Interview with Johnnie Valentino
Tafuri: One of the things that's interesting to me is that the bases for this record are these — what do you call them — "sound beds."
Valentino: Well, over the years, I've always been fascinated by electronic instruments and environmental sounds. Even as a kid, I would remember a motorcycle oscillating as it would be waiting at a traffic light; it sounded like a "drum thing" to me. So, through my twenty years of being in Los Angeles, I collected a whole bunch of sounds. It took me a year to do a collage of these tracks. They were all different environmental sounds, slowed down. I always thought it would be interesting to use something like that to spur improvisation, and that's what I did on this record. So, it took me a year to get the right tracks, to do the right things that would stimulate improvisation, and basically, through the years — twenty years, I collected sounds.
Tafuri: So, these are things where you went around with a tape recorder…
Valentino: Yeah, years ago I used to have an F-1 Sony tape recorder, and I would record environments. And one of the things Russ [Johnson] and also Mick [Rossi] played on had to do with sounds at a construction site that I recorded years ago. I thought it would be very interesting to play and let that trigger — for example, when the jackhammer started — let that trigger when Russ would enter … and things like that.
Tafuri: But each of things we're not hearing in the way you actually recorded them, are we? You've modified them in some way.
Valentino: In some ways, they are modified. In other ways, they're not. Like the one I did with the underwater sounds, it's just a natural environment, and the guitar playing high up with the echo effect sounds like the whales, and Vinny Golia with the flutes and Lisa [Elissa Lala] with the drones is just a combining of environments. I'm very aware of my environmental sounds through my years of working in film. And the reason why Lynch's name even came up for the title of the project is because I know he is very much into environmental sound and sound, in general, in his movies. It even started years ago when I heard Varese do it, first with the orchestra, then with electronic sounds.
Tafuri: Well, Cage, of course, had all those "devices" where he would write compositions, and part of the composition might be a microphone out on the street — for example, on Fifth Avenue — and that would be one of the contributions to what was happening "musically."
Valentino: [Laughs.] Exactly. It's "organizing sound" in a much broader sense, like a collage, but "organizing sound." That's what we do musically: we organize notes. And this is just an extension of what we do: sound organization.
Tafuri: Well, that's funny, because — to go back to Cage for a minute — when I discovered him and his "indeterminacy" in music and how he would write compositions that might include, for example, FM radio in a composition —
Valentino: Right, exactly.
Tafuri: — and his "notation" was
basically instructions on how much to turn what knob or
when to turn what knob or when to increase the volume or
to do whatever. When I started reading about what Cage
did and others, like Varese, did, it seemed like (to me)
they were trying to take music back closer to where it
began. Where did music come from? Well, it was basically
human beings imitating sounds of nature. And, over the
years, we've slowly codified it and constricted it
and put bar lines in and, in the West, said, 'Well,
pitches can only be diatonic.' It seemed to me what
Cage was trying to do was get back to a more natural, a
Valentino: organic —
Tafuri: a more organic thing. It seems, in a way, with all the man-made sounds and other things that are on this recording, that was where your head was at.
Valentino: It's true. I'm very aware of "The Silence." All music has to come from The Silence. Anymore, there's no true "silence," but I figured the environment was the pallet that we should start with: different environmental settings that we should start with — the construction site, the water. And then, instead of having a harmonic basis, let it be expressed over the environments we hear everyday.
Tafuri: The experience of the sound.
Tafuri: So, you have hundreds of these recordings?
Valentino: Yeah, I collect them. I collect 'em, and it takes a while, because it's not just the collection of them, but it's the organization of them on top of each other to really represent the right palette that you want to play over or that inspires you to play over. A lot of times, you slow things down, and you put another thing on top of it. It really, in its own right, is a composition. So, to add other instruments would only take away from that palette. So, it was hard to find the right combination of palettes for each of us to player over. And, sometimes, there're things written on top of them, little melodies; you know, it's not always totally improvised. There'll be like a tone row to play over; each guy will have a different row.
Tafuri: You introduce that as part of the sound environment?
Tafuri: In other words, you said, "For this piece, one of the things I want to integrate is this tone row."
Valentino: Exactly. And the tone row can pass through each person; each person can get a row and can play it as each different environmental thing kicks in. Or the same way, when this whale call happens, then the flute will enter.
Tafuri: So, there were some written instructions?
Tafuri: So, there were certain "cues" in the [sound] bed, in the environmental landscape, that said, 'Start when this starts, then go where you want to go.'
Tafuri: Okay. How did you pick the people that were on the project? Why did you use these people?
Valentino: Well, I thought that all the people [we used] are very sensitive to sound and are musicians who I felt would contribute and understand what I was trying to do ... with Mick Rossi, with whom I've had a long relationship, and, when I heard Russ play, I was just blown away with his tone, and I wanted to hear his tone over a couple of these soundscapes. I thought, 'Oh, man, they guy would be perfect.' You know, all the musicians have a certain sensitivity level, so they understood. If they're sensitive, they understood what I was trying to do; it wasn't like coming from left field, like if you were only a bebopper.
Tafuri: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Valentino: They're open.
Tafuri: It seems like they're sensitive, but it also seems like that, you've picked in these players, people who are responsive as well.
Tafuri: 'Cause it's one thing to be aware of what should be done or to be aware of what they're hearing and to be open to it, but it's another thing to be able to respond to —
Valentino: — what you're hearing.
Tafuri: And all of these guys can turn on a dime and have been in environments where they need to interact with other players in their bands and in their small groups. And it seems like it's the same kind of thing that you're —
Valentino: — and they were open —
Tafuri: — in your session.
Valentino: And they were open, you know. And a lot has to do with Mick, [who] actually co-produced this with me. He had the choice of the New York guys that he wanted to use, and me, the LA guys that I wanted to work with, and it worked out great. We were blown away by the finished product.
Tafuri: Was everyone in the same room together? How did this work?
Valentino: No. Half of the record was done live in Los Angeles after the sound beds were made, and then half of the record was done love in New York.
Tafuri: When you say "live?"
Valentino: Basically, one take over the soundscape.
Tafuri: In the studio, "live" in the studio.
Tafuri: And so, they're all one take.
Valentino: Right. They're all one take.
Tafuri: Did you rehearse any of them, like run them down beforehand?
Valentino: No, we just talked about what we wanted to do when a certain sound occurred, an organic sound occurred. That would trigger somebody or would trigger a row. We made the environment trigger us. So, basically, that's the way it worked.
Tafuri: So, you have hundreds of these sound beds —
Valentino: Yeah, as you know, one of the things I've been doing in LA is, besides scoring movies and TV, I've been doing sound design for years. So, I've been very aware of my environment and sound design for sci-fi children's shows.
Tafuri: What do you mean by "sound design?"
Valentino: When something comes in, from mostly the Orient, [where] things "digify" and they turn around, so, this vehicle or whatever's in front of you — maybe it's a submarine that turns into an airplane that turns into a non-descript, futuristic kind of vehicle — you have to —
Tafuri: — create a sound.
Valentino: — create a sound. And I like to, along with synthesis and sampling and all, have organic sounds. I like to have organic sounds along with synthesizers to make the sound. You know, like if it was a weirdly shaped helicopter, I like to have low bees —
Tafuri: You mean the note B or bees? Like a low note B or —
Valentino: Bees. For me, going [makes the sound of a bee]. For me, it could be nine, ten things happening at once. So, that interests me, and this is the first album [where I've used that]. I've been thinking about the album for years, and I just finally got myself to doing the right balance for us to do it over.
Tafuri: Then, what's the difference between a sound designer and a Foley artist?
Valentino: Well, a sound editor or a Foley artist, specifically — like if you try to put a glass down — tries to —
Tafuri: create the real sound.
Valentino: Yes, tries to create real sounds for a real environment, even though they can manipulate it with something other than the glass itself. But you're trying to recreate something. With sound design, there's nothing there, and you're trying to create something new. That's the difference between a sound editor or a Foley artist.
Tafuri: What are some of the things, for people that might be listening to this record who would be interested in hearing some of your other work — what would be some of the things that you've designed sounds for?
Valentino: Children's shows I've done? There's a show that's on the air right now; it's called Digimon. It's a Disney product; it's very good. And I've done the Power Rangers. On children's shows for sound design, I think I must have done over 4,000 shows.
Tafuri: So, your name would show up at the end?
Valentino: Yeah, so if you could read it that fast as it goes by. Everything from Alvin and the Chipmunks, I've worked with Michael Jackson, Steven Spielberg on Family Dog. At one time, I worked for the Fox Family channel, which was owned by (?sp) Saban Entertainment that was the largest distributor of children's TV. From Ralph Bakshi, I even did the Return of Mighty Mouse. So, I specialize in sci-fi and children's shows. I did a couple reality movies, but mainly my thing was TV, and I would do maybe three to four shows a year at 63 episodes.
Valentino: Yeah. Time's short.
Tafuri: I want to come back to the record, in a second, but something else occurred to me.
Tafuri: Do you "hear" things you see?
Valentino: Do I hear things that I see?
Tafuri: Do you know what synesthesia is?
Valentino: Yeah, I know what you're talking about. That's where...
Tafuri: Your senses get crossed.
Tafuri: It's like with Scriabin. He wrote a piece called Prometheus Poem of Fire. The orchestra's like 90 or 100 players. There a concert piano part in the middle of it. There are all these musicians, but there's also a part written for " light organ." It's actually written right into the score. And each pitch on the score corresponds to a particular color.
Tafuri: And the thing about Scriabin was: he was a synesthetic. He actually would see sounds.
Valentino: See sounds.
Tafuri: Or, for example, some people can hear what they're looking at.
Valentino: Well, I try to do something a little different. My thing is to have the illusion of what you're looking at. To use things that your mind thinks you're hearing, but that you're not really hearing.
Tafuri: What do you mean?
Valentino: For example, if you were walking through grass, and I was sitting here manipulating a 2-inch tape or a cassette, and you would think someone was walking through grass when they weren't. I do the same thing with the guitar on the album. I play these high slides that sound like whales, and they sound like whales to you. If you would see the picture of a whale visually on a screen, you would believe it's a whale's sound, but it's not. Its the manipulation of sound that I'm working with; that's what my mind is thinking about, rather than like Scriabin, which is almost...
Tafuri: Well, it's opposite way.
Valentino: Yeah, it's the opposite.
Tafuri: Well, I guess what I meant to say is that — and this is how I want to come back to the record — if they put a futuristic thing in front of you — you said "something morphs into a spaceship, then that morphs into this "thing" that you can't necessarily tie to anything in real life —
Valentino: Right: bizarre —
Tafuri: Does the starting point pretty much come to you right away?
Valentino: Well, the starting point — when I see something — is that I try to look at the organic element in it that maybe the designer actually drew, that I can get a feeling from, that I can go, "Oh, geez, if I can manipulate this glass really low, that could be my starting element."
Tafuri: But that comes to you right away.
Valentino: That comes to me just like if somebody was playing an Em7b5, what I'm hearing and playing comes to me the same way with sound. That's why, a lot of times, I don't see myself as a musician, but as somebody who organizes sound. And music happens to be that. My extension of sound in Hollywood has always been this thing of manipulating sound, of organizing sound.
Tafuri: That's a great way of putting it.
Valentino: Yeah, that's what we really do as musicians. We organize sound, as composers.
Tafuri: That's true.
Valentino: It doesn't matter if the sound is this [bangs his wedding band on the wooden table] or the sound happens to be a C chord over a G.
Tafuri: Or if it happens to be a sound you've recorded, and now you're literally manipulating it; you're speeding it up or slowing it down or raising it or lowering it or chopping out pieces of it — or whatever. It's the same thing.
Valentino: No matter what we're talking about, it's just a much broader view of sound. You know, why limit it to just notes?
Tafuri: Well, it's like the distinctions people make between music and sound or between music and noise, between sound and noise. Like, when does "sound" become "noise?" You know, one person's "noise" is another person's "sound" is another person's "music."
Valentino: But I'm very affected by silence, and I know that, from out of the silence, all sound must start. Silence has a big meaning in my life.
Tafuri: So, you must really dig — and I'm sorry, if I'm coming in from left field now — Monk's playing, then.
Valentino: I love Monk.
Tafuri: His sense of space in his playing and in his compositions.
Valentino: Yeah. As a matter of fact, the older I get, the more space I want to hear. When I was young, I wanted notes. But now, the space is more important to me then the notes were ... at 20.
Tafuri: That's like one of Monk's favorite quotes, and that's one of the quotes people give all the time. I gotta give you a little side note: I mentioned Cage a little earlier. One of his books that's a collection of his writings and all kinds of other things is entitled Listen to the Silence.
Valentino: Yeah, I think I have it.
Tafuri: Well, all right, then.
Valentino: Naw, I'm a big Monk fan and a big Cage fan, you know?
Tafuri: Well, tell me about your guitar playing. How did you start playing the guitar?
Valentino: Actually, I'm from a big guitar community. There've been great guitar players from South Philadelphia, starting with — living down the street — the great Eddie Lang. The whole Italian community had mandolins in their houses as they came over [from Italy]. My grandfather had a mandolin. There was Eddie Lang; Billy Bean; Pat Martino, who lived around the corner, who I studied with; John Coltrane's teacher, who I studied with, Dennis Sandole, lived a block away; the great Joe Scrow, who made many a record. It was just a rich community of guitar players.
Tafuri: So, basically, you're telling me that it was destiny.
Valentino: It was destiny.
Tafuri: [Laughing.] You didn't have any choice!
Valentino: Well, in the beginning, I didn't want to have anything to do with it. But as I got older, I really fell in love with the guitar.
Tafuri: And did you start playing as a kid?
Valentino: As a kid, I started playing, but didn't want to have anything to do with it; I wanted to play halfball instead. It's a South Philly game; you cut a pimple ball in half, and it floats at ya, and you hit it with a broomstick.
Tafuri: Oh, wow!
Valentino: You cut it in half so you don't break the windows when it hit a window, otherwise you'd break somebody's window. I'd have rather done that, but there was no professional league. [Snickers.] But some people do claim I'm in the Halfball Hall of Fame. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: [Laughs.] But you've continued to play the guitar? I mean, you went on to play it professionally?
Valentino: Yeah. I've played it professionally for all my life. I played on many movies like Entrapment, The Wonder Boys (with Christopher Young), and did the same thing as kids: played every night in clubs starting at age 17. And, oh, man, that's how me and Mick [Rossi] hooked up. Atlantic City opened up for us — we were like 18, 19 — so we went down there and started making money. And actually we're sitting in the first studio in which I did my first records. I did my first record when I was in high school. They used to have a deal with Casablanca Records in this studio, and I did my first records in this studio which is now Ozone. I grew up making disco records. That's how I made my living. [Chuckles.] I actually went to California with a #1 record that they just sampled; I'm talking about that Foxy Brown record Gotta Get You Home Tonight. So, I went to California always participating in jazz and doing my own writing and doing my own records. I had two or three records out with a label called Four Winds that was run by guys from A&M Records. A&M ran Denon then: Lee Smith and Dick Bozzi. Then I actually did something for Priority Records that was Brian Turner at Capitol. Those records were more like acid jazz records of the late '80s. Then I moved on to Nine Winds. Thank God, Frank, the name of your label isn't like "Ten Winds," because I didn't know what I would have [laughs] —
Tafuri: [Laughing] I was going to correct you, thinking you meant to say a different name when you said "Four Winds," but then you explained. I thought, 'Wait a minute, so where did the other 'winds' come from?'
Valentino: I met Vinny Golia and Wadada Leo Smith, and I loved their playing, so we started doing records in LA in that scene, and then onward to this new record. I'm just glad your label isn't called another "Winds." [Laughs.] That would've been...
Tafuri: Well, what was the first one, four? Then nine.
Valentino: Four, nine.
Tafuri: So the next one would've had to go up by five, so it would have had to have been "Fourteen Winds." Now that we have that squared away, I serious question. For you, do the cuts on this recording tell some sort of story?
Valentino: I think each one of them, to me, is a different story. It's not like another record, like an R&B record, where the cuts together tell a story. I really trying to tell the same story a little differently every time. I look at each of these little soundscapes as a completely different story, as a "story in itself," you know. That's why it's called Eight Shorts. So, I see them as short stories or essays or short films. So, that's a good question of how I'm seeing them; each is a completely different experience.
Tafuri: Well, then, what's interesting is that you don't have titles for these pieces?
Valentino: That's true.
Tafuri: I mean, you have a concept, and you could probably tell your own story about each, but it really seems like you want to leave it up to the listener —
Valentino: — to the listener —
Tafuri: I mean, the artists you had in with you in the studio helped create a collective story in the studio. They added to and expanded your vision (if I may used the word "vision" associated with sound), your auditory vision, and then they helped create this composite picture.
Valentino: I think that's what the listener will get: a very visual interpretation of each track. I think they'll be excited not only by the improvisation on each track, but from the very start of the CD, I think everyone will experience something completely different.
Tafuri: But it isn't, is it? You mentioned Lynch earlier and said you know that sound is very important to him, but it isn't like each one of these musical soundscapes is tied to one of his films?
Valentino: Yes. That's absolutely true. They're not tied to them. They're conceptually tied to his outlook on sound and sound design and on the twists and turns of his movies. Each one of the shorts has bizarre twists and turns.
Tafuri: Quirky, bizarre — whatever. I guess that's why, sonically, you think of these vignettes as being sort of —
Valentino: — Lynchesque.
Tafuri: So, not only are you inventing new sounds, now you're inventing new words.
Valentino: And I did send the recording to Lynch, because I would never use Lynch's name in any kind of exploitative way. I sent a copy to Lynch's office and, in typical LA fashion, heard back from Lynch's "people" that David said it was fine to use his name and that he liked the music, and that was great. And I was like, "Well, that's great. I'll definitely use his name then." [Laughs.] But I would never have just sent it out and tried to exploit his name.
Tafuri: Well, it's really interesting, you know, because of all the people in Hollywood to whom sound seems important in their films — and I can probably name two or three more off the top of my head — that of all those people, Lynch is the one who popped into your head.
Tafuri: Are you a fan of his films?
Valentino: Yeah, ah, I've seen most of them. I think he's a great filmmaker. But I don't want to get people thinking that this piece or that piece is related to, say, Mulholland Drive.
Tafuri: It's emulating the method more than the subject matter.
Tafuri: The concept.