Ahead of Lorenzo Senni's debut Irish performance on February 3, Ian Maleney had a conversation with the Warp Records artist about his conceptual approach to club sounds.
“You are in a club, it’s not even peak time, let’s say, but you are programmed to respond to a drop that, in your brain, you know is coming.”
Soon after I got off the phone with Lorenzo Senni, I found myself with two Youtube tabs open on my laptop. One featured a piece by Curtis Roads, the computer music pioneer, first realised in 1980. It’s a dry, somewhat alienating composition of discrete sound objects Roads had created at various times, with various cutting-edge synthesis techniques, over the previous five years.
At the time of writing, it had 1,948 views.
In the other tab I had the closing minutes of Armin Van Buuren’s set from the Tomorrowland Festival in 2017. It’s a gigantic spectacle consisting of pyrotechnics, strobe lights and some form of trance music I don’t understand. Van Buuren cavorts around the massive stage, draped in a Belgian flag, exhorting the crowd to clap and raise their hands. It’s so far beyond self-parody that I find myself, for the first time in my life, seriously considering a trip to Tomorrowland because it seems like one of the strangest and most foreign experiences through which I could put myself.
The video has been viewed 2,188,475 times.
Finding yourself between these kinds of extremes is a regular sensation when you’re dealing with Senni. Since the release of ‘Quantum Jelly’ in 2012, Senni’s music has drawn primarily on the aesthetics of classic mainstream trance music, but the Italian has combined those sounds with an exploratory, ambiguous and deeply conceptual approach to composition.
The effect is strange – exciting and uplifting one moment, ironic and frustrating the next. The music is constantly playing with the audience’s expectations of what is normal and, with a knowing smirk, asks quietly profound questions about our relationship to sounds and genres.
“I’m fascinated by the extremes,” Senni tells me. “I’m fascinated by being a DJ and making people dance, I’m fascinated by the idea of making something more arty-farty. Sometimes I have ideas, but I have to be honest with myself: when I play in a club at 3am and people don’t really dance, and when I play in an auditorium, and people would love to move a bit, this is really the perfect explanation of what I do. I learned to accept it.”
It’s quickly apparent that Senni is quite content to linger in discomfort, to push the boundaries of what might be acceptable in a given place, or at a given time. Maybe it’s a hangover from his days in punk bands, but this cheerful antagonism lends his music an attractive, puzzling edge. He’s looking for a reaction.
“It’s crazy but it works a lot with how we think of things in our brain,” he says. “You are in a club, it’s not even peak time, let’s say, but you are programmed to respond to a drop that, in your brain, you know is coming. You can be patient for fifteen minutes, but where is this drop? And if you are a bit drunk, you get frustrated. I learned this through the idea of working with build-ups. There was nothing planned at the beginning, it was just very connected to the sound, these arpeggios. I learned this working and working. It’s very effective – people get angry! They come to me and say, ‘Fuck off!’ in my face. If you think about it, that is extreme.”
Senni grew up in the Italian town of Cesena, a few miles from the Adriatic coast. During Senni’s adolescent years, the town was a major hub in the country’s punk scene, and Senni himself played guitar, and then drums, in a number of bands. His parents, he says, were always supportive, even allowing these bands to practice in their house. This approval, tacit as it was, allowed Senni to believe in the idea of music as a discipline, or a vocation.
By the time he turned eighteen, Senni had begun to explore the area’s various superclubs – massive venues for mainstream trance music that accommodated up to five or six thousand people. Senni most often took up residence in these clubs’ second rooms, where you could hear gabber and hardcore sounds.
Bouncing between these two scenes – a straight-edge punk crew one side, and drug-dealing gabber fanatics on the other – allowed Senni to observe a wide range of human behaviour. His taste for the extreme was beginning to develop, and he spotted common ground between these disparate cultures.
“For me, it was fine, it was making sense,” he says. “They were caring about things in the same way as we were caring about things. Having the right patches and the right stickers, they were caring about how they dressed and everything in the same way. I was very respectful. But I think I never even asked the name of a DJ who was playing. I was going out, I was sober, and I was realising what was going on around. But now I can say easily that there are similarities in these two worlds for sure.”
It’s not long after Christmas when we speak, and Senni has just returned to his place in Milan after some time back with his parents in Cesena. The experience, he says, is always nostalgic. Despite having moved away almost ten years ago, most of the records and books he acquired in his teens and early twenties are still packed up in his parents’ house. The past is obviously on his mind when he tells me that he misses playing in bands.
“The band was something very important. A lot of it is just making music with someone in a different approach, however a band works, putting tracks together out of a jam session or just someone coming with an idea and improvising, or everyone was trying to find something. It was a process that was very interesting.
“This is lost a bit, it’s a pity. It’s a lot of things, but if you put it all together, we end up just being alone and it’s a pity because there are so many people making music who are interested in experimenting. And I want to share the responsibility with someone. There’s also that amazing thing where it’s not all your responsibility, so you take more risk in a way. You can really push things forward because it’s positive feedback. You really go for something when maybe alone you start thinking too much.”
Studying in Bologna in his early twenties, Senni discovered a history of electronic music which valued this kind of collaborative spirit. From the early pioneers – John Cage, Iannis Xenakis – through to the contemporary Editions Mego crew – from which Senni cites the Fenn O’Berg trio as an example – he saw a commitment to both seriousness and playfulness which was engaging and unusual.
“I always find it fascinating how it was always with a bit of irony, like John Cage was famous because he was always smiling, and they’d take things not too serious, even if it was serious research that people spent their life on,” he says. “I can see this through the history of electronic music that I was interested in, the experimentation through the 80s, even until the Mego guys who were a very important influence for me. Always in between this academic and completely fucked up world. People like EVOL, everyone coming from that world, was approaching stuff in a very precise way with an ironic touch. Again, this lifts the responsibilities you have a little bit. It’s like, yes, I’m doing this, but I don’t care, but actually I do care.”
This is the kind of ambiguity that resounds through Senni’s music, a sense of being caught in the middle of several equally fascinating options, an almost utopian position of observation or, as he calls it, voyeurism. Trance is the perfect vehicle for this kind of double-edged approach. There’s a lightness to it which comes from its humour and its boisterousness, but there is also a spectacular intensity in its combination of speed, dynamics and melodic lawlessness.
“I didn’t start working with the trance sound because I had something in mind that I wanted to speak about. But I discovered I could take a very personal path. At the beginning it was really only about the sound and how I could work around this very intense genre with very intense melodies and very rich sound, and bring in a bit more of my own context of computer music, a bit more dry and basic and simple.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the melodies, and I figured out how I could get in touch with the sounds at the beginning without realising that I spent my teenage years going to these big clubs and being subjected to this music, being sober in this kind of situation. That’s why I started speaking about rave voyeurism and all these things; I realised I could speak about myself but using the sound I wanted to use at the beginning just because I liked it. But this is very difficult to put together because, even if I’m not that romantic in my approach to music, it’s a lot about yourself.”
It’s this personal investment which elevates Senni’s music above formal experimentalism, and gives it a force which only comes from genuine appreciation of the sound. The concepts we might use to discuss the music emerge naturally from the combination of that sound and the distinct personal history of the affable Italian man responsible for making it. The concept then feeds back into the music, driving it into unexplored spaces, allowing it to grow and change.
“I’ve never been into dance music or dance floor-oriented music from being a DJ. I never DJ’d in my life. Electronic music doesn’t exist to me unless there is a bit of an idea behind it. In the same way, I don’t want to go too much in the bullshit. That’s why I really wanted to have quite a simple, basic concept. Actually, I’m still working on it, trying to make it current, not just explore it for half a year. It’s important to go through a lot of things and refine it always better, develop it.
“People don’t need to know this to enjoy the music, and this is something important for me. You don’t really need to know that I worked with trance build-ups, you don’t really need to know that the rave voyeurism or whatever – I tried to make something you can enjoy without knowing this more conceptual thing. But my experience of looking to a work of someone else, I always really enjoyed to have this thing. There was always something conceptual behind it.”
Sometimes it’s the conceptual things which are the most revolutionary – when John Cage performed his ‘Empty Words (Part III)’ in Milan in 1977, he sparked a riot with his quiet, patient reading. While the genres which Senni has drawn upon – from punk to trance to computer music – have often fallen victim to a performative seriousness no more subversive than the empty gestures of a Tomorrowland headliner, Senni is continuing to push against the limitations of inheritance and exploding familiar forms. It might be discomfiting, but isn’t that always the price of learning something about ourselves?
“You know Godspeed You! Black Emperor?” Senni asks. “I went to a concert of theirs many years ago, and Efrim, the leader, I asked him to sign the record. He wrote me: “All musicians are cowards.” And it’s true! I still, after fifteen years, I still think, why? Maybe there is nothing very deep behind that, but there is something true.”
Lorenzo Senni performs live in Dublin on February 3 with ELLLL and CLU on support. Click here for more.