Nicolás Melmann has been one of the most acclaimed experimental Argentinian artists for quite some time. His mixture of accoustic and electronic sounds took him to scenarios that he would have never dreamed of. In this conversation we go through the many facets of his career. Moving to Barcelona, performing at the MET before Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto, but also playing for kids, shows in distant places like Morocco, Japan or the Chaco Province, acoustic vs digital, and much more.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve just performed in Casablanca and also Milan, how were those experiences?
Nicolás Melmann: It was an incredible experience, especially Morocco. I’ve never been in Africa before, neither in a Muslim country, and to be able to go and perform your art in such a remote place from your own culture gives you an opportunity to communicate with people and that environment from a totally different place. Those experiences are very fruitful and unforgettable. People there are really open-minded and welcoming, constantly expressing their gratitude for having you there. The videoart festival in Morocco has been taking place for 24 years, and it was very, very interesting.
Cyclic Defrost: Tell me about the masters that you are doing in Barcelona.
Nicolás Melmann: I decided to start a masters in Sound Art at the Barcelona University, which is what took me to this place. I wanted to move to Europe for quite some time now, and this was the best excuse to do so. I’ve studied music composition with electro acoustic media and this master is the perfect extension of my career, it has a lot of information about diverse aesthetics related to new music, avant garde, sound poetry, music and architecture, etc. It gives you a very interesting theoretical context that the usual composition career lacks of. And it also forces you to produce work, installations, sound cartographies, etc.
Cyclic Defrost: I know it’s quite a new process but, which are the first impressions after settling yourself in the Old Continent?
Nicolás Melmann: During the day one can tell the big contrast between the city’s present and its own history, but at night the streets get empty, light decreases and you tend to believe that you are living in a different era. Walking around the city turns into a romantic experience, to go around the Arc de Triunf or the Goth Quarter becomes a magical experience. One can breath in history and time.
Cyclic Defrost: How is your setup nowadays? And how did it change throughout time?
Nicolás Melmann: At the moment I’m using different types of Guzheng harps (chinese harp), also a celtic harp, a processed lyre, a crystal harp (a glass instrument similar to a xylophone), bawu (a chinese flute), two steel tonge (relative to the hang drum), a small set of tonal percussions made by bars, bells, bike ringers, bowls.
I mix this up with electronics, these instruments go into the computer mostly through processes, and I also use virtual instruments at the same time, field recordings that I constantly make, mostly when I travel, and spoken word. The result is some sort of a sound collage. I think about it as a narration, a dramatic construction, to tell a story using sounds beyond their significance can be perceived as a narration.
In the beginning I started by using just the computer, realized I could write music using software and got myself into that world. After some time I started integrating electronics, rythm machines, kaoss pad, etc. And also acoustic instruments (ukelele, melodic, etc.) until I reached this present tense.
Cyclic Defrost: If you had to choose 2 or 3 instruments or machines, which ones would they be, and why?
Nicolás Melmann: This is so difficult.. Some time ago I bought a gong, and I’m amazed by its sonority, you can play it and get lost on the sound evolution of each note, its complex sounds and the amount of nuances is unbelievable. I also think of the computer as an endless instrument, versatile, in constant evolution and opening up a lot of possibilities.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you think there is an empty space between acoustics and digital? Have you ever seen your work as an attempt to fill that space?
Nicolás Melmann: I think that my quest so far has been trying to connect these two worlds. Electronics lead acoustic instruments towards these ‘impossible worlds’ where physical limitations of the performer and the instrument itself end. For example you could write a chord of 15 notes for piano, impossible to perform for a pianist, unless using his toes!
The electronic processes over acoustic instruments achieve another dimension, another entity, they make a lyre sound like a synthesizer, whereas at the sime time you can feel the organic aspect of its materials like wood, metal, the air movement, the irregularities and the warmth of the acoustic side of it. At the same time, pure electronic sounds have an incredible impact on the brain and its perception of things, those sounds don’t relate to anything in nature or in the ‘real’ physical world, when I hear them I’ve got the feeling that my brain doesn’t know where to place them.
I love to work combining these two sound palettes, the organic aspect of a harp and the purity of an electronic pulse, regardless of the origin of the sound source, I think that you can make music out of any element. My quest is to tell stories through sound, to build these sound landscapes using different sources, instruments, electronics, field recordings, spoken word, foley sounds, some sort of a bucolic sound collage where there is a dramatic development and where you are always going through noise and melody, the concrete and the abstract, acoustic and electronic.
Cyclic Defrost: What are your best memories performing live?
Nicolás Melmann: One was playing at Baficito (children’s version of the BAFICI, a movie festival that takes place in Buenos Aires) I made two different concerts there, the average age of the audience was 5 years. I worked many years writing music for kids for many TV stations, and I’ve used those songs but changing their tempo, and then I played that very fast and projected a movie by Jonas Mekas that has a fast rythm and many pictures of kids. It was magical to see the kids staying still watching and listening, completely silent and integrating two elements that were dissociated. The next day I’ve made a song concert playing the ukelele and the kids were laughing and dancing, pure spontaneity.
I’ve been also performing in museums for many years, and that is also an experience that made me rethink what I’m doing, to understand that what I was making was not strictly music and that it could also fit other environments, and of course the experience of playing sorrounded by works of art is marvellous.
Cyclic Defrost: At the Red Bull Music Academy event in New York in 2013 you represented Argentina, and played a concert right before Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto at the MET. Tell me about that experience.
Nicolás Melmann: It was a very intense experience, the show was sold out already 4 months in advance. Above everything, to be able to perform at the MET, where they have one of the most complete and sublime art collections in the world, with all the energy that it contains and generates, from Egyptian antiques to paintings by Magritte, Klimt, Picasso or Van Gogh. It’s like visiting a temple, a sacred place.
I had the privilege to speak with Sakamoto after my set, he is a wonderful person, I was very surprised when he made comments about my music, he was listening carefully, many artists of his level don’t really pay attention to who is playing before them, but he is a really humble person.
Cyclic Defrost: I’ve noticed that having performed in so many renowned festivals or important events like the Red Bull one, you still chose the performances for kids over those ones that I’ve just mentioned. Is a child’s reaction towards a artistic expression something more authentic?
Nicolás Melmann: Well, there is no doubt that they are pure spontaneity, they break every structure and dynamic established for a concert, it’s quite a challenge and an experience, it was really, really fun. I also remember a concert in the Argentinian Embassy in Washington DC, the audience was really heterogeneus, from different ages and origins, I think those are the best experiences, to leave the established circuits, where everything is obvious and the audience and the performer already know what’s going to happen. I also remember a 70 years old woman that came to give me a hug after a concert. Also playing in a remote place like Resistencia, in the Chaco province, same experience.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you think there is a better reception for the type of music that you make?
Nicolás Melmann: It’s getting better and better every day, but it still remains as something quite difficult. Not everywhere they have established the listening/concert situation for an electronic performer as if you were listening to chamber music. It’s a similar show dynamic, where absolute silence is required, and also attention. And with the exception of the specialized festivals, or maybe some museums, you can’t always achieve that vibe. I think in Germany this works better, I’ve once played before Robert Lippok and he told me that over there, the electronic performers play at opera theaters and that is something completely normal.
My best experiences performing, talking about reception of my music, took place in England and Japan. People there would attend to a concert with a really open minded attitude, they respect the performer. There might also be something about the temporality and the ways of this music which doesn’t really fit our current times, where everything is happening fast and there is a huge attention deficit disorder in everyone, this type of music might not be as entertaining.
Cyclic Defrost: What was the latest great thing you’ve heard?
Nicolás Melmann: I’m following Vincent Moon’s channel, I think there is a lot of priceless material there. He’s doing a bit of the work that Alan Lomax also made, but documented with video and with current technologies, it’s some really good recordings of surf rituals in Chechenia, countryside musicians in Georgia, Buddhist rituals in Vietnam, etc.
I also recently saw Benjamin Clementine live, and it was impressive. I’ve seen some of his videos and thought they were pretty good, on his albums there is a bit of a more commercially approached sound, but you can also hear a great songwriter. The thing is that playing live, without all the things that he has on the studio, he dominates the piano and his voice and is a great performer. I’m also listening to some of The Caretaker, The Downland Project, I think that some songs by Beach House are amazing too. I think of the song as the supreme composition.
Cyclic Defrost: Plans for the rest of the year?
Nicolás Melmann: I’ve just launched ‘Bagatelas’ through the labels Estamos Felices and A O (Arte y Ocio, from Colombia). It’s a work of 13 pieces inspired by old composition structures from the romantic musical period. They are brief and simple. The album goes from traditional instrumentation to electronics, between the musical speech and the drifts in sound.
I’m also working with Maotik, a visual artist from France, we’ve been presenting an AV show throughout Europe. We’ve got several concerts planned for this year in France, Romania, Russia, etc.
And with the help of Asylum Arts I’m working on a project called ‘Spread’, it’s a sound cartography of the Jewish diaspora, a sound map that goes through some of the routes that the hebrew town made throughout its constant migration and several expulsions. I’ve been recording in Rabat, Casablanca, the ghetto of Venice, Turin, Barcelona, etc. I will make an installation as a way to represent different cultural and historical aspects throughout sound. And soon I will be performing Cartridge Music by John Cage at the Paraninfo in Barcelona, and there will be an installation at the San Agustì Convent as well.
You can find the music of Nicolás Melmann here.