Formalised visions and digitised humour: An interview with Mauro Lanza

Lanza newLiam Flenady, resident composer with Kupka's Piano, took some time out from getting coffees for the real musicians during our intensive with Ensemble Interface to ask Mauro Lanza - one of the featured composers for our upcoming concert - a few questions. Mauro was in the middle of a move from Paris to Berlin, in a room full of boxes, when he answered these questions. His time is greatly appreciated.

Liam Flenady: Let's start at the beginning. Or at least at the beginning of your life as composer. When did you begin composing? Were you musically active before?

Mauro Lanza: I studied piano, starting quite late (I was 11 or 12 if I remember correctly). At the same time, I started "composing" some cheap piano music. Before that, I had fun with a cassette recorder, trying to record as many sound sources as possible at the same time (radios, televisions) while torturing some homemade instruments.

LF: And where were you when all this experimentation took place and then where did you end up studying?

ML: I grew up in Venice, Italy and I studied there as well. I lived there until I was 23, then I moved to Paris to study at Ircam.

LF: I'm interested in how different composers actually write the sounds. How do you come to the music that you write? How does the writing process unfold?

ML: I would describe my process of composition (even if it’s different from one piece to another) as a continuous feedback between the reality of sound (and the reality of the objects that produce the sounds) and the abstract process of formalization. The dialogue between these two instances most of the time fits the pattern Vision -> Formalization, where the focus on an initially vague, intuitive musical idea is slowly obtained by tuning up a 'Model' (an algorithm, a computer program, or simply a strategy of writing, the machine that makes the idea). The whole process can be riddled with 'creative' errors. It can happen for example that some strategy, unfit to reproduce the original 'vision', ends up outputting something completely unexpected, yet intriguing.

LF: You wrote 'The Skin of the Onion' about 10 years ago. Is there anything that has changed in your style since then, anything you would do differently?

ML: 'The Skin' dates from a period when the use of the computer as a composition helper and as a tool for conception was gaining importance in my daily practice. As a counterpart of this 'analytical' approach I developed in the following years a growing interest in complex and unstable sound phenomena, customized instruments, cheap toy instruments and other erratically behaving objets trouvés that defy any systematization.

LF: As an Italian composer do you draw any inspiration from your predecessors (from recent or more ancient history)?

ML: I can't deny having been influenced by composers such as Sciarrino (with whom I studied) or Nono (probably the first avant-garde music I heard in my youth). But I always tried to avoid any direct reference to their work.

LF: Your piece has a strong sense of periodicity. Periodicity, loops, repetition... There is a hint of spectralism about this, but used to achieve different musical goals it seems. What is the meaning of the repetition in your music?

ML: Early spectral compositions were always dealing with continuity and slow transformations. On the contrary, this piece is an attempt to create a sort of 'digital' structure, made of discrete unities, or musical figures, 'minimal' components of the language, impermeable to what precedes them or follows them. The only way one can create continuity and coherence in such a fragmentary speech is by means of a large-scale repetitive structure in which changes can be appreciated. The succession of two different figures can then become foreseeable (because a habit was established) or constitute an innovation and a rupture. I have been working with these repetitive patterns of musical items in many other pieces after 'The Skin' (in my private vocabulary I call them 'discrete-state music').

LF: There seems to be a sense of humour in your work. Is this something conscious? Do you believe music today should be capable of laughter?

ML: "To laugh is proper to Man" wrote François Rabelais. Of course I made it consciously. It's often sick humour but it's humorous indeed and it's supposed to make you laugh. I sometimes surprised myself laughing in the past at things that were not funny at all, things that I simply liked, or that were too new, or unknown to me. It's in fact quite an intellectual reaction. While you laugh you create a distance to the object you laugh about, a distance that does not mean a lack of empathy. It's the necessary step back that you need to focus on something in order to understand it.