March 2013

Invisible Narratives

Vanessa Rossetto
By Matthew Revert

The cover of Vanessa Rossetto’s 2009 CD, Dogs in English Porcelain depicts a derelict stovetop, caked in the ghosts of meals past. Turning the cover over reveals a more intimate view of the same stovetop, personalizing the experience and forcing our eyes to decipher the calamity of its history. We are compelled to understand that this stovetop possesses complexity; one immersed in the casual degradation of the quotidian journey. This simple visual progression evokes Rossetto’s approach to music as a narrative facilitator, one that finds a balance between the documentary distance of field recording and the dictum of composition. Hers is a hand the guides listeners gently toward their own conclusions, allowing for ambiguity and a personal connection. Hers is also a voice reluctant to impose meaning, understanding the importance implicit in a narrative’s myriad potential meanings. It is this tendency that makes the notion of writing about Rossetto’s body of work paradoxically antithetical and important.

It seems fitting to commence this piece discussing the imagery accompanying Dogs in English Porcelain. Until this point, her solo work (released via her own Music Appreciation label as a bundle) lacked imagery, residing in plain black sleeves with uniform labels, suggesting nothing. This triad of releases (Imperial Brick, Misafridal, and Whoreson in the Wilderness) was very much the result of an artist searching for a language in which to speak.

The first ones I didn’t know if anyone would want them, did no press releases or promo mail-outs to critics etc.

It wasn’t until Dogs in English Porcelain that a language was decided upon and spoken with great fluency. I’d like to think that the emergence of accompanying imagery was no coincidence; rather an acknowledgement of her chosen language. Rossetto is unsure whether this was a calculated development: “I don’t know that it was conscious, but it seems that way now. It was mostly that I could afford to and felt it worth having them professionally done. The first ones I didn’t know if anyone would want them, did no press releases or promo mail-outs to critics etc.”

Although her first solo CD, Imperial Brick was released just a year before Dogs in English Porcelain, the evolution is profound. Imperial Brick (like the two CDs that follow) affords the bulk of its focus to exploring the aural possibilities of the viola. It’s worth mentioning that Rossetto’s use of the viola is attributable more to having stumbled across the instrument rather than having consciously chosen it as the conduit of her musical vocabulary. The serendipitous nature of her discovery of the viola is analogous to the found sounds that make up the bulk of her work. Its arrival in her work is, in a sense, random like the chatter captured by her microphone and utilized without a context prior to discovery.

Recorded in a single night, Imperial Brick consists of two layers of improvised viola. We are witnessing an artist coming to terms with her instrument and exploring its possibilities in the truest sense. There are primordial glimmers of the work that would follow, such as her ability to layer sound, but in many ways, this recording stands alone as an introduction to possibility. “At the beginning I was trying to figure out how to use my equipment and what a mixer was and those sort of details that you have to work out before you can actually achieve anything other than learning those things.”

Rossetto had no formal musical training. Her education in art centered on painting and printmaking. In her own words, “I only started making music with any commitment in about 2006; prior to that I had mostly been doing visual art.” Although formally distanced from music, these disparate art practices have helped inform her approach to music. “What seemed like random creative experiments at the time I can now recognize as me groping toward both the genesis of the sound practices I’m using today and a beginning interest in quotidiana.” This interconnection of mediums is perhaps more evident in her more recent work, but this background granted permission for the exploration on her early releases. The listener was given access to Rossetto’s introduction to music.

While considered by many to be one of the world’s music capitals, Austin, Texas forms a malapropos home base for Rossetto to proliferate her sound world. The prolific output generated by Austin’s musical community is more suited to those immured within the pre-determined aesthetics of the many established scenes and movements. In contrast to the machismo and brutality inherent in the noise scene, Rossetto’s interest in sound follows a lineage reaching back to the explorations of modern composers, which given the often improvised nature of her sound sources, can often surprise people. Luc Ferrari is perhaps the most obvious, with his integration of natural sounds into complex emotional compositions and is indeed cited by Rossetto as the single greatest influence in her own sound explorations. Other prominent influences include the narrative use of text in Robert Ashley’s work, the slow reveal of Lionel Marchetti’s nuanced compositions and Helmut Lachenmann’s subtle gradations of timbre. Many of the viola techniques explored in Rossetto’s work can be traced to artists like Polly Bradfield and Leroy Jenkins. In recent years, it is the work of Graham Lambkin, specifically his album Salmon Run, that has yielded an ongoing relationship.

Misafridal was recorded around the same time as Imperial Brick and complements the sounds explored to this point while extending Rossetto’s understanding of the language. Her viola is mined for sounds that distance themselves from their origin and the outside world is allowed greater access. The room in which the sound is created is treated as an instrument in its own right and sounds captured from beyond the room are introduced, often without the viola’s interjection. The notion of using the room as an instrument is not new, stretching back to John Cage’s Living Room Music in 1940 and appearing with regularity by various artists since. One senses however that this evolution was more personal than a desire to engage in the dialogue of a historical experimental music context. This desire to include environmental sounds is perhaps Rossetto’s first real quotidian statement. Given the work that would follow, the significance of this statement is palpable.

The development from Imperial Brick to Misafridal is striking when one considers how soon the latter was recorded after the former. We’re not yet listening to the results of a fully formed vision, but we’re drawing closer to its emergence. There are direct lines one can draw from Misafridal right up to Rossetto’s most recent work with Kye Records and beyond.

Whoreson in the Wilderness is perhaps the most notable of Rossetto’s first three releases. Sonically it is more closely aligned to Imperial Brick, but the complexity and depth has taken a considerable leap. Layers and layers of viola coalesce, creating frenetic chatter and feeding off of its own intensity. The nameless bricolage flotsam cascading across Myself with Water is particularly effective, creating an aimless sense of tension, kept in line by the funereal viola drones and scrapes. The seeming chaos is corralled by Rossetto’s growing compositional confidence. Herein lies one of the most compelling paradoxes inherent in Rossetto’s work. Improvisation and composition form a perilous marriage. While the source material is often gathered from improvised experimentation, it is made to exist within a compositional framework. Rossetto herself is the first to classify herself a composer, quick to eschew any notions that she is improvisational in technique. Whoreson in the Wilderness is the first recording that pays tribute to this in a substantial way. The placement of sound is afforded much greater emphasis than ever before and there is no effort to mask narrative drama. The layers of viola become characters in a play, performing their lines in earnest, encouraging the listener to engage in a plot of their choosing. As an album, it is Rossetto’s first real fully realised work and among her most essential releases.

Dogs in English Porcelain, as touched upon above, represents a milestone for Rossetto and signals the direction she has followed in her subsequent work. In contrast to the hasty creation of her first trio of solo releases, DiEP took ten months of daily work to painstakingly construct and consists of a single 41-minute track. Hours of field recording garnered from the minutiae of her daily experience were dissected in an effort to arrive at the essence of those experiences. Moments of life typically overlooked have been afforded profundity; or rather, Rossetto’s ear has intuited the profundity that exists within the ignored. Her role becomes that of aural photographer, focusing the ear, composing frames with her myriad stitched moments, allowing the hidden narrative to emerge.

A focused listen reveals, even in the seeming absence of sound, a universe of activity, the falsehood of ambience. These ambient patterns are, in fact, indicative of immediacy; a distant story occurring to another, who themselves are subject to the ambient narratives of those around them. Life is revealed as a tapestry of minute phenomena, never truly disposable, rather the totality of someone’s moment somewhere. In selecting the snippets of commonplace ephemera for her compositions, Rossetto is creating fictions out of real moments. This is where one must draw a distinction between formal field recording practice and Rossetto’s selective ear. Importance isn’t placed upon the integrity of capturing a moment in time. The importance rests upon how a moment in time can serve a new narrative; in what ways these realities can become fiction. In the moment, one is unable to know if what is being captured will work toward this new narrative. It is only during the act of composition that a pattern forms at all.

In DiEP, this process is only a part of the picture. Rossetto’s viola is weaved (woven?) into this narrative, communicating with these samples of past, guiding them toward the present. It is via the act of composition that these ephemeral moments are given an opportunity to transcend, becoming more than the ignorance of first glance. Periphery becomes the centre of attention revealing previously unknown importance. Even the title, Dogs in English Porcelain evolves in significance as one progresses through the unfolding sound it accompanies. The first reaction to the title might conjure images of a gimcrack collectors plate flogged on late-night television to the sleep deprived. When the listening experience is over, this plate becomes more than its mere physicality. One is left to wonder where the plate was found; how its history has led to this moment. Was it purchased on late-night television decades ago, before commencing a journey from thrift store to thrift store, knowing the touch of many owners? What dogs are depicted on this plate? Why were these dogs selected? Who painted them and why? A simple description blossoms with complexity, asking questions that can never truly be answered. Instead, the listener forms their own answers; answers subject to change. It is in this journey that the music of Vanessa Rossetto reveals its significance.

It was on the strength of Dogs in English Porcelain that Rossetto came to the attention of The Shadow Ring front man and Kye Records founder, Graham Lambkin, who offered the following insight: “Vanessa is able to coax the abnormal from the normal in a fashion few of her peers can match. The most boring shit in the world becomes intriguing, mysterious, and seductive in her hands.”

Initially the invitation was to record a 7-inch for Kye, but soon after, Lambkin decided to move away from 7-inch releases and extended the invite for Rossetto to record a full-length LP. Material initially destined for the 7-inch found its way onto what was to become Mineral Orange.

Mineral Orange distilled the themes explored on Dogs in English Porcelain while adhering to the limitations of the LP medium. On Dogs, Rossetto revealed her comfort in long-form compositions, allowing the narrative to luxuriate in the unbroken lengths the CD format is capable of. On Mineral Orange the narratives are scaled back, and more closely resemble vignettes. These four vignettes sit naturally next to one another, but can be taken individually without sacrificing the overall gravitas.

A great irony in Rossetto’s music is that by bringing the everyday into the world of musical language as it is understood, the everyday becomes alien.

Save for an interlude in the middle of the track, Make Use of the Ground, Mineral Orange is the first recording of Rossetto’s not to feature the prominent use of viola, focusing almost entirely on the dissected field recordings. Any viola interaction is subsumed into the larger picture, bolstering rather than leading. The unhindered piano that closes out Moire Pattern Caused by Dots is also the most openly melodic moment on any Rossetto recording to date. Allowing such intimacy to be captured and placed into the narrative suggests growing compositional courage. Sounds are given the opportunity to stand naked, vulnerable and open to scrutiny. The dense layers of earlier recordings give way to spare passages where each sound occupies a specific place on the stage. When we are given our first true moment of viola in the interlude during Make Use of the Ground, it possesses the same nudity as so many of the sounds elsewhere on the recording. It follows the melodic courage of the piano on track two, forming a motif, little moments that exist in the abstraction surrounding them. These melodic islets become vantage points from which the rest of Mineral Orange can be viewed. A great irony in Rossetto’s music is that by bringing the everyday into the world of musical language as it is understood, the everyday becomes alien. In the distortion of imposed context, these melodic islets are somehow easier to understand than the ocean of commonplace sound surrounding them.

The period following the conception of Mineral Orange was marked by a drop-off in musical activity. “After Mineral Orange I didn’t know what to work on next. I had AMPLIFY coming up and I hadn’t done a ton of solo (or really much of any) performing so I was very anxious about that. I decided to start accepting every performance opportunity I was offered to build up some rudimentary level of confidence and fluidity in performing.”

The AMPLIFY performance in question was a teaming up with Graham Lambkin for the 2011 edition of Erstwhile Records founder Jon Abbey’s festival. The material recorded for the live performances leading up to AMPLIFY would ultimately become the foundation for her next recording, Exotic Exit, released by Kye in 2012. “I ended up developing a lot of material over the course of these performances and would bring that home and tinker with it, taking parts of it out and moving other parts around and eventually had the three pieces [of Exotic Exit].”

This iterative technique reflects Rossetto’s overall approach to composition, a sculpting of captured final forms into a new final form. It is a canvas where fragments of life are assembled into fictions. The incidental nature of the source material can, at times, mask the precision afforded the assembled fiction; indeed it can mask the fictional nature entirely.

Exotic Exit continues to explore the techniques exhibited on Mineral Orange, placing its emphasis on the development of fictions. What is perhaps most striking about Exotic Exit is the use of the human voice as aural phenomena. The titular track features samples of voice sourced from a Catalan language-learning cassette, introducing the listener to the inspiration behind the Exotic Exit moniker. These monochromatically uttered words are at once banal and mysterious. The pragmatic requirement of a language-learning exercise seems subverted by the oddity of the words being taught. In the context of the composition, this disparity is immediately apparent. Existent in its own context however, it is easy to image that the choice of words would remain unquestioned. This moment reveals an overarching tendency of Rossetto’s work – the mystery and exoticism that exists in all things. We, the listener, are being taught to see what lies beyond our superficial reading of life.

The use of spoken word is explored further on side B’s sole track, de trop. Toward its middle, we are confronted with Rossetto’s layered voice repeating the phrase, I’m so tired. A little later, a reading proper, taken from Rossetto’s own writings, is given prominence. The effect is similar to the melodic islets of Mineral Orange, only more direct. The human voice is unmistakably so, and our interpretation becomes bound by these words. It calls to mind the work of a composer like Robert Ashley, by whom, as mentioned, Rossetto is strongly influenced.

For Rossetto, the use of spoken word also performs a pragmatic purpose. “I think [the spoken word] happened because of the pieces developing in live performances, sometimes in contexts with disinterested and distracted audiences. There can be a perception of a more active performative aspect when speech is brought in, whether that speech is live or not. You’re playing in a loud bar and people will ignore an awful lot, but they turn around when they hear a voice.”

I always want visible humanity in things, visible mark making, and do not want to shy away from emotional content which I believe can be very well served by the use of voices.

As pragmatic as this may be, it also reinforces the power of the voice, and what the voice means in a semiotic framework. There is very little else that acts to signify humanity in such a direct way. Even when obscured, or spoken in another language, the voice is universally understood. Within the voice, beyond the mere content of the words, myriad data is delivered. It is possible to understand the mood of a word without understanding the word itself. This semiotic importance is understood by Rossetto: “I always want visible humanity in things, visible mark making, and do not want to shy away from emotional content which I believe can be very well served by the use of voices. I think there’s been a bit of avoidance of vocalisation in some musics that I like and I think that’s unfortunate because of the loss of that expressive potential.

The critical success of Exotic Exit suggests that, in a field of music so often reluctant to engage in direct emotional intension, the emotive can have a place.

The collaborative environment brings out different tendencies in Rossetto’s work, not necessarily apparent when recording solo. On the excellent CD Hwaet, performed with long-time friend Steve Flato, there is less emphasis on composition. Each track occupies the moment without a great deal of concern for narrative importance. The focus is on dynamic immediacy and the experience of sound as sound. While not indicative of Rossetto’s overall body of work, it is invigorating and wonderfully executed. While the sounds themselves are composed to an extent, the improvisations of which it is comprised have been layered and reshuffled as to divorce the composition from a recognisable form. The musical sympathy with Flato makes Hwaet a CD well worth tracking down.

Just released in March 2013 from Another Timbre is a collaboration between Rossetto and UK-based musician, Lee Patterson, called Temperament as Waveform. This fascinating album manifests both the frustration and invention that can emerge from inter-continental collaboration. It is an album of sacrifice – one that subsumes existent tendencies into the creation of a whole beyond individual identity. For Rossetto, this means abandoning the quotidian focus of her solo works in favour of sound for its own sake. It has been used as an opportunity for the viola to make a much greater contribution.

Within the bounds of collaboration, one begins to understand key differences between Rossetto and many other musicians in the field. For many, the notion of creating narratives is antithetical to their musical identity, whereas Rossetto’s identity is predicated upon the narrative drive. Temperament as Waveform exists beyond Rossetto’s identity, occupying a new space, indebted to, but separate from her solo work.

The development of Temperament as Waveform was more a case of what could be removed rather than what could be added: “I remember sending Lee a track to work on that was field recordings and me playing. He told me to send it back with everything but the playing stripped out. It ended up being very quiet and restrained for that reason.”

In this restraint, a distinct, almost classical, musicality can be heard. There is an increased interest in the tone of the instruments used; particularly how these tones interact with one another. At points, one is reminded of chamber music via the ornate, measured dialogue occurring. Other times, the sound is so spare as to exist on the periphery of experience. It is a recording that demands Rossetto maintain total control over her sound, which leaves little room for the unpredictability of environmental recordings.

We emerge from Rossetto’s body of work with a picture of an artist who, over time, has developed an ideology often at odds with the music of her contemporaries. It is indebted to the narrative idiom without apology and draws inspiration from an emotive world beyond process. Her own role in the development of recorded works is amorphous, eschewing the desire to perform her own material. She is, first and foremost, a composer: “composition is my primary interest. I’m not much of an improviser – I have tremendous respect for good improvisers, but I’m not one. I can’t play all the instruments I want to utilize in compositions – I can hardly play the ones I supposedly can! So I can either think smaller or start writing for other people/ensembles and only one of those choices is acceptable to me. And really, I have friends who come alive onstage – it’s something to behold, someone in their element like that. I’m not a performer in that way, though; I come alive in my room with headphones on and a notepad, or as a wandering ear like Luc Ferrari talked about, in the world collecting.” ■



Release Year Label
Whoreson In The Wilderness 2008 Music Appreciation
Imperial Brick 2008 Music Appreciation
Misafridal 2008 Music Appreciation
Dogs in English Porcelain 2009 Music Appreciation
Hwaet (with Steve Flato) 2010 Music Appreciation/Abrash
Mineral Orange 2010 Kye
Exotic Exit 2012 Kye
Temperament as Waveform (with Lee Patterson) 2013 Another Timbre

About the Author

Matthew Revert is an author from Melbourne, Australia. His books include The Tumours Made Me Interesting, How to Avoid Sex and the upcoming Basal Ganglia.