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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Eyes Turned Inward: An Interview with Virginia Genta


Virgina Genta. Photo by David Vanzan

Interviewer: Nick Metzger

Italian artist and multi-instrumentalist Virginia Genta has served up a consistently excellent stream of releases and collaborations in the last decade-plus. Be it with David Vanzan (one of the most fierce percussionists and multi-instrumentalists on the scene) in one of their Jooklo configurations, alongside greats such as Paul Flaherty, Chris Corsano, Dror Feiler, Brandon Lopez, Bill Nace, Thurston Moore, Sabu Toyozumi, Arrington de Dionyso, Mette Rasmussen, John Blum, and countless others or in one of her too-numerous-to-count satellite projects on the Jooklo imprint Troglosound, the resulting music is always genuine, explosive, and aims right for the jugular without a hint of pretension. Her cosmic visuals work to enhance these physical releases into individual pieces of art themselves. Below we dish about the post-pandemic landscape, her art and recent projects, memories of better times, and what comes next.

NM: As someone who spent most of her time traveling and performing prior to the pandemic, how has the last year been for you? How have you kept yourself occupied?

VG: It’s been busy anyway… or I made it busy… I never get bored. Time is always so short and things to do are always so many. In summer 2020 we’d been able to play some shows and I also had a solo exhibition planned in Stuttgart for August that we fortunately had been able to do, so in the months prior to that I was preparing new stuff to show there, mostly my textile works…. Besides that summer, we’ve spent the rest of our time mostly at home, where days have gone fast one after the other. David and I live in the countryside, so there are always plenty of daily matters to deal with… plants, cats, our dog, wood and fire in the winter, gardening in the summer… and then working on recordings and artworks (my own things as well as commissioned graphics), and finally I found a daily spot of time for studying/practicing. Which is usually what’s missing when you are always touring or at home for just a couple of days between a trip and the next…

NM: You're finally on Bandcamp now and have uploaded several out-of-print albums so far, including your duo in Lisbon with Chris Corsano. Do you think you'll continue to make out-of-print items available digitally?

VG: Well, yeah, I will not upload everything, just some things… I don’t see it as a substitute to physical releases, but more as a parallel supportive media that may work for some limited editions, so that people can still hear it. Digital world is not my cup of tea anyway, but I need to make exceptions if I want the music to be heard, especially nowadays where I can’t hope for people to catch me live somewhere….


Photo by David Vanzan

NM: Your latest solo single is fantastic, how long have you been working with circular breathing on the amplified sopranino in a solo capacity?

VG: Oh, thank you! That’s a very specific question. Circular breathing on the amplified sopranino in a solo capacity. Not so long, maybe 3 or 4 years… Circular breathing I had been practicing for a long time, it’s actually one of the first things I wanted to learn when I started playing sax, but for some reason I always used it in an acoustic context. And regarding the amplified sound: I did use that for a short time in 2006/2007, but then I always prefered the raw acoustic sound for a long time, until I found out again that the tenor would sound great inside an amp, and that happened on tour when we played in underground venues with no PA, and mostly when we played with dudes like Bill Nace! When I finally got a sopranino I discovered that circular breathing had a very special charm on it, but the instrument had very low volume, so I started playing it through a small amp with a built-in spring reverb and distortion. And that’s it! From that point, I’ve started exploring the world of pedals, although I only use distortions and EQs, mostly for feedback frequencies variations. I do that in a solo capacity because it’s where I can really go into details, but I enjoy it as well in some of our bands.

NM: Tell us about the Jooklo Trio reissue on Relative Pitch, how did you and David first meet Brandon Lopez?

VG: Our mutual friend Kevin Reilly at Relative Pitch did it! We were at his place during a US tour in 2015, and we had a show in Philly a couple of days later. Kevin told us about Brandon, and asked if we wanted him to join us, we said yes and Brandon showed up at his place with his bass and we all drove down to Philly for the gig. There was a good empathy and the gig was great and then we met again around NYC that year and again an year later, and finally in 2018 Brandon wrote us he wanted to come and play in Europe, we had some tours planned and asked him if he wanted to join… he was around for a month and it was then when we first played as a trio. We already had the idea of an electric trio but it was with him that we found the right bass player, although he normally prefers to play up-right bass…

NM: How did the CDR that you initially released in a limited edition on your label Troglosound come to be reissued by Relative Pitch?

VG: To make a long story short. The recording was initially meant as an LP for a label called Berkeley Acid, and they offered their own GSL recording studio for it. I remember that Kevin drove us at the studio down in Manhattan that day. After that, the label had some issues throwing it out, and in september 2019 we had an upcoming trio tour in Europe, we’d already mastered the recording and prepared the artwork, so we quickly did a cdr version to at least bring on those shows. It still seemed that the vinyl should come out at some point but it then turned out it wasn’t going to happen anymore. We felt that the work deserved a wider edition, and of course the thing that made sense the most under every aspect was telling Kevin. He already had a copy of the cdr and loved the idea. For the third time we changed the label logo on the back cover and that was it.

NM: Prior to your Relative Pitch releases you released a great cassette with Mette Rasmussen (Live in Graz), how did you come to work with Mette?

VG: Once again, the key is a mutual friend. Chris Corsano was asked to put up a band for Meteo Mulhouse Jazz Festival in 2014. He asked me, he asked Mette, and he asked John Edwards. And that was the connection. I didn’t know Mette before that. Then Mette arranged a second gig with the same quartet, at Kongsberg Jazz Festival, I think an year later… and there we met again. After that we had both been invited by Centro d’Arte in Padova for a double gig, Mette’s solo and Jooklo Duo, and since we now already had been hanging out a bit and all that, we decided to do a short Italy tour with that line-up, and during the tour we had of course been jamming as a trio as well…. so yeah, thing after thing after thing, once again….

NM: I've also been enjoying your Melting Mind Bandcamp release since you put it up (Melted Mind), can you tell us more about that project?

VG: Sure. Melting Mind is a free raging creature that we need in order to let go our wildest and most free impulses. It comes and goes since 2010, normally it’s myself, David Vanzan, Michele Mazzani and Matteo Poggi, who are some of the few friends at a decently reachable distance (still an almost 2 hours drive from our remote swamp-land...) but sometimes we have had guests, or some other times one us was missing and someone new was there, so it is structured somehow but kind of elastic. The main point is to let the ego melt. Abstraction and noise works very well for this. No roles, no solos, no shape. Even though we may all have egos and desires and complaints, when we are there playing all this crap gets swept away, when things work fine. When they don’t, it’s just a mass, and that can happen as well. The release you mentioned, “Melted Mind” is a little different though. It started one day in summer 2018 (although the credits note on the cassette mistakenly says “2016”) when during a short tour, me and David went to visit Michele and some other friends who live in a giant farm-house from 1800’s, in the countryside near Ravenna. There’s an insane huge barn there, with one of the most spectacular reverbs I ever heard in a man-built indoor place. I was in the barn many other times before, but that one time I took the sopranino and played a bit, and David asked Michele if he could record that with one of his walkman. So at the end of the afternoon we had a C-60 filled up with sessions of sopranino and tenor sax. That material has then been reprocessed and manipulated by Michele with the technical help of Matteo, they also added some analog synth sounds and even an extra track (“Frenzy partner”) taken from a group session that we recorded together in winter 2019. So yeah, it started as a solo recording and it ended up as a full-on Melting Mind thing.

NM: Can you tell us about some of your favorite visual art and/or artists? Who has influenced your visual art?

VG: Difficult one. As with music, influences had been so many and so different through the years that it’s hard to mention only one or few… Anyway, what really struck me and always attracted me and that I felt somehow connected with is ancient Chinese and Japanese art. The perfection that is reached with one single sign or stroke, that you now see nice and perfect without even realizing how many times that sign had been made before being able to come out perfectly at first…. that’s synthesis. What else… definitely a big influence from ’70s/’80s comics and cartoons, specially cosmic sci-fi ones… Métal Hurlant, Caza, and all those masters… animation movies like Le Planete Sauvage, Masters of Time… underground silkscreen arts and gig posters, and of course vinyl covers. At some point I also got really into some weird advertisements that I found in some ‘80s interior design magazines, really bizarre visuals and atmospheres… I know it sounds silly but you never know, sometimes the eyes catch crazy details from the most unexpected things. And lately that is my main inspiration, I have my eyes turned inward when I draw, trying to catch images that are inside myself, and not replicating things I’ve seen outside. Or if I do, I would try to interiorize and synthesize “simple” things like a peculiar reflexion of the sun on the river water, or a wrinkle in the soil, or a sparkle, or a texture that I may have seen on a bus seat. I don’t reproduce them, but sometimes I take a mental picture and when I later find myself drawing, I could decide to throw it in there, and it always comes out completely filtered and transformed by the context.


Photo by Gloria Pasotti

NM: What music first made you want to make your own sounds and what music has influenced the direction and approaches you've taken since?

VG: Improvised music. I loved other kinds of music before, like nice songs as a kid, punk as a 13-year-old, and then jazz as a 15-year-old. But since I don’t have any music school background at all, I listened to all these things as some fantasy dreams that I could never do or maybe that I actually would never want to do. That’s why when I first heard improvised music a whole world opened up as I thought: Ah, something else is possible. Of course that also sounded difficult, but we had to start somewhere. So, I’m confident to say that improvisation and sound have always been a guiding light as opposed to songs and structure. I don’t mean that I only listen to improvised music. During our life David and I have been listening to so much different music, from noise to reggae and funk and jazz and classical music and blues and rock and ethnic and freak-out and electronic, and library and fusion and so on… everything as long as it fits with our ears. But what you listen to is not necessarily what you play, unless you are a maniac. How can someone only play let’s say fusion and listen to only fusion all the time? Or only harsh-noise? I guess some people do that though…. Anyway. Yes, improvisation. Even though I lately also appreciate working with some structures and songs I take that more as a challenge and an exercise to see how much improvisation can still play a big role in that, and how a structure or song can actually be created from improvisation even though when heard afterwards it may sound as written and calculated. Instant composing, they call it…Another big influence has come from ethnic instruments and sounds, not only using them in my own music, but also trying to have a similar effect on western traditional reeds like the saxophones or clarinet. Then, my most recent influence/inspiration started to come from sounds around me, of course I’ve been living surrounded by concerts of frogs and crickets and birds and wind in the leaves for so long, so natural sounds of course. But a couple of years ago we were in Rotterdam for a few days of recording sessions in the Worm studio with our electronic trio Yader. After hours and hours and hours drowned in abstract electronics, synthetic effects, white and pink noises and bleeps and waves, when at some point we took a break and walked out in the street, suddenly I’ve heard all the sounds of cars and the city as a real orchestration of apparently chaotic sounds, and from then on I’m a lot more sensitive and aware of surrounding sounds. When you realize that, “silence” doesn’t even exist anymore.

NM: Your art and music are obviously influenced by psychedelia, what has psychedelic culture meant to you as an artist and as a person?

VG: It always meant a lot. I’ve been attracted to psychedelic culture since I was a teenager, mostly by those crazy posters and records covers… But years and years travelling the underground around the world and living all kinds of weird adventures and meeting all sorts of real and unreal people, definitely had me realize that psychedelia isn’t only a style of an era, it’s a state of consciousness that goes beyond visible and speakable things, it goes very close to spirituality and telepathy and cosmic physics, and it can make special things happen if we want to. I personally hear more psychedelia in Steve Lacy’s sax or in some Debussy’s pieces for flute and harp, or in some Korean shamanic music, than in a lot of so-called “psychedelic bands” from the past or the present, if you know what I mean…


Photo by David Vanzan

NM: What happens inside your head when you're improvising?

VG: I guess I’m not as advanced to know exactly what’s going on in my head when I’m playing. Also, it’s never the same. Sometimes I feel my thoughts very sharp and present. Sometimes it’s meandering and distracted. Some other times it’s just out of this world but somehow still grounded down here through my body and the instrument. I’ve been learning to keep emotions away from it, as they seem to be on a lower level of being than that of sound.

NM: How does your thought process differ when playing alone versus playing in a group?

VG: First of all, it’s only recently that I’ve started to face the naked truth and tried playing only with myself. Since my all history of music-making was always related to the duo or to bands or jams, I’ve been used for a long time to create my own sounds as some kind of response to what I heard around, which doesn’t mean repeating, but being open to the outside and find ways to interact and make the music work. When I’m playing with a band of 3 or more members, I like to help the music as much as I can and somehow find my frequencies and rhythms spot in the mix rather than play a solo over a background. When playing in a duo context things start to be tougher and more interesting, as it becomes a 50/50 relationship. I don’t like when duos sound as if they miss the rest of the band, because the duo is a very specific structure that stands away from any other configuration. You are involved in a dialogue there, sometimes a fight, and you are still supporting each other but both are doing their own things, and it’s very easy to make it weak and lame.

The solo is theoretically the easiest and the hardest thing to do. It could be easy if you just have a series of tricks that you are gonna show for a more or less defined amount of time. But it can be immensely difficult if you are creating something on the spot… I’ve read that Baba Allauddin Khan studied the Veena for more than 30 years before feeling ready to play a solo concert. I don’t consider the solo thing I’ve been developing with the amplified sopranino as totally free improvisation, but more as a piece that varies in the details. When I start with the circular breathing, the response of the space and of the feedback generates what’s coming next without me having to think about it or plan anything, everything just happens and flows with an order that I’m somehow deciding but I’m actually not, and this may vary a lot according to my own mind and body state, the space, the set-up. When I do circular breathing balancing my sound and the feedback this way, the thought process is surely different than when I play anything else, because the continuous flow somehow makes the patterns change almost independently, and the brain can go very far in those moments… I guess it’s some sort of funambulism.

NM: You've collaborated with an impressive and extensive lineup of people, what are some of your favorite memories of playing with others? What gigs really stand out in your mind?

VG: Ah, there are so many and the question is very wide… difficult, because the moment of playing is deeply connected from memories of the whole situation before, during and after… almost inexplicable feelings. I think that what makes a gig or a session successful for improvisers is when every player finally lets the ego melt into that of the partners, and you are all there for one common aim which is the sound, the music. Everything else doesn’t matter anymore. Let’s try to pick some good memories of gigs: a couple of years ago there was one Yader gig in Brussels where the three of us (myself, David and Ernesto) suddenly felt completely inside each other’s mind and sound, we couldn’t figure out anymore who was playing what, and we realized the audience was also completely immersed in that… someone told us afterwards that it sounded like one huge robot crushing planets. Another epic moment was at Echos, an incredible festival in the mountains of south-east France, where we played a very unusual Jooklo Duo set at 6 am, and if that wasn’t enough, that same day about 18 hours later, we ended up joining our friends’ band France for an ensemble of two electric hurdy-gurdies, soprano sax, bass, drums, and rototoms, where the energy and the flow became unexpectedly so strong and deeply joyful… and there too the people was with us… someone yelled “Miracle!” at the end of the jam. Crazy… Then, any concert we played with Hartmut Geerken was always very enjoyable for that has always been real improvised music where everything could happen and change every second and the score is no score. Also, many great moments playing with Bill Nace during the many tours we’ve done with him… cannot pick only one gig specifically because we are always so happy to be and play together it doesn’t matter where we are or if something might go wrong. I think we had some wonderful sets in Padova, in Bologna, in Albany (NY), in Lafayette (IN), where a woman came to us and said “it was better than 2 hours of meditation”. There was one set of New Jooklo Age down in southern Italy, at a very weird event where they had set up a super professional 2-meters-tall-stage and an extremely huge PA and ultra-pro lights for an underground festival in an open square, and we ended up playing an extra cosmic harsh-noise show where we could reach the stars with a finger (or better, with a jack cable). Also, the two trio gigs we played with Thurston Moore (Nottingham, UK, in 2013 and Torino, Italy, in 2019) have both been insanely powerful and with such an easy and instant connection… both times and for the only times ever, David had blisters on his hands afterwards! There was one memorable Jooklo Duo gig at a Sunday afternoon barbecue concert at someone’s yard in Oakland some years ago, only very few but nice people there, sun in our face, no PA, only acoustic, and still so fresh and spontaneous and fun even though we where playing duo every day on the tour. One thing that has taught us a lot was when drummer Sabu Toyozumi came to our place in Italy for a couple of weeks, at the end of which we had 3 gigs. David decided to let to the guest play drums (which is something he’s done occasionally during the years) and he instead played electric guitar. It was the first time we were playing with a japanese free improviser of that special type and generation, and it really changed our view of things… Around the same time we also had the chance of playing with Takehisa Kosugi, who had been one of our idols, for a Merce Cunningham’s dance piece, and there we learnt a once again different point of view about Japanese free improvisation that widened our horizon. Also, two of the few shows I played with Chris Corsano had been exceptional, and indeed even got released on vinyl… the Live in Lisbon where we played on a roof at sunset with birds joining us, and the trio live in Vittorio Veneto, in a tiny and packed restaurant… Well, I could go on with a huge list of gigs that are memorable for some reason or another but I won’t now. There are also always a lot of remarkable moments during private sessions and recordings, as I also really like jamming and working in the studio… On the Schwabisch Alb 80 kms out of Stuttgart (Germany) our friends Metabolismus have the most insane home-studio anyone could imagine, and every time we go, it’s the most honest fun there…

NM: Where would you like to tour that you haven't yet?

VG: I’d love discovering Asia, Australia, Brazil… and Sicily, man. I’ve been so many times to Germany or the States and never to Sicily, that’s a real shame…

NM: You play a lot of other instruments besides saxophone, can you give us a rundown of your current arsenal? What do you find yourself playing the most?

VG: Well, these past few months at home with plenty of free time to use as I wanted, I started studying and practicing daily on the alto saxophone. What else, well, the usual tenor and sopranino and sometimes soprano… clarinet sometimes. Flutes in some contexts. And I love keyboards, from old organs to ‘90s digital ones.

NM: What's upcoming from the Jooklos and Troglosound? Anything currently in the pipeline?

VG: Yes, many! The first thing you can expect in the next few weeks is a new amplified sopranino sax solo 7” lathe-cut, Suono Non Buono. Stay tuned…!

Virginia Genta on Bandcamp


Lee said...

Wow, Nick! First the roundup, now this awesome interview. Great work!

Nick Metzger said...

Thanks Lee, much appreciated. I won't take all the credit though, this is mostly Virginia.