Italian multi-instrumentalist and synth aficionado Alessandro Cortini is best known for his years writing, recording and performing as part of seminal US industrial group Nine Inch Nails. Having moved from his home of Bologna to study at LA’s Musicians Institute as a teenager, he became fascinated with modular synths, particularly models built by the late Don Buchla. Cortini’s electronic work became concerned with the sonic possibilities born of technological limitation – work that was part of Nine Inch Nails, but also that of bands such as Modwheelmod and SONOIO as well as his blindoldfreak solo project. In the 2010’s, Cortini began releasing electronic solo albums based on this possibility of limitation, with releases alternating between US indie label Important Records and Dominick Fernow’s Hospital Productions. In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Frosty on RBMA Radio, Cortini remembers the key moments in his nascent synth obsession and the motivations behind his more recent compositions.
I’m interested in the idea of epiphanies and getting turned onto the possibilities of what a world of music can hold. Are there any things that you experienced, even as young as conception or birth, that were early sparks to push you in this direction?
I’m from Forli, which is a small town near Bologna. My grandparents used to live in Ferrara, which is about an hour drive, and every week they’d come visit. I would record cassettes on the boombox, little songs that I would write for them so they could listen to them on the way back home. I’m probably six years old by this point, so we’re talking early ’80s. I think that was the beginning. Getting older, I remember turning ten or eleven, recording farts or burps and then playing them half speed, or recording a noise outside the street and playing them half speed, and hearing the roar of a car at half-speed on the tape. There was always a fascination, strictly out of sound enjoyment. There was no, “What am I going to do with this?”
As you grow older, I think everyone to a certain extent tends to rationalize everything; you find a way to rationalize in a way that fits a specific scene. To me it was guitar playing, more specifically shredding. I was really into playing fast guitar, the ’80s, ’90s sort of scene. That’s kind of what led me to the United States to study guitar, only to realize that the more I was practicing the instrument, the more I was thinking about music and sound in general. If anything came out from me graduating from a guitar school, it was that I didn’t really want to play guitar as a be-all end-all. Guitar was just one way of being expressive. I would say the path has always been getting rid of the rules that everyone has to deal with, because the final goal for me is to be able to go back to that child, at least from a creative point of view.
What was the reason that you set aside the guitar to seek other instruments?
I think there came a moment where guitar showed, at least to me, its limitations as an instrument. It wasn’t really the array of chords or melody of it, because that’s arguably endless no matter the instrument. But the way that I was playing it led me to spend too much time finding cool pedals or whatever, as opposed to any synthesizer that I wasn’t experienced with. You come with no baggage whatsoever, you turn it on, and even the first random sound makes you go, “Holy cow, I could write something on this.”
I got into the modular hardware situation out of abuse of software.
If you are setting up a patch or something on your Buchla, working with these modular systems, it seems like a lot of work to set it to get to that magic moment. What’s your relationship with that process of clearing the boards and starting fresh?
The whole modular approach, to me, comes first and foremost from being an instrument. That’s where I differ from most people that use it, when it comes to Eurorack particularly. Whether it’s Buchla or Makenoise or Verbos or Harvestman or Livewire, I like the vision of one individual that designs an instrument. Whether it is modular or not, it’s a different story. From a modular point of view, I like the fact that it’s an empty canvas when you turn it on, and there’s no rule. I’ve never been able to subscribe to the mentality of, “I have it in my mind, I just need the tools.” To me that’s bullshit. The reason why I have ideas is because I sit in front of something that challenges me.
The other thing I liked about instruments that are built by one manufacturer is that if I get tired I can re-arrange the modules, or take a few modules out and put them in a smaller cabinet, and all of a sudden you realize that you dedicate more time and learn more about those specific modules as opposed to having them in a bigger ecosystem. My friends always say that I’m a grumpy old man when it comes to the Eurorack world, but I do feel like there are so many options that take away from the process that is so dear to me, which is the process based on limitations of what the machine gives you. There are modules nowaday that are digitally based, which is fine, but they have so many options. Some of them you could plug into the speakers right away and come up with a fucking amazing sound from the get-go; one module already has seven kinds of synthesis in it. To me, it’s the equivalent of a handmade, small-batch, hand-numbered and signed microwave dinner. I’m not trying to talk shit about it, but at the end of the day they did all the work for me.
I got into the modular hardware situation out of abuse of software. I’ve always been a software guy until I got my first Minimoog. I had to teach, at a school, Logic Audio. I was stoked to be able to teach what I was good at, but the outcome was that I would come home and I’d have to drink a bottle of wine just to get something creative, because I got so burnt out. Luckily I don’t drink any more, but the bottom line is that’s what pushed me to getting my first analog hardware modular. The tactile approach became such a big part of the creative process itself that I found myself feeling so happy just using my hands to make music.
I think the more cautionary “falling in love with modular [moment]” was when I borrowed the Buchla 200e right before they came out, for a Nine Inch Nails video called “The Hand That Feeds.” A good friend let us borrow his personal 200e. The video shoot was over the course of two days, so I didn’t want to leave it at the shoot. I brought it home and I didn’t go to sleep that night. I brought it the day after and kept my laptop under the table connected to the sound card to record because I’m like, “Fuck, I’m not going to be able to keep this.” That started a love story that brought me to financial crisis and loss of social life. It became an obsession with Don Buchla’s work.
What is it about the sound of Buchlas or your relationship with Buchlas that makes them unique? Suzanne Ciani called them her lover, the most important thing in her life.
I’ve talked on several occasions with Suzanne Ciani about her relationship with the Buchla. I can’t imagine what she went through. Especially back then, something like that would break down, she would have to ship it back to Berkeley, and then shipping it back it would probably get broken again. They’re very delicate machines. When you base your writing and performing career on them, it comes with the baggage of risks. Such a part of her creative process was based on those machines, I can’t even imagine how much of a heartbreak it had been for her. I still perform with Buchla, but at the end of the day, I know that it’s like a candle that burns very bright.
When you joined Nine Inch Nails, you’d seen a call for open auditions. What was the point of engagement with them?
In 2004 I saw a flyer for auditions for Nine Inch Nails, looking for a guitar player and synthesizer or keyboard player. I wanted to be involved simply because everything I had been faced with when it came to Trent’s music spoke to me of someone who was searching for something, sonically and artistically. I knew it’s where I wanted to be. I’m not a keyboard player – I have no background in keyboard playing. I was into synths and I had a first generation Nord Modular. I remember I prepared “Closer” for the audition, where I prepared the bassline and the synth lines with different patches on the modular, and I prepared “Wish” on guitar and synth lines so I could go between guitar and synths. I did the first audition with the bass player, in front of the drummer at the time. Then they called me back and I did the same thing in front of Trent and a lot more people, a lot more nervousness. Then I think they invited me for a day at The Village, the studio where they were mixing With Teeth. That’s where I saw my first EMS synth. Trent let me play with one. That hangout was basically just a way to see how shitty would it be to spend the rest of the tour with me.
I think that what you’ve expressed through your solo instrumental albums is just so beautiful. To me there’s this purity, and you can sense as a listener that you’re having fun exploring these canvases.
The whole Sonno record is based on the word, which means sleep. Originally the compositions were written as lullabies for myself while on tour. I don’t travel very well so it’s very hard for me to sleep. I had an old Roland MC-202 and a few delay pedals. I would set them up on a table in the hotel room and connect it to a little speaker system, and I would set up something that would just run. Longer sequences would repeat and then I would just tweak things and then lay down. Then I started walking around the room with a little zoom recorder and headphones. I’m like, “It sounds weird if I record it from the bathroom, or if I open the window and I can hear traffic, or while I was getting ready for my bath. Wow, the water sounds fucking awesome recorded on top of the sequence coming from the roof.” There was no idea of releasing it – it was just for me.
The Forse releases were all born as my compositions on the Music Easel. After years of searching I was able to find an original one. It was actually the first prototype that Don had ever built. Originally I was still thinking of releasing it on labels that I knew, but it didn’t pan out. My friend Ezra Buchla was at my place and he heard some of the stuff and he’s like, “Well, you should talk to John at Important Records, because I think he’d be interested in this stuff.” The same night after Ezra left my place I won an auction for this Allen Strange book on modular synthesis. I went to pay and the address for the PayPal was John at Important Records. I wrote an email: “I’m sorry, but this is so much of a coincidence. Ezra Buchla just left the house and we were talking about you.” John was super awesome. He said, “Yeah, I’d love to check your stuff out.” I didn’t really think he would release my stuff. Some of my idols like Pauline Oliveros, Éliane Radigue are all on [Important Records]. I’m like, “There’s no fucking way. Who am I?” In my mind I’m still thinking of the 14 year old shredder dude.