Climbing Mount Analogue
Discussing some major cult records from the Italian experimental underground of the 1970s and 1980s
In 2009, the Italian city of Ancona hosted the very first edition of a series of local cultural initiatives celebrating the glory days of the Italian synth manufacturing industry. This first installment, managed by independent music collective Acusmatiq Matme, would later become the casting stone of something bigger, a place for everybody to experience the history of the people and companies behind some of Italy’s most sought-after synth modules: the “Museo Del Synth Marchigiano”.
A dedicated place for anybody interested in celebrating the achievements of companies such as Farfisa, Elka, CRB and Eko was much needed. Most of these companies reached their peak between the 1950s and the 1990s and met either one of two ends: some of them have gone under years ago, while those who managed to stay afloat ended up ditching instrument production in favour of more lucrative markets. The fact that most of their synth modules were produced in very low quantities didn’t help either. Just to give you an idea of how incredibly rare some of these pieces are: one of the companies I mentioned before, CRB, was responsible for creating two modules called Uranus 1 and Uranus 2. As of 2021, there are a grand total of 2 (!) units left of the original Uranus 2 and one of these is owned by the museum. On the other hand, the Uranus 1 has seemingly vanished into thin air, there’s nothing left of it besides a couple of photos - also owned by the museum.
Despite the scarcity of their production catalogue, Italian synthesizers were still synonymous with high-quality, top-of-the-line manufacturing, attention to detail and dedication: when compared to most of their counterparts around Europe, it’s safe to say that you were getting quality for a fair price. What’s even more interesting is, the same thing can be said about the music that musicians playing these modules made between the 1970s and the 1980s. At the time, the Italian underground was rife with amateur productions spread to all ends of the world through DIY methods. We’ll be discussing some of them in the following paragraphs. Included is also a very interesting contribution by fellow Substack writer and mind-numbing frequencies and soothing ambience aficionado Stephan Kunze (Zen Sounds).
In 1978, Italian pop music mogul Franco Battiato started a joint collaboration with Cramps Records, founded by Gianni Sassi in the early 70s and now mostly remembered for its role in giving artists such as Area and Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza – don’t make me say that again – a seat at the table of the progressive and avantgarde music movement. Chances are anyone born and raised in Italy will know of Battiato’s work, especially of his sophomore album called La Voce Del Padrone: an album that managed to go from effectively changing the landscape of Italian music production thanks to the extended use of synthesizers on each track on the record to growing into a bona fide classic of Italian “cantautorato”.
The inherently experimental nature that album – and to a lesser extent L’Era Del Cinghiale Bianco – is not without cause though: while Battiato may have had his breakthrough writing catchy smash hits for the charts – trust me though, they’re not as ear-grating as you may think – his roots lay in the more experimental side of progressive music, best exemplified by his output in the early 70s - no but, really: one of his early albums is a 2-track LP consisting of the same 4 piano chords played ad nauseam for almost as long as play time on an LP allows. And he won awards with it. It hardly gets more experimental – and maybe even pointlessly avantgarde – than that! This tendency towards musical experimentation is something he never quite gave up on and the series of albums he produced for Cramps Records are a prime example of such resilience.
A series of three records was released under his supervision – all authored by friends and collaborators of his by the way. It starts with Motore Immobile by Giusto Pio – longtime friend and collaborator of Battiato himself, then it’s the turn of I Fiori del Sole by Michele Fedrigotti and Danilo Lorenzini… and then came Prati Bagnati Del Monte Analogo by Raul Lovisoni and Francesco Messina. Now, I may come off as a schmuck and my musical gobbledygook may bore you to death but get this: YOU NEED TO GIVE THIS RECORD A LISTEN!
From a conceptual standpoint, the record itself is meant to be seen as the continuation of an unfinished book titled “Le Mont Analogue” by René Daumal and it is the only record of this whole Battiato-led tryptic that managed to gain some form of cult status among experimental music aficionados. That’s not without cause either: the music itself is magical. The album starts out with a 23-minute-long monolith written by Francesco Messina consisting of a sequence of soothing synth leads and piano chords whose ability to turn the listener’s experience into a full-fledged cathartic daydream is its primary achievement. Messina later manages to also give the song more depth through the addition of a third, reverb-drenched synthesizer that creates a more hypnotic feeling by playing the same sequence of descending notes over and over. Then come “Hula Om” which, along with “Amon Ra”, makes up the B side of this album. As opposed to the song that gives the album its title, both songs were written by Lovisoni and are significantly shorter compared to it, clocking in at respectively 9 and 11 minutes of length. The former features extensive harp work, while the latter consists of an ethereal mix of crystal glasses and hypnotic vocals.
‘Prati Bagnati Del Monte Analogo’ is seen by many as one of a handful of experimental records to gain cult status over the years, and for how I see it such reputation is more than deserved. The cathartic energy emanating from the grooves of this album, paired with the thoughtful use of synths and traditional instrumentation by Messina and Lovisoni, makes the inherently dream-like atmosphere of this record unique in its own way.
Out of all the Italian experimental music projects that I can think of, it’s safe to say that this is the oddest one out of this whole bunch and if you’ve managed to briefly skim through this article, you’ll probably be able to attest that THAT can say a lot about the music we’re going to discuss.
Futuro Antico is the brainchild of Italian experimental music moguls Walter Maioli, one of the trailblazers of so-called ‘world music’ in the Old Continent, and Riccardo Sinigaglia. The name it was given, conceived by Maioli during his decade-long stint in the Italian experimental music collective that he helped creating in the 1970s, the seminal Aktuala, couldn’t be more fitting: as a description of what the listener is subjected to for the entire duration of this then-self-released cassette, it is spot-on. The addition of Gabin Damiré to the line-up resulted in the creation of a musical project solely dedicated to the quest for a harmonious merger between the Old and the New in musical form and that’s by no means an accident. The goal of Futuro Antico as a musical entity had always been very clear: knowledge, or as it’s been outline in the liner notes of the Black Sweat Records reissue of their 1990 album ‘Dai Primitivi All’Elettronica’:
“The development of technology and electronics has enabled the construction of devices with the most diverse functions, from sound and image generators to information systems using symbolic logic. At the same time, the importance gained by the aerospace industry effectively turned a considerable increase in aerial and satellite communications into something possible. The immediate contact with different cultures and the acknowledgement of peoples whose systems of life and thought differ from the original models have brought vital universes that interact and transform each other together.
The main purpose of Futuro Antico is the acknowledgement, the study and the dissemination of these cultural realities and the search for an expressive unity through the most diverse media that we know of. From ethnomusicology to electronic music, from theatre to audiovisual systems.”
But how did they manage to achieve such a genre-bending sound? Well, get this: they paired the eeriest-sounding synth-led sections that Maioli and Sinigaglia could provide – as far as I know they used an EMS Synthi A, somewhat popularized by acts such as Pink Floyd and Jean Michael-Jarre, among other modules – with the exotic textures resulting from Damiré’s inventive use of wind instruments and percussions such as marimbas, the Arabian ney, literal bones and many more. The resulting work is astounding to say the very least and it stands as a monolith to the band’s leftfield take on experimental music and musicological research as a whole.
Out of the 4 tracks that we’re presented with, I can’t personally pick one to recommend. They’re all very unique in their own way. Are you looking for something more soothing and melodic? If that’s the case, then ‘Uata Aka’ is the one to go with. Are you interested in something more atonal and ethereal? Then ‘Ao – Ao’ and the title track are more fitting, while ‘Schirak’ might just do it for you if you’re . If I was you though, I wouldn’t consider skipping even a single second of this album, it’s just that good.
© 2023 Lorenzo Simonini
I first discovered “La Mutazione” through an old interview with Olivia Block. The composer recounted moving to Chicago in the late 1990s and putting up an ad in a local underground paper, looking for musicians to play with. As one of her musical influences, she mentioned a certain “Toniutti”. Apparently, Jim O’Rourke answered the ad, calling Block from the studio, and without properly introducing himself just asked a single question: “Giancarlo or Massimo?” Block laughingly answered: “You know who Giancarlo Toniutti is?”
Apparently, Block told that story again in an article in The Wire, which got referenced by experimental artist Dania Shihab in her First Floor column a few years ago. And whenever I happen to stumble across a certain musical reference multiple times, I tend to take this as a lead from the universe to actually dive in. Which is what I did, resulting in a certain obsession with “La Mutazione” for several weeks. I still regularly go back to that piece.
The Toniutti brothers, those two Italian composers that Block and O’Rourke were bonding over, were both pretty active participants in the vibrant noise tape underground of the 1980s. Born and raised in Udine, Northeastern Italy, Giancarlo started working on free musical improvisations as early as 1978, releasing his first cassette in 1980, taking cues from industrial groups like Nurse With Wound, 1970s Kosmische, and artists like Conrad Schnitzler. Studying electronic music in Venice from 1982 to 1985, he learned about the history of electroacoustic music and musique concrète, and incorporated these influences into his post-industrial sound collages. Toniutti self-released three tapes during that period that are now, in the Youtube age, widely accessible to anyone who actually cares (the best one, in my humble opinion, is called “Metánárkósis”).
Toniutti’s first vinyl LP was published by the UK industrial label Broken Flag in 1985: “La Mutazione”, produced as a home recording in the two previous years, contains two side-long pieces, “The Tree” and “Nekrose”, that could be roughly classified as dark ambient or dark industrial, and combined analog synths, bass modulations, loads of static, processed voices and mystical field recordings. When Oren Ambarchi, the musician and curator of the influential Black Truffle label, reissued the record in 2015, it found new popularity with a younger crowd interested in weird experimental music from the 1980s underground. A near mint copy of the original 1985 vinyl is currently on sale for a whopping 3.000 Euros on Discogs.
“La Mutazione” indeed is a fascinatingly unsettling piece, reminding me of UK industrial groups from that era, like Coil and Zoviet France, but I can clearly hear the prominent Kosmische influence as well. I think someone like Evian Christ might have listened to this when composing his underrated “Duga-3” piece. Personally, I love to play this kind of music as a backdrop in my home office – weirdly enough, I find it to be much more nerve-calming and creativity-inducing than any type of blissful ambient-by-the-numbers that you’ll find on corresponding streaming playlists.
Toniutti issued a brief note with the original album. While that artistic mission statement is not exactly helpful in understanding the music better, it still gives a bit of a glimpse into Toniutti’s thought process when creating these early experimental compositions:
"In every event the tension to the disaster adds to itself new conscience. Before the disaster the environmental cauterization, as exposure of such an event's evolution. And in the cauterization the final event, the last mimesis, the last remaining still human act (the mutation)”.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze
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