Alessandro Cortini (Bologna, 1976) moved to Los Angeles in 1999, where he made a name by making turbulent electronic music for the band Nine Inch Nails. Shortly after, the Italian found his own way in the new experimental electronic music scene. While exploring analogical synthesizers, Cortini creates his sonically expansive musical canvas using improvisation. His compositions are a sort of profound and enigmatic sound that carries the listener down to a long path full of emotions. “The goal for me at the moment is to make music you don’t have to pay attention to if you don’t want to – if you are doing something else and you want to leave the music on… it adds to whatever is going on.”
I am curious about your family’s background. Are they artists or musicians? How did a guy from Italy end up studying guitar in the Musicians Institute of California? 
I grew up with a lot of music, my mother listened to The Beatles all day long, so I was raised listening to them and many others like Cat Stevens, The Rolling Stones or Italian music: de Andrè, de Gregori, and Claudio Baglioni. My dad used to play the acoustic guitar; this is how I got involved with it as well. Besides, he, as a kid, was in a band. My mother and my father meet in Bologna while studying – then they became doctors and got real jobs in the end. My parents stayed in Italy, in Forlì, where I grew up. Ever since I was 11, guitar was my main instrument and I always wanted to go to the MI in Los Angeles to perfect my guitar playing, so I did it; I moved to LA in 1999. 
When did you exactly start working with synthesizers?
Actually, the first instrument I ever had was a Casio keyboard synthesizer; you know, the ones in white with speakers, I think it was the CT101. That was my first instrument before having an electronic organ and so on, so arguably the first instruments I had were synthesizers. The guitar came later on.
In Italy I did have a rock band, but I never thought that synthesizers could be the base or the main element in my music, this came later. One day I was called to do guitars for a friend’s electronic music band. This was the start of my relationship with synths, he told me about electronics and I told him about rock guitar. I fell in love with synths, and these instruments have always been in my productions ever since. It was much easier to come up with fresh ideas and things that were not possible to achieve with the guitar. This kind of thing excited me. When I joined Nine Inch Nails I was given the chance to extend this facet even more, as I could develop my own thing and adapt it to their songs.
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Which are your music references?
I will say The Beatles, because they taught me melody. With them I understood how important melody is, not necessarily in pop music but in general. I think The Beatles had the ability to create melody in a way that is not obvious, especially in the later records, where you would expect the melody to go in a certain way, but then turns out the other way round. The melodies they created were so good, that they could be played on repeat for ages and never get old.
That is a magic moment of creation!
Yes, it is. As said before, in my teens –around 1994-1995– I was very influenced by my friend’s electronic music band, right after the release of Richard D. James Album (1996) by Aphex Twin, which was an eye opener – not only because it comprised sounds that I did not know that could be possible to produce– taking my limited acknowledge of music at the time into account–, but also because I was fascinated by the way they were used. I think it was a complete marriage of incredibly new sounds and, in a way, how they were presented. Even though it was weird, they were still very relatable. I think Richard D. James has an inner ability to be a “virtuoso” in what he does, but to be very relatable at the same time.
Before them I listened to Depeche Mode – for me they were like a bridge between rock music and electronic music, because they use guitars and also synths. Especially the album Faith and Devotion, it was half rock, with real drums and guitars, and half electronic. In such manner, they are a very good trampoline to get into electronic music. Going even backwards, when I was a teenager and as a guitar player I was a lot into hard rock bands like Guns and Roses, whose show was the first big concert I saw, I went to the gig with my father. During this period, I also listened to Metallica.
Were you into grunge also?
Well, you know, the good thing about growing up in Italy is that you had access to good music without being pigeonholed. I could listen to Metallica, without being considered a metal head, and also listen to Nirvana, Depeche Mode, etc. So I definitely had a lot of variety. Near Bologna there were a lot of independent self-managed centres that offered hardcore shows, so I also attended many of those.
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You were on tour from 2004 to 2008 with Nine Inch Nails, and you were also the leader of the electronic and alternative rock band Modwheelmood. After that, around 2008-2009 you created blindoldfreak, which is formed by the Buchla 200e –an electric music box– and yourself. Please, explain this period a little bit.
Yes, right after I left NIN I was already into modular synths and blindoldfreak was my first solo instrumental thing. I think it was the right moment to do that, and it felt like a very therapeutic process to do something just instrumental.
Then you created another solo project in 2010, Sonoio, for which you built your own synthesizer: a portable modular one named SuONOIO. Why did you make that synthesizer?
Sonoio means “it’s me” in Italian, and it is also made with the same synth as the previous project, the Buchla 200e. In this new project I did make a lot more songs but they were not instrumental, they have lyrics and everything. I made this instrument, a battery powered portable instrument, because nowadays, making music –on its own– is not enough to sell a product. We wanted to do something a little bit more interesting and I thought of that. Then I got in touch with a friend that designs instruments and we felt that this was another artistic field in which we could be creative and have fun. The SuONOIO –which means “sounds me”– was an instrument based in little sounds from the record that could be played backwards, modified, integrated, etc. We did very well, as we sold them all.
In your site I could also watch some videos where you keep the camera focused on the old Buchla. It seems to me that making the machine be the protagonist is like a “love for the object” thing – like opposing nowadays books, records, paper photographs to the digital world. Do you feel nostalgic towards this new digitalized, global world?
For me it is just an instrument, an instrument that looks like a toy. It really called for me to put my hands on it and make music. My idea was to show something that caught me, and to be honest, the fact that was old was secondary; I never saw it as a renaissance. When I started, the Buchla was an instrument very hard to find, so I had to search quite a bit to find one, and I finally did in Mexico City. Anyway, yes, now that I think of it, there is like a renaissance of all these old instruments. Although the old designs are brought back to the market, I believe that the magic of these old instruments is that they were made back in the day. Like everything that was made or built in the 1960s or 1970s, a baggage is given to them. It is not only time that makes them sound different, but it also gives them a personality that a new instrument lacks, just because of the age.
“I know that my job will always be music and for me this is very wide. It keeps me alive to know I can do different things at the same time.”
The first time I heard about you was when watching the movie I dream of wires three years ago. Then I saw you at Atonal and loved the show. From 2013 on, everything you do is highly regarded by the critics and public as well. All these projects mentioned above are part of what you are now, but seems like you don’t give much importance to them and they were launched rather mysteriously. Why is that?
Not at all, every project comes to me as a very natural process. I never think a lot about what is going to come next. I was lucky because being Italian it was very hard for me to accept things and just go, “It feels good so I am just going to do it.” Actually is kind of the opposite, the Italian way is, “If it does not feel bad, it cannot be good at the end.” It keeps me alive to know I can do different things at the same time. I know that my job will always be music and this for me is very wide. I have a company where I make music for commercials –which I love–, for example BMW is one of my customers. I also do remixes for other musicians or bands, and I work for different instrumental music projects: Sonoio or others. I like to jump from project to project, because at the end of the day, I am like a child, to this degree I get bored very quickly of doing the same thing over and over. I feel like if you do something over and over, you tend to forget the magic of it – it is not magic anymore.
In your current project as Alessandro Cortini –with no monikers–, the music is more ambient, with its roots in cosmic and experimental music. It is simple in elements but rich in textures, and powerfully evocative. How much improvisation and composition is there, both in the live shows and in the albums?
It all comes from improvisation from the beginning, and it is always improvisation strictly related to the instrument I am using. I believe that I have a message to convey, and depending on the instrument I use, the language to spread the message is different. In other words, if you listen to my Forse and Risveglio records, or Avanti –the new one–, I think there is a common thread when it comes to the mood, to the feelings, but it is told in a different way, because of the instrument I have in front of me.
As I said, I do not know what comes out. For example, for Forse I used Buchla, I sat down to make music in order to feel better, the goal was not to make a record. Actually, in my entire carrier, I never sat down to make a record. I did it because I needed to take a break from work and wanted to be that child that I was back then, when making music was just for fun. There is a basic feeling when having fun making music. When a certain kind of sound comes out of that, it is very pure, it is very unique, people can relate to it and you can feel it. All in all, sometimes I play things for myself, and sometimes I record them, but it is never planned. It is not structured.
And how do you translate this into a live show, for example in Atonal and BOZAR festivals?
It depends. Avanti, the piece presented in Atonal, was thought as an improvisational show. I played this show for the first time this New Year’s Eve in Berghain. Then the project developed into compositions and soundtracks for my family videos. I made them with old instruments from the 1960s, which do not really land themselves to perform live the way I want to – in addition it would involve a lot of re-patching for some pieces. Therefore, the real fun for me is to be able to find a way where performing live is adding a layer, it is a new way of presenting the record and it is joyful to prepare.
In the case of this show, for the live version, I decided to use a four-track cassette recorder, and then I recorded the original tracks into the old cassette. This way, it gives me the sound of an old cassette and a way to control the speed, to control how the sound goes from left to right doing it by hand, then queuing and de-queuing when I am on stage. Obviously, I have queues where I need to change the cassette and put another one. I try to keep the creative melodic process in the studio and then the creative tone live. While performing, I feel that everybody is scrutinizing me: if I make mistakes or if it is as good as the record… For this reason I try not to think about the process and have fun on stage instead – these are key things in a live show.
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Your trilogy Forse (2013-2015) was released in vinyl –which is completely sold out– and digital. Sonoio can be downloaded, and CDs are also available. What is your opinion on the way we consume and distribute music nowadays?
Forse was released by the label Important Records, and the vinyl were made in a limited edition because they cannot print a thousand vinyl without knowing if they are going to sell them all or not. About digitalization, the revolution of mp3, or whatever… to me, digital means basically free. It should be free of charge.
Should it be totally free?
I mean, one could pay if one wants to, but it is very difficult to keep track of this in a system that is free by nature, you can find it everywhere. Let me explain: when you release a record on vinyl only, someone will copy it some days after and put it in the cloud making it available online. I do release my records on digital and I make very little money from that. I definitively do not make a living from sales; I do make a living by playing live. The days of making money out of record sales –at least in the music I do– are gone.
Do you care if people upload your record to be accessible for everyone?
I do not. I’d rather have people listening to my music and falling in love with what I make. I do not think it is ideal, I’d rather get paid for what I do, but you cannot fight it. If people download your music, they like it, and then they see you are playing in town, they might come to the show.
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Along with the subject of dominant digital world, do you think there are any differences between analogue and digital when consuming, listening or DJing? Which one do you prefer?
I think it is the same as when we talk about cameras – the best camera is the one you always have on hand when you need it. For me, music is the same. I am happy to have music in my phone and listen to it whenever I want to.
The most important thing about records, and something that we always tend to forget, is that when you play a record, you need to sit down and listen, you have to be there and it requires a certain process. As I said, I think the same applies for images and films. I have boxes full of printed photos from my family, and the fact that they are physical photos, gives me a different approach than the thousand of photos I have in my phone. The printed ones are more important. It is the same with records. The object is important, the physical object is very important. As for DJing, I maintain that the physicality of changing records –in my case, the physicality of touching an analogue synthesizer– is different than pressing a key in a computer.
As for your audiovisual performances, I could read that you are interested in visual arts, as for your album Sonoio the cover is an artwork specially created for you. It is a collage with two Matisse-esque characters that point out your European roots. What is your relation with the audiovisual world, which are your references in visual arts, cinema, or music clips?
I really love visual arts, cinema, and specially movies. My favourite movie of all time is Blade Runner. I also love 2001, Alien and lots of Ridley Scott stuff. They are like a reference for me, visually speaking. Actually, I would love to make music for a film, and I am sure one day it will happen. You know, the more you are obsessed about things, the less they come to you. You just need to relax, go with the flow and do your own thing.
As for your AV shows, which are very well executed and almost like cinematic experiences, how do you choose the artists you collaborate with? How is the creative process of every piece/show?
I love to collaborate with visual artists, mostly because they are not in my field. I like to do collaborations with musicians as well, but I prefer people that are not in the scene. With Caspar Newbolt and Sonoio, I told him to use blue and red because these are the colours of the Buchla, then he came with some proposals and it worked. The same applies for the visuals that go with the records Sonno or Risveglio that I made with Sean Curtis. I do have a say, but I give them freedom, I try not to direct. The way I choose them is very organic. I do not research; sometimes I get recommendations, sometimes I like what they do because I have seen it myself.
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For your Atonal and BEAF show this year, Avanti, you were presenting something that seems nostalgic, very intimate and personal, as it is based on Super 8 footage taken from your grandfather’s personal archive; so you use memories from your past. Could you please explain what led you to give shape to this project?
I just knew that my grandfather had many Super 8 movies from the family; he shot my mother’s childhood, her wedding, and my childhood as well, mostly from the 1960s to the late 1970s. Afterwards, he converted them to video (VHS). I had been looking for this for a long time, and when I finally found them I digitalized them. About using them in the show, as I said, I did not choose so; it just felt like it needed to be done. I already had some music that made a lot of sense with the images, so it was very easy to pair compositions with the films. Sean Curtis and I just made some associations between tracks and images. In the show, I also included audiocassettes from my grandfather. He used to put the recorder when we were having dinner and so on. They are just voices, conversations between us that I played in the background, and I brought them up front in some intervals.
Now that we’re getting to the end of our conversation, could you please talk a little bit about the experimental music scene in the US? I mean, the one that is a little detached from the basic patterns of dance house/techno music.
There are a lot of people interested in experimental music the US, especially in Los Angeles, where people have built the experimental electronic music scene from scratch, like Mont Analogue records for example. I would say the scene is less mature than in Europe, and they do not organize this kind of festivals, like Atonal or similar ones around Europe. I must say that I play 80, 90% of my shows in Europe. That is the reason why maybe next summer I might move to Berlin.
To end up with, could you please tell us what you normally listen to at home?
These days, and generally speaking, I try to listen to things that have nothing to do with my work. Right now, I have in my phone the new album of Ozzy Osborne and the new Tobacco record, which I think is great. I also listen to music from when I was 14 years old, like Van Halen. As for electronic music, the new albums of Richard D. James and Huerco S. are amazing.
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