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Surfacing: SONOIO

Surfacing: Sonoio

If you did any flying during late 2011 you may have noticed an unassuming Italian man traversing America’s airports with a carry-on full of electrical equipment, wiring and light bulbs. In the era of shoe bombers, security obsession and general xenophobia, it takes a brave man to negotiate TSA checkpoints with a bag full of technical gear and a foreign passport. Inside that bag is Alessandro Cortini’s entire live show and he’s out to destroy the professional expectations that haunt every musician.

Cortini is a rock star. You may not recognize his face or have his solo project SONOIO on your iPod, but this jovial synth wizard fits the bill. He was a touring member of the Nine Inch Nails and a founding member of electro-act ModWheelMood. He performs as the highly regarded pseudonymous keyboard maven Blind Old Freak and most recently contributed vocals for M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.

Among his current endeavors is SONOIO, an explosive one-man synth act that hauls layered vocals over patterned Buchla synth washes and churning electro rhythms. In the wake of his second release, 2011’s RED, Cortini toured North America opening for Ladytron with an unorthodox live show that found him on his knees every night.

To describe the SONOIO live show as minimalist would be an understatement. A veteran of Nine Inch Nails tours that included some of the most elaborate staging and light displays seen in contemporary music, Cortini took unlikely inspiration from Trent Reznor in designing his comparatively simple show. “Working with Trent there’s a responsibility to a show that works,” he says, “I wanted to do something that could leave a mark.”

When SONOIO hits the stage, Cortini kneels in a circle of six programmed light bulbs that illuminate in mirrored patterns as a line of warm, white lights cast shadows on his hair strewn face as they track up the mic cord. Through the show he triggers remastered albums tracks that sound hotter and louder as they pump live out of his solid state drive Mac laptop and the house PA.

The entire set-up is documented in the official music video for SONOIO’s single “Enough.” Basic and evocative, it captures the heart of Cortini’s no bullshit approach. All of the elements required for a SONOIO show can fit in a carry on and everything except the Mac can be purchased at a Home Depot just in case. Portability is as much a virtue as effect.

Despite the relative ease of producing a live show night after night and the positive crowd response his appearances have garnered, Cortini finds touring burdensome. Translated into his native Italian, the name SONOIO means “It’s me,” a titular tribute to a project born of self-exploration and a built in justification for not maintaining a rigorous touring schedule. Accepted by the music industry as a necessary evil of the digital age, slogging on the road is less of a priority to Cortini.

“Playing the same song every night feels like a test. It feels very forced,” the road weary musician admits, “while I do enjoy touring, I prefer being in a studio.” For Cortini, the possibilities of the digital sensibility mean less about turning a profit on the road and more about self-expression at home.

Top to bottom, SONOIO and Cortini belong to this other digital age. One part artistic vision and another part IT guy tech savvy merge in a sort of musical hacker mentality where the unwritten and uncaptured tones of a synth represent a sort of wild frontier. It’s the mantle of digital musicians to explore and map this realm with a sort of outlaw ethic that despite his very cordial and accessible demeanor, burns strongly in Cortini.

The wide terrain of SONOIO was the product of a liberating epiphany as the musing musician sat down to write songs for one of his other projects, ModWheelMood. “It was the moment when I realized that I could do whatever I want without having to think too much about the consequence,” says Cortini in a statement of genesis that captures the expressive expanse of SONOIO.

His first album Blue (2010) and much of the follow-up, Red (2011), were the product of a two and a half month recording binge. The two albums exist as a continuation of each other. Repetitive lyrical motifs explode with the existential undulations of a powerful moment of self-analysis. Cortini’s digitally augmented voice fluctuates from interior to exterior exploration in very basic and surprisingly soulful musings on isolation and self-reflection.

The process of creating organic electronic rock to accompany questions like “Are you happy?” and commands in the vein of “See yourself” found Cortini navigating a synthetic landscape influenced heavily by Buchla modular synths. Much of SONOIO is the product of careful tutelage on a Buchla 200e interface along with the colorful Buchla Music Easel synth whose rich blue and red hues provided the exact shades used by artist Caspar Newbolt to create the SONOIO album art.

For Cortini, the process of generating music on an analog synthesizer was a personal revolution in his artistic career. Despite an early interest in multi-track and digital recording, Cortini’s first steps into professional music found him studying guitar at Hollywood’s Musician’s Institute. On a trip back to Italy his cousin lent him a Mini Moog synth. The dedicated six-string student spent the following hours obsessively patching and tooling around on the new platform. It stuck.

These early dabblings on synth gave Cortini a level of competence that helped him secure a position as the Nine Inch Nails keyboard player and synthetic guru from 2005 to 2008. His tenure with the band included contributions to the Ghosts project and an official NIN remix along with an invaluable period of disciplined rehearsal and aggressive touring that informed his artistic maturity.

“On a modular keyboard, there are no rules, there’s no wrong,” Cortini marvels. It’s a simple, if even trite statement, but his sentiments express a changing mentality in an entire generation of home-studio digital producers.

For musicians who depend more on digital distribution and accessible recording technology than record label A &R, flaunting artistic freedom strikes at a larger truth that has made rock music so vital. In the contemporary canon, rules can’t matter. Embracing that disregard for convention with new modes and technology presents an opportunity, willingly or not, to become iconic.

With art, noise and style rock stars and synth stars alike lead the way to social frontiers. They mark the horizon of culture and with it new ways to live and new freedoms to express. In the same way that Elvis served as a cultural portent of neo-sexuality, Alessandro Cortini is somehow sensational in his unintentional embodiment of a digital future where synth sounds mark a landscape of strobing anonymity and creative autonomy.

While the SONOIO moniker may be good for another album, Cortini’s interests find him leaning towards scoring and the various projects that call on his acumen. Fans of the SONOIO project might be disappointed to find Cortini moving on, but for this synth-slinging musician from Forli, Italy and those like him, the world is their modular oyster.

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