Discussions: Passepartout Duo

Pianist Nicoletta Favari and percussionist Christopher Salvito make delicately picturesque music, informed by both their shared interest in travel and instrument design. The combination of these two inspirations, and of the artists themselves, lends Passepartout Duo recordings a spirit of wanderlust driven by – but not confined to – geography.

For their latest, a seven-track LP due June 25 entitled Daylighting. Favari and Salvito designed a set of electronic instruments combining textiles and synth circuits. They were inspired to do so by a trip to China’s Meili Snow Mountains. Despite the novelty of all this equipment, Daylighting is a faithful reflection of the world they saw and heard around them during their visit.

Favari and I traded emails in early May.

Please tell us more about this combination of electronics and textiles.

The story of these admittedly fairly strange instruments dates back to December 2020, just as the epidemic was starting up in China where we were then based. At the moment, we were thinking about how we could start building our own electronic instruments from scratch, after working on some other DIY instruments that we had put together for our last project called Vis-à-Vis.

Two factors really pushed the direction of the work: the first was the magnificent seven-floor electronic component market just down the street from the Swatch Art Peace Hotel where we were currently working. The second was an increasing interest in textiles fuelled by many encounters during the years with very inspiring textile artists.

Taking advantage of an upcoming collaboration with the fashion brand JNBY that just happened at the right time, we tried to find a way to make use of some scrap fibers from their studio in our own creative process. The result has been five synthesizers built over the last year that each combine textile art and electronics in various ways, more or less functional.

The main way that we’re functionally using e-textiles is by making patch points on the instruments using steel wool, and patch cables with pin heads that make use of conductive thread. Some of the instruments feature interfaces which are entirely felt, that then connect to more conventional circuits inside the instrument. It’s been really fun to be required to briefly exit the world of composition and performance to ask ourselves how can we design a circuit that makes this sound or how could this electronic component be created using e-textiles? So far it’s been a steep learning curve with a lot of research that we’re happy to continue doing even a year later.

So a different way of thinking about music. Fair to say? And does this approach limit what you can do?

Well we like to think our approach can at least be thought of as different, but it never seems like our place to qualify our own work. As for limitations, we’re all about working with limitations. Willingly working within the (self)-given constraints is among our favorite approaches to making music. It probably comes from a form of acceptance in being performers on acoustic instruments first and foremost.

In terms of searching for sounds, there’s an ongoing co-creation between our conceptual approach and the simple curious exploration of what we have in our hands. In the process for this album for example, we were reading a lot about the work of Josef and Anni Albers, and their matière exercises. We think that’s an approach we like for sound too, where there is a driving methodical force but it’s about the exploration of inherent qualities of the objects. Then of course we also can take advantage of the coordination with the acoustic instruments, like percussion in this case, which is more immediate.

But yes, I think one big reason we have made five versions of the synth instruments was a desire for an “improved” or more cohesive version of our original ideas. We’ve played around with calling our whole approach Slow Music. It takes the process and stretches it out by taking creative agency over every step, from instrument creation to recording.

How has the music evolved over the course of those five versions?

We created the first two instruments at roughly the same time back in Shanghai. One as a sound source, something which accounts for many of the more conventional synthesizer sounds you’ll hear on the album (but also our very first dive into the world of modular). The second was a way to communicate between synth and percussion – we wanted the percussive sounds to have a direct impact on the synthesizer sounds, so we built something that could do that. Those two instruments are responsible for the first tracks of the album “Plainness” and “Indentations,” written in Yunnan. Everything else evolved from there. Once we left China (and got stuck in studios during the pandemic), we wanted to create ones that integrated the textiles in a more functional way.

I would rather frame our journey less as an evolution, and more as a permutation – something which is constantly bending in different directions all based around the same core material. They create a sort of ecosystem together. The music is also heavily influenced by the percussion instruments we had available. We collected/cut five tuned copper pipes; a lot of the composition is based around how we could reframe – harmonically, rhythmically, timbrically and procedurally – those five notes.

We really wanted to think about what an instrument can be. To try to play “serious music” on less than serious instruments is an idea that’s really playful and attractive for us.

Which is the starting point? Is the music a result of the instrumentation, or did you choose (and create) the instruments to execute on your ideas of what you wanted the work to sound like?

For both our previous album Vis-à-Vis and Daylighting, the instruments are essentially the starting point. In a sense, we thought first about these instruments we wanted to create, and then the sounds followed from there.

We really wanted to think about what an instrument can be. To try to play “serious music” on less than serious instruments is an idea that’s really playful and attractive for us.

But there’s also a sense of necessity behind our creations. Because for the last five years or so we’ve been consistently traveling from place to place. Portability has always been an enormous concern. Our original backgrounds in piano and percussion hardly lend themselves practically to this approach, so the instruments always just followed our own desire to travel and bring our music to as many different kinds of locations and audiences as possible.

Vis-à-Vis was in a way a clear attempt to make a portable setup that we could bring anywhere. With Daylighting and these synthesizers we’re hoping to explore more the nature of electronic instruments, and the performativity that goes with that. We like that each of these creations assume a strong identity, a strong character. But regardless of all of this, there are important core ideas related to sound, an ongoing type of conceptual research about music and about people in the world, that we take with us from one project to the next.

Kevin Press

The Moderns, vols. 1-3 – available exclusively from Amazon

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