Runway Music with LORENZO SENNI
Rejoice, readers, Runway Music is back with a new episode. I’m reporting from the hot swamp that is Milan in early summer, where I’m swimming in concrete streets scorching over 30 degrees. In such a stifling environment, I keep thinking about how the industry of creative products avoids conceptualism for the sake of profit. Ideas are scary here. Form, instead, is reassuring. Form is reiterative. It’s easily grasped in terms of tangible objects that have existed in previous versions and are thus easily imaginable in future renditions. Put simply: an armchair, although designed with a clear concept in mind each time, never ceases to be an armchair. It belongs to the absolute category of “armchair,” no matter which specific form it assumes. Aristotle would have said that these absolutes constitute the ontological database of civilization, but we’re not in Greece, we’re in Milan. And here, summer sucks.
Although it seems that everyone is skeptical of ideas in Milan, we have developed, I think, a very peculiar type of intellectual that probably can’t exist anywhere else. A class-defying, status-bending public figure whose conceptual activity is driven by pure instinct rather than premeditation and over-thinking. This person blends the high with the low while making their ideas clear and communicable—no matter how articulated or sophisticated they are.
I couldn’t be happier to have a special guest for this episode of Runway Music, someone who, I think, perfectly embodies the character of the impulsive intellectual. He’s a musician whose conceptual drive has not prevented him from conquering the experimental and the mainstream music scenes. After signing with Warp Records in 2016, Lorenzo Senni became one of the regular names you’d see at big festivals and international venues, and has never compromised the ideas that guide his music. He’s coined terms like “Rave Voyeurism” and “Pointillistic Trance,” played in museums and art institutions, and positioned his work as that of a composer. All the while, he’s distributed his works in the commercial realm, as if the two arenas were almost complementary, if not identical. In fact, I think they are.
I meet Senni in his basement studio in Milan—he spends the entire day in his cave surrounded by cables, synthesizers, posters of punk bands, flags, and various music-related paraphernalia that indicate that he comes from a hardcore punk background. He tells me, emblematically, that his career was born from commerce: he and a group of artists lived in a former factory that a real estate entrepreneur and art collector had bought, who decided to host a group of twenty-somethings before renovating it: “This allowed me to pursue my own work. In another city, you starve to the point that maybe you really have to find a day job that keeps you afloat. Milan was crucial for me because that thing was always there, I never gave up on those branded jobs.”
The cliché of the starving artist who squats dismissed loft spaces and lives off the support of patrons and sporadic odd jobs is nothing new—Philip Glass, just to mention one, worked as a mover in NYC—but in Milan, patrons are replaced by brands, and odd jobs by the commercial application of one’s artistry. “I started going out to fashion parties, started meeting people, and that eventually landed me my first gigs with brands including Nike, Diesel, Camper,” says Senni. “And at the same time, I don’t think I ruined my career, because I’ve always made the kind of music I make, either for brands or for me.”
In a way, he and I share a similar understanding of how the dynamics of the ultra-niche collide and transform into mass dissemination by contingency and curiosity rather than intention—he gravitated towards the branded realm simply because brands were interested in his work, and he was curious about it: “I did it all,” he adds, “the gallery space with an audience of ten people and a broken sound system, the museum with an audience of 20, the club with 30, 40, 50. I’ve been there, and what’s important is to remember those times. If you remember them, then you’re going to be OK.”
The label “underground music” seems to no longer be apt for someone’s practice when they figure out how to provide their services or products or works to as many people as possible. The myth of “selling out,” intended as a somehow demeaning phrase to indicate an artist’s opportunity to look beyond their own patch of grass, is a product of an outdated, naive, boomer mentality.
“Wait, I have to play in front of thousands of people, in the middle of Piazza Duomo, with my music at an insane volume, and, I get to do my thing? Well, of course, I’ll do it!” We’re talking about Moncler’s blockbuster 70th-anniversary celebration, which I believe is a milestone in the history of commerce being conceptually hijacked. Although many would view it as a disgusting normalization of the corporate spectacle, I prefer to see it as an episode of culture jamming, a detournement of the corporate narrative. It is raining that day, and, as Senni explains, “the musicians of La Scala,” who were supposed to perform live that evening, “would never bring their Stradivari violins into the pouring rain.” He gets a call from Moncler the same afternoon, asking if he could perform his own, longer live show for the entire performance. “I mean, I’d do it, but guys,” he tells the brand, making sure they understand what kind of music he plays in his own “regular” live sets, “do you really want a hardcore, straight-up Lorenzo Senni thing?” They ditch the idea, but as planned, the grand finale is all his.
His 2016 anthem “Win in the Flat World” plays at an imaginable volume while 1,952 performers dressed in all-white outfits are arranged in a derivative formation and 18,000 spectators ask themselves: “What the hell is this music?” The answer is: poetic.
His attitude is pretty straightforward: “If the project makes sense, I’ll do it.” Which is also true for his Fendi SS-21 soundtrack. The sound for Moncler and Fendi were commissioned by Michel Gaubert and,for the latter, Senni was asked to reinterpret a portion of the soundtrack from Yuri Ancarani’s film The Challenge (2016). Senni’s collaborator Francesco Fantini, who co-wrote the soundtrack, rearranged it for a string quartet, and this was performed live while looks designed by the brand’s creative director Silvia Venturini Fendi walked down the runway. This collection represented a transition, a tender handover from Karl Lagerfeld—Fendi’s womenswear creative director until his death in 2019—to the newly-appointed Kim Jones, who would debut his first Haute Couture SS-21 collection later on in 2021. In the show, the music also makes a transition from acoustic strings to digital ones in Senni’s track “Dance Tonight Revolution Tomorrow,” which is on his album Scacco Matto (2020). It’s a seven-minute-long syncopated arrangement of pizzicato voices spiraling and merging in pulsing rhythmic patterns.
I replay the track while writing this piece, and I keep thinking of the title as a prophecy for what Senni and I discussed in his cave-slash-studio. Life, and art for that matter, is a game. You either choose to play or not. At the risk of sounding cynical and disillusioned, I mean this in the best way possible. I mean it as a practice. If we dance tonight, and we postpone the revolution to tomorrow, it means we are not monolithic, but impulsive. We are not avoiding revolution or conflicts—Senni’s main desire right now, he says, is to be “thrown” onto mega stages by his agents only for the love of confronting new audiences who are unaware of his musical style. In saying “dance tonight, revolution tomorrow,” we mean that we don’t put any limits or boundaries between dancing and revolting, between trance music and composition, sound and art, niche and mainstream. Maybe Senni wouldn’t agree but from an artist who’s titled his latest album Scacco Matto, (check mate), I expect nothing less than a deep understanding of the structural limitations and challenges of the game. Again: you either choose to play or not. And when you do, you play to win or to defeat the caveats and limitations imposed by an industry that doesn’t understand ideas but reiterates form.