An interview with
Fabrizio Spera

By Beppe Colli
June 17, 2003

His name is not really that known. But this is only due to the insufficient space that's given in the press to the different genres of music where he brings his technical expertise and maturity. Among his most recent experiences: altrastrata, the new CD by Dutch group Blast; his electroacoustic work with Ossatura - see Verso, their most recent CD; Mondo Ra, the fifteen-strong orchestra which two years ago performed personal arrangements of pieces by Sun Ra; his improvising trio with John Butcher and John Edwards. This should give readers an idea of his versatility.

He's a funny guy who's also proud of his "countercultural" beliefs - check those Festivals and concerts he promotes in Rome.

So I decided to ask him a few questions. This happened by e-mail, last week. Then I translated the conversation into English.

As a first topic for our conversation I'd like to talk about Blast. Your collaboration with them - how did it happen?

I like to consider our collaboration as being the fruit of a relationship based on friendship and mutual esteem, which started many years ago.

Just like other Italian music fans, I got to know Blast at the 1990 edition of the Mimi Festival, in France. At the time, the group was completely unknown - they had no records out - but they were already quite able to convey their musical perspective, their musical language being deliberately complex, located as it was at the border between written contemporary music and progressive rock, their pronunciation was dry, a well-organized synthesis of old passions and a new expressive urge, which was of great interest to those who were there.

Later, when we succeeded in making some changes in the concert scene in Rome (which had been pretty much dormant for the better part of a decade), Blast was the first group we called to play in front of an audience in Rome. And since the same spark was giving good results in other Italian cities, Blast was the group which in a sense baptized quite a few activities in this country. Ours was a constant relationship. It was especially Dirk Bruinsma who participated to various "improvisers meetings", and in later years Blast played quite often in Rome and also in other parts of Italy.

In 1999 I was playing at the Musique Innovatrice Festival in St. Etienne, as a part of Ossatura; Dirk had also been invited to play, with Paed Conca - it was their duo called Otholiten. There were some conversations about the impulse to drive Blast towards a more open dimension in terms of musical writing and musical organization. Dirk and Paed saw our concert, and I think they liked what they saw. Not too long after our meeting, I was asked to join their new line-up. I have to say this was totally unexpected on my part. In fact, my personal search had mostly dealt with the theory and practice of improvisation, whereas Blast had showed an ever-increasing interest in written composition and in the pre-determination of all compositional and interpretative parameters. So in a way I was a bit perplexed - and maybe a bit anxious - when I decided to do it. Our first meeting was in January 2000: a week of rehearsals (eight/nine hours a day), all music being completely new; then we did a tour - about fifteen concerts - and it was then that we started to chart the group's new route, during long discussions while travelling by train and through live rehearsals, practically every day.

When compared to the previous one, the new CD has a very different concept of sound. Tell me about it.

The group's previous work (A Sophisticated Face) represents the apex of a period of complex compositions. For that recording, the group had been augmented by members of a chamber ensemble, whose classical instruments were a part of the "sophistication" of that music.

While the group has obviously not renounced to create certain complicated climates, it has decided to open its forms and structures to different materials and behaviours, so that our interest for sound, timbre, electronic treatments and different orchestrations are much more important than in the past. Composed parts often go together with improvised situations, which gives a whole different dimension to the written parts. Traditional notation is combined with graphical and gestural inputs, and this is the hinge the group uses in concert to give form - in real time - to the dynamics of tempo, to mass, and - maybe more than in the past - to space.

Today, materials are generally less stable, but paradoxically this is a fact that seems to open more routes when it comes to the act of listening.

You've played quite a few concerts with Blast. What did you play? How was it received?

The group plays quite a few concerts every year. Not that it's easy. From the beginning this group has worked on a varied music program, in order to work as much as possible.

At this very moment Blast have many possibilities open. The quartet line-up (Bruinsma, Crjins, Conca, Spera) plays some material off the CD, plus more recent - and at this moment undocumented - material. Then there's the sextet - that is, the quartet plus vocals and trombone; this line-up, which started during the first months of 2002, has a pretty wide repertoire, which we hope to record during 2004.

Last December we met with Turkish singer Saadet Turkosz, and we had a concert improvisation together: it was the first time that the members of Blast met the same day of the concert, without music stands nor music scores, only with our wish to meet the evocative power of a great voice.

The plan for November 2003 is to perform a work together with the Spectra Ensemble, a classical group. There's a commission from November Music, the Belgian Festival, where Dirk Bruinsma and Frank Crjins will present two compositions based on the interaction between Blast (the quartet line-up) and the chamber group.

As I said, the new material, which on the surface is more obscure - and less "rockish" - gives more space to interpretation, and concert audiences really seem to appreciate it.

Let's talk about Ossatura. How do you see the group progressing, after your second CD and the concerts you've played?

With the new CD we think we made a further step towards defining the group's sonic body. We felt it was imperative, this time, to work with as few materials as possible. First, we gradually eliminated a lot of the instruments that we had used on the first CD. Traditional instruments such as guitars, drums and keyboards were put aside, and we concentrated a lot more on playing those electroacoustic devices we have worked on and experimented with. The music on Verso is raw, the recording quite naked, but some deep traits - construction, narration, organic unity, complexity - remain.

During our live concerts we've redressed the balance between electronic and acoustic sounds. Sometimes we abruptly bring the P.A. volume down to zero, and we simply try to make objects and instruments resonate in space, whatever it is - a theatre, a basement, a church...

I believe our interest in acoustic sounds will be further explored in our future works, and it's likely that instruments such as the piano and some percussions will appear again, too.

What are the traits that make Ossatura unique?

Well, it's really difficult to express this. In the group, we've always criticized and constantly discussed all the various aspects of our work. We have intended our music not to rigidly conform to a given aesthetics, the musical interests of the members of the group are pretty diverse, and even though our theoretical and practical modifications are many, we believe the work we do as Ossatura aims towards a wide musical perspective. As by instinct, we avoid certain orthodoxies - very often quite childish - that are peculiar to the electronic music of today, and at the same time we are not a "typical" improvising group, especially when it comes to the recorded work. We are interested in the experience of gesture, of sound, and the void that precedes them, and in the reflection and the criticism they imply.

Maybe only somebody who's not a part of the group could formulate more detailed hypothesis. Sometimes, when I've discovered or recognized some peculiar aspect of my work, it was mainly thanks to somebody "out there".

A more general question. The (so to speak) "electronic/laptop" "kind of music", with variable quantities of improvisation involved, doesn't sell much, so how come more and more players get involved with it?

All music that's produced today obviously falls under the technical and aesthetical weight - and that of the market, too - of the "new" technologies. The fact that these means are more and more easily available - and their use so widespread - makes for a kind of use that's often hurried and that very often is not really based on conscious choices.

This is also true in the commercial world, where the widespread interest for sound - in place of the old-time melodic banalities of old commercial music - doesn't make for a more comforting scenario.

As we've seen in the past, in the context of arts and cultures that live at the margins, there's always a phase when profit does not seem to be the main impulse behind all this activity. The simple fact of seeing oneself as a part of a movement can represent a good goal. As usual, time will tell whether what has been done possessed any "realness".

If I'm not mistaken, the CD with the recording of the concert where music by Sun Ra were performed by that large group never came out. Would you tell me more?

You're right, the CD is not out. The recording of the concert by the Mondo Ra orchestra has not been released yet, it just sits there in a state of lethargy for a variety of reasons.

In my opinion, the whole orchestra experience and the concert were good on quite a few levels, but I'm not completely satisfied of the quality of the recording and of the mixing, so in a way I try "not to hurry".

Not everybody in the orchestra share my outlook, but here we have a whole other problem: how to make a 15-people group commercially viable.

In my humble opinion, when it comes to the music of Sun Ra the work we did is not worse - and in some cases is quite a lot better - than most homages that were paid all over the world in recent times. I've been familiar with his music - and thought - for ages, and the work of this orchestra is the fruit - and the challenge - that were born out of this passion.

I'd like to find new chances to regroup the orchestra and to record again, but this is quite difficult - logistically and - above all - financially... We'll see.

A few weeks ago I saw John Butcher play, and among other things we talked about the trio he shares with John Edwards and you. Would you elaborate?

Well, at first I met John Butcher at various European festivals, and bit by bit the idea of playing together came to us.

Our first meeting took place while I was in London, a couple of years ago. Veryan Weston had invited me, and he proposed that I do a week's worth of concerts with various London-based musicians; when he asked me to indicate who I would have liked to play with, my first answer was immediately a trio with Butcher and John Edwards, another musician whose work I was quite familiar with, and whose music is obviously of a very high quality. The concerts that Weston proposed were a quartet with Lol Coxhill, Rhodrie Davies and Marc Wastell and a trio with Coxhill and Hugh Metcalfe. The trio with the two Johns was really beautiful, very natural for everybody, so we decided to try to keep this experience alive.

We played together again in Rome, during the most recent edition of the Controindicazioni festival, then last February, at last, we managed to book a tour of Belgium, Holland and France. The musical results were satisfying, a group sound is definitely emerging. In this trio I've decided to concentrate on drums: the trio's sound is an acoustic one, and given the right conditions, when the concentration is right, it's just a pleasure to perceive how organic the whole sounds. Our only hope is to find enough concerts in the future, so that new directions can be explored.

What's the situation, what the perspective, when it comes to European "historical" improvisation?

If by "historical" you mean the kind practiced by musicians of the first generation (those who were already active in the second part of the sixties), I have the feeling that these musicians are very naturally in the process of mentally revisiting their origins - where they came from. Every one of them, each in his own way, tries to get near to those roots that at the time of their expanding and affirming their new identities were strategically restrained.

Evan Parker's sound, especially on tenor, stretches out and discovers more and more deliberately its origin in Coltrane - and when Marilyn Crispell's piano augments the trio with Guy and Lytton we can easily perceive the echo of the whole, last, group of the master saxophonist. If you ask Brötzmann about his influences, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins are the first to be mentioned. Derek Bailey recording an album of ballads, Paul Lovens playing with such an overt swing on Aki Takase's homage to W.C. Handy and so on.

I'm not talking about Dutch musicians since they have always expressed a more uninhibited attitude toward jazz tradition.

Young people behave differently: they display silence, they search inside their instruments' cavities, they employ the resources of samplers with an empty memory and mixers with no instrument at their input channels.

Free Jazz is "hot" again, while at the same time everybody clearly see the importance of a group like AMM.

As you can see, it's a great deal of information and details we are talking about; sometimes these things can be seen as part of a path that's somewhat clear, in other instances using general categories is not at all easy - and could definitely be controversial.

Now I'd like to know about your influences when it comes to the drums - and beyond.

I started with rock when I was very young, but already at that time I was attracted by rock's less conventional sides: instead of the fake scenarios and the stereotyped effects of "rock's big names" I've always preferred the realness, sometimes covered with dust, of those stages full of instruments and cords of groups such as Henry Cow and Stormy Six. And it was Henry Cow (and everything after that) who communicated to me such open and decisive musical perspectives.

When I met Jazz and improvised music my approach was extremely natural, since the context of those times definitely encouraged - much more than today's situation - the transferring of different experiences, where the topic of style was never separated from being aware (not only in a musical sense) of what certain choices entailed. From improvised music to contemporary music, the movement was - as I'm sure you can imagine - consequent, and luckily all this has never inhibited my interest for Pop or Songs.

If we talk about drummers, my roots are definitely in the sixties, in the sound - so rich in natural reverb, so rich in harmonics - of drummers of that period such as Keith Moon, Robert Wyatt, obviously Ed Blackwell, Elvin Jones, first-period Tony Williams - on those Blue Note recordings with Dolphy, Jackie Mc Lean and Andrew Hill.

I'm interested in an instrumental style that has evolved inside a wider musical language; I get rarely passionate for a style if it's separated from the music which accounts for certain technical or expressive peculiarities.

It's obviously Elvin Jones who makes Coltrane move, just like John French feeds Beefheart. But I've always been suspicious of those rock drummers who start playing jazz, they always do this while communicating a feeling of not being satisfied, of feeling inferior about their role.

Milford Graves and Paul Lovens are for me the two poles in a "free" evolution of the instrument. If we get back to rock language, I have to mention Chris Cutler and Charles Hayward - and where should one place somebody like Michael Vatcher? But I'll stop here, otherwise this list will become more and more detailed - and boring.

Using a big brush, I'll say that starting from the middle-seventies, an audience that we could define as being somewhat attentive and curious matched the birth and the development of a music that was "difficult", and in any case out of the ordinary. How do you see the current situation, from this point of view?

Whereas during those times certain manifestations were obviously the fruit of a wider and sometimes deep involvement in social and political planes, today I have the feeling that "difficult" is only one of the many options that are oh so democratically at our disposal - and which we can obviously disown as soon as the first signals of boredom or weariness appear.

It may sound banal, but I have to add that this attitude, as controlled by those market forces which support the society we live in, produces nothing but superficiality. And it's only superficial what we can call the attitude of many people who decide to dedicate some time to some kind of "engaged entertainment". Obviously, all this can only feed the precariousness and the risks of the context inside which we all, each in his own role, are bound to operate.

Same question, about the press.

Promoting "difficult art", choosing to play an instrument in an unconventional way, writing about unconventional music instead of, say, heavy metal, are some of the options that we can use to better our status as intelligent and engaged people.

But all these activities should have to possess also a certain dignity of a professional nature. And when it comes to this, especially in Italy, the press is the category which is maybe the most unsatisfactory. There's a lot of "specialized" music press that's of extremely low quality, while those newspapers and mags who define themselves as being of "leftist" beliefs still undervalue the cultural debate, and especially so when it comes to music.

In most cases, we are confronted with a writing which has no clear vistas, plus there are still a lot of basic problems linked to disinformation, ignorance, and - worse still - a pretence of seriousness on the part of the writers.

What happened to jazz?

A lot of the music which nowadays sports the "jazz" tag (to ends which are obviously linked to easy identification for reasons of funding and of marketplace) has not a lot to do with the deep qualities of that music. And the same thing could be said of Rock and of all those languages that from a position of marginality as subcultures have gradually attained the trust of the institutions and the favours granted by a large audience. In place of their original traits - like innovation and research - we now find mannerisms and retreat.

Historically, criticism has identified jazz according to the usual stereotypes - swing, drive, interplay etc. - and so in a way I could be provocative by saying that today we'll discover Jazz every time this label is not automatically attributable by mechanically applying those stereotypes, which is to say every time some critics (those who want to preserve "their music") doubt of the authenticity of the object. Maybe in these cases we are in front of some good jazz.

Five names you suggest as required listening.

If you don't mind, I'll restrain myself to the eight CDs that I've recently bought and that are on my table.

Morton Feldman - Late Works For Clarinet
Anthony Braxton - This Time
Jack Bruce - Songs For A Tailor
Toru Takemitsu - In An Autumn Garden (Kinshi Tsuruta, biwa; Katsuya Yokohama, shakuhachi)
Captain Beefheart - Dust Sucker
Albert Ayler - The Copenhagen Tapes
Trevor Watts/Veryan Weston - 6 Dialogues
Tod Dockstader - Omniphony

© Beppe Colli 2003 | June 17, 2003