I’ve written about sound art for Rare Candy before, both in my album review of Porya Hatami’s The Garden and my introduction to a recent sound art mixtape. However, for the sake of brevity and focus on the topic at hand, I had, up until now, avoided writing about the software that plays such a crucial role in the realm of sound art and interactive art today. Cycling ’74’s revolutionary product Max is a visual programming language that allows an artist to essentially create whatever they can dream up, so long as they can code it (well, patch it). Along with Max comes MSP, a plug-in for Max that essentially enables the software for audio use, as well as Jitter, a plug-in for Max which enables the software for video use. With this package, there is virtually no limit to what can be done. Examples include an installation where participants interact with twelve hanging beacons to create sound and light, a project that allows dancers to paint their space with LED lights attached to their thumbs, a performance where a man “plays” a beer bottle, and an audio-visual installation that explores the concept of disruption. (To find more creative uses of Max/MSP/Jitter, all one has to do is scroll through the community projects tab on the Cycling ’74 website.)
There are two basic methods of using Max to make music. You can build a patch (or program) that becomes the piece itself, built to specifically create the intended piece. Or, one can build a patch as an instrument to be used on multiple projects, similar to how an organic instrument is. Italian sound artist Franz Rosati typically chooses the latter. He has developed his own software using Max called Honegumi, which, if we are simplifying, is essentially an elaborate granular synthesizer. Granular synthesis is a method of synthesis that uses the principle of sampling (using scraps of audio that already exist) but on a much smaller scale. Instead of sampling a bass drum hit, like a DJ might do for a beat, a granular synthesizer cuts audio into samples that are only a few milliseconds long, then processes them. This form of synthesis has an interesting layer of artistic creation in that while the original audio may be borrowed, the final result is so far removed from the original that it becomes indistinguishable.
Not only is Rosati’s technological process unique, but his artistic process is as well. He believes in live performance and in interacting with a space and with an audience. For this reason, he plays his projects live, improvising a different rendition every performance; later, from recordings of those shows, he creates his albums. Ruins has more post-editing than Rosati’s previous projects however, including various field recordings and other “scraps and drafts” in the mix, but it remains very much a piece created from live performances and not solely crafted piece-by-piece in a studio. This aspect of Rosati’s work adds a valuable human component to a hyper-digital piece.
In his own description on Bandcamp, Rosati writes that Ruins “is centered on the concept of ‘ruin’ intended as what remains of a collapsed structure, in social, physical and psychic meaning”; he goes on to clarify that while debris is a “collection of wasted parts of an original object,” the ruin withstands a “transfiguration process over time, in which only the strongest parts, the basis, endure and reconfigure [themselves].” This thematic framework allows the project to explore both minimalist and maximalist extremes as it creates sonic structures that explore the concept of the ruin.
The album begins with an echoing knock that welcomes the listener into the forty-four-minute, seven-track-long, completely continuous experience to come. Although it can be difficult to convince someone to listen to more than a couple of tracks when trying out an album for the first time, be advised: Ruins is a piece of art that needs to be experienced all at once. Much like his live pieces, Rosati’s album is a fluid work; the tracks don’t even have proper names and are merely titled “01” through “07.” Unlike other music that can be enjoyed in snippets, e.g. hooks, riff, fills, guitar solos, this record’s beauty comes from its progression, its ebbs and flows, its tension and release over the course of the entire project.
As the knocking continues on the first track, the sounds get louder, adding in soft, static, rhythmic pulsing alongside digital-sounding crackles, until suddenly opening up into a broader, thicker, and more forceful soundscape. As the static becomes more intense, widening the amplitude of the waveforms to create distortion, it demands more and more of the listener's attention as the rest of the sounds fade into the background. Although this sonic story can be interpreted in different ways, for me the first portion of the track brims at the surface, as if staring upon a wreckage and seeing only its face value and none of what it used to be. As the listener gazes upon the clutter and noise, the picture starts to build until finally clicking, and the majesty of the ruin and its previous form overcomes the listener who, beginning to understand what once was there, realizes the destruction that must have taken place to render the wreckage he sees before him, his thoughts simultaneously becoming more intense and violent. This intensity leads fluidly into the rest of the album which explores similar concepts of destruction.
The cinematic quality present in Rosati’s music, using nothing but a relatively small sound palette (no traditional instruments, synths, etc. except for “06,” which we’ll get to), is not only impressive but also key to the beauty of the project. One could spend hours poring over each song, constructing a narrative, or images, or even just pure emotions from the evolution of sounds. “03” explores more in the realm of pitch and drone, “04” quiets down to minimalist crackles and what sound like granulated bell samples, and “05” keeps a constant bass pulse for most of the track as high-pitched, metallic rustling fades in and out before leading into cleaner pitches and harmonies.
The sixth track departs somewhat from the others in that Filippo Mazzei’s guitar opens the track with a hauntingly simple melody. To hear such a recognizable sonic break, and somberly sit over Rosati’s quietly crescendoing bass pulses evokes a grim, almost apocalyptic, soundscape that foreshadows more intensity. Around two minutes into the track, Rosati unleashes his loudest, noisiest, and heaviest bass pulses yet, fully obliterating any lingering serenity from the previous guitar melody. “07” carries on this sixth track’s momentum, crescendoing the noise to a deafening level of auditory overload.
Ruins has the ability to terrify, mystify, intrigue, overwhelm, or amaze its listener; its impressive technical complexity is only outmatched by its emotional complexity. Rosati has created a masterpiece from an instrument built from his own code, guided by an intricate concept. It’s very difficult to describe in words the impact that this record can have on a listener, but it’s a clear demonstration that sound art is not merely intellectual self-gratification posing as contemporary art but a form capable of immense expression.
Note: The live performances of Ruins are accompanied by a visual component that is crucial to the work, but this review focuses solely on the album, which is not accompanied by such visuals. To get a glimpse of what the live performances look like, click here or here.