I discovered Italian guitarist/electronic musician/composer Elio Martusciello through a tip from Eivind Aarset. He, in turn, was clued in by drummer Michele Rabbia, who has played with both men. Rabbia claimed that Martusciello performed with just Ableton Live and its plugins. Of course I had to find out about this. The truth proved a bit more complex.
Martusciello’s recorded work is a masterclass in combining noise, melody, vocalists, found sounds, synthesizers, and guitar in a way that makes them seem like natural partners. His complex audio collages never seem crowded, making excellent use of dynamics, space, and tension. Each sound has its place, and works perfectly with every other element. The compositions can feel simultaneously abstract and romantic.
Elio doesn’t speak fluent English, so I decided to do the first print interview in a while. Hopefully, between Google translate and some editing, the essence of his answers remains.
How did you start playing guitar?
When I was 11, I had a serious accident on a motorcycle driven by a family friend. He felt guilty about what had happened and, since he played a little guitar, decided to give me one during my long period of hospital treatment. He taught me the rudiments some simple songs from the Italian musical repertoire.
I had already shown an interest in guitar a few years earlier, building my own out of simple shoe boxes. I cut out sound holes in the lid and fixed some rubber bands as if they were strings. Obviously, they didn’t produce any noteworthy sounds, but to the imagination of a child they were excellent, variously colored guitars.
Later, around the age of 12 or 13, there were young people in my neighborhood who were passionate about music and gathered in the cellar to play in deafening rock bands. Thanks to them my interest turned towards rock and electric guitars.
Playing the guitar soon became my main occupation, even more important than school. My parents complained about my mediocre scholastic results. Nevertheless, they could not resist buying me my first electric guitars. I learned by ear the solos of the great guitarists I heard on records, quickly becoming one of the best guitarists in the neighborhood.
What kind of music were you playing when you started playing guitar?
Inevitably I was drawn to the music the neighborhood bands were playing: Cream, Rory Gallagher, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. Later, around the age of 14, thanks to other friends and the first music magazines, my interest began to expand towards Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Gong, Tangerine Dream, Klause Schulze, Popol Vuh.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
Between the ages of 17 and 18, I heard music on the radio at night that sounded strange to my ears. I began to record those programs on cassette, noting down the names of the composers. It was music that intrigued me a lot, but that I could only experience in complete solitude. I couldn’t share it with any of my friends, as none of them liked it.
I often undertook those solitary journeys at night. Crossing those enigmatic, alien to me, sonic worlds brought me ever closer to the discovery of an inner world. With the purchase of my first computers and samplers, I finally started producing music that moved in the direction of that sound horizon of experimentation, in the direction of a music better suited to my curiosity for everything new.
How important is the guitar in your musical creation? What does it contribute that you could not get in any other way?
After the age of 25 the guitar increasingly played a marginal role in my musical creation. The computer was becoming more and more central, particularly with respect to composition work. Even when I subsequently resumed an improvisational practice connected to experimentation, the guitar appeared only as a marginal part of my performance set.
However, for some time now, the guitar has once again become central. I’m fascinated by its unique timbre, but I’m even more interested in its tactile versatility, immediate sound gestures, and the instability of its sound. These are elements that I had somewhat forgotten with the use of electronic devices. Its main contribution comes from its breathing, from a whole series of very small noises that it produces almost autonomously.
Michele Rabbia told Eivind Aarset that you only use Ableton live for your guitar work, with no additional effects or plug-ins. It is true?
In fact, I use Ableton mainly as an architecture; it is a simple and effective device for general management of processing chains. Almost all of the sound processing devices are actually programmed by myself in Max for Live.
What guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music? In general and for Sismonasties?
I use a Fender Telecaster which is connected directly to Ableton Live through a sound card. For Sismonastie, I recorded some of my solo improvisations with the guitar using the previously mentioned devices, as well as Vegas software. Subsequently, through Vegas, I made small editing touches and gave a new order to the created improvisations. While Vegas is often touted as professional video editing software, it is also professional audio recording and editing software. It allows you to theoretically create infinite audio and video tracks to which you can apply many effects, and to which you can import any external plugin. Furthermore, it is capable of incorporating the very powerful Sound Forge audio editor, which is part of the Vegas purchase package.
I could only find one video of you playing solo live. Do you perform a lot on guitar or do you mainly record?
I actually started playing live, solo with the guitar, immediately after the pandemic, or rather, after the period of maximum diffusion of Covid, so I didn’t do many concerts. and they often didn’t get filmed. I used to play the guitar, but it was placed flat on the table as part of a set where the computer was the center piece. I would say that my activity is divided between composition, radical improvisation, conducting and teaching composition at the San Pietro a Majella Conservatory of Naples.
In that video, and with your ensembles, you’re triggering sounds with the pads of a controller (which one?). Are you activating Ableton clips of found sounds or guitar generated sounds?
With the pads (Akai LPD8), I play samples that I recorded in my studio with my Telecaster. This allows me to layer sounds of the same instrument, as if I could play different things at the same time. I look for solutions that would be impossible for a single guitarist to play, or even for two guitarists with the same instrument, for example: unisons on the same string, or notes too far apart to be played with one hand, all this outside of a regular subdivision of the time it would take for two guitarists to synchronize.
With the controller, I also modify the parameters of the algorithm I created in Max for Live. At that precise moment I’m changing the random function that controls the time interval within which the device samples and reproduces the material I’m playing on the guitar.
I have small metal rings around the strings which, thanks to that movement, slide towards the bridge and stop at the end of the strings leaving the strings free to vibrate or vice versa they slide towards the neck, where, thanks to the vibrations and contact in different points of the strings, they create different harmonics.
What is the guitar’s tuning?
It’s the standard tuning: E, A, D, G, B, E.
In a video with Ossatura, you hit the guitar with an object in your right hand while activating an effect with your left hand on the controller. What’s going on there?
That’s a pre-Telecaster era. However, the logic I used was quite similar to what I explained earlier. The difference was that I could use very different samples with the pads. I could superimpose different materials: piano, synthesis sounds, percussive sounds, vibraphones, woodwinds, etc. So, together with the sound of the guitar, I could create very complex aggregates—you could say orchestral. Some sounds could also be sustained to be spatialized, vibrated, processed over time in a very fluid and unstable way. So I didn’t necessarily have to aggregate only materials of an impulsive nature, but I could differentiate them according to my needs.
You also studied photography. As a photographer myself, I’m amazed at how many guitarists are also photographers and vice versa (like Ralph Gibson and Andy Summers. What do you think the connection is and how do they feed into each other in your work?
I believe that the aspect of photography that has most influenced my understanding of sound is that of focus. Creating the right depth of field to define objects in the foreground, those on intermediate planes and those in the background are fundamental strategies for guiding and creating priorities for the gaze, for composing an effective logic of vision. This is exactly what needs to be done for the ear as well. It is an aspect on which I often insist; all my students at the conservatory are confronted with this fundamental principle that comes from my experience with photography.
When composing for others, what kind of notation do you use?
In reality I very rarely compose for other musicians, but having never studied music. Having instead studied visual arts I prefer to use graphic scores, drawings and visual notes.
The compositions on “Sismonastie” employ noise and abstraction, but still have a romantic element. Do you attribute any of this to your Italian heritage?
Bel canto, lyricism, and sensitivity for the melodic profile are certainly a fundamental part of the Italian musical tradition, even for the Neapolitan one (the city where I was born, and where I returned to live about ten years ago). I can’t say for sure, but during my childhood my ear was certainly exposed to these characteristics of the music of my country and even more to the musical tradition of my city.
During most of my life I have listened almost exclusively to non-Italian music but it is said that all the experiences we have during our first six years of life become the fundamental structure that characterizes and influences our subsequent cognitive qualities.
In general, what are you trying to convey with your music?
For me music is rather a way to embrace and share a deep feeling with others and the world. Just as we arrange our body in precise postures to communicate a desire to embrace the other, I find making music is a way to promote this encounter. I don’t mean between people who already share everything, but between people who want to build something together to share.
Music, as well as our deepest feeling, thrives on this openness beyond the horizon. Music must promote recognizable and shared aspects, but at the same time it must experiment and push listening towards other horizons.
The hug is a good metaphor for music, the hug communicates the desire to merge into one, but at the same time, in order to be able to produce itself, it requires two bodies with an openness towards each other and towards a difference. This harmonizing of differences through an embrace is the deepest meaning we give to the word ethics.
What’s next for you?
At the moment I’m working on two albums. One with my group Ossatura (Luca Venitucci: accordion, piano and electro-acoustic devices, Fabrizio Spera: drums) and the other with a group born this year the Ka’e (all electronic: Stefano Giampietro; Giorgio Bosso, Andrea Laudante Paul Montella). This last group, excluding me, is made up of four young and promising musicians. Just like me they are both composers of acousmatic music and radical improvisers.
As far as the broader meaning with which your question is concerned, afterwards there is always the unknown, the mystery, the enigma… a form of aimless yearning that has always characterized my feeling. For me, this horizon is marked, as I said before, by a feeling of joy, of sharing, of travel. Music is a tool that allows us to grow, to proceed confidently in the world. Music is not an end, but it allows you to access with deep emotion our life, our existence—both individual and collective.