The layers of Valletta’s soundscape | Renzo Spiteri

For his very first solo sound installation, percussionist Renzo Spiteri has chosen to capture the soundscape of our capital city. He speaks to Teodor Reljic about Between the Heard – in which the multiplicity of Valletta is revealed, not least thanks to a rich array of locally-sourced swear words…

Renzo Spiteri
Renzo Spiteri

First things first: as one of Malta’s most prominent all-professional musicians, how would you describe the past year, and what are you looking forward to in 2017? 

I must say that 2016 has been quite a year for me, and an important one for the development of my professional career. If I had to start from the end of it, 2016 has marked the launch of, in fact, Between the Heard, which is actually my first solo sound installation.

Apart from that, I continued to immerse myself in diverse musical situations. I continued touring with my solo performance ‘Quintessence’ including performances in Malta, Belfast, Manchester and the prestigious Jerwood Hall at LSO St. Luke’s in London. I also had the honour of being selected to perform at the United Nations in Geneva as part of a multinational ensemble: that’s 14 different countries in all! And that’s apart from many gigs, concerts and collaborative projects with local and foreign artists. 

Some projects that I’ve been working on in 2016 will come into fruition this year plus some very interesting new things are lined up too. But more of that in due time. 

What would you say are some of the key challenges that local professional musicians continue to face?

I guess the biggest challenge is to persevere and appreciate that the development of a career is a process that only develops and matures over time. But one needs to be ‘in it’: totally devoted without the distractions of other day jobs which is probably the biggest hurdle for many. It’s pretty easy nowadays for anyone to profess to be a professional artist (check social media!) but few can actually appreciate the hard work, responsibility and commitment that comes with the package. 

Spiteri: “Because of the grid formation of the streets, you can really visualise layers [of sound]. And of course swear words reign supreme in the cityscape!”
Spiteri: “Because of the grid formation of the streets, you can really visualise layers [of sound]. And of course swear words reign supreme in the cityscape!”

You’re best known as a percussionist, but for this particular project you are putting on the cap of ‘sound artist’ first and foremost. Could you describe in layman’s terms what that potentially loaded label means? And did you have to make a distinct shift in your mind between being a percussionist and engaging in this kind of work?

I don’t see myself as putting on caps, really and truly. As a percussion player, I have always been fascinated by the limitless possibilities that lie within the realm of percussion. That has led me to research and think more of what lies beyond mainstream thinking. Abstraction of sound, manipulation and sound design soon became key factors in my work especially in the last four years. 

So, the nature of my solo performances has experienced what I feel is a very interesting metamorphosis. I have become more concerned with sound and less concerned with the performer. I want people to experience what is the essence of music: sound. And experience it in a way that its aural experience is designed by myself so that sound becomes much bigger as an element than the musician who’s actually creating it in that exact instance. I want every space that I’m performing in to be charged with a sound that makes use of the spatial dynamics and the architecture, and to be ephemeral in nature. 

With these thoughts in mind I have been reading, researching and trying out ideas over the past few years and the sound art piece Between the Heard is a very natural progression to where I am going with my work and artistic expression. 

In sound art, the conventional manner by which music is perceived is removed and replaced by a sound/space experience. Therefore, it becomes more of an exhibition piece in which the listeners in a gallery decide on how and when to experience the work.  

Between the Heard seeks to capture the ‘soundscape’ of Valletta. What was the point of origin for this project, and what kind of technical set-up did you need to execute it in the way that you wanted?

As far as sound texture is concerned, there’s quite a strong link between my solo performance Quintessence and the installation Between the Heard. In Quintessence, I wanted to redesign sounds that are urban in nature but, by way of live manipulation, become very ephemeral. In Between the Heard I placed myself in the midst of sounds and noise that is the soundscape of Valletta. 

Over many weeks, I walked around many streets, hidden corners, buildings and what not immersing myself in all that was around me. And I wanted to capture these sounds, conversations and anything I could record to formulate my vocabulary for this sound art piece. I literally began to listen in rather than listen to. 

When the ideas started maturing, I knew that I wanted to design the piece in a way that people can find themselves in that same ‘listening in’ situation. So, I worked with my surround set up in my studio and the piece can be experience in that surround environment. Unlike Quintessence, none of the sounds are manipulated. I just wanted to be faithful and never abandon the real sound sources. And it’s these sounds that are the tapestry that make us Between the Heard.  

Renzo Spiteri’s Between the Heard is a sound installation sourced from Valletta’s daily aural landscape
Renzo Spiteri’s Between the Heard is a sound installation sourced from Valletta’s daily aural landscape

Having completed the project, do you feel as though you can extrapolate something about the ‘character’ of Valletta from the soundscape you’ve helped create?

Between the Heard asks the listener to experience Valletta through sound, and there is no visual aspect to go with it. Because the visual is so strong an element in our every-day experiences, sound is something that takes a bit of a backseat. Therefore listening to, or rather “into” Valletta can be quite a new experience. 

This happened to me ever since I became more of a focused listener while walking up and down roads and alleys in our capital. From such an experience I can say that, without the strong visual elements, Valletta at times can be quite bare. But what I found very interesting was the fact that you can actually layer the sounds and identity of the capital according to your position: whether it’s closest to or farthest away from Republic Street. Because of the grid formation of the streets, you can really visualise layers. And of course swear words reign supreme in the cityscape! 

Why do you think Spazju Kreattiv is the ideal venue for such a project, and what do you hope the audience will ultimately get out of it?

I chose one specific space at Spazju Kreattiv, Space C2 with a short video in C1 because I knew that that space would be just right for this piece. I wanted a very minimal setting (as those who have been there would witness) with the focus being entirely on these five speakers. I designed the whole room setting, lights and how they are suspended in a way that could work really nicely in the otherwise neutral space which is what I was after. 

I hope that the listener, rather than audience, makes Between the Heard a personal experience but that is also an experiment in awareness. Once the listener is out of the installation space, I hope that that person becomes immediately aware that right outside the building, the sounds around him or her are an extension of Between the Heard.

Between the Heard will be open for listeners at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier until January 15. It contains strong language. The work forms part of the project ‘Quintessence’, a Valletta and Open Works Lab collaboration and part of the Valletta – European Capital of Culture 2018 Programme. Between the Heard is also part of the Spazju Kreattiv programme and is supported by Malta Arts Fund, Arts Council Malta