Raffaele Pezzella has been very active in the past year producing and divulging experimental music from remote areas of the world such as Africa, Lebanon, Russia and Iran showing that often, beyond the vestiges of cultural post-colonialism, there is a realm of very skilled artists that are totally extraneous to our environment. I was lucky enough to meet Raffaele back in my home town, Napoli, over a coffee to discuss some of his activity as a label owner, a listener and a composer.
GP: Raffaele, your activity starts as a mixing engineer, mostly working in studios, how did your first contact with non-western electronic music happen?
RP: It happened thanks to the internet. My first contact with a non-western reality was when I met online the son of Artemiev who is primarily known for having worked as a soundtrack composer for Tarkovsky’s movies. Through him I discovered a prolific environment for ambient music in Russia, filled with ritualistic elements, and bands such as Phurpa. I thought that such music was only partially distributed in Europe, and that was a pity because it was very interesting, so I decided to make an anthology of those works, that became my first issue of the Unexplained Sounds project. That album aimed to cover a broader production timespan (2001-2016) and was a bit more traversal, including mostly but not only electronic music.
GP: Then you encountered Iran, a country you have dedicated a long research project to.
RP: When we talk about Iran in relation to experimental music we ought to talk mostly of Teheran. That is the only city that has a proper scene, but what is there is very vibrant and extremely active. I got in contact with many of the musicians there through Mohammad Reza, that most people know as Xerxex The Dark, the name under which he releases music. With him and other musicians I made the album “Iran 2016 Experimental Survey”. In this project I strongly wanted to focus over a specific moment, including only extremely recent tracks.
GP: What was it that made you so interested in that specific place?
RP: I think it’s the fact that the experimental music scene there still feels non-globalised, it holds a strong bond to its cultural roots and the whole movement keeps an integrity and a strong connection within itself spontaneously. All these elements together made this very special project so successful that the label Cold Spring contacted me to collaborate over a second volume of this work, that we called Visions of Darkness and includes only works belonging to the industrial – noise – dark ambient scene.
GP: Was it easy to gather all that music from those musicians without being there?
RP: To handle that material wasn’t very easy, most of the artists couldn’t use Facebook and the communication was hard. Also the fact that I had the word Iran in the title of the album, that at the time was a black list country for the US, was enough to block all the payments on PayPal.
GP: How incredible! What did you do then?
RP: We had to change the the description using the word Persian instead of Iranian.
GP: You also dedicated your attention to Lebanon working on compilations that include works from many artists, some also very well known in the rest of Europe such as Sharif Senhaoui. Lebanese free improvised music is very appreciated in Europe, but I can’t think of many electronic musicians from Lebanon, why do you think is that?
RP: Personally I think that Lebanese electronic music is still too connected to what is produced in Europe to be considered ‘exotic’ to the ears of the Western listener. Therefore, being usually non extensively covered by our distribution channels, it doesn’t always come through.
GP: You said that Facebook has been a really valuable tool for your Unexplained Sounds projects. You started a group there and the people responded really well, the group has many followers and has helped many musicians to find good music all over the world and to promote their own. But the social media in itself has also changed a lot. How was your experience with that?
RP: I have experienced many different phases with Facebook. In 2014, when I started the group I hit the golden age of the platform, when it was already quite big, but it wasn’t so clear yet that its main purpose was totally commercial. At that time information could be easily conveyed, there wasn’t much sponsorships and the algorithms weren’t so obstructive. In the present days I experience that the coverage of my group, if I don’t do any sponsorships, is lower of an average of 70% compared to what it used to be, this is massive! Now I use different methods, I got back to Newsletter that have kept their effectiveness.
GP: What I really like about your global idea of music is that you don’t see a homogeneous landscape but rather a patchwork of diverse local streams that give strength one to another with their differences. How do you think festivals and labels are operating to increase awareness over minorities, might they be cultural, gender, ethnic or more.
RP: I think it’s great. It is very important that our scene is not a radically white male dominated one, as this increasing diversity can only do good to the quality and variety of music. On the other hand it’s very important to frame all the phenomena and try to look for authenticity without being too strict about categories. Sometimes the place you come from and the environment you grew up in define your privilege much more than your gender or your skin color, and looking at all the differences only within the frame of our globalised geographic area can be reductive in comparison with what the world has to offer.
GP: In this sense Napoli, the city we come from has done a big leap forward, jumping from a rather peripheral and often self-referential musical reality, to a quite relevant one – at least in Italy – with many concerts and visiting artists
RP: Yes! Absolutely! I believe Napoli is ready and mature, its underground scene has been slowly evolving and due to the many different experiences around it bred a new generation of artists and enthusiasts who are well organised and are animated by a great curiosity. I strongly believe it will be an important place in Europe in the future.
GP: Now let’s talk about your compositional project SONOLOGYST. How did it start? what are the keynotes of it?
RP: The project started around the year 2000, but then it was silent until 2012. It all started because I wanted to make music for documentaries, but because I never had such opportunity I started imagining my own documentaries, inside my head and made music for those. In fact, all my music contains strong and constant visual references and it’s influenced by many things I see and experience. We could totally imagine each record as a soundtrack for a different documentary. In this sense they are concept albums.
GP: Still they all share this dark ambient touch to it…
RP Yes they do. Since I was a kid I always had a certain interest for dark aesthetics and thematics, it has been a constant feature in all my work, always. This is also something that comes back in the works i publish with my other label, Eighth Tower Records. There I try to do something even more different, I commission dark influenced works to musicians coming from other music environments. The results are often very exciting.
GP: Talking about different cultures and traditions, do you feel somehow inspired by your own cultural heritage when you compose?
RP: I can’t say I’m directly influenced, but I find some similarities between my work and the work of other Italian producers. If I had to compare what I hear from Italy with the dark ambient scene in England, with their unmatched technical level and strong sense of evanescence, I would consider the music produced in Italy more poetic, thick and bold, as if it was more substantial.
GP: Do you think that your work, as the head of a label, as a researcher and as a composer influence each other?
RP: They definitely do, but I try to have different instances for each one of the roles.
GP: One last question before you go: I need 3 albums from you. One late album you liked, the album everyone should listen to and your pop album of choice.
– Oh, well! Following your order: