Alessandra Eramo is a Italian musician and vocal performer based in Germany. Originally from Basilicata, one of the most isolated and unreachable areas of continental southern Italy, and therefore still very authentic. She tells us a story of desertification and abandonment of this forgotten area and outlines with us an image of a place that struggles between the temptations of globalization, the thirst for consideration and the attempt to keep their values and traditions intact.
Giuseppe Pisano: Hi Alessandra, thank you for accepting our interview. I’ve just finished listening to your latest album Tracing South (Corvo Records) and I found it very interesting. I read that you are from Taranto, but I was also very curious about the use of the sounds of a Zampogna (Italian traditional bagpipe t/n) in one of your pieces which made me think of other areas nearby.
Alessandra Eramo: In fact, you are right. Despite being born and grown up in Taranto, my mother’s family is from the nearby region of Basilicata. There is where I spend most of my time when I’m in Italy and where I feel my roots really are. My mom is from a very tiny village called Noepoli, at the foot of the Pollino mountain.
GP: Would you ever believe that I’ve actually been there? As that region is one of the ones I love the most in Italy, because of it’s wild nature and the sense of going back to a remote past.
AE: …And you are exactly right. But every time I go back I see change that I cannot overlook and that I eventually take back into my music and art making.
GP: Like for instance?
AE: Desertification is one of the side effects of modernization that I’m most impressed by any time I go back to my area. As you probably know, the geographic area where my village is located is the Sarmento Valley. Sarmento is the name of the river that used to flow there and was vital for the development of agriculture and the survival of all the human groups in the area, but now it is gradually disappearing, drying off. From this idea I made a video work that also became a live performance called Contemplation of Sarmento River, that I presented at the Sound Art Festival Dystopie in Berlin.
GP: I have to admit that I have never seen that river being especially full, but I also must say that the first time I went to that area was perhaps three or four years ago…
AE: But it used to be, and I have to say that going back there every once in a while and therefore not being exposed to that sight in my everyday life I believe I’m more aware of the differences. I feel more touched by such changes, I believe it’s because of a shift in perspective.
GP: Do you believe that the concept of Desertification can also be an allegory for other kinds of resource draining in such remote and peripheral areas?
AE: Yes, definitely. Most critical is the lack of human resources. The young people move away and there is less and less people inhabiting that region. What also doesn’t help is the local politics that doesn’t really allows any sort of cultural development. Sometimes the feeling is that trying to establish a critical, but constructive dialogue, with the institutions and the people there gets in conflict with the mentality of the place, therefore keeping a good relationship is not easy. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of really good things come from there, are produced there, but too often when something is created, people consider only the commercial aspect. The risk is to witness the transformation of certain traditional elements into a mass phenomenon, something pop.
GP: I see what you are saying here. It’s in a way what happened with traditions in other places of southern Italy.
AE: My approach is and wants to be more spontaneous, intimate, personal, filled with things that people don’t necessarily need to know.
GP: So you use the sounds of your place to generate critical reflections mostly to express yourself in relation to an environment.
AE: Exactly, I use the sounds of people who have been excluded, the sounds of isolation. And I might use the ones from Basilicata because they belong to my experience, but not only, as they can be just tiny examples of a condition that is common to a broader community of people. I’m trying to find out whether the concept of South is actually a cultural and political construction, and to do so I also explore sounds from the rest of Mediterranean, and beyond.
GP: And the sea links us all but also divides, in Tracing South this is a very central topic.
AE: What I try to do there is to exploit the characteristics of the sea to introduce also sonically a sense of endless repetition that always changes – and therefore can always lead to something unexpected. The sea is both a human and spiritual dimension, having favored the exchange of people and goods and our cultural development throughout the ages, it is also the biggest open air cemetery. And this is an aspect that we cannot overlook as it is part of our most recent history. Oscillating between melodies, crude energy, noise bursts and these intangible variations I try to create a picture of the sea that is complex, fixed but also constantly evolving.
GP: That is what I’ve noticed mostly in the second track of your album: I cannot neglect the sea. There you repeat the same word over and over again with some gradual change in the asset and the accents.
AE: Like in the prayers of the old ladies in the church, saying the rosary. Words lose their literal meaning and become fluid form of sound that preserve an intrinsic spiritual strength. Such deconstruction allows those who pray to enter an altered state of consciousness. In this sense singing is absolutely special because you are the resonating body of your instrument and a transformation happens inside yourself. This alteration is something that always tickled my interest, and that I would like to push even more.
This week we had a workshop about this topic – the space within voice and gesture – to better explore these aspects in the use of the voice, I was very surprised to see how many actors and contemporary dancers joined.
GP: What I really find interesting in your album is your tendency to leave the listener with lot of space for permeation and interpretation of your work. Listening to it felt like watching some postcard of different instances, many different angles and points of views.
AE: I don’t really like the idea of giving solutions with my music, and I know that whatever answer I might try to give with my music inside such topics will be incomplete or factious. I’d rather generate questions, leave space to the imagery of those who listen. It’s my own way to interpret composition, to leave a work in a more non-defined form is for me also a form of respect.
GP: So, you think that people can have a full experience of your work even being totally unaware of your background?
AE: Yes, I believe it is not necessary to know everything of it. Of course it can give a better context, but polyphonic chanting, repetition, harmonies, dissonances are absolute. Such aspects go beyond every concept or knowledge
GP: But now you live in Berlin, could you tell us why and how did this happen?
AE: I’ve always been making music, when I was in my adolescence I did everything, I was hungry for music. I played in jazz bands, in noise projects, but I could never imagine myself in a conservatory, therefore I went north to Milan to study at the art academy and then I did some exchange in Germany where I ended up staying. I have to thank the experimental figures I encountered along my studies such as Giuseppe Chiari, John Cage, Fluxus that showed me different possibilities and levels of depth in music making and that never abandoned me. What I like about Berlin is that here even the most radical academical environment is active in the underground cultural activity, the city still has a bit of a naïf atmosphere where everyone can be him or herself. It is a hideout for people who would be outsiders anywhere else. But personally, what I consider most important is that it is an enormous Babel tower, with so many languages. I need languages, when I’m somewhere and I can hear people around me speaking four or five different languages I’m happy.