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Waverly Feedback

February 29, 2008

Alessandro Bosetti is a composer and sound artist splitting his time between Baltimore, Berlin, and Milan. In November of last year, Bosetti released African Feedback with the European publishing house Errant Bodies. It’s an audio project and accompanying book that explores the response of the Dogon villagers of West Africa to Bosetti’s favorite experimental, electro-acoustic, and improvisational music along with some of his own compositions.

The CDs he brought to Mali and Burkina Faso included works by Henry Chopin, Robert Ashley, and Keiji Haino. While villagers listened to the CDs, Bosetti recorded their responses: the stories they told to describe what they were hearing, their imitative vocalizations, and even their silences. After returning to Europe, Bosetti edited the music and the responses together into a strangely mesmerizing work, like Alan Lomax turned musique concrète composer. Portions of African Feedback can be heard through Bosetti’s web site.

This Saturday, at the Red Room at Normals Books and Records, Bosetti performs another of his projects, Mask Mirror–a collaboration with Berlin composer Christian Kesten. Mask Mirror is an experiment with language, using an interactive software program written by Bosetti. The performance is a conversation of sorts: Through sounds, pitches, and syntactic prompts, Mask Mirror speaks, issuing unexpected sentences and posing questions to which the performers respond.

Noise recently caught up with Bosetti for the lowdown on his various projects, including one that could be called Waverly Feedback.

City Paper: Recently you did a show at 2640 Space at St. John’s Church. How did the audience respond to African Feedback? What was their reaction?

Alessandro Bosetti: I think there is a lot of curiosity. It changes a lot. What is really interesting to me is, I think, there are a lot of things that are really ironic, in the project, in the responses.

CP: The response of audiences?

AB: Yeah, it is interesting to me how different audiences take this irony in different ways. The audience in Baltimore seemed very serious about it. There are, in the piece, video projections and collages from the spoken feedback–so you can read what the people said. There is a whole number of very random stories. Like someone, listening to an electronic music piece, says: “There are three people there, in the hospital. One has a wound in the foot. One has a wound in the hand. The other is wounded in his arm. The one with the wound in his foot is going to die, and he dies.”

There is a lot [that is] very surreal, when this person is describing what they are hearing. It’s funny, very funny. I have some audiences that are laughing a lot. Other audiences are very concentrated and very serious about it. In a certain way, I think the Baltimore audience is very serious about it. Very interested in it and asking me a lot of serious questions about it.

CP: What was your response to those sort of stories?

AB: My thought? I thought they were funny! At the same time, they were very plain, too. People down there [in West Africa], they are not very fancy. It was not like, “Oh, I see something really weird.” It was like, “Oh. I see that.” Even when it was something supernatural or that [seemed] weird from my perspective, the way they perceived it was always very normal. Their religion [is] animism, in different forms, in the two villages where I was. They have a connection with the supernatural. This is daily. So, a lot of the answers were really, really far out from our perception, but for them it was totally normal to say, “Oh, here is that spirit, doing this and that.”

Dogon people, if you tell them Americans [have gone to] the moon, they say, ‘Dogon people have been on the moon much before that.’ So, there is this lack of surprise [in their] sentiments. They are told in a very, very, very plain way and in a quiet way.

CP: In another interview, when describing the project, you said: “It was a process of arriving in Africa with many expectations and projections.” Then you said you became freaked out. After coming back to Europe, you said you were unable to draw conclusions. So, when starting out to Africa, what were the expectations and projections you already had in your mind?

AB: Actually, I don’t know. The way I went there was like trying to go outside the usual circuit of experimental music where I have been traveling a lot. I was thinking, Well, I can tour very far away from my country, and this music takes me far away. But then I realize I always play for a certain demographic of people. Even if I go to Japan. The same kind of scene, if you want.

Therefore I really wanted to go out from this. The first thing that came to my mind was Africa, in a very random sort of fashion. I didn’t have many expectations in terms of what the people I was interviewing should have told me. I remember–this would be the problem–they had expectations of me. Like, “This guy, what is he? He is an anthropologist? A journalist? What does he want? I try to give him what he wants.” So, they tried to ask me, “What do you want?” And I was like, “I don’t know what I want.” In that sense, I had less expectation for them.

On the other side, I think what really turned me upside down was that I was going there . . . I brought my favorite experimental music records and stuff. So, I had this compilation of my favorite things, my favorite records. Or what I believed were my favorite records. In the process of editing this music, listened to in a completely different context, something really deep happened to me. It is hard to put into words, but, for sure, my relation to my background kind of changed.

CP: You had a quote in another interview, about learning after doing this [African Feedback] you didn’t have to go that far away to find a space that was outside of the Western paradigm.

AB: Yeah, yeah. This is the other thing. Going to Africa was the first thing that came to my mind. But why not just go around the corner and make [this]? To make a Baltimore example, like the Red Room is a venue for experimental music which is in a neighborhood where most of the people have really no idea what this music is. So, it could just be going around the corner from the Red Room and saying, “Hey, listen to that.” It could be as far out from the world of experimental music, the world of Western experimentation, as you want.

I could have been doing it in Berlin, where I was living. I could have been doing it in Italy, where I am from. Many, many places. My fantasy, my first impression was, “Oh, I have to go Africa for that.”

CP: Having said that you could go around the corner, to Greenmount Avenue, and do that, do you think it would have had the same effect that doing it in Africa seems to have had? On you, personally?

AB: No, of course not. But the other thing is, a question is, what is the effect this had in Africa? It didn’t have just one effect. This is totally different, this project, [than] anthropological research. I came back and I could not draw conclusions about it. People ask me what the reactions were, and [I say], “Oh, there were many reactions.” I can find some common traits, but what is fun about the project is you go meet a lot of people and, [when] you end, you feel more confused than in the beginning.

Actually, with Ian Nagoski of the True Vine Record Shop, I asked him the same question. I was making an interview with him for a French magazine. I asked him: Why is the Red Room, which is in a 90 percent black neighborhood, [when] you go there it’s 99 percent white? He was like, “Well, we should go around there and ask people.”

So, we will do that, next Monday, and start going around and asking people. Just around, next door, and try to confront them with that. See what they think. No special project about it–just personal curiosity, you know?

CP: There was another quote I came across that I thought was really interesting. You were describing African Feedback, I think on your publisher’s web site, and you described it as “some kind of a big mirror, eventually becoming a mask.” So, I was wondering if that view of the project directly ties into what you are doing now with Mask Mirror performances?

AB: Yeah, there is something to do with it, for sure. There are a lot of other projects like African Feedback. There is a lot of mirroring projects–giving my stuff to other people and having it translated. So, in a certain way, there is this metaphor of mirroring yourself in the others–in another culture or another context.

Then, I remember writing down a note some time ago. It was: “Try to build a mask that has nothing to do with anything.” At the same time, I started thinking I would like to be able to build a sampler, like a software that organizes speech. Which is Mask Mirror, in a way. This kind of applies to this note. This is the first time in a long time that I [am doing] a project that isn’t about something. It is just about the aboutness of being about. It could be about everything.

CP: What does a Mask Mirror performance consist of?

AB: The idea is this software organizes samples of spoken language. It is like a speaking machine, like a speaking robot if you want. It is still rudimentary. I am starting off with this, and [as] I am building, it gets complicated and more complicated. The idea is that this robot which has my voice, for the moment, kind of interacts with me or other people who are playing. [It] will, with me and Christian, be interacting with both of us. It’s a robot, in terms of it being a computer, and you hear its voice.

CP: So, it interacts by vocalizing?

AB: Yeah, it speaks. You hear the voice. He has my voice, and it is like a vocal synthesizer and a sampler.

CP: What triggers a response?

AB: For now, I can play it with a keyboard. I can determine the syntax of phrases. For example, I can tell it that I want a verb or I want a conjunction, an adverb, a question, or something a little more complicated, like sentences. It also reacts to certain pitches and sound. Still, as much as it is controlled by me, I can [only] control him partially. I can tell him to emit a phrase about that or just do this certain syntactic structure.

There is a lot [that comes] out by chance. Also, the way the humans have to speak with it is not by chance. It triggers a lot of reactions and associations.

CP: Is this multilingual?

AB: For now it’s English. I would like to have it multilingual.

CP: When you do this, do you ever let the audience participate with it? Or, have you thought of doing anything interactive on that level?

AB: Yeah, yeah. I think there will be a lot of improvisation, probably. I don’t know yet. It’s a very new thing.