Ambient music pioneer Gigi Masin's story is a remarkable one. Before he was recognized for producing one of the genre’s genuine masterpieces, Wind, the Italian composer spent much of his career in relative obscurity. It took almost three decades for his first masterful experimentations in music production to make their way out into the world. Introverted and melancholic, yet tender and entirely devoid of sharp edges, Masin’s innovative, dreamlike compositions have finally found their rightful place in the spotlight.
In 1986, with limited resources and no access to commercial distribution, Gigi Masin self-released Wind, his first solo album. The record was a personal project, intended as a gift for friends, to be handed out at small concerts in Venice, Italy, his hometown. For the next three decades, the record remained virtually unknown to the rest of the world, confined within its initial, close-knit circulation. But slowly, word spread. Over time, informed record diggers and ardent fans of early ambient music propelled Wind from total obscurity to cult status. Online record marketplaces saw the rare LP regularly fetch more than US$500, eventually compelling Masin to re-issue the album, to allow young people who can’t afford the original to buy a copy. Not long before the much-anticipated reissue of Wind, Amsterdam based record label Music From Memory released a retrospective of Masin’s work spanning 30 years. After decades outside the limelight, the world was finally introduced to the beautiful and emotive compositions of Gigi Masin. The second coming of the man has not been bound by nostalgia either, rather it has culminated in one of the most prolific periods of his career, with multiple collaborative albums released and new solo projects in the works. We sat down with Masin on his recent tour of Japan, his first visit to the country he nearly migrated to 30 years prior.

You’ve lived your whole life in Venice. How important has the city been in shaping your sound and your career?

I was born in the old city and have been in or around Venice my whole life. If you an artist, I believe the city is very important. If you were a painter or a poet for example, it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the atmosphere of the town is really something special. It’s full of history, but also full of joy. It’s underwater. It’s near the sea. It’s near the beaches. It's a fun place for children to grow up because you don’t have cars. You just have great places to play and to study. It's a really romantic place. A place you can’t leave. There was a time in my life when I had plans to move to other towns. Thirty years ago there was a plan to move to Kobe in Japan, because my girlfriend at the time was a teacher of Japanese language in Italy. But in the end we didn’t go. Venice was always the place for me to be.

When you were first discovering music what were you listening to?

At the beginning there were two kinds of music. I had an uncle who gave me a lot of classical music, so my first experience was Vivaldi, Beethoven and Bach. But I also spent my early years listening to the radio. In Italy we have two or three national channels that you could hear bands like the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys, which was nice but not so interesting. Then I discovered radio from Eastern Europe. They played both classical music and a lot of contemporary music. You could hear a lot of strange stuff you didn’t know what it was. For English speaking radio there was Radio Luxemburg, which introduced me to a lot of wonderful jazz, rock and pop music. Then I started to buy records. It was not so easy in Italy. There were very few shops that imported music so you had to get on a train or in the car and travel all around to find them.

So you were collecting records from quite a young age?

Yes, my dream was to be a radio DJ. When I was 18 years old I started working for public radio as host of a late show. I would play 3 or 4 hours each night and because it was the late night broadcast I was free to play whatever I wanted. From Miles Davis to John Martin to Neil Diamond, it was completely open. This was my dream job and I thought I would do it forever.

Being a DJ paved the way for making music, or were you always doing both?

After about 10 years working on the radio, the laws changed and most of the public stations closed. I had to find another job so I started to try and make music. I have some friends working in theater, as actors or writers, and they know I have a lot of records and strange music so they asked me to use them for their productions. I didn’t just use the records as they were, I would play them backwards, or play them very slow. I would record it to tape and reproduce it with strange noises on top.

So this was your first experience with music production. Were you playing musical instruments back then?

No, I always played the guitar but I never thought of it as anything more than just playing with friends. Working with theatre and radio was great because it made me feel I could do something with contemporary music. Also, my girlfriend around that time gave me a synthesizer. It was a POLY-800. I started to play that and fell in love with its simple sound. Not so much music, not so much instrumentation. Just a simple passage, simple sequence, maybe a little piano or trumpet. That was enough. It was a work in subtraction.

Were you chasing a certain sound informed by listening to other artists at the time?

When I did Wind, I thought I was making my own personal kind of jazz. But I played some of the tracks to my friends and one of them said “Maybe this is like ambient.” But I didn’t know about ambient music. I didn’t know who Brian Eno was. He was the keyboardist from Roxy Music! I didn’t know anything about the ambient scene. I didn’t know about Harold Budd, for example. It was strange I just made what I think was an honest album, but it turns out it was more ambient than jazz [laughs].

Wind is at times very melancholic and at other points full of hope. What was the inspiration behind the album and how did you put it together?

To choose the tracks for Wind. I recorded maybe 200 tape cassettes with many ideas. And when I decided to do the record I asked a dear friend to listen and help decide what to choose. It’s direct from what I was feeling at the time. Sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m sad. This is the kind of man I am. They are simple tracks, you can play a track with the sun, and you can play a track with the rain. I love to smile and to joke, but in the same way when the feelings are deeper, I am sad like a cow in the desert. So the up and down you mention is right. I am that kind of guy. But you know, when I try to write a song about love. It’s pretty much always a sad song about love.

You produced and released the record yourself, was that a difficult task?

It was a big challenge at the time in Italy. It was very difficult because of the copyright, because I had no producer, no manager and no agency. It was a real challenge.

What made you decide to self-release?

I never thought to sell the album. It was supposed to be a one and only. It was a gift for friends. Something to have at shows. It was an idea. I never really thought I could sell my music. That was not my reason to make the record. So it was strange after so many years to see collectors selling the record for $500 on the Internet. To me it was not in the nature of the record. So I tried to have a second release with a low price because a lot of young people asked me to have a copy, but they didn’t have the money. I didn’t really want to release it again, but I was forced to for this reason.

You also did the artwork yourself on the original version.

Yes, there is a poem I love by a Brazilian poet. I wanted to use it somehow. I was also very interested in Mesopotamian script at the time and tried to study how to write it. The cover of Wind is my attempt to reproduce the poem in Mesopotamian text.

After Wind, you released a split LP with Charles Hayward in 1989 [Les Nouvelles Musiques De Chambre Volume 2] followed by The Wind Collector in 1991. After that there is a period of ten years when you didn’t release any music. Were you still making music during this time?

After The Wind Collector, I stopped making music. I went back to working in theater. I spent many years traveling around Italy with poets and writers. They used to have readings in nice places like museums or old churches and I would play music on turntables or sometimes the piano. That was my musical life at the time. But I stopped doing new music and stopped recording. I wrote a comedy for theater. I did a few things but I wasn’t writing music.

In the early 2000’s a number of artists, including Bjork, sampled your work. Around the same time you released your first music in over a decade. Was there any connection between these events?

Bjork came across my music through a German Trio called To Rococo Rot, who had sampled a piece of Clouds, a track I did for the Sub Rosa label in ‘89. She ended up sampling it too, then around the same time a DJ from Tokyo, Nujabes, also sampled it and it went around and round like that. In a way it maybe led me to do new things. I released two CD’s for an Italian label, but there was no great result. Then about 10 years ago, we had a flood in Venice and it destroyed 90% of everything I had, my keyboards, my guitars, my records and my tapes. I was left naked. I was fortunate though because I had a friend who asked me to do a new album not long after and that helped me to come back to music again. If that hadn’t happened I probably would have stopped altogether. Instead I bought a computer and tried to start making music on that, it was a new beginning for me.

Your retrospective album Talk to the Sea was released in 2014 on Music From Memory, a label run by the guys at Redlight Records in Amsterdam. How did that relationship come about?

I’d had several requests from people who wanted to release my old stuff. My main condition was that I wanted to meet the guys wanting to do it. If you can talk to them and relax then you can believe in their project. But it’s important to look in their eyes. Because music is the most important thing in my life, and there is no money that can buy my feeling. For me it’s something I have to be sure I want to do and that depends on the people involved. So when Jamie and Tako from Music from Memory asked me to do a collection, the first thing I asked was to go to Amsterdam to spend time with them, so I could understand the project and see what kind of guys they are. And, they are really nice guys. That whole crew, the Music from Memory guys, and the Rush Hour guys who also helped out a lot, they are a great family and I trust them so much. It just felt like the right thing to do. I gave them 30 years of music and left it to them to decide what to do.

Your recent output has been very much collaboration focused, having released two albums with Tempelhof, and two albums as Gaussian Curve with Jonny Nash and Young Marco. How did these two projects arise?

If I find a musician to work with, I love it because you always have things to learn from others. It’s an open path you have to walk. I don’t believe I’m a musician, maybe a composer, but I love to spend time with other musicians. For me, Tempelhof are the best band in Italy. They are very underrated, but the live set of Tempelhof is incredible, it gives me goosebumps. But they have not been as fortunate as I with opportunities outside of Italy, so I decided I wanted to try to help them somehow in my very little way, to reach some audience abroad. We made two records, both with Japanese titles, Hoshi [Star] and Tsuki [Moon]. With Gaussian Curve, it’s sort of like a little family. The first time I was in Amsterdam, Tako from Redlight Records and Music from Memory, had an idea that me, Jonny Nash and Marco Sterk [Young Marco] could play together. It was my first time to meet them and we only had about half an hour, but it was clear we didn’t need to speak to each other, just look each other in the eyes. It was magic. I went back to Amsterdam again not long after so we could do it again with more time and see what would happen. We had a long weekend in this little apartment studio with keyboards and records, and over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday we made the first Gaussian Curve record. We love each other. It’s funny every time. We joke, we drink beer, and then comes the music. That’s a wonderful way to work for a musician. We did the second album the same way, in three and a half days. This time we recorded in Marco’s studio in Amsterdam. Jonny is a wonderful guitarist and trumpet player and just an incredible musician. And Marco in the same way is a great technician. So I just have to sit down on the keyboard and wait, they do everything. This time though we tried a different sound. The inspiration came from the experience we had in Australia last year. We did a show on Sydney Harbour and then one in the town hall in Melbourne. The show in Melbourne was incredible. It was a great space, full of people shouting, smiling and dancing. I remember looking Jonny in the eye while we were playing and his face just said ‘what’s happening!?’ It was a great experience. We couldn’t believe that people could dance and shout to this music. I was speechless. So we took that feeling back with us to the studio when we were recording the second album. We were using the same instruments as the first time, but the new record has a bit more energy. We recorded with the understanding that people could dance to this sound. It's a different breath. Maybe the first album came from the autumn when the trees are naked and there is a little fog. The second album is springtime to summer.

This is your first time to Japan, what are your impressions of Japan so far.

I feel it’s one of the most impressive places I’ve ever been. And I can say without a lie that I feel like I’ve been here before. It’s like I know this place. It’s easy for me to walk around. I always felt that my life could be different if I had come to Japan 30 years ago, and it’s always been in my mind so I’m so happy to be here now. In Japan they have released Wind, the Sub Rosa album, a single, and a new compilation so it’s time for me to come and say thank you, to play some shows, and see the country. I’m very honored.

Your tour of Japan includes a Piano concert and a live performance called ‘Balearic State’. What is the difference between the two?

I’m not a pianist, but I love to play the piano. So when I play the piano set I use my loops and my ambient noises and ambient tracks to experiment with different ideas. When I do an electronica set I use a different approach. It's a more dynamic, synth driven sound. I try to do something in between minimal music and almost dance music. More synthy, more dynamic, more energy. Two faces from the same head. I love to do both.

What are your interests outside of music?

Its difficult because I don’t have so much time outside of my family, my job and the music, but probably my main love aside from those things is history. When I was young I thought I could be a history teacher of the medieval period. Also, when I was young I loved to sail. I don’t do it so much these days but I love to get out on the sea and feel the breeze.

What are your three favorite albums?

The music that changed my life was from the UK and the contemporary scene in Europe. Hearing John Martyn, a British singer whose way of playing guitar and way of writing and singing was a turning point in my life. So the first name is absolutely John Martyn. All of his works in the 70’s are true masterpieces. From the contemporary scene, Penderecki, a Polish composer, is an absolute genius for me. Every record from him is incredible. Anyone who has seen the movie The Shining, has heard Penderecki. I must also tell you about an Italian musician, Franco Battiato. His albums in the early 1970s were amazing.

What music are you listening to these days? Is there anything recent that you find inspiring?

To be honest, my way of living with regard to music in the last few years has been like a painter in a cave. Because I really do not have much time to listen to other people’s music. I made a decision to do my own music and try not to be influenced by others. Because to make music, or to make poems or paintings, it’s your own language you use to talk to others. Otherwise you can just do it at home. You can paint your wall, and write in your books. But I have to talk to others. I have to play for others. I try to be honest and try to tell my own feelings. So these days I try to avoid listening to too much other music. For example, if I listen to the record of Jonny Nash, I can’t play anymore. It’s beautiful. It’s going forward. It’s a masterpiece. It’s difficult not to follow his path. It’s difficult not to follow when Marco Sterk is making beautiful music with the Balinese musicians. Or all the incredible records that Jamie and Tako found in used record shops. If you want to be honest to yourself, and feel that your music is pure, you have to stay away a little bit from the other sounds. Be thankful, try to learn, try to have experiences with other musicians, but in terms of feeling and in terms of music, you have to try to do what you have in your own mind. This is important for me now because I want to make a new record. It’s not so easy, but I want to do new things.

What’s coming up and what do you have planned for the next year or so?

I’m really a fortunate man, because since coming back to the stage 2 or 3 years ago I now have 20 to 25 gigs a year. It’s magic. After Japan we have a release party in Amsterdam for the Gaussian Curve second album, The Distance. Then I will be touring around Europe, to Istanbul, Vienna, Berlin, London and France. This is amazing for me. It's the dream of my life to go around playing my music. And yes, I want to do a new album. It's a bit difficult, because I want to do something very different, something very personal, something very deep, so it's a big challenge. Because with music you never know, it could be the next, or it could be the last album. With music you have to enjoy. Every time I go to the stage, and every time I go into the studio. If the audience or the other musicians I am playing with are happy then that's enough for me. If you have music in your life, you have to live with music as a part of your life. Not as a profession. Of course you have to be professional, you have to be honest, you have to be present, but I don't want to be a different man in life and in music. I am the same guy, and this is my life. I am 61 years old and I see a lot of composers and musicians around my age and they stop doing music. They have lost their dreams and lost their ideas to do something. I was fortunate to come out of the dark, so I have to be thankful in everything I do. Because I don’t know if another time will come. I have to be happy every time. Because this is life.

PHOTOGRAPHER : Makoto Tanaka
TEXT : Sam Fitzgerald
TRANSLATION : Risa Uzushiri