Conor McTernan hears how trance, that most maligned of dance music genres, is the creative fuel behind Warp Records' latest signing.
Senni has been cultivating a specific sound for almost a decade. His primary reference point has been late-'90s and early-'00s Euro trance, while navigating through a trance continuum of sorts. With 2012's Quantum Jelly, released by Editions Mego, his outlandish take on the genre divided opinions. These ideas then evolved on 2014's Superimpositions on Boomkat Editions. Persona, in turn, is another bold leap forwards. Senni's sound palette is still rooted in turn-of-the-century trance euphoria, but here he paints in vivid day-glo colour like never before.
The opening track, "Win In The Flat World," begins like the theme to a lost Japanese platform game. Supersaw chords from his beloved Roland JP-8000 synthesiser (he owns four of them) then come crashing down atop a playful melody. An expansion of his hardware arsenal and the introduction of multi-tracking has amplified his productions to anthemic proportions. There are parallels between Persona and the work of his new label-mates Hudson Mohawke and Rustie—or "the new Warp classics" as Senni calls them. He's mentioned Rustie's Glass Swords as a major influence in his own sonic evolution.
"I always liked the word persona because it's one of the Italian words that is carried over into English," Senni says. "In Italian we use it to describe a generic human being."
Senni seems fixated with certain words, and has devised a kind of vocabulary to help explain his music. On his social media you'll see posts tagged with phrases like "clean trance," "pointillistic trance" and "circumscribed euphoria." These now all sit under the umbrella of "rave voyeurism," the concept that Persona centres on. Senni's main objective is to invite the listener into his world to see how he views electronic music and rave culture from afar.
The record is also inspired by his formative years playing guitar in bands in Rimini, his hometown. Though it may not be easily identifiable, the chords of his music are similar to those found in punk. The text colours on the Persona artwork—black, yellow and red—are a tribute to the Japanese editions ran by Revelation Records, a longstanding punk label based in California.
"I find myself doing things, making music, and then realising that the music was also reflective of my character," says Senni. "It was a surprise to me that after 15 years, I realised that what I was doing was a reflection of how I was going to clubs ten years before."
Senni's idea of the "rave voyeur" is also linked to his sobriety. "There are two main reasons why I haven't tried drugs or alcohol," he says. During the week at school, Senni hung out with friends he describes as "straight-edged." This group were making a lifestyle choice and a statement. Meanwhile, another group of friends in Rimini were gabber ravers, who partied hard at the weekend. "Because they knew I wasn't into it, they didn't offer me anything at the weekend."
They would attend colossal trance clubs like the pyramid-shaped Cocoricò in Rimini. Senni was the only one in the group who didn't indulge in drinks or drugs, giving him a different perspective on nightlife. "I think if you try these things when you are 14, or 18, you realise that there's nothing that bad, or that it's something that you could do sometimes, and then you keep doing it," he explains. "But now I don't need to, I've found my balance."
In any case, Senni is usually the most energetic person in the room. "There is never a dull moment," says Oscar Powell, his close friend and collaborator (they work together as Hot Shotz). "He lights up a room whenever he walks in, and that energy is communicated through his music, too. In fact, he is his music—like most brilliant artists."
The majority of Senni's music is created without drums. "In my music, what sounds like a kick drum is usually the lower part of an arpeggio," he says. "Regarding trance, when a drumbeat drives a track, the song itself isn't really free to go somewhere else. That's one of the key elements that defines the genre."
"It comes back to the JP-8000," he says, referring to the Roland synthesiser that's a cornerstone of classic trance production. He namechecks acts like Rank 1, Cosmic Gate and Tiësto—"huge melodies described by a very rich synthetic sound. It's commercial but with an organic touch. If you go back, there's a way they dealt with filters that's attached to the emotions they wanted to pursue. The filters open an explosion of euphoria like a gate."
Senni's handling of sound stems from his university days in Bologna. "My studies were theoretical," he says. "I wasn't studying notes or how to play piano, I did this myself, but my studies were about musicology, so basically analysing Bach and Mozart to see why they would put one chord after another." This methodology influenced the way he viewed music generally; Senni wasn't interested in trance as a whole, but in particular parts. He began cutting out the build-ups from tracks and looping them.
"I was looking for less drama, or to contain the drama, hence the terms 'flat trance' and 'circumscribed euphoria,'" he says. He started by producing short notes on the JP-8000. "I just start working with the ADSR envelope parameters all set to zero, then slowly open them to reach the shortest note that could satisfy me for timbre and texture."
Senni's DJ sets are usually an hour of build-ups snipped from trance anthems.
He's been collecting them meticulously (he now has over 500) for the past five or so years. To create his desired effect, he chops each build just before the drop. It's a confounding experience—the ultimate tease—as Senni jumps from one build to the next every 30 seconds.
Eight years ago, Senni relocated to Milan to be closer to Italy's art scene. Living with other artists in a warehouse, it was natural for him to attend exhibition openings and private views. He collaborated with artists, and wound up presenting projects in galleries and museums around the city. "Even if Italy is fucked up there is still quite a big group of people who like to spend money on art or support young artists, and Milan is one of the few cities in Italy where you can meet these lovely patrons at illegal parties or in dirty basements."
It was in this cross-disciplinary spirit that Senni reached out to Ed Atkins, a London-based visual artist and poet who Hans-Ulrich Obrist, curator of the Serpentine Galleries, has called "one of the great artists of our time," to ask if he could use a still from an Atkins video for Persona's cover. Atkins' work felt reflective of the voyeuristic concept Senni was going for.
"I came up with the idea while thinking what image could express 'rave voyeurism,' and remembered a video Ed Atkins made titled Ribbons. I went back to it and I saw an image of a guy looking through a hole, his nose is touching the surface, and the guy, a bald android with a human face, is very interested in something. I felt that his work would reflect my concept pretty well." Atkins, a keen sound designer himself, was aware of Senni's music, and he agreed to collaborate.
Keen to explore the Tate before it closes, we take the elevator downstairs and pass through the vast Turbine Hall. We pause to take in the construction of an installation in the main space, before heading to the South Tanks, the space beneath the Switch House building, which recently opened to the public. Senni hints at an exhibition he's been commissioned to take part in next year that should cover similar ground to AAT (Advanced Abstract Trance), his multi-channel installation of breakdowns, falling basses and build-ups that draws from hard trance sounds, and also uses strobes and CO2 cannons.
"CO2 cannons make such a beautiful sound, the whoosh is like acoustic white noise," Senni says. "It's especially beautiful when the gas finishes, and the change of pressure inside creates a different kind of build-up. It's a super strong signal. People who don't really listen to the music will see the CO2 fire and go crazy because they know it's the right time. It's a signal that we are all used to, responding to the build-up like, 'It's gonna come, it's gonna come!'"
Senni relishes having full control over the creative process, something that's evident in Presto!?, the label he runs with Ruggero Pietromarchi that's almost 30 records deep. "Having a label means you reveal your secrets and share your feelings with the outside world, and it's always interesting to see the reactions to what you put out," he says. The range of artists on Presto! is like a diary that reflects his developing taste over time, spanning the experimental computer musician Florian Hecker, the electro artist DJ Stingray and the London dancehall producer Palmistry.
"When people ask me about Presto!? I always say that it is cultural cannibalism," Senni says. "It may sound a bit brutal, but when I like something so much I have this feeling that I want to be like them, so the only way to feel closer to one of these inspiring artists is to do something together, collaborate on something." The label has just released a second DJ Stingray EP, and the release schedule for 2017 includes a new Triad God album and a four-CD retrospective celebrating the work of Toshiya Tsunoda, a Japanese sound artist renowned as a master of field recording.
The Persona release party took place in the backroom of LN-CC in London last Thursday evening. The 100-capacity events space was packed, and felt more like a birthday party than a release launch, with four other Italian artists on the bill and around ten of Senni's friends in town from Milan. During his performance there was crowd surfing, football chanting and even a mosh pit at one point. There were broad smiles across the room. Senni's music may be highly conceptual and experimental, but it still manages to evoke classic rave sensations.