Andrea Belfi: “I appreciate being temporary”
Together with his brass ensemble (Robin Hayward on tuba, Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø on trombone, Elena Kakaliagou on french horn) Andrea Belfi recorded his latest album „Eternally Frozen“, a love letter to the canon as a musical format and to “speculative, fantastical reinforcements of mythology and playful and beguiling distortions of mysterious could-be truths“.
Andrea, you recently celebrated the release of „Eternally Frozen“ at Arkaoda, Berlin. How did you experience the show?
Andrea Belfi: I’ve been living in Neukölln for some years now. I know Arkaoda and the people running the place since it was built basically. They’re good friends, by that the night meant a lot to me. You know, because of Covid, this was the first time I was presenting my work again to my friends in Berlin after like almost four years.
Are you in general a very social person? Do you go out a lot to concerts et al? Do you love to meet people?
Yes, I am. I started music because of hanging with friends in the first place. When I was a kid, there were a bunch of friends who had a punk rock band, and they needed a drummer. So I learned drums to play in that band.
That´s the best scenario, right? You just do it because of friends and not because of bigger ambitions. It feels so natural. I also come from an indie/hardcore background where you do things in the first place more likely without any career thoughts in your head.
Zero. When I was 14, 15, I was part of the punk/hardcore scene in Italy in the mid 90s – until probably my early twenties. This was a bunch of years that really changed my life. This diy attitude, the passion for music and for gatherings with other people, for collaborations. All that is still a big part of why I do music. In that sense: I have a career in music – but it stills feels strange to use the word.
It is kinda funny that on one side the us independent music gave us this diy spirit – and then it is mostly in the us artists talk about careers and use all these career connected wording.
We actually have a common friend who had a huge impact with his bands Minutemen and Firehose on me in my formative years: Mike Watt.
Oh, there you go.
I heard your name actually the first time when you collaborated with Mike – I attented your IL SOGNO DEL MARINAIO show at King Georg in Cologne a few years ago. The band name means „the sailor´s dream“, perfectly fitting Mike´s San Pedro-Harbour-Lifeline. How did the two of you meet in the first place?
The trio is together with Stefano Pia, a guitarist from Italy, a very old friend of mine. Stefano was driving Mike Watt and the Missing Man on their Italy tour in I think it was 2000. That´s how they connected. And then at some point Stef received an offer for Mike Watt for a festival in Italy, which would pay flight costs and fee fro him but not for the band, so he asked me to play drums. That was in 2009.
This reminds me on reading a book about the Einstürzende Neubauten. Alexander Hacke is always talking to everybody, while Blixa Bargeld is – not surprisingly – more snobby. But if you do not talk to the people you miss out on so many possibilities.
As you just rolled out: You come from punk music originally, then studied contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Milano. How would you describe the relationship between these two poles in your biography?
Well, first of all, I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts specifically because of one professor, Alberto Garutti. He was the only one in Italy at that time I knew teaching contemporary art languages , new contemporary art. The academy was still very rooted in the past.
My studies were everything but conservative. It was mind blowing for a lot of people actually. By that my music making and the contemporary art world weren’t so different. But I know what you mean, I kind of hated that environment, it was super competitive. I just kept doing my stuff: sound art installations. This was when I started to approach the electroacoustic music and experimental music.
Just to get it right, you were creating sound art, you did not study painting or sculptor, right?
Yeah. I presented sound pieces. I remember I presented one sound piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a piece by John Zorn . I am a huge John Zorn fan, but I’ve never liked his approach to Zionism. So I created a piece namedwith samples from Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill movies – the notes from Zorns original score were replaced with the hit noises from the movies, like the sounds of the punches. I recomposed the whole piece.
Wow. Such a great idea. You implicated your sounds into the texture of the original music.
Yes. I sampled all these sounds and used them as notes and rhythms. It was a funny piece, coming from my inner struggle with my passion for certain Jewish music somehow related to Zionism and that horrible situation that got worse and worse within the last years.
Did you ever send it to John Zorn or play it to him?
No, but I’ve sent him my first electroacoustic work called “Ned n°1”, he responded with a postcard encouraging me to keep on going. That was really nice from him.
You should do so. I mean, the musical concept must be of interest for him.
But let´s talk about your new album “Eternally Frozen”. Eternally frozen, is this a state of existence you would consider an option?
For me? No!
I appreciate being temporary. I think it’s okay. I think it’s alright. Yeah.
The album consists of a series of canon based compositions for brass ensemble, percussion and synthesizer. Can you lay out how the idea to the album shaped?
I wanted to compose something for a brass ensemble, specifically for the trio Zinc & Copper . So I started writing some Simple melodies –and by repeating them I had a “wow” moment, I thought there was something magic about just repeating them over and over. So I thought, “why don’t I use the canon and see how it’s developing?”
In the first scenario, I was hoping to use just intonation, but at the end it didn’t really fit what I had in mind, it felt too forced to use just intonation.
At the same time I was reading this this pamphlet …
… you mean the one from the liner notes about the thematic influence of the mythological bat Deprong Mori on the album?
Let me quote: „An animal with the alleged ability to fly through solid matter by bending atoms by its natural skill of audio echolocation. The myth suggests that one of these bats had been “eternally frozen” in a wall of solid lead in 1952 by the researcher of the Rockefeller University, Donald R. Griffith. This story is exhibited in a display at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, an institution renowned for both speculative, fantastical reinforcement of mythology and playful and beguiling distortions of mysterious could-be truths. Both the canon and the “frozen” Deprong Mori are man-made illusory simulations of eternity. Their attempt is to create mirages, where the insinuation of facts is more meaningful than the reality.“
I liked this manmade idea of creating some sort of a representation of eternity. It really helped me and inspired me to create those pieces.
I really liked the combination of these two images: the canon and to be preserved forever – well, a legend about being preserved forever that in fact doesn’t exist. So it’s some sort of contradiction, like, things contradicting each other.
We humans like to create something eternal, but in the end it’s all about trying to cope with the fact that we’re temporary.
I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles with my good friend and UK kaput editor at large Alex Mayor in December of 2021 myself. How did you find out about this museum and how did you experience your visit(s)?
Through my friend Carla Bozulich. I was visiting Los Angeles and she pointed out some things to do, she also lives, like Mike Watt in San Pedro.
I loved the museum so much, even tho esoteric things are not really generally for me, but I think it’s way more than that. It’s very deep. It’s aesthetically very beautiful.This museum has a lot of very special things. What do you think?
As you already said: a very fascinating place, so many crazy ideas. Especially in our climate today, where this might end in weird theories about the world, you know what I mean. But this is not at all the case there, there is always a twist that makes it obvious this is rather a mind experiment and by that an impulse to make you reflect about things.
The first impression often was: “Oh, this is nonsense” – but then the nonsense started working on me and leaded me to other ideas. There was so much going on, one could have spend days inside.
Yes, exactly. As you pointed out: something like this can be slippery, you know like weird theories that can be manipulated to whatever. Like esoteric conspiracy theories.
But this thing, I think it’s very poetic. I mean, there’s a lot of art in the research as well, and that’s the power of it. Take for example those miniatures of Disney characters in needle size.
It’s so mysterious. Where from he had the passion? What it the limit of human craftmanship? There’s a lot of poetry and beauty in that.
Yes, it is very deep. I also like the fact that you go into this very small building and it’s a world in itself. Then you come out again and you’re on this boulevard, there’s the sun, there’s this big street, everything is so big out there in LA. It makes you think: how can it be that there’s so much bigness and so less to catch for me in that street. But in this one building, there was so much compressed to take in. The process of going in and out of this place, felt like a physically experience.
But let me jump back to the canon theme.
To me a canon is in opposite to explicit repititation also a game with a process of minimal (or sometimes also bigger) changes of the „original“ – if we wanna call the first appearance „original“. Coming from my own experience in the school choir, I remember quite a huge spectrum of inset patterns and by that rhythm changes.
What is it that catched your interest in the canon as an musical format?
Well, first of all, you pointed out something interesting, because most of the time when I have some chords or melodies in my mind, I have choirs in my mind. I really like to create some sort of voices when I’m using the synthesizer, the notes tend to be quite lyrical, quite connected to the human voice. So to me the brass ensemble is some sort of a choir instead of a brass ensemble. I mean, it was the first time that I’ve composed music for a brass trio. So all options were open.
I can tell you one thing. I’ve played the music of Moondog for such a long time that the use of canon just got stuck in my head. I’ve played many Moondog songs with my band Hobocombo – and he was using the canon a lot, that’s where I really got hooked. So I got deeper and deeper into it, like by singing, but also by programming synthesizers, by playing on the piano. So choirs and Moondog were my inspirations.
As you just mentioned programming your synths. Has the canon inspiration also an influence on how you work with loops and sequencing in other productions?
Yeah, for sure.I’ve developed several like synthesizer patches that I’m also implementing in into my solo performances.
But it also had an influence on how I play the drums, like with shakers – that’s also coming from the time where I played Moondog music. For example, now I’m trying to develop a live duo version for the „Eternally Frozen“ project where I’d only play with the trombone player. And consequently I have to program the tuba and french horn parts on the synthesizer. It’s much more, of course, electronic and less … there´s a touch of jazz that’s missing. It’s a different version. It’s very inspiring actually.
The album was composed and produced during a residency at Callies, Berlin. On invitation of my friends Labour I had the pleasure to get some insight of this remarkable institution. How imporant is if for an artist on your level to get this kind of support?
We have to consider that especially now in big cities like Berlin, less and less space is available. And that’s a bit sad because that was the beauty of Berlin until a few years ago.
It now takes me 45 minutes to get to my studio on Marzahn. Meaning the spaces are very precious. Because a good space is very important, I mean not rehearsing in a very bad rehearsal studio for like 15 euros an hour where the drums and the PA sucks.
So there is a lot of value in a place like Callies. Plus the people there are really nice, they even helped me with my funding application – I received Musikfonds funding for the album.
As you live in Berlin since 2011. How do you experience the changes in your Neukölln hood since then?
It´s crazy. It’s a very interesting scenario at the moment becauseI live in one of the most sought-after parts of Berlin – but still it is a bit rough actually, you know? Like there’s a building next to my flat which a Swiss millionaire bought and is renovating since like two years. It’s a nightmare. And just in front of it, there are the pushers like selling crack or something like that every day, every time of the day. You know what I’m saying? It’s so weird. So there is still a very rough part of Neukölln, I just got used to it.
It´s a realistic picture of the world. Cause that is what we see everywhere now: on one side extreme richness – and on the other side poorness, drugs, violence…
Andrea, coming back to Callies. I wonder since when can you live from your music?
At some point I was busy enough. My last other job was actually in Italy before I moved to Berlin, I was a drum teacher at a music school. I was teaching for ten years, since my early twenties.
So your other jobs where still connected with music?
Well, when I moved to Berlin, I was selling cheese and cold cuts, I also tried to import some wine, but at the same time the market was different. Now it works better. Well, now the market is a bit crowded, but there was a point where maybe you could think of opening a wine bar or, you know, importing wine from Italy. In fact, there’s a friend of mine doing this,I always buy wine from her wine shop.
But, yeah, I did some side jobs in the beginning of my time here. But then, in 2014 I played like 125 shows, I did for example a big tour with Mike Watt – that´s when things started to be more profitable.
Do you sometimes miss having an easy side job, cause I mean it is not getting easier to tour in the 30s and 40s, right?
No, it is not. I’m 44, post-covid – and with family. I am already starting to look for other options. I think I wanna go back to teaching at some point.
I am also doing advertisement jobs sometimes. And I have, for example, this project of building percussion a percussion Moondog invented in the 40’s called Trimba; in fact I played that instrument on two tracks of the album, Setteottavi and Pastorale
Andrea, have there been some artists like not role models but of influence for your artistic path?
That´s a good question. I have many. In general, I Iove eclectic artists, who can explore lots of different musical territories and at the same time maintain a very personal artistic vocabulary. Like David Grubbs and Jim O´Rourke – their band Gastro De Sol was in the 90s a huge influence on me. Brian Eno is one of the bigger names who achieved that in my opinion. .
Regarding drummers who influenced my way of playing drums are: Jaki Liebezeit from Can, Joey Baron, Tony Williams and his way of playing drums in Miles Davis’ records in the 60’s and early 70’s, Martin Brandlmyr from the band Radian, Elvin Jones, Tony Allen.
I can tell you one thing about one art piece that I’ve seen recently and that resonated with me, one of the best art works I’ve ever seen in years. It’s called “Phase Shifting Index” from the artist is Jeremy Shaw. He’s a Canadian. It’s an incredible music-video-installation. I can really relate to that. He’s a visual artist, but he’s also a musician.
I think it’s a half an hour, 40 minutes long video installation. It takes time. It takes time to develop and to reveal what’s behind, you know? At the beginning you don’t understand what’s going on, and then by half of it, it’s like, “wow, there’s something going on I don’t understand” – and then by the end, it’s like you have the full revelation but it also brings you back and makes you realize that you’ve seen all this material and now It has acquired a new meaning. I can really relate my music to that feeling, that’s what I’m trying to achieve with my music performances and records.
Let me come back to beginning of our conversation when we talked about the influence of the US hardcore/indie scene on you (and also me). You are originally from Verona, Italy. I’ve never been to the city, so I have no idea how it is. Did Verona have a deeper influence on your artistic socialization?
Well, the only thing related to avatgarde sounds that was going on at that time, was realted to jazz music. Like contemporary jazz music in particular. There was my friend Zeno de Rossi , he’s a drummer. He was really into New York’s Jazz. So when I was still playing in punk bands, I was also listening to a lot of that stuff. I was going to a lot of jazz shows.
The music scene in Verona was very small – and at times very political. I musically grew up in an anarchist squad called La Pecora Nera – that’s where I’ve seen my first punk shows, it was a very special place because Verona is very conservative, very Catholic, very right wing. It was like a little island. In that sense it was alright for some time, but to explore more adventurous music I need to go to bigger cities, like Milano, and Bologna….
Andrea, thanks so much for your time.