It’s the place and material that inform and shape our work: An interview with Ab Uno

The well-travelled duo Ab Uno was founded in the middle of the last decade by the sound artists Eugenio Petrarca and Roberto Di Ciaccio in the Rome metropolitan area, and with their sound, which oscillates in the broad field between ethnographic field recordings and modular synths, quickly became a permanent fixture in the field of experimental, semi-electronic music. A common thread running through all their recordings is the search for, and often the echo of, something primal, archaic, which they track down in various geographical and imaginary places around the world. On their album “Les Gens de Mogador”, released last year, whose ideas and sounds owe their existence to a stay in Morocco, these aspects are perhaps more in balance than ever. With this material in their luggage, they were recently able to win over the audience as openers for the musically quite differently oriented Savage Republic. The interview that followed shortly afterwards dealt with the diverse aesthetic, spiritual and cultural backgrounds of their music.

German Version

As far as I know, your duo Ab Uno exists for about 7 years now. What can you tell us about the persons behind and your musical background?

(E) Our journey began in Rome while studying sonic arts at Saint Louis College Of Music. Our musical tastes met and merged immediately and soon we found ourselves holed up in our home studio recording drones and clusters with the first hardware we could afford. We early realised how the aesthetics of our sound could have a common direction and we began arranging and recombining in the form of sound collages the first recorded takes. These early experiments later became the foundation of a live set we performed at a local experimental music festival. At that time Ab Uno was already conceived.

Were there any previous music or art projects before, that somehow lead to what became Ab Uno, if you perceive them from today’s perspective?

(E) We had both independently started diving into electronic minimalist music from the 70s, and our studies gave us a better understanding of that phenomenon. The inspiration either way probably came from much further back.

You work with quite a variety of sound materials, be it field recordings, modular synthesizer compositions or also combinations of both. If you work with these sounds in the studio and combine them to your final tracks, is there a specific way how you work? Do you always work on your tracks together, or rather each one on his own and then share results after some time?

(R) Well, the process is never the same.

(E) There are no clearly defined steps at this creative stage. What you say about using a combination of natural and synthetic sounds is correct, however, I don’t know in which order the process occurs. (R) Sometimes we find ourselves with some original ‘raw’ audio material we recorded on location that inspires us; we start processing it to create the foundation of a track. Sometimes instead we simply come up with an interesting modular patch recorded on the fly in the studio while improvising or jamming together and the field recordings are ‘colours’ on a complex synthesised soundscape. And I’d tell you, the creative approach between us is also quite flexible and spontaneous. As we are now based in different cities, this has also changed over time. Very often we exchange files and do overdubs until we shape the track. But we always try to spend some time together in the studio to finalise the project together.

Would you see yourselves more as composers or as improvisers?

(E) We always start as improvisers but we almost always end up as composers.

How strong is your connection to the various forms of technology that you use?

(R) Nowadays technology is ubiquitous and has a profound influence on the art of music which is being created. But that’s actually how it’s always been since the early days of recording. The way music is heard, composed and performed has been always shaped by technology.

Producing and performing music through modular synths has been fundamental for us, and has certainly influenced our style and ultimately our musical outcome. You develop some sort of mutual relationship with the tools you use. As opposed to the endless possibilities offered by computers, we’ve always looked for restrictions and some kind of failure. It’s a way of losing some part of control, of opening ourselves to happy accidents, to capture that ‘moment. You really have to record that stream of current that is constantly coming out from your machines, or you’re gonna lose it forever. And of course, this translates to our compositions both in terms of sound and storytelling.

The name Ab Uno means Of One or From One. In case that’s something you like to discuss, where does the name refer (or allude) to?

(E) The name comes from Latin and is inspired by an alchemical representation of the detachment between the macrocosm and the microcosm. By starting from the One everything come to life accordingly, as a chain of metals, trees and finally men. Basically, this pathway inspires quite often much of the creation of our music as well—starting from a fragile essence to develop a more complex nature after.

You’ve been to Mogador, Marocco, recently and did anthropological sound studies that, among other experiences, led to the album “Les Gens de Mogador”. How did this adventure come about and how did you experience your time there? What are your strongest memories?

(E) Morocco is a very dear place to us. We have frequently visited this reality and during one of our last trips, we were able to spend some time in Essaouira (ancient Mogador) to do some research in both the sound and visual fields. We are so lucky to have friends who live there and who supported us in collecting all the material related to our last record. Les Gens De Mogador is our genuine tribute to those days and to the people who inspired us.

How much is the old and the ancestral, that you often search for in your projects (and also in Mogador) still noticable in the life realities of the local people?

(E) It really depends on the situation. Experiences such as the one in Colombia are basically time travels. We could almost have been in the Paleolithic Era. But it depends on the cases. Generally, the choice of places we visit is never randomique. We have always been attracted to places which in some way preserve this ancestral spirit.

Even in Morocco and Indonesia we witnessed many folk music performances and in some cases also really impressive rituals. On a biggest scale, I think places less involved in a highly capitalistic system have a stronger connection with their past, origins and traditions. This is something we are losing in our neck of the woods and so somehow (at least for us) it becomes necessary to be inspired by other certain cultures.

What can you tell us about your collaboration with the Waxaw Ethno Roots group?

(R) It’s been a mutual collaboration which took place in Essaouira, Morocco a few years ago. We went there for an artistic residency. We ended up collecting hours of video material along with many ‘found’ sounds. The guys there were so part of that realm to be able to shoot incredible footage in very authentic, hidden places and rural ecosystems. And also allowed us to record very particular field recordings. This incredible material inspired our creative process both there and also in the studio while finalizing the album.

To which geometries do you refer in the title “Vanishing Desert Geometries”?

(R) Well, that’s the geometry of both the natural and human world you can find in the desert. Try to consider the constantly changing shape of the dunes. You wake up in the morning and the landscape can be completely different. Everything seems to have vanished regardless of your presence there. But it’s also about the architecture that so organically merges with the natural landscape, creating always new, very inspiring geometries.

Would you say that there is always something like a genius loci of a place (that you might not necessarily detect, but that you can at least make the listeners feel though the found and self-produced sounds)?

(E) Whenever we visit a place and circumstance we always pay careful attention towards its essential core sonic landscape. We then try to give our own interpretation of the images we are visited by. However, our intention is not exclusively to tell the pure essence of a specific area, but to open up and stimulate a constellation of references, meanings and why not memories, that are inextricably linked to the personal experience of our listeners.

While “Les Gens de Mogador” often appears like a broader panorama of places you visited, “La linea negra”, which is based on your journey to the Columbian Sierra Nevada, has a sometimes quite intimate aura. One could really feel like a guest there, while listening to the album. Would you agree, and if yes, how spontaneous did those differences come about?

(R) Yeah, that’s quite correct. But It’s been a very spontaneous result. When we visit a new place and collect site-specific material we don’t have a clear idea of what can be found. It’s the place and material that inform and shape our work. In La linea Negra all the sounds were so distinctive and ‘intimate’ that turned out to be perfect for an immersive and also respectful storytelling, we really wanted to allow the listener to experience a proper rite, a full-body experience. Like you said a guest in the middle of the forest in the mountains of Sierra Nevada.



Most of the places you collected specific sounds are far away on other continents – could you also imagine to do comparable sound studies in places you live or where you grew up?

(E) At the moment we are more focused on holding the attention towards exotic geographies, which somehow gives us insights radically different from those that an urban atmosphere could induce. Yet, we do not exclude the future possibility of a huge sound research on the places we come from as well. Perhaps, in a more institutional setting.

How do you decide, whether you let the original sounds of a place speak more for themselves or if you express your perception of a place more by your own sounds? In “La Linea Negra” for instance or in the track “Medewi”, the original sounds seem to have a larger space than in “Les Gens de Mogador”, where a lot of modular synth drones are in the foreground..

(R) That’s true, In Les Gens de Mogador the field recording is less evident, but it’s clearly there. It’s the background that can be perceived while listening to some of the tracks, but it’s also what truly inspired the whole process. This time we really wanted to produce a more electronic/synth-oriented album, after several pure field-recordings works. The idea was to develop a sort of communication between the language of our machines and the video and audio material collected in Morocco.

On the other hand, albums like “Metaforma” or “Regressive Repetition” are far less based on found sounds but more self produced ambiences, but in their own way they also refer to the primordial and the ancestral, so maybe even they are somehow made to “looking for answers in the past we can find the future”, as it’s called in a description. Do they emerge from very different ideas? Do the inspirations in these cases come more from your inner experiences?

(E) Metaforma was the first work conceived as a separate track album, produced by Mahorka which is one of the most active labels in the Bulgarian experimental scene. This work had away more studio oriented approach and just few field recordings elements, yet the intention to maintain a connection with a certain “aesthetic” remains (as you also rightly pointed out). As for Regressive Repetition, on the other hand, I would say that this work is much more electronic (in the most traditional way) and modular synthesis based. It’s the result of a minimalist approach from a compositional point of view. Patterns repeated to the point of exhaustion and pushy sequences characterize the whole EP released by Transferans Records. In any case, even though our releases have so many different nuances, we currently perceive that there is a common path and all in the name of a certain specific aesthetic.

What are the next important things on your schedule?

(E) We want to consecrate this stimulus-filled moment with new collaborations.

(R) We think it’s time to start thinking about a record involving new musicians and collaborations.

(E) There are several reasons behind this: we have met so many compelling artists we would like to start a collaboration with during our research journey and also because we want to open ourselves up to new experimental possibilities. And who knows, if anything unexpected will happen to knock at our door, we will be ready to welcome it.

Interview: U.S.

Concert Foto © Venus Fatale

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