Distant Histories: An Interview With Rosso Polare

There are so many layers and corridors on Rosso Polare’s new album, Bocca D’Ombra, to get lost within, but I keep returning to the ancient tendrils twisting through each layer. Cesare Lopopolo and Anna Vezzosi tap into something primal, taking listeners on a time-traveling journey. Even though this music feels from another era, the compositional and construction techniques are modern and forward-thinking. These combinations push us deeper into the world they’ve created and invite us to explore the winding avenues of sound. – BR

[Editor’s Note: This interview was initially conducted by Andra Nikolayi as part of putting together press materials for Bocca D’Ombra, but when I read it, I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to publish it.]

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What do you mean exactly when you say one is from the city and the other from the countryside? It would be interesting to know the exact region just because you talk a lot about mythology and specific folk traditions, so at least in my research, it would be super interesting to know maybe what are the types of instruments/melodies/specific folklore that influenced you. It would also be interesting to list some animal and plant species native to the region. 

Anna: I grew up in Remedello, a very small town in the province of Brescia, also in Northern Italy (Lombardy). In this kind of place, there are very few opportunities to create a sense of community, especially for children, one place where you can is certainly the environment of the Catholic Church. On Sundays, I have always been forced to go to Sunday mass, where obviously there were choral songs accompanied by organs and guitars, alternating with litanies, practices, and prayers. They were very boring, and for the whole duration of the mass, I was always estranged in thoughts, perceiving everything that happened as an ambient and continuous sound in which different sounds interpenetrated. After the mass, the dialogue of the people who stopped to talk outside the church was incredible, with the children screaming, almost as if it were a liberation. My musical roots are found almost only on these occasions, in addition to the summer evenings in which the pop music of the fair rides – small amusement parks – is alternated with traditional dance evenings for the elderly, who still dance the dances of the mid-1900s. In my house, we listened to very little music; the sound of TV was more present, with its theme songs, advertisements, and soundtracks. I did not particularly appreciate the noises in the house, almost consciously placed to keep company. I spent most of my time outside, in the garden or fields, with my dogs and cats. In this campaign, corn is grown a lot, alternating with months in which wild herbs are grown to rest the soil. It goes without saying that they have become perfect places to play battles or hide very often. Very often, there are fruit trees such as figs, apricots, or, a staple in my garden, jujube trees and hazelnuts. In the fields, the most frequent are poplars or nettle brambles. The elderberries are among my favorites, along with the bushes of piracanta (which you almost always find as a decoration of the villages). Wild animals are very rare, but the most emblematic image you can have of these areas is that of a gray heron that appears on the banks of ditches or in the middle of a foggy field. Other birds, such as blackbirds, sparrows, or finches, describe the fauna of everyday life. Small spontaneous flowers such as the common Veronica (called “Madonna’s eyes”), daisies, or dandelions are the flowers that are seen the most, the perfect symbol of simplicity.

Cesare: I’m a native of Milano, the region’s biggest city (Lombardy). Besides that, it’s also the more industrial-advanced one and has more of a cityscape -instead of the surrounding countryside- from a landscape point of view. It’s a city with a strong cultural and historical tradition (i.e., Milano has suffered the Black Plague heavily) and is culturally comparable to Paris here in Italy. The town itself hasn’t got so much of a signature music folklore, if not in the vernacular tradition of the 1800s and on, which is something I’m not very close to except for the political part of it (which stems from the Mondine Chants that didn’t originate from Lombardy in the first place).

What I’m fairly linked on is maybe the Lute tradition and repertoire of 1500, Francesco da Milano, among others. Other influences can be found in the traditional folklore of the north of Italy, characterized by pipes and flutes, but more than that, the folk tradition of the Mediterranean side, as well as drumming rhythms from the south, generally speaking.

On that note, learning about your specific relation to this environment would be really interesting. Anna – How would you describe the landscape you grew up in? What was the soundscape like? How did that influence your way of approaching sound and music? 

Cesare – Same for you in regards to the cityscape. Also, I would be curious to know when you first started making music and what the catalyst was.

Anna: If we wanted to have a visual reference, the closest would be the film The Seasons by Franco Piavoli. Listening to music has never been cultivated in my family, except through popular radios where music was transmitted, and that for me – an introverted from birth – was not in the least shared or understood. The high point of this culture was when my brother started studying piano. However, while he was the sort of home’s musician, I was considered the artist (because I drew a lot). I never understood if I liked these labels or not, but when relatives came to our house, my brother had his live piano performance time, and I didn’t. I have always felt it as a lack. I am sure that from then on, all the occasions when I have come into contact with music and sounds have influenced me in some way: from playing the piano randomly and repetitively thinking to myself I was building original melodies to hitting poles and trees with a stick, walking in the fields around the house with my dogs and cats and suddenly finding blackbirds, herons or crows as the only presences in an empty, foggy and silent landscape. There is a stretch of road in the field next to my house that has determined a sort of gestural and musical ritual for the whole course of my life, between the poplars, the oaks, and the crop rotation in the field itself (from corn to raw Earth). As I have already said, I spent a lot of time outside my home, finding a very peaceful and quiet environment. Perhaps my friends and I were the most obvious source of noise in my small neighborhood. This is why I am not naturally inclined to listen to complicated compositions, and I appreciate more the natural and almost elementary sounds.

Cesare: I grew up pretty much immersed in the city all the time. Milano is a fatiguing place to live. Everything has to be earned. Nothing is gifted, and a strong commitment is needed to pursue more or less anything. The environment I grew up in, visually, was primarily made of concrete, predictably, and the soundscape was what most cities share: cars, honks, construction noises, sporadical chirps, crowds and crowds, sirens, and such. 

I started to gain interest in music not very soon. I was 12 and curious about classic rock songs: The Beatles, The Who, Black Sabbath, and Roxy Music. That interest sparked a sort of imitative process in my head: I wanted to make something similar to what I was listening to, so I started piano lessons but ended up hating the thing. After a few years, I decided that that was it and asked my parents for guitar lessons. This changed everything and opened up completely new possibilities: I was pretty much all of my free time from school trying to figure out how to record on my mom’s computer in the titanic quest of creating something comparable to rock anthems by myself.

I think the concept of dark ecology could be interesting to use, but at the same time, it feels like a very specialist and kind of hard-to-grasp philosophy. Instead of just quotes, I would be more interested to hear your own thoughts as it relates to your music-making process. I think people are usually way too lazy to dig into high philosophical concepts, but it’s good to have as a reference for those who might be intrigued by it and want to delve deeper. 

If we were to gather in a sentence our ideas of dark ecology, what we’d find very interesting is the etymological relation of the term weirdness, which, as Morton notes, casts back to the old Norse and can signify, among others, “destiny” or “magical power,” which is also the definition of the term “Mana,” which is one of our tracks. Coexistence and interdependence, on the other hand, are definitions we use in a factual translation: our process from the improvisation part up to the studio collage and construction is very aware of its surroundings and tries to make every element coexist with another. It’s not just a theoretical process in nature.

For us, it also means accepting and understanding that we no longer need to have control over everything, even at a musical level. Listening to field recording is the foundation of this: the world exists even without our presence, and creating something that includes it is our way of communicating respect and freedom. 

As if music were a language to communicate with what already exists.

Also, as interesting as dark ecology is, do you consider that the main conceptual focus of the album? If so, I would spend more time finding parallels between that and your own work. For example, where is the title coming from? Is that in reference to something, or did you come up with that term to explain your own process?

The title isn’t correlated to dark ecology, but our practice is partially. Our album names are firstly all based on phonetic binomials: we started with Lettere Animali, which, apart from the theoretical stuff on it, had a very musical sound and could be misidentified as a single word. That became sort of a tradition and led to Cani Lenti (also tributing artist Franco Vaccari’s homonymous work) and continued with Bocca D’ombra. Translating roughly in “Mouth of Shadows,” title-wise, it’s more of a statement of our feelings towards the present and the album’s sonic signature, which is pronouncedly more narrative in its style and twisted in the structure. Nonetheless, it’s also a quiet reference to dark ecology in being shadowy and dark in some ways, as the name of the theory suggests.

Morton’s thoughts are not the main focus of the album but are mostly a good base to start a conversation on our approach. (We will shed more light on the following answer.)

I also feel like there are a lot of beginnings of ideas, for example, the beasts that gave us lessons part, which sound really poetic and interesting but at the same time are not fully developed. And I think that’s definitely something that could be his downside. For example, I worked on this one album that had very little in terms of a narrative, and the artists were really reluctant to give any more context. They were really more like, “Oh yeah, the music that should speak for itself,” but at the same time, those said they were referencing Chinese astrology and other stuff like that, but you didn’t really see it anywhere, so it just felt like a throwaway line. I think if this is really what the album is about, we should delve deeper into mythological or literary references and such. From my own Greek/Roman mythology memories, I know the concept of the psychopomp Animal that would guide humans, gods, and spirits onto the shadow realm. Is that something that could relate to your work?

Yes, the psychopomp is something we really relate to conceptually! In fact, not only in Greek/Roman mythology but also in shamanism, you have this notion of an animal conductor, which can also be the shaman itself taking another form and conducing souls into another realm and conversing with animals. Since our work is mostly based on equalizing sounds created by both human and animals, as well as blurring the lines between organized music and field recording/soundscapes, the animal itself becomes sort of a symbolic vessel that can bring you into a place that makes you forget your privileged nature of human listener. Note that we’re stating “privileged” only because we, as humans, can translate all these thoughts into a language and discuss it, something we actually don’t know about animals yet.

In this case, yes, the depiction of a new dimension is often somewhat dark and goes hand in hand with the idea of descent, but as many wrote (e.g., Gilbert Durand, Mircea Eliade), the concept of descent into darkness from a mythological point of view opens a path to a challenge, a quest of initiation which changes the state of beings and relates in a fascinating way to the image of a belly.

That should partially explain the ideas behind the more poetic lines of our notes, and of course, it can be integrated in the same stylistic way if you suggest so.

Could you tell me a bit about the process behind making the album? When did you start gathering material? Did you use field recordings from a specific region/regions and time periods? Why was that important? Since you mentioned, this album is more about sort of a universal mystery kind of approach to the natural world rather than a real topography but more of an imaginary one, was the point of your research to look for sounds that might be perceived as anonymous/universal? 

The ambient sounds from this album are mainly gathered by Anna in her countryside region near Brescia, a minor industrial city of Lombardy. As much as it might be perceived as a specific sound topography by locals, the recordings aim to convey a universal/symbolic idea in a way, as you wondered in your question, and it’s not exclusively related to the north, by the way. 

Part of the sounds come from a region in the center of Italy called Umbria. Sonic elements like the church bells and the swarm of cicadas in “Golagialla” were recorded there, somewhere near Assisi, which by the way, was the homeland of Francesco D’Assisi, a famous monk who, coincidently enough, assumed he could talk to animals.

We started to collect material right after Lettere Animali in the following summer. The idea was to make something that could be driven by field recording as a narrative focus and characterize the tracks leaving the traditional instrumentation after the landscape’s sonic signature.

Once we have an idea based on this, we try to resonate with the soundscape, starting to sort out which instruments might fit and experimenting with them. Then comes a part of deep listening and improvisation within what’s already been sketched. After that, we start to edit and mix, and it involves a decisional process in order to serve the track as best as possible.

What sort of instruments did you use on the album? Not so much in terms of a gearhead, but maybe just to give readers and listeners an idea of the types of materials that were used in creating your specific textures.

The instruments are classic tools like electric and acoustic guitars (which are prepared in the Avantgarde sense), a series of monophonic synths as well as traditional horns, flutes (pipes similar to the Greek Aulos), Tenor recorder, electromagnetic sensors, as well as branches, rocks, nuts, carob shakers, tambourines from the southern tradition, bird calls, voices and audio manipulation of sorts.

How did you come across the concept of dark ecology? Was this something you have been interested in for a while? Are there other theoretical/literary/musical influences that you might say have been shaping your work?

Anna: While finishing my Master’s Degree in Photography, I got deep into the link between the invention of cinema and the animal subject, the whole period in which photography was not just photography but tended towards something else, mainly projection. I obviously started with analyzing the Lascaux caves up to the chronophotography of Muybridge. For me, it was very interesting to observe how the animal was at the basis of the evolution of man’s language of movement, both as a subject and as an evolution of the instrumentation itself (think, for example, of Marey’s photographic rifle or the shutter for Muybridge). The animal is the body that contains a soul, a spirit that therefore generates movement and, consequently, sound. Yet the first films were silent. There is a very deep magical character in this period of photography and pre-cinema, and at the same time, something truly concrete and banal. One of the notions that struck me most is that the first production houses sometimes had a real zoo available for the animals needed in the films, and being nearby the shooting scene, a set of noises during the filming process could be heard.

Other works that certainly influenced me are Kafka’s tales, especially Der Bau, in which the thoughts of an underground animal are given voice.

Cesare: Influences for me are always difficult to call out because I tend to absorb media and art of all sorts in a very bulimic way. 

Something I’ve become very fond of recently is the roots of magical thinking, you know, mostly studies on archetypes by Gilbert Durand and Gaston Bachelard (the idea of movement associated with the animal subject and then to the descent into a shadowy world) which eventually led me to Ouspensky and Tarots symbology, as well as Jung’s concept of synchronicity that pretty much sums up a good part of this: 

«circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection» 

That’s what I apply mostly to improvisation and serves as the foundation of any technique I deploy artistically. Magical thinking, by the way, has always had somewhat of an ineffable quality, and that’s what makes it fascinating for me: a practice that has to do with mystery and can’t be explained fully in words, as it wouldn’t be the practice itself otherwise.

Musically speaking, I really like ancient music, and I’m shaped by it sometimes. Currently, I’m caught up on reconstructions of ancient Greek music for Aulos, which is a sort of double pipe flute, but I can’t also deny my love for the theoretical ideas of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, which was created in the 80s – The Guitar Craft, an academy and a practice for -no only- guitar and wrote beautiful, poetic aphorisms (e. g. “Music is the cup which holds the wine of silence”)

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