Italian musician and composer Sebastiano De Gennaro has announced the release of a new album called Musica Razionale which will be out on April 17th via 19’40”. According to the press release, The six tracks of contemporary music that make up this album are the “sonification” of six beautiful mathematical phenomena.

These six compositions were written not only to be presented as sound objects, but also and above all to arouse interest in the nature of their form. For this reason, listening to them does not end with their respective audio tracks, but with the answer to the question about the form inherent in the tracks themselves.

During the period of the pandemic, De Gennaro was struck by some compositions by Tom Johson and began to observe graphic notation scores based on numerical series, interested in concept of generative or self-generating music for a long time. So, De Gennaro examined mathematical phenomena, selecting six of them, and afterwards he used them for the organization of sound. In his time, Luciano Berio said: “Music is everything we listen to with the intention of listening to music. Everything can become music“. By virtue of this authoritative consideration, De Gennaro took the liberty of naming this project “Musica Razionale”.

Today we have the pleasure to share the official video for the track “Ulam Numbers” It was recorded live at Contemporarities Festival (2021). Watch it below and read our chat with the artist.

“Musica Razionale” is your new album. What are the first vivid memories of this album and what was the main focus when you started to compose it?

Coincidentally, the beginning of the writing work has coincided with the beginning of the pandemic and this certainly and inevitably influences my memories of those days. In any case, those weeks of immobility and silence have helped me to find great calm and concentration. The idea of relying on the rational, even and above all in the process of writing music, captured me. Also because, according to a somewhat rhetorical stigma, the compositional process is most often imagined as the irrational moment in which the musician arrives at inspiration, something I believe little in. I started to read up on some mathematical phenomena and I realised that they attract me because of their rhythm and their great originality in the development strategies. If you think about it, these are the right ingredients for writing stimulating music. This has been and is the focus of “Musica Razionale”: to consider the mathematical phenomenon in itself as a musical object. 

Today we reveal the live video of the track “Ulam Numbers”. Tell us more about it.

“Ulam Numbers” is a piece generated from the number series by Stanislaw Ulam. This is a sequence of integers such that each member can be expressed, in one exclusive way, as the sum of two previous and distinct members of the sequence. Starting from 1 and 2, the first twelve terms are: 1-2-3- 4-6-8-11-13-16-18-26-28. It is evident that the terms that do not respect the definition, and are therefore excluded from the sequence, increase over time. For example, number 5 must be excluded, since it can be obtained by adding 1 to 4 and 2 to 3. This is an apparently paradoxical series that tends towards infinity, as it also becomes more and more selective over time. Translated into melodic intervals, the first twelve terms generate a melody of thirteen notes, which in the piece are played on the xylophone. But this self-generated melody is also hidden in a network of acoustic and electronic noises that are based on overlapping timbral and rhythmic cycles, which were also selected from the Ulam Sequence. In the first part of the piece, where the melody is played by direct motion, these cycles expand. On the contrary, in the second part, where the melody is played by retrograde motion—from the last note to the first—the cycles shrink.

Improvisation and experimentation are two important sides of your music. What is your definition of experimentation in music?

This record is very far from any form of improvisation, but the scores of these pieces are open scores, so they can be played by any musical instrument (or rather, with any object that produces sound); in my case, percussion. Apart from that, in “Musica Razionale” there is no trace of improvisation. 
Personally, I have a difficult relationship with improvisation, I’ve never been particularly attracted to it, nor have I ever felt inclined to practice it, and I confess that I envy those who can improvise. 
Instead, I like to experiment, and this is something independent from the practice of improvisation. I think that experimenting means taking a road without knowing where it leads, proceeding by trial and error and waiting for the fog to clear to find out what the new landscape is. I would like to quote Fabio Punzo, Full Professor in Mathematical Analysis at the Department of Mathematics, Politecnico of Milano, who wrote part of the booklet notes for Musica Razionale. He formulated a beautiful analogy between music and mathematical research: “Mathematics, like music, is a creative act. The composition of a piece is not very far from the formulation and resolution of a mathematical problem. At first, you don’t know where to start. The work thus becomes full of attempts, even unsuccessful ones, and of partial resolutions. It then goes through revisions, stasis, new starts. And not infrequently, after a pause, the ideas become clearer, and we come to the conclusion.”

Let’s talk about current situation. How are you living these strange times and what are the main concerns as artist? 

I know colleagues who have suffered a lot during the pandemic period, and I had a lot of uncertainties too. There are worries about the lack of work, the absence of structured help from the state, a lack of prospects for the future and also loneliness. A psychological pain, exploded also because our category has always been distracted, perhaps incapable, in the very important task of being recognized as a legitimate category of workers. Historically, theatre workers have been much more far-sighted than us. And now, almost as if the ground was prepared by the frustrations of the pandemic, it seems that many government leaders have a great desire for war. I don’t know what to tell you, it is very frustrating to see the stupidity of our human race, there are not many other reasons for what we are going through. We as artists make culture, the only weapon we have to counteract stupidity. Perhaps we should have the courage to continue to make culture even under the bombs, but let’s hope not!

You co-run the label 19”40. So you have two points of view, as artist and as label curator. During these times, Bandcamp was the only online platform which tried to help musicians, waiving their fees on the site on the very first Friday of the month. What do you think of this kind of initiative and what is the most challenging part of running a label like yours?

I don’t know about Bandcamp’s solidarity operation because I don’t deal with digital 19’40”, but it seems to me to be a distinctive behavior compared to what other platforms do. We use Bandcamp for the digital subscription to our record series, and we actually see a very small income from sales every month, it’s a small help. 19’40” is not structured as a label, it is a project carried out together with Enrico Gabrielli and Francesco Fusaro with the intention of offering a listening path with a transversal and non-hierarchical approach to classical, electronic, contemporary and incidental music, a path offered to our subscribers. The releases are all made and played by us with the support of our ensemble Esecutori di Metallo su Carta. We release one record every four months for a very small (at least for now) audience: it’s a kamikaze project, but one that hasn’t crashed yet, which is miraculous. The challenging part for now is to survive financially by proceeding without compromise. We are succeeding because we love 19’40”.