In Conversation: Alessandro Cortini

Nine Inch Nails cohort turned solo composer speaks...

Alessandro Cortini is at home in Berlin, killing time before a short burst of shows in Japan. He’s been spending the time stripping down one of his guitars and painting it in a striped, all-black homage to Eddie Van Halen – perhaps something of an unlikely muse for a musician who, across a series of albums, has produced some of the most emotionally devastating instrumental music in the history of electronic composition.

The shows Cortini is setting off for, once the varnish on his guitar has dried, are to support the release of ‘VOLUME MASSIMO’, an album whose eight pieces are virtually inseparable from Emilie Elizabeth and Raki Fernandez’s accompanying images of figures with wide-angled funnel devices covering their faces. The images seem to speak of the intensity of sensory inputs we endure on a daily basis, a never-ending slew of information where the important is delivered with the same level of urgency as the quotidian and the inane, thus creating a sort of wearying data dissonance.

And yet, despite the visceral images that surround it, and in direct contrast to ‘VOLUME MASSIMO’s predecessor, ‘AVANTI’, the album does not come wrapped in some sort of thematic shroud at all. Instead, it arrives with one simple implied instruction coded into its title: these pieces need to be played LOUD.

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The title of Cortini’s 2017 album, ‘AVANTI’, translates roughly as ‘Forward’. It was something of a confusing name for an album deeply rooted in Cortini’s past, specifically his upbringing in Italy. Though its sonic textures and effortlessly evocative melodies were distinctively Cortini in their bold and often brooding presentation, the jumping-off point for ‘AVANTI’ was something more sentimental: a batch of Super-8 reels of Cortini’s family.

Throughout the record you can hear the voices of his relatives, engaged in deep discourse or just going about their business while being filmed. The effect was to lend a sort of dramatic poignancy and nostalgia to Cortini’s music, mostly crafted while experimenting with an EMS Synthi AKS, a distinctly British analogue synth response to the Moog. “The things just collided,” explains Cortini, matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t a conscious thing to sit down and figure out what was going to be the concept of the record.”

‘AVANTI’ was arguably less planned than two of his previous albums, ‘Risveglio’ and ‘Sonno’, which form a sort of pairing between them. “They were made with very little sequences that I developed and then recorded. I just did those to fall asleep on tour and cope with jet lag,” says Cortini.

His ‘Forse’ trilogy of albums released between 2013 and 2015 was similarly a relatively personal project, not necessarily intended for consumption by anyone else. “The ‘Forse’ records were basically me exploring this instrument that I’ve been researching for ages, the Buchla Music Easel,” he explains, “and that evolved into three double records of live takes of my performances.”

“I never really sit down and think what the next record’s going to be. None of these albums were born as a record, and that’s also what happened with ‘VOLUME MASSISMO’. It came together in a similar way, just with a different outcome.”

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Talking with Alessandro Cortini is like talking to an enthusiastic science professor who concedes willingly that not everything in the world can be explained by formulae and hypotheses: he talks gushingly about experimenting endlessly with vintage synth kit, yet also admits freely to allowing those instruments to go wherever they so wish, fully unheeded. He talks humbly about living entirely in the moment and his attraction to meditation, while also admitting to a certain inner restlessness and an intense need to create continually.

“I write a little bit every day, and I record everything I do,” he says. “Over time I end up collecting pieces and compositions or sonic explorations. I sort of gravitate toward playlists – you know, what goes next to another or what makes sense with something else. Sometimes the compositions are all made on the same instrument like with ‘AVANTI’ or ‘Sonno’ and ‘Risveglio’. At other times, like with ‘VOLUME MASSIMO’, it’s not necessarily coming from one instrument or one timbre, or one colour, if we’re looking at an instrument as having its own distinctive colour. After a while of putting those pieces together into a playlist, I went, ‘Oh wow, I have something that’s like a record.’”

Cortini talks about ‘VOLUME MASSIMO’ being an “open-ended sonic experience” that listeners can attach their own feelings and emotions to. “Even though the ‘AVANTI’ album and shows were very personal, with footage of my family, my mother, me as a kid and whatnot, what people resonated with was the ability of seeing themselves, and their memories, triggered by mine. It was like the frequencies that these memories resonated with for me allowed them to resonate with their own memories.”

“With ‘VOLUME MASSIMO’, I can see myself going more into that direction, in the sense that I provide a sonic and visual landscape. There is a little bit of storytelling, but the interpretation is, in the end, down to the listener or spectator. I feel like there’s plenty of room for everyone to make up their own story, either with the aid of the visuals, or just by listening to the record, and I really like that.”

With nothing but track titles to go on, the prevailing impression of ‘VOLUME MASSIMO’ is characteristically Cortini, namely incredibly direct melodies held in check by darker undercurrents. It’s something that you might attribute to his ongoing role as Trent Reznor’s live keyboard player for Nine Inch Nails, but it actually goes far, far deeper.

“I can only produce a mixture of melancholia and happiness,” he laughs. “It’s the Italian way – don’t be too happy because you know something’s going to happen. Even though I like my origins, it leads to a sort of overpowering guilt no matter what’s going on, and that just gets amplified when things are going really well.” Cortini highlights the wordplay in the album’s standout opening track ‘AMORE AMARO’ – ‘Bitter Love’ – as a case in point of that constant tension between light and dark. 

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Talking about amplified moments of guilt naturally leads us to talk about the way this album seems to come to life in an entirely different and unexpected way when played at high volumes. Achieving this with something that could be seen as ‘dark ambient’ tonalities is quite an accomplishment, Cortini’s synths taking on a rough, brittle and yet more impassioned edge when you turn it all the way up to eleven.

“I was moving around Berlin a lot when I was working on the playlist and listening to works in progress,” he recalls. “I realised that I was maxing out on the volume, and after briefly thinking about the damage that I might be causing to my ears, I also realised that I’ve never really found myself making stuff that loud before. I remember doing that as a kid – I’d push the cheap, crappy headphones against my ears to get more bass while I was listening to the version of Duran Duran’s ‘Save A Prayer’ from ‘Arena’ which I used to play over and over.”

“It feels like these tracks hit the emotive centre much better when they’re loud,” he continues. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m now in my forties, and so, if something has a message that I resonate with, if it play it louder it’ll go deeper toward where it needs to go in me.”

Outside of the absence of his family’s voices, another difference between ‘AVANTI’ and ‘VOLUME MASSIMO’ is the much more obvious presence of guitars. For Cortini, the attraction of guitars goes right back to his teenage years, and ahead of our interview a mutual friend tipped me off about Cortini’s enduring enthusiasm for legendary axeman Steve Vai.

“Oh yeah, man!” he gushes, right on cue. “Steve Vai was definitely one of the idols that I had when I was fourteen or fifteen and learning to play guitar. His playing had such a prominent voice, and out of all of the guitarists I listened to, he was the one who in one way or another has come back and forth into my life, even if I wasn’t particularly into the guitar at that specific time. I think it was because his philosophy about music and life was always very relatable to the things that I was looking for.”

Ironically, perhaps, it was growing up playing guitar and listening to Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert and Eddie Van Halen that ultimately lead to Cortini rushing headlong into the world of synthesizers and electronics. “As a teenager, the problem was that listening to those guitar players created an idea of that being the way you had to play.”

“There was almost a bar set at that height, and that didn’t really lend itself to using the guitar as a communicative and creative instrument for me to develop my own language and voice. It was like, ‘Oh if I can’t play this Steve Vai piece then I’m not good enough.’ When I got to synthesizers it was a much more direct connection between me and whatever I was hearing, because I had no schooling in it.”

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Cortini admits that it took him a while to figure out how he could integrate guitars into his music, and, even now, if he picks up a guitar the first thing he’ll try to do is play Van Halen’s signature ‘Eruption’ solo. It was only at the start of what became ‘VOLUME MASSIMO’ that he worked out how the instrument could interface with the electronics.

“They always felt like oil and water to me, both as instruments and with what I do electronically compared with what I do with the guitar. When I was going through the pieces that make up this album, I realised that some of the synth parts, if I were going to think about playing these things live, could be replicated with a guitar. So I ended up playing a lot of guitar on the record. It didn’t work everywhere, and so there’s a good mix of tracks that have guitar and some others are still electronic. It’s more about what felt right for each individual piece.”

“Another thing to consider is that a lot of the electronic instruments I use are, by their nature, imperfect,” he adds. “A lot of them are forty years old, so obviously they don’t always work well. But I like that imperfection. When you come up with a sequence or something that is imperfect to begin with, an instrument like the guitar lends itself to that because it has a humanising quality. I’m not talking about things like playing a guitar with a MIDI pick-up or playing synth parts with a guitar; it’s more like the broken things that I like about a synthesizer can be recreated with a guitar.”

Nevertheless, Cortini accepts that there is a peculiar tension between electronic music and guitars, almost as if guitars belong to some sort of exclusive club, and anything that crosses the mythical divide between the two is heinously sacrilegious.

“Most likely it’s because when you think about the 80s and 90s, the keyboard player in a band was stood right at the back where people couldn’t see him,” he says with a laugh. “There were plenty of people playing with rock bands at the time, but no one knew that they existed because they were stood in the shadows somewhere. There’s just this weird hierarchy, which I look at with a smile.”

“I can’t tell you how much of a better world it is in the electronic scene, where you can go to a festival and it doesn’t matter whether you close the night or you play in the middle: you still get your set time, you still get your gear, you still get your stage. It’s not like you’re opening at 2pm under a scorching sun in front of four people drinking beer waiting for the headliners.”

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The steady stream of albums that Cortini has issued in the last few years coincided with the ending of his intermittent SONOIO project. Unlike the material released under his own name, SONOIO was more of a song-based affair. Just as guitars have come back into his musical framework, Cortini has decided to eschew the song-based form, at least for now.

“I like songs, and obviously I grew up with bands, and songwriters, so I will always love that. But inevitably, the moment you put lyrics on something, you tend to specify the theme, or at least the opportunity for listener to attach their own importance to it becomes very narrow. With an instrumental track the meaning is up to the listener.”

“I feel like every time I released something under a different name, there was an effort from the first moment to categorise and present it in a certain way,” he continues. “When I release stuff under my own name, it’s just a direct connection between me and whatever makes me happy musically. There’s not as much orchestration, and there’s not as much consciousness about how it will be received.”

“That wasn’t to say that SONOIO was tailored to a specific crowd, but there was definitely much more of an effort to create it. In that world it’s a completely different approach from what I do now with my instrumental solo shows, and so I kind of moved away from it. I began to realise that the only part that was fun was making the record, and the rest just wasn’t fun. I don’t enjoy singing as much as I used to, and I don’t enjoy writing lyrics. I feel like I’m more expressive in what I want to say with instruments and I think what I create sonically with those is more sufficient, and more effective emotionally, than having to add lyrics almost as an afterthought.”

“And so that led to the end of that project. Right now I feel pretty comfortable releasing music under my own name and for that music to be instrumental.”

‘VOLUME MASSIMO’ is the product of Cortini’s distinctive way of working, along with his ability to wring out surprising emotions from the melodies he deftly employs. “It’s less structured compared to something that is more song-based,” he explains. “I just go into my studio and press record and something will come out. Sometimes it’s simply hours of white noise that I just sit there and enjoy the way it is, and other times it’s a much more fleshed-out composition. I hardly ever really edit; I just perform. I leave the machines to do their thing, and really I just sort of orchestrate it that way, listening with my ears rather than looking at waveforms on a computer screen. That allows me to satisfy my own need to hear something that makes me feel good. For the most part, it just stays as it is.”

“The pieces I’m making are like moods,” he says, before going off to rebuild his Van Halen-inspired guitar. “They’re are directed and steered in certain directions by me, but in general there’s less of an effort to try and school them, or discipline them. I like that, and that’s what you’re hearing on ‘VOLUME MASSIMO’.”

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‘VOLUME MASSIMO’ is out now.

Words: Mat Smith
Photo Credit: Emilie Elizabeth

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