Art brut and surrealism help defeat the boredom of repetition for Italian drummer Valentina Magaletti whose projects range from gamelan ensemble work to orchestral improv, and hauntological dream pop to dub. Photography by Amanda Hakan.
Valentina Magaletti leans forward in her chair, drumsticks in hand. She’s sitting in the front row at London’s Cafe Oto, listening attentively to the nine piece Ensemble Nist-Nah. She was invited to play with the French gamelan ensemble by the percussionist and band leader Will Guthrie, and after the latter’s brief introduction, Magaletti jumps behind Oto’s battered house kit for the fourth composition of the set, “Rollin”. Guthrie conducts the ensemble behind a red Premier kit on the opposite side of the stage, and the space between the two drummers is filled with metallophones, gongs of various sizes, bells and Indonesian percussion instruments.
There’s a temperate duel between Guthrie and Magaletti, with each drummer repeatedly striking their handheld cymbal before muting it on the snare. Before long, Magaletti kicks in with the bass drum on each quarter note, giving the composition a house music flavour. By the time the other players come in on the sarons and bonang, Magaletti is in full swing, moving around the drums in brisk but carefully articulated movements. Her cymbal work is light, leaving space for the pitched gongs and metallophones. In her signature gestural style Valentina rolls across the toms and disengaged snare, bringing to attention their complementary timbres.
Magaletti is a prolific drummer who manoeuvres between disparate sound worlds. She has worked with experimental musicians like Lafawndah, Julian Sartorius and Gnod’s Marlene Ribeiro, as well as more mainstream acts such as Bat For Lashes, Gruff Rhys and Nicolas Jaar. In 2017, at the suggestion of This Heat’s Charles Hayward, Magaletti stood in for the late Jaki Liebezeit playing alongside Sonic Youth’s former drummer Steve Shelley in The Can Project, who blasted through a live rendition of Can’s debut album Monster Movie with original vocalist Malcolm Mooney at London’s Barbican Centre.
Magaletti was one half of acclaimed electronic duo Tomaga, until Tom Relleen’s death in 2020. She has released solo work, notably 2020’s A Queer Anthology Of Drums on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku imprint. Her other projects include Avvitagalli, CZN, UUUU and Holy Tongue, but each outfit has its own pool of collaborators and a direction different from anything else that she is involved with, with Vanishing Twin, her art rock trio with Cathy Lucas and Susumu Mukai, probably the most accessible of her projects.
Magaletti and I speak a few days prior to her performance with Nist-Nah and subsequent departure to the US for a Vanishing Twin tour. Over a video call, interrupted only briefly by Magaletti’s cat Ashby, I ask how she manages to collaborate so frequently and with such a varied strata of musicians. “I never slag off any opportunity, if I like the people,” she replies. “You always learn something, or you learn what you don’t want to do. I’m always being told that I’m a softie and should say no more. It’s very clear when it’s me writing and producing, and when I play for someone else. Yes, it’s my drumming, but it’s serving someone else’s music. I don’t see them being connected.”
Magaletti started drumming around the age of 12, when a music school opened near her parents’ house in Bari in southern Italy. She was introduced to the idea that drumming could be a profession by seeing Debbi Peterson playing with The Bangles on MTV. “They looked fantastic. All of them. Not the drumming style, but the vibe. I thought it was a fantastic job. I wanted to study drums and see what it was about. The main thing that separates you from playing the drums or not is having access to a drum kit.” Her first set came piecemeal with a snare and hi-hat given as Christmas presents over a couple of years. After realising that she wouldn’t give up, her parents eventually caved in and bought her a white Rogers set. “To this day, I don’t think my mum knows what a drum kit is,” she laughs. “If she cleans my room in Italy, she dismantles it.”
One of Magaletti’s teachers was Agostino Marangolo of the prog rock band Goblin, known for their scores for the Italian horror film director Dario Argento. Another was the jazz drummer Michele Di Monte. While Di Monte’s traditional methods informed Magaletti’s early bebop style, Marangolo’s beastly breaks and penchant for time signature changes influenced her search for more unconventional sounds. She also studied marimba and vibraphone and experimented with prepared percussion.
Along with her ideas as a composer, these early experiences informed Valentina Plays The Batterie Fragile, a 2017 live recording from the Super Flux festival at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours in France. On it, Magaletti plays a porcelain kit, conceived by visual artist Yves Chaudouët and made under the supervision of ceramicist Marjorie Thébault. By applying wire brushes, wooden reeds and rubber beaters to the static white material, Magaletti’s strokes summon unusual textures that range from wobbly cello-like tones to something akin to a steel pan.
“It’s an instrument that is totally fragile,” she says. “I was transfixed by the idea of presenting something that has different connotations to it being a macho instrument. A drum kit made of the most delicate material, conceptually, is fantastic.” The success of this performance led to a second ceramic kit being made specifically for her. A follow-up recording of the second kit has been produced with engineer Leon Marks, who, along with Portuguese sculptor João Pais Filipe, collaborates with Valentina on the ritualistic percussion project CZN.
The Batterie Fragile is an instrument that rewards delicacy while inviting the player to experiment with texture. Anything more, and the drummer risks destroying the artwork. How important is texture to the rest of Magaletti’s music? “Texture is everything. I’ve always had this idea of playing Lego when playing music; playing with frequencies and finding what’s missing. I’ve been using contact mics probably for 15 years now. I can flip between tribal and industrial. It’s very versatile to me.”
Our conversation recalls one of my earliest drum memories: John Bonham’s lengthy solo on “Moby Dick”, as documented on Led Zeppelin’s 1976 concert film The Song Remains The Same. Even as a child, his performance struck me as ego-driven and boring, as if the drums served only to show off Bonham’s technique in the loudest way possible. “It’s already such an ego boost to have a solo show that you really have to keep it in a box,” she nods. “You have to make sure that everyone who has paid for a ticket to see you gets to have the same fun that you do. I think there’s a social responsibility there for every performer.”
She moved to London in her early twenties and almost immediately started working in the music scene. One of her first bands was Econoline, a Fugazi-inspired quartet who landed a John Peel session in 2002. Since then she’s worked with Gum Takes Tooth and Raime, among many other projects. In the early 2010s, she joined Demian Castellanos’s psych rock vehicle The Oscillation, where she met bassist Tom Relleen. “[Psych rock] has never been my music,” she admits. “I’ve always found it really boring. I think the most important thing in my life was that Tom felt exactly the same. We departed quite naturally away from the guitar and started Tomaga. The freedom of it was incredible: hours of field recording, hours in the studio, micro recording, dictaphones, hydrophones. It was very stimulating, creatively, because there was never one point of reference that we would emulate.”
Between 2013 and Relleen’s death in 2020 after being diagnosed with stomach cancer, Tomaga collaborated with artists such as French composer Pierre Bastien, and released a substantial body of work on labels like Hands In The Dark and Meakusma, compiling three terabytes of sound and music, according to Magaletti. Relleen’s compositions, combined with Magaletti’s post-jazz inflections, often suggest a rediscovered library music archive. It’s a paranormal sound world that’s forever peppered with a healthy dose of oblique recordings. Tomaga’s final album Intimate Immensity was completed just prior to Relleen’s death. Possibly their finest work, the record shifts between states of joy, melancholia and paranoia, managing to be psychedelic without ever slipping into predictability or acid trip cliche.
The collage-style approach to composition is also apparent in Magaletti’s other projects. Due Matte, her collaboration with Marlene Ribeiro, grew out of a 2019 residency at Sonoscopia in Porto. As part of the Hysteria project, the duo ran percussion workshops for female artists who were keen to explore new working methods. iPhone recordings from these sessions became the groundwork for the record. A patchwork of lo-fi sources – tribal drums, rattling fence posts, grainy woodwinds – intermingle with sweeping horns, spatial effects and the occasional spoken word piece. These recordings are akin to a leftfield dub album, and the overall impression is of an outsider artwork that fears empty spaces.
With so much raw material, I wonder how Magaletti organises her work into a coherent whole. “I approach it in a very Kurt Schwitters way: hard-cut edits, putting them together, making sure that the narrative is uninterrupted.” Allusions to visual art have crept up in previous interviews, specifically dada and art brut. To what extent does visual art feed into her aesthetic? “It’s never been a problem for me to feel connected with that way of conceiving and producing art. I think it’s an exercise to defeat boredom, to create an ongoing surprise in the listener. You know when you listen to a record, and you know exactly what it’s going to sound like? My challenge is to always surprise; to turn the page so you don’t know what the fuck is going on.”
The stratification and layering inherent to collage is an important factor in how she perceives her own work. In the same way that a collage can be viewed from various perspectives, when you listen to a sound piece assembled from various sources, new details present themselves to the listener every time.
Although such qualities are evident on solo recordings like A Queer Anthology Of Drums – a dark and intimate diary of her London lockdown days, where drones, recordings and modulated percussive objects serve as foundations for Valentina’s explorative drum work – the concept of montage is best embodied by Avvitagalli. This sound art project also evolved from lockdown sessions, this time spent with Pino Montecalvo in southern Italy. The duo produced a couple of limited edition cassettes, Avvitagalli and Onde Curiosa, for the Bari based “un-folk” label Music À La Coque. Replete with unique covers appropriated from vintage exercise manuals and gambling books, these albums layer recordings of Montecalvo’s toys, handmade instruments and pilfered radio broadcasts with Magaletti’s percussive prowess.
Avvitagalli’s third instalment, None Corsa, is due for imminent release on vinyl via Horn Of Plenty. Most of the same sound sources are there, but this time the spectral radio voices and wayward sound effects are conceptually tied. “It’s about absence and presence,” Magaletti explains. “[The album] comes with a photographic book. We trespassed a mansion [with photographer Adele di Nunzio] that burned down a day before a big wedding. Everything there – the tables, this beautiful piano, frames on the wall – all destroyed. The fire left these crazy prints on the wall. It’s really ghostly.”
The idea of ghostliness is also present in Vanishing Twin, who began life as a quintet in 2015 before recently downsizing to a trio. The band name is a reference to vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Cathy Lucas absorbing her own twin sibling in utero, and Vanishing Twin’s music is evocative of phantoms residing in dilapidated radiophonic equipment. Visually, their aesthetic is steeped in op art and surrealism, but their waltzy interplay of bass, melody and synthetic textures recalls the hauntological dream pop of Broadcast. More recent work like 2021’s Ookii Gekkou sees them channel Piero Umiliani film scores as well as Alice Coltrane and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago by employing soulful jazz, lounge and funk elements. The shift is especially prominent in the playing of Susumu Mukai and Magaletti’s rhythms.
To date, most of Vanishing Twin’s recordings have been made at Malcolm Catto’s Quatermass Sound Lab studio in London. Catto, drummer and leader of the cosmic jazz group The Heliocentrics, collects vintage analogue equipment, and utilises it to achieve the late 60s and early 70s sound of soul and psych. Will the band’s fourth album be in a similar retro style to their previous ones? “I don’t think so. We’re changing direction this time. The next album will be more experimental and free.”
Magaletti has several other experimental ventures on the horizon. First up is Modern Dance Gold: Vol 1, the debut record by her new band Better Corners, featuring mastering engineer Sarah Register, who also plays guitar with Kim Gordon’s touring band, and Wire’s Matthew Simms. Evolving from Simms and Magaletti’s previous collaboration UUUU, the album was recorded remotely and weaves together prepared piano, flutes and modular boxes to create a drone-laden soundscape. Valentina’s distorted rhythms on “It Feels Like Forever” are particularly harrowing, next to the album’s more ambient passages.
Holy Tongue, a dub project with producer Al Wootton, is also preparing a couple of releases: a cassette of their live set at London’s Servant Jazz Quarters is in the works and a third studio EP scheduled for release before the end of the year. “We’ve almost finished the album. It’s going to be massive. We’re taking it to another level with flamenco and this massive brass [section].” London improvisation figurehead and dub music veteran Steve Beresford, who has previously worked with Magaletti and double bassist Pierpaolo Martino on 2020’s Frequency Disasters, appears on two tracks. This is a dream come true, as Beresford played on some of Magaletti’s favourite dub tracks, from The Slits’ Return Of The Giant Slits to Vivien Goldman’s “Private Armies”. In the past, Magaletti and Beresford had also performed together as part of London Improvisers Orchestra.
But Magaletti has a more personal record on the cards. “I was awarded the [PRS Foundation] Women Make Music fund this year. Thanks to them, I’ve just finished my solo album. It has been produced and mixed by Marta Salogni. It’s my most proud work, because I play all the instruments, not just drums. It’s a 360 degree diary, in the vein of Dean Blunt: prankster sonic collage, programmed beats, drums and poetry.” As a drummer-composer, Magaletti eschews convention. Not interested in using the same kit, cymbals or brands as other drummers, she is always on the lookout for alternative textures to add to her palette, whether they be manifested in found materials, effects or handmade instruments created by collaborator João Pais Filipe.
Throughout the conversation, Magaletti talks about drumming as a language that can convey a certain narrative or story. I asked her to unpack this idea. What does it mean to project a narrative through drumming? “In terms of message, it’s never a case of showing people that I can play drums, or feeling like an animal in a circus: the woman playing drums,” she explains. “It’s more about ingoing and outgoing energies between me and the audience. I want to achieve that balance of the absence and presence of sounds. Making sure that everyone in the room can resonate with what I’m saying and not just be listening to a person drumming, which would be excruciatingly tedious, from my point of view, as a listener.”
Avvitagalli’s None Corsa is released by Horn of Plenty.
Better Corners’s Modern Dance Gold: Vol 1 is released by The state51 Conspiracy.
Originally published by Wire, April 2022