own view is that radical music may well have become the most “difficult” - but only in the sense that much of it is less easily mis-taken to be some kind of “decoration” or “amusement” - an adornment to the world we live in - than, say, much radical painting. And, over and above how art music developed in the 20th century, that probably also has something to do with how music penetrates the body and has to be “endured” - in a way that looking at a painting, or even reading a book, does not. What is so “difficult” about unfamiliar music could in part simply be this sensual potency, the rest of “our” culture encouraging people to be troubled by it partly for that reason. Art music is difficult also in the sense that it is harder for business people to make profits from than visual art, and many of these problems of “accessibility” flow directly from that.

SIB: How do you two divide the tasks, if you do, when you play?

RB: We don’t...

PO: ...because there really is only one (admittedly complex) task to speak of. Our technical setup at the moment comprises our two MIDI keyboards operating three computers so that two laptops are operated from each keyboard. So there is a degree of independence in the playing, but also a structural/technical degree of integration as well. In quite a few senses FURT is one instrument, as well as one player - a soloist with one instrument but two brains.

SIB: Interesting. This means that the two brains must have a strong connection, otherwise no one would understand anything.

RB: I think the music itself creates that connection (otherwise you’d have to invoke telepathy or some other doubtful concept).

PO: But then we did feel a strong connection even before we had ever made any music together. Some things are hard to explain... One interesting thing that happens in FURT is that complex phenomena that may take us years to develop can eventually become completely intuitive, “subconscious” almost, allowing FURT’s “consciousness” to move on to new areas. Very little is ever jettisoned; it does all just seem to accumulate.

SIB: What about the first FURT release, Live In Amsterdam 1994? I’ve just ordered it from CDeMUSIC but it has not yet arrived, so I don’t know it.

RB: That was our first CD but we’d actually brought out quite a few things on cassette before that, and some of these earlier recordings will eventually come out again (with improved sound!) on our own label, once we get that off the ground.

SIB: angel was dedicated to Luigi Nono. What’s the tie you feel with him, and how did you work for that CD? Wasn’t it the music for an installation?

PO: No, it was actually the first piece we ever made specifically for CD release. JdK released angel after the label that asked us for it originally got cold feet after hearing it. Nono was an inspiration - over and above the musical qualities of his work - because of his lifelong adherence to the cause of revolutionary socialism, of course.

RB: But also because he was a socialist composer whose revolutionary political commitment was reflected in a revolutionary (rather than social-realist) approach to music and the technology of music, even and especially in his late works, whose radical opposition to the reduction in attention-span foisted on us by the commercial media constitutes a “call to arms” for human intelligence, sensuality and concentration, which is every bit as urgent as the more overt messages of his 1960s music.

SIB: So do you think that the cause of revolutionary socialism can be served by such a “difficult” instrument as contemporary music? Don’t you think that this way the “message” will arrive only to the few who listen to it? What about the “education” of the masses? They are still in the grip of mass culture, reality shows, stupid pop music etc - and no message from Nono has ever reached them. No one knows him. Isn’t it an elitist message?

PO: We have to start somewhere. We cannot be paralysed by the (conservative) idea that we are somehow “more elitist” than, say, Berlusconi and his wonderful popular media. Under the circumstances, maybe that’s a good thing. RAI talks in a language everyone thinks they can understand - but it is telling us lies!

RB: There are quite a few important questions here, many of which we are still struggling with. Maybe we shouldn’t assume that contemporary music is somehow “difficult”. We’ve never found it difficult, and I think the main reason was that nobody ever told us it was. The idea that some cultural phenomena are “too difficult for the masses” plays into the hands of those who benefit and profit from the avalanche of cheap and stultifying manifestations that you mention.

PO: Yes. If you judge these things by mass cultural habits then the same art has become noticeably more “difficult” just within our lifetimes.

RB: So we begin instead with the idea that people aren’t stupid but are constantly treated as if they were, in order to keep them content and pacified, and to prevent people from asking all those obvious questions like why all that poverty, all those weapons, all that torture and mass-murder and oppression and lies, and then exercising their numerical and economic strength in order to start changing those things. The “message” of most commercial music and media is very clear: spend money, be passively entertained and don’t ask questions. So we have to set ourselves and our music against those tendencies. We also have to try and keep finding our way through the ever-changing minefield which is placed in our way. We aren’t in the same situation as Nono, for example, and therefore our approach is different from his, but nevertheless he was trying harder and more sincerely than most of his contemporaries to find a fusion between radical political commitment and radical musical ideas. It’s a mistake to think that music (of any kind) can be conceived as a tool in spreading revolutionary ideas. Whether or not it becomes used in such a way depends on the political movement itself, rather than on individual musicians, and, at this point in history, revolutionary tendencies in the world are somewhat fragmented and incoherent (although decreasingly so) and therefore it’s not yet clear what role music might play in it, nor what kind of music. Our music is oriented towards the potential of the human imagination, which surely can’t be described as an elitist “message”. The limited opportunities we have, to present our work to a limited public, are the product of tendencies which it’s beyond the power of music as such to address, because these tendencies are just one symptom of the much more widespread phenomenon of capitalism. As musicians our work is making music, but as socialists our activism has to be much wider than that. Nevertheless it would be dishonest, not to mention difficult, to try to effect some kind of separation between musical and political activity. Keeping “politics out of music” is in itself a political stance, and a reactionary one.

PO: Well said. But of course we struggle with the contradictions, as Stefano suggests... So while we were once both politically active together in the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, in the early 1990s, the tension between musical and political commitments was both problematic and constant. Living in such a contradictory society doesn't really afford us the luxury of anything else.

SIB: defekt is probably your most “diverse” release, because every track has its own story. Plint, apart from being a tribute to Boehmer, has many resemblances to Cage’s works for prepared piano; ULTIMATUM is dedicated to Stockhausen. What’s the meaning of this connection you keep on making with other contemporary composers? Do you feel you are on the same composing line, at least as some of them?

PO: I suppose so. Although most musical categorisation (“lines”) make me a bit suspicious, I must say. For instance, I’d like to think we follow Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton in the same kind of way too. Stockhausen and Cage were both involved in improvisational as well as compositional music-making for years of course - and Stockhausen’s music, in particular, made a big impression on both of us when we were still pretty young. Just recently we performed our new piece OMNIVM for the first time, which is a piece specifically designed to have Xenakis’s Polytope de Cluny played between its two halves, as it did in this performance. So, yes - with Xenakis in particular - the connection is pretty deep for FURT.

RB: I don’t think Plint has anything to do with Cage apart from the presence of prepared piano sounds, since they’re used in a completely different way from anything he would have done in so far as Plint is music of dramatic confrontations between them, of multilayered textures, of audible thought-evolutions, none of which are characteristic of Cage. Composers like Stockhausen, Xenakis and Nono, however, and also (for example) Roland Kayn, Hans-Joachim Hespos, Ákos Rózmann and Ivo Malec have certainly inspired our work since its beginnings, not particularly because they’re “composers” but because their approach to music has various important points of contact with ours - not in terms of procedure but in terms of the music as it’s heard (by us).

SIB: I’m not a music expert. I never studied it. I never played an instrument. Do you think it is impossible for me to write about music? I ask this because to my ears listening to Plint IS similar to listening to Cage’s prepared piano works. Does writing about music have to be about the “inside” processes of composition and playing, or the final result as the ears hear it? I mean, as far as I know no one is busy trying to discover what kind of paintbrush, or tinges, or colour mix Picasso used for Guernica, but look at the final result, at the meaning of the painting. Don’t you think that if we concentrate too much on the compositional techniques, or instrumental ability, we can become a little “dry”? I think the message is the result, not the techniques artists use. Music is a metaphor in itself, and its meaning is unavoidably metaphoric, allegoric...

PO: I very nearly agree. But as well as conveying “meaning”, musical sound-forms are also (physical) things in themselves – which are of considerable interest to FURT too. So I’d say it’s best to think of the sound as FURT’s “result”; and any message as the listener’s - it is in her or his mind by then, after all. On the other hand, we are writing about music here - and the “meaning” of most music is not primarily rational (ie verbal) at all. It is, again, the sound of FURT that may (or may not) generate messages, metaphors and meanings - not so much any words “about” us (or indeed by us). Our message is musical, and we want people to listen.

SIB: Your recent dead or alive CD was very well received at Blow Up. It was one of the albums of the month. This time it seems you're approaching a sort of “plunderphonic aesthetics”. It's like a furious collage of every kind of music you were thinking of, and the result is magnificent.

PO: We’re glad you liked it! Yes, we’ve been working on this fast stuff for a few years now. But it is certainly not meant to be any kind of postmodern trashcan of undigested quotations. In fact almost every sound in a FURT piece will have been more or less digested (processed, edited) before it finds its way in, and is then (more or less) integrated (or not) into some kind of “whole”.

RB: The point of “plunderphonics” seems to be that the found sounds are placed in quotation marks, so that the listener is supposed to recognise, if not their exact origin, then a sense of their cultural embeddedness, and thus their “difference” from the aesthetic intent of the music of which they form part and which is intended to be understood as “subverting” them, by removing them from their original context and placing them in one which contradicts their original (most often commercial) function. This isn’t what FURT is trying to do, although we have made excursions in that direction (most obviously in Volksmusik, on the defekt CD), and of course we are aware that sound-materials do have a “double life” (as “pure” sonic events but also as connotation). Moreover, the vast majority of the sound-materials used on dead or alive were either produced by us or were provided by others with the express intention of their becoming FURT materials. In fact, our sound-materials actually function more as instruments (a little like the extensive array of instruments that a percussionist might use, but more extensive and not predominantly percussive) and/or personalities (since each sound suggests a mode of playing and a mode of expression) than as quotations. I think this attitude is central to what distinguishes FURT from the many other improvising musicians working with sampling in various ways - our practice is based more upon a concept of instrumentalism than one of collage, which brings us closer (for example) to Evan Parker than to John Oswald.