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Interview: Yugen speaks of their brand new album Death by Water

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This spring gave us the latest production of Yugen since 2010, and if you haven’t heard it, it’s a must.

Their sound remains a fusion of avant prog, chamber music and symphonic prog, and is highly influenced by contemporary music, Cinically Correct, a furious start, yet humorous, and playful. Small phrases are fragmented, they respond to each other in a turbulent debris, they start overlapping in a delightful schizophrenia, which stays latent, it surrounds you: now we fragmentate along with it, and we burst, immerse in this sudden chaos that ends as suddenly as it began. This album evokes the movement of the sea with all it's immensity. As-Matter-Of-Breath is one of its highlights: a violent delicacy. Death by Water reminds me of the calm that stirs after the storm, of a still ocean that barely beats to a dark current. It ripples and swallows, with a cadence reminiscent of high tides. It’s very title takes us back to T.S. Eliot’s verses:

“A current under sea

Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell

He passed the stages of his age and youth

Entering the whirlpool.” -T.S. Eliot, Death by Water.

 

Rich in contrasts and colors, this is definitely one of the most thrilling releases of 2016.

Francesco Zago (guitarist and composer) accomplishes to translate poetry into sound, and he granted me an interview to talk about this brand new album:

-Death by Water is a furious, strong piece of work. How did this new album came to be?

I began to think about this new album during spring of 2014. I didn’t write anything new for Yugen since 2010; we released a live album (Mirrors), and I worked a lot for Empty Days and Not a Good Sign projects through 2012 and 2013. I started writing the opening track (Cinically Correct). It seemed I was pushing the most intricate Yugen side – deep complexity but with a rock groove. At the same time I decided to arrange an old guitar piece for this large band: I wrote Death by Water at the end of ’80s, and I still play it in my solo performances. It became clear quite soon that this album was going to take to the extreme a specific Yugen feature - the link between an abstract approach and a purely melodic one. All the album is based on this dualism; as for the band, I wanted to duplicate each instrument (or group of instruments), resulting in a two-bands line-up, sometimes taking each other on, sometimes flowing together. As in Iridule and Empty Days, I wrote music for voice, choosing lyrics from poetry (Duns Grunbein and Dale Willey) and my own writings. Beside Elaine di Falco, I asked Dalila Kayros to sing the most experimental tracks, using her voice-as-an-instrument (Cinically Correct, Der Schnee). As It Was and A House fall in the melodic side, As-a-matter-of-breath in the abstract side. Also, the usual subdivision in main tracks and interludes has been overturned: while in the previous albums the interludes were delicate and atmospheric, here are violent and noisy.

 

 

-There is an aquatic quality to your music, is there a fixation with water in your work?

It seems so. The title track was inspired by a poem by T.S. Eliot I read it and I'm always fascinated by those words. Also, Labirinto d’acqua and some tracks from Empty Days are obviously linked to water. Probably I’m attracted by water as a contradictory element, both source of life and cause of death.

-It’s been ten years since you released Labirinto D’Acqua, can you tell us the story behind Yugen?

That’s a long story… All began during 2004, when Marcello Marinone and me decided to found a new ensemble matching avant-rock and contemporary music. I had already written some tracks we found interesting in this direction, so Labirinto d’acqua began to take form. From the beginning Yugen started as a large group, with a lot of sounds and musicians from many areas. The aim was to merge languages in a new synthesis. After the first CD I worked a lot with Tommaso Leddi (from Stormy Six), and it was a natural choice to record his music with Yugen. Yugen plays Leddi was the result of this collaboration. With Iridule (2010) I went back to my own music, with a strong push on structures and polyrhytmic patterns. In 2011, we had the luck to record our best live act since ever, at Carmaux Festival, France, releasing Mirrors. That band included some stable elements, such as Paolo Botta (SKE), Maurizio Fasoli, Valerio Cipollone. Then Yugen was “hibernated” for a long while – I was working with Not A Good Sign and Empty Days. You already know the story of Death by Water. Notwithstanding this intermittent job, Yugen always remained (and remains) my main project, even though other side projects (Empty Days, Kurai) are deeply related with that research, different faces of the same musical direction highlighting different features of my musical ideas.

Take a little dive into Labirinto D' Acqua here:

 

-What do you think about chaos? Does it play an important role while composing or improvising?

Chaos is a reason to write music. When you write music you’re trying to make order into chaos. Chaos is not a negative term: chaos is the material where your music comes from. Another way to work is composing chaos: irregular structures (mainly using time), harmonic distortion, overlaying, improvisation etc. I would call it “controlled chaos”. In this sense, I use both improvisation and written music as different tools, and not as opposed ones (as people usually see them). I don’t think chaos is exclusively related to chaos. Whatever you’re doing, when you work with chaos, you build some kind of complexity.

-How do you feel Yugen has evolved throughout the years?

Musically speaking, Yugen’s path from 2006 to 2016 is very consistent. There are a few constant lines throughout the music of the group. Each of them has been deepened over the years. Death by Water is a great leap, I think, as I said before: the two “souls” of Yugen's music are extremely evident, more than ever, and all the different sides (writing, improvisation, song form, experimentation, melodic and informal) are very close to the right balance.

-Has your approach to composing changed?

Not in it's core. Probably I just refined it since 2006.

-Are you currently involved or guesting on another project?

Since 2013 I play guitar with Stormy Six, the historical RIO band from Milan. Me and Elaine Di Falco planned to record a second Empty Days CD, but we don’t know when we’ll be able to do it. Red Rex (with Alessandro Papotto from Il Banco, Guglielmo Mariotti and Antonio Zito) is a band that plays the first King Crimson tour from 1969. Then I have my solo performance (ESP) and other chamber music project: Off-Topic Ensemble (with Renato Rivolta) and Repertorio Zero (an electric contemporary music ensemble).

-Tell us about your experience in the RIO music festival.

It was a great musical experience. That night we played so well that we released a live album. The festival is important and a unique experience for non conventional musicians. Instead, I won't tell anything about other more delicate topics…

-How has the RIO music scene changed over the years?

Well, probably I’m not the best one to talk about this. I would say that, after closing the historical movement at the end of ’70, “RIO” became a synonymous of avant-prog or else. Yugen wasn’t born as a RIO band, at least not in my intentions, but has been labeled as a RIO band because of it's style.

-How would you describe your audience?

Attentive. Involved. Patient. But not so numerous…

-There is a science fiction, futuristic soundscape to your music, am I over reaching?

Surely I would exclude science fiction. Maybe futuristic is a better term for my music. But I think this is due to the fact that I work on weird material, and unusual sounds gives an idea of unknown realms and future landscapes.

 

 

-When I listen to your music a vivid imagery starts unfolding before my eyes, and I wonder if visual arts, such as photography, cinema, influence your music. If so, how?

Probably, but not in a conscious way. When I write music, I’m not directly inspired by some kind of imagery. I tend to focus on the musical language in itself. But I see that some of my music gives a strong visual sense as a result. Honestly I don’t know which kind of process is at work here.

-Do you have a favorite film?

Probably more than one. I would say Alien, and some Kubrick.

-Do other art forms influence your creative process?

There’s a clear influence by poetry and literature. In Yugen and Empty Days there are a lot of references, more or less evident. Death by Water, Der Schnee, As It Was, all come from poems – and not just for the lyrics, but also for the musical inspiration. Iridule was almost entirely inspired by Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. I put into music a couple of Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney poems (Running Water, from Empty Days, The Ice was like a Bottle, from Iridule). And so on. But apart from the clearest references, you don’t need to know or understand the literary background behind the music to enjoy it. That’s behind. You should be allowed to appreciate music even though you don’t know or get what’s behind. You can listen to Yugen, and then, if you want, you can go deeper following the hints. But you’re not supposed to get everything. Music should always stand by itself.

-Any particular composers or compositions that inspired you to form Yugen?

Yes, from different genres and times. Led Zeppelin, Ligeti, Bach, Fripp, King Crimson, David Bowie, Iannis Xenakis, Brian Eno, John Dowland, Black Sabbath, Frank Zappa, Michael Nyman. Just to name a few.

-What advice would you give to young musicians?

I’m also a teacher, and I want to be very realistic with my students. Passion and involvement are crucial, but they’re not enough. Music – and art in general, for that matter – is not just fun. You never work hard enough. And don’t expect nothing, nobody gives you anything for free. I hate people talking about music as something necessarily good, and musicians as a sort of “great family”. Music, as any other thing, is competition, struggle, and delusion. And artists are not “nice” people just because they’re artists – they’re common people as well. Now I realize that Cinically Correct would be a suitable motto…

-Thank you so much!

Thank you Ingrid!

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