Danielle De Picciotto and friends in conversation: Martina Bertoni

Martina Bertoni: “Making art transcends the miserable and mundane exercise of power and prevarication”

Martina Bertoni (Photo: Gabriela Alatorre)

Martina Bertoni moved from Rome to Berlin in 2017, but I first saw her perform with Blixa Bargeld and Teho Teardo already in 2014 (after releasing the album “Still Smiling” together). Her cello was an important part of the performance (and on the album) and I remember being impressed by her striking presence and deep absorption.

Martina will be releasing her first solo album “All The Ghosts Are Gone Now” (FALK) on the 8th of January 2020.

Martina Bertoni can look back onto a quite prolific career so far, her back catalogue features recordings with Teho Teardo on a multitude of albums since 2006, collaborating with Blixa Bargeld for his performances of “Still Smiling” and “Nerissimo” as well as with Jochen Arbeit and Hopek Quirin on sound projects, with cellist Munsha and with Timo Hudemann for the project Bleedingblackwood. There were periods in 2019 I would go to see three shows a week that Martina would be part of with yet another collaboration. Seeing her being ready to release her first solo album is marvelous because that is what the audience automatically yearns for after experiencing her on stage.
Martina has a classic education in cello but offers much more than an expertly played instrument. On the upcoming album exquisite sounds and melodies appear that are deconstructed into mesmeric soundscapes and abstract thoughts merging with electronic resonances, light beats and drones unique in their approach. Martina shepherds her listeners into a world of murmured stories and solitary quests. Time seems to pass very quickly whilst listening and the experience seems to be over too quickly, leaving the forsaken soul yearning for more. Martina Bertoni´s music is addictive.
I very much look forward to experiencing more of her work and enthralling solo concerts in the future and am sure we will be hearing much more of Martina in the future.

Danielle de Picciotto: Martina, why did you choose the cello? When did you start playing this instrument?
Martina Bertoni: I chose to play cello during my first year at primary school. One day this little string orchestra of kids from the secondary grades of the Conservatoire came to play for us, the smaller children of primary school, in order to familiarize us to classic music. They introduced all the instruments and when it came to cello I totally fell in love with it. I just remember coming home and pestering my parents until they bought my first tiny cello and enrolled me to private classes. I have such a nice memory of the excitement waiting for my first instrument to arrive. It was during the early eighties, in a quite remote province in the North-East of Italy. The man from the music store had to order my tiny cello straight from China, since there was hardly any trade for smaller size strings in the area. It was such a special thing to wait for the instrument to arrive, both for me and for my parents.

Did you study music?
Yes, I started very early…I was six. Unfortunately there were no possibilities for public cello training since I was too young for the Conservatory, therefore I attended a religious order music school…it was quite a weird one, in small soundproof rooms in the basement of a diocesan college, but my teacher was very sweet and committed. She did a pretty good job. Later I was admitted to cello classes in Conservatoire. It was a hard road for the first eight years, and my next teacher was a complete disaster. I ended up having panic attacks and serious issues with my shoulder. Luckily I managed to find a decent teacher in a different Conservatoire in another city, and could work on my technique. I managed to complete my MA. But my music education was a constant fight. I loved classical music, I still do, but my head didn’t fit the right boxes. I had my own ideas concerning music and education, and a Conservatory is a very conservative institution, so I was constantly clashing. On the other hand I learnt discipline, commitment and most importantly about the beauty in music.

Live with Yan Keller, Berlin, 2017 (Photo: Federico Savonitto)

You do a wonderful mixture of electronic music with cello. Could you describe how you find your sound. Is there anything that inspires you specifically? Did you start composing this kind of music immediately or did you compose classic cello first?
I’ve never composed classic cello. It has never been my cup of tea and I cannot do it. Since I started composing, I have tried to look for the truthful representation of the sound I have in my mind. It took me a very long time, but I love the direction it has taken.
My sound is the result of me, trying to run away from what I feel I should do as a cellist. I am not a melody lover, I don’t like melancholia or that kind of heroic and romantic tension that for years I had to replicate. I like fuzziness, I love when sound itself is big, wide and dusty. Like a magnificent cloud of vibrations. So in the process of creating my music I started contradicting all the golden rules of how to record a beautiful cello sound. I started by applying unnatural reverbs, feedbacks and backward delays. That is how I found my personal touch. I added my love for sub-bass frequencies and crooked rhythms and started to ‘pretend’ to be an electronic music producer, with a cello instead of synthesisers as a sonic source. I have to say that my inspiration is nowadays in the current, I am really attracted by how technology is impacting creativity and music composition. It must be a reaction to my very conservative education. Another source of inspiration for me is “landscapes”, the urban and the human one. I can say that my music is the translation of my physical and emotional surroundings. To do this in Berlin seems to be very privileged situation, both in good and bad.

You have worked with well-known musicians such as Blixa Bargeld and Teho Teardo. Do you think there is a difference in how men compose to women?Have you had collaborations with women?
When it comes to creation, it’s the human being that is in action. Music composition is the incredible result of uncountable and unpredictable features so it is impossible for me to place a line of difference between the genders. Also the world is not divided just in male and female. What’s obvious is that there’s an evident discrepancy in the visibility for female, trans and non-cis individuals, compared to how it is and has been for male artists. We are transitioning through a very interesting period, many changes are happening in society on a cultural, political and economic level. Female and LGBT communities are starting to finally claim and occupy their legitimate spaces in the art world, but the road is very long and for a lot of situations the fight is still consumed with finally recognizing very basic human rights. At the moment the challenge for everybody is to learn the right vocabulary when we deal with creation and art, and for me this means to free ourselves from definitions and restrictions.
When I was a teenager my first so called ‘band’ was an all-female string trio. A male percussionist then joined us a little later. Our heroes were Kronos Quartet, Meredith Monk and Balanescu Quartet. Frankly I was quite sad that sometimes people were interested in hiring us not because of the music but because of us being an
‘all-women’ band. This is what was happening in the sleepy, quite isolated and hyper catholic north-east of Italy in the early ‘90s.
Later on, since my career mainly continued in Italy, I did not have much direct exchange with female artists. I was surrounded mainly by men, composers, producers, musicians, directors…
I could only observe my female heroes from faraway, like Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins. But since I moved to Berlin I found myself exchanging and sharing music, art and bits of life with an incredibly supportive and welcoming community of female artists. I am so grateful for that, I feel so much less isolated, both as a musician and mostly as a human being.

Live with Munsha

Have you experienced discrimination in the music world?
The music business was made by men for men. It is the state of the art, especially where I come from, Italy, the macho culture imbues the social structure at the very core. I was lucky to get out of the strictly Italian context and to travel around the world with the projects I was involved in mostly from a very privileged position. I experienced discrimination in many different shades, and not only in the music business. But making art transcends the miserable and mundane exercise of power and prevarication, which is discrimination. I think that it all comes back to being empowered, and again, the context makes the difference. Things are slowly changing, but for example a female or a trans sound engineer is still considered something exceptional in 98% of the world. That’s why it’s so important to be a community and start building better surroundings for everyone.

You moved from Rome to Berlin. What inspires you in Berlin? What do you appreciate? Do you think there is a specific Berlin sound now a day
Rome is a soft, morbid belly that can swallow you in its indolence and malpractice, its beauty is poisonous if you are not in the position of being able to enjoy it. The reverence to the old and historic makes Rome a very aggressive place to live in. On the other hand Berlin is fast, young, rough, sometimes very rude but at the same time I feel it’s welcoming. People know how to brace themselves together and help each other. I’ve never experienced such beautiful examples of generosity and love before moving here. Maybe I have been lucky, but I love being here, I love the people I have around. It’s a constant exchange of thoughts, actual objects, mutual help, even between strangers. To me this had been the trigger for writing music as a solo artist. Berlin is still a very fluid place, still gives you a tiny space for being whoever you want to be and celebrate that choice. I like how fast things happen here, how quickly the landscape changes. I am very interested in how Berlin is struggling to be projected into the future, while it’s still fighting with its present and past. I witness the daily clashes between the old and the new Berlin and the results are always a source of reflections.
Nowadays I think that Berlin is searching for a new identity. I don’t think there’s a Berlin sound representative of the city in the way we were used to know it. Techno is now an established industry, it has lost that very special drive for rebellion and celebration that was the main drive during the 90’s.
The city is looking for new forms and shapes of rebellion more on a global scale, since the economy has drastically changed the urban configuration. This is impacting the art community since experimentation is being included more into the academic world, while venues and art spaces are closing down. The city struggles to keep up in pace with technology while new forms of neo-capitalism are taking over. For me Berlin seems very confused and fluid, and somehow this state of things is very stimulating to me.

What are you working on at the moment?
At the beginning of 2020 I will finally release my first full-length album with the Icelandic label FALK. I am so very excited about that, since it’s my first ever full physical release, hence in these weeks I am busy with finalizing the last steps. There will be a video and again that’s a first for me. I worked in partnership with Frank and Jo at Orange ‘Ear in Berlin and I am incredibly happy with the outcome. They’re a true gem, for the way they support and work, hosting concerts in their space, supporting releases and creating videos.
I am also working on soundtracks at the moment, I have some projects coming up in this area and I must say that making music for film suits my usually very reclusive mindset very well.

What are your future plans?
I am working on new music already, so obviously the plan is to have another release very soon. I’m getting myself acquainted with Max/Msp, it is a juicy tool for me to use.
Let’s say the future plan is to keep on enjoying the process.

“All The Ghosts Are Gone Now” by Martin Bertoni will be released on FALK on the 8th of January 2020.

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