Interview / Gigi Masin / Ambient Maestro

Portrait photo by Riccardo Roman.

Moonboots was my guide to the music of Gigi Masin. Back in about 2012 he sent me a message, “Ola, Amigo, Red Light in Amsterdam have this amazing record in. I think you’ll like it.” That record was Gigi`s Wind Collector LP – the orange one with the runes all over it – very likely stock that Gigi had left over from its release in 1991. The only people who seemed to know about Gigi`s music at that point were the handful of folks who`d sampled his track, Clouds. Nujabes and Bjork to name just two. Jamie Tiller from Red Light had contacted Gigi after finding a copy of his debut album, Wind, and the store were selling copies of Wind Collector for 30euros, P&P all in, which was a steal. This was prior Talk To The Sea – the incredible retrospective of Gigi`s work that Red Light put together in 2014 for their then fledgling label, Music From Memory – so prior to the rest of the world belatedly discovering Gigi`s genius. Talk To The Sea, was, for me, one of the compilations / reissues of the last decade. Its music acting as a muse for poetry and prose. Things were simpler then, and everyone wasn’t quite so busy, so it was easy to set up an interview with Gigi. 

Since that first chat there`s been collaborations with Tempelhof, Jonny Nash, and Young Marco – as Gaussian Curve, Beautiful Swimmers` Max D – as Lifted. There have been remixes for Sven Weisemann, Carmen Villain, Underground System, and Devandra Banhardt. There`s been Gigi`s beautiful tribute to his hometown, Venezia 2016, and the self-released album, Kite. At the end of this week, he will release a new long-player, Calypso, an early contender for “album of the year”, via ambient institution, Apollo. So it was time for a catch up. There`s a bit in here where I ask Gigi if his music is “noir”. “Romantic” would have been a far better word…

Gigi, are you still based in Venice? Do you perform in the city regularly? Is there a healthy live scene for music? 

Venice is my capital, my nation, but nowhere else in the world is my music so out of place. Apart from a little event with other Venetian artists many years ago – I had the opportunity to play at the French Pavilion of the Biennale of Art and at the Russian foundation V-A-C based in a beautiful historic Venetian building – but nothing else. If there hadn’t been French and Russians in Venice then I wouldn’t have played in my hometown. I don’t think my music is of interest to anyone here. Music in Venice? My god, what a decadence, what a sadness… A city that has been the gateway of Europe to the east, where theatre, music, dance have flourished like roses in a celestial garden, for centuries one of the most important and famous cities. Music in Venice now? You mean not the music you hear walking through the calli or the typical orchestras in St. Mark’s Square? Here you could listen the gondolieri singing Neapolitan songs for Japanese and American tourists – who are very enthusiastic about it! Even with the hottest sun Venice is as sad as Disneyland could be on a rainy and fog day. Venice is disappearing and everyone is happy. 

Is climate change effecting the city? 

An expert would say that climate changes have had an important effect on Venice and I do not want to deny it, but this city has fought for centuries with Mother Nature for its survival – moving into the sea, rivers that flowed before into the lagoon, building defenses against storms, against the floods, regularly cleaning her canals from mud, with very strict laws on navigation and land management. If all this is forgotten and the only interest is an economy based on the millions of tourists who visit the city, I think it’s easy to understand how fragile and compromised is the balance that binds Venice with its territory. Despite the devastating construction of the industrial zone which shocked the face of our lagoon with pollution and iron, the subsequent decline in industrial activities has given new way to flora and fauna that before had disappeared. Most of the buildings in the city are now empty if not abandoned. The water traffic is out of control. The influx of tourists makes it difficult even to walk around the city or even be able to get public boats,…the disappearance of grocery stores in favour of hundreds shops full of souvenirs and carnival masks… I believe that climate problems – if they really exist – are way down the list of things having a negative effect on my city.

In the time that’s passed since we last “spoke”, Music From Memory released Talk To The Sea which resulted in your music being discovered by the rest of the world – if not in Venice. How does it feel to be subsequently heralded as a “ambient genius”? To have so many people fall in love with your music? 

There’s a lot of respect in me for all the people who have shown me their care and love in these last five years. I’m a fortunate one, I’m sure there are many many great musicians out there waiting for someone to discover their forgotten albums.. The coming back, the revenge of the vinyl, surely was one of the reasons I’m here now. It’s the main reason for me to look forward with a smile, while those obscure days with no-one listening to my music is now just a picture on the wall. 

Has this resulted in a lot of work? Commissions? Traveling to perform? I was so disappointed that I missed you in Tokyo. Do you have any plans to come back? 

To travel is fantastic, new people, new places, a lot of jets! And making concerts all around was a changing point of my life, a dream come true, a new horizon.. Of course I was involved in collaborations, remixing, writings.. really exciting and always very  interesting. Japan is in my heart. I want to be back soon. Playing there was enchanting and a strong human experience – transcendent if I may say – full of kindness, sincerity, intensity. 

Has anyone approached you with soundtrack work? 

I’m positive and just waiting for an experience like this.. I know it’s a complex challenge and not so easy to achieve. Still waiting.. 

Where do your track titles come from? 

Fantasy, as if the titles appeared of their own accord.. sometimes they are like a photograph of the soul, a memory that has left a mark but you can’t quite remember what or where, but there it is. 

Do they come before or after writing / recording? 

Maybe during the process.. it’s the music that decides what mood and what could be the right title. I have mountains of sounds that have ridiculous titles or just numbers, sometimes the right title appears clear and accurate. It`s the music that decides that you don’t need another chord and what you have, that’s just fine. 

The new album has a mythological / literal concept. Does the story of Ulysses have personal significance for you? 

Homer’s books are unavoidably magical, and in the album the myth is used as a mirror – where you and I could reflect on ourselves and try to imagine who could be Ulysses or Calypso, or where could that island be – that can shake you with its nature and beauty. Mythology has been used to tell of earthly worlds with unreal images – of a higher life where the gods do what comforts them – or where the truth is translated into an often complicate language, a story that recounts the facts, but does not necessarily explain them. Even today, men tell lies and hide the facts. There are people and lovers who will have left you with “scars” so deep inside that they will have changed the meaning of your life forever. Calypso didn’t take seven years to capture Ulysses’ heart. Sometimes it takes just a glance. We all have that look somewhere in our hearts, and are just waiting to be reminded of it one more time. 

Are you usually inspired by books, film, art, new stories? 

Not directly but I think we are sponges and everything we read or know or meet are all fundamental elements for our lives far beyond our knowledge or consciousness. Inspiration too often is confused with a kind of superior ability to invent or guess a given thing. For me inspiration is absolutely a non-human matter. It is a connection with clouds, a spark that comes to us from hyperspace, alien DNA if you prefer, our ability to be a Sibyl and ‘guess without understanding’. That’s inspiration! 

I often reach for the word “noir” when trying to describe your music. Is this something that actually informs what you do? 

Noir? Something to do with Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon? Orson Welles? Fritz Lang and the German expressionism? For a long time my music was labelled “Mediterranean”, without understanding that`s like calling a Scotsman Norwegian. Being Venetian has nothing to do with pizza, sun and mandolin – and pasta is not a dish of my tradition. Yet it is so easy for someone to attach to you a label that does not represent you at all. But then, I think, in a concert, playback or performance, how we appear is defined by the listener. They hear what they hear. I have no messages to give or hide in my music except trying to produce a pure sound that speaks to the heart of those who listen. That’s the root of it. 

Are you making new music all the time? 

Continuously, though not every day. My mind is always wandering and waiting to capture ideas, as does the spider’s web with insects. 

Do you have a particular instrument – piano? guitar? – that you usually compose on? 

The funny thing that I struggle to explain is that I pretend that, instead of a computer, I have 3 beautiful reel-to-reel recorders in front of me – which will allow me to conduct a whole series of wonderful experiments. To realize this I’ve “customized” a couple of computers so that they behave like these marvelous analog machines. To experiment, to invent, in the end means playing the music in a most beautiful and sincere sense. 

You once mentioned that Eric Clapton was your first guitar teacher – that you learnt the instrument by listening to his records and copying his licks – when and why did you move away from playing the blues? 

Music, like painting or dance, is a language that we often use to talk to others in a direct and sincere way. Perhaps because actual confrontation with others is often difficult. Playing the blues? If music is your language, one that you’ve built with patience and effort, then you could stop playing the blues in the way that the blues has been defined. Isn’t Charles Ives’ Central Park In The Dark a blues? Ligeti or Arvo Part even, between their visions and religion, do they not have that sad warmth that makes them the blues? Oh yes.. Yet nothing in their music is conventional or codifiable or label-able as we are used to. 

You also once told me that sat alone at the piano is like traveling into a dream, open wide. Do you still feel this way? 

It is true. It is not necessary to drink too much or take magic mushrooms. You need an instrument and your desire to play, then a muse, someone to dedicate your music to.. You don’t need anything else. 

How much does improvisation play in your process? Do you write, rehearse and record, or do you “jam” and then edit? 

I think the process is random. I play, add another sound because I think they’re fine together, maybe another step, then that’s enough. At other times the path is longer, in the sense that the sound can go to ten tracks or more, but nothing is planned with a mathematical precision. It is just a feeling, the ear that speaks to the heart which commands the hands to do. Very primitive in a way. I like to think it is spontaneous, unsought, without wanting to arrive at a result pre-decided before, but only accept what the sounds at that time told you and created with you. 

When you’re writing and recording do you do so in “isolation”, do you try not to listen to other people’s music? 

Sometimes I say with regret that a song I’m listening to I would have liked to write it myself or I fall in love with some music I meet, or I have my favorite music for rainy days, or for sunny mornings. No one is impervious to the outside world, we are all touched and infected, so I do not think that I compose unique and unrepeatable things, only that I do so in a sincere, absolute and serene way. It’s my secret language, my binary code to enter into my dreams, where my tracks are made. 

Do you think other peoples music has influenced your own? What has been the impact of people such as Eno, Hassell, Harold Budd? What about labels such as Windham Hill and ECM? 

I believe that a person of good taste, a sincere lover of music, cannot exempt them self from loving and respecting labels like ECM and Windham Hill. But as far as I’m concerned I have a special place in my heart for Island Records – because my life wouldn’t be the the same without John Martyn. Sometimes I think that I’m not doing anything other than pretending that I don’t want to imitate him. 

Sorry…To think of some artists who have really influenced me would resemble a deep archaeological dig. Not because there`s anything special about me, or because I’m losing my memory. I believe that in reality, it is not so easy to identify who was the real architect of your artistic spark and who, over time, has kept your fire alight. I think this applies to every artist in every artistic field, I would say that probably the things that I loved the most was the music of masters like Ligeti, Vivaldi, Mozart, Penderecki, Ives. The comparison is inelegant, but I am sure that at the bottom of my little heart I am inspired not so much by their way of composing, but from the visions and emotions that they have given me and it is to those emotions, I presume, that I would like to approach, such as wonder… 

What artists, musicians, composers do you currently find interesting? 

Entering the world of music through the back door and getting to know amazing, valuable artists and learning from their teaching is an incredible privilege. The paradox is that the more I come into contact with artists, from all over, the more I realize how little we know, and how much more we have to meet and fall in love with. If I have to pick a name today I would tell you of Jordi Savall, whose work recovering and recording ancient Renaissance and Baroque music, without borders and without barriers is a wonder – a breath that turns any winter into a warm spring. We always talk a lot about our roots but then we don’t really know them. 

What’s your take on Nils Frahm who has kind of picked up what you were doing and run with it? 

Nils is a pure jewel. I don’t think we should add anything else. In fact, it is a rare beauty, what he does. His ability, and sensitivity, to combine different styles and emotions together in the flow of music that he creates – with ease and lightness – this is something that only the most enlightened minds can do. Chapeau! 

Did you play everything on the new album? For example is it you playing the horns? Is it a Zither I can hear on Khalifa Golf Club? 

It is a zither! Building Calypso allowed me to take a step forward, and take one back. I have asked myself a thousand times in the past, “how to approach, how to make a record?”, and this saw me struggle for a long time with solo projects. I don’t even make a list of all the ideas. Instead, if you let emotions guide your hand, and don’t let them tell you fairy tales, you’ll find the solution. In the absence of a real orchestra, for the moment, I`ve worked a lot towards making sounds that are the most warm, and then using them as loops – many, many small pieces of a recorded tape. Listening to the music, this might not be obvious, but the work was as meticulous. The making of the sounds was so instinctive, along with the construction of the tracks – they were made with no second thoughts, doing everything almost within half an hour or even less. Without second thoughts and without remorse, as well as with instinct and passion. These allowed me to make Calypso. 

You described you debut LP, Wind, as a work of subtraction. Do you still work in this way? 

Yes, although in some tracks there are about ten instruments and many many sounds. The idea of subtraction is more a need to make a sound essential, sincere, free from conventions – with the only duty to represent my thoughts, feelings. To convey the idea that helped me to create that piece. 

You’re now singed to Apollo. How familiar are you with the labels classic “ambient” techno back catalogue? Do you have any favourites? 

I have friends who know a thousand labels and they talk about it with a skill that sometimes scares me. I always have my head in the clouds and I do not follow “the market” much, but, with heart in my hand, when I first listened to what Apollo had achieved in the past, it was a real joy, great respect. I am very lucky in that I have dear friends who then tell me everything, and make me listen to their new discoveries, the most beautiful things. This is such a great luck for someone like me who can usually be found watching the clouds passing in the sky. 

Can we expect any more recorded material from you and Jonny Nash, or Gaussian Curve? Or you or Tempelhof? Do you have any other collaborations planned? 

Collaboration is the salt of life, I am always excited about it. The project with Marco and Jonny took a break, between the various commitments, and the time I took to realize Calypso. We’ll talk about that again shortly. Paolo and Luciano, from Tempelhof, have decided to embark on a new project to which they gave the name One Million Eyes. They have a new album due in the coming months.

Is the Infantoo project still running? 

Difficulties of various kinds have slowed down that project over the years, but it is a path that is not yet at its end. I hope that in the future we can talk about it again. 

People might not know, but you were a radio DJ for around 20 years. Is this a job you would consider doing again? 

Above all I am a radio DJ, down to the bone. I’m always homesick for those sleepless nights spent putting together beautiful and unknown records. I’d start again right away. Well, to be honest it is not such an easy thing to do in Italy right now, where the quality of FM radio is very questionable, but there is a growing quality among web radios. That’s probably the future and I’d love to have time and a way to be a part of it. We’ll see. 

Gigi Masin`s Calypso is released on February 28th, care of Apollo Records. You can catch Gigi live at the following gigs: 

7th Mar Milan, Tempio del futuro perduto

8th Mar Zurich, Kasheme

19th Mar Bristol, Arnolfini

25th Mar Berlin, Kiezsalon

27th Mar Cologne, King Georg

28th Mar Manchester, White Hotel

29th Mar London, Southbank Purcell Room

31st Mar Amsterdam, Melkweg upstair

7th Mar  Milan, Tempio del futuro perduto

31st May – FFKT – Japan

12th June – Kala Festival – Dhermi – Albania

3rd July – Down The Rabbit Hole – Beuningen – Holland

19th July – Sacred Ground – Brussow  – Germany

20th August – We Are Out Here – Cambridgeshire – UK

10th September – Waves Festival  – Wien  – Austria

16th October – Neue Step Festival – Istanbul – Turkey

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