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There’s a measured, natural elegance to Franco Nanni’s Elicoide. The album opens with the sixteen minute manifesto “Mitochondria,” in which layered chimes and strings grow and twirl around programmed metallophones, like shoots pushing up through crumbly earth in a time-lapse video. Have you ever seen a drawing of a single mitochondrion bisected? It wriggles similarly. Organic and deliberate, Nanni creates polyrhythms from the originally stoic beats, inching the compositions along in a state he describes as “ascetic trance,” and taking cues from the music of Balinese gamelan and the iterative structures of Steve Reich.
Growing up in northern Italy, Nanni began playing music when he was eleven years old. He names Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to the 1964 Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars as an early inspiration, and still owns the single – “the grooves consumed by too many listens with the terrible pickups of the ‘60s.” There’s a hint of Morricone on the album’s title track, in the delicate drama of its quieter moments. Later on came other influences, from Johann Sebastian Bach to progressive rock groups to Reich and Arvo Pärt, the latter of whom Nanni ended up meeting in 1990 in a benevolent twist of fate.
At first glance, Elicoide’s cover art could be for a particularly intriguing biology textbook from decades past. This was intentional – “I wanted a creative image,” remembers Nanni, “inspired by DNA and the shapes of the basic components of the structure of life.” The art, with its blue and gray helices, ladders, and amoebae, was hand drawn and airbrushed by Miriam Mirri, a now-established designer, who was a student at the School of Anatomical Design at the University of Bologna at the time.
Nanni’s inspirations for the record are quickly observed – a comment on the precision of his work, rather than a simplicity. A student of sociology and sociobiology at university, in addition to piano, organ, and composition, he was fascinated by “the idea of life as an incredible self-replicating mechanism, which seemed not to require the intervention of human or non-human intelligence to carry out all its complexity.”
Indeed, these songs, especially the longer ones, are guided by a force all their own – there are musicians behind the music, but motifs and melodies appear to be born from within, rippling and refracting like a double membrane. “Linfociti” materializes out of the darkness, speaking to stimuli that spur Nanni’s creative process: “loneliness, a long time ahead, darkness or night, the LED lights of electronic instruments, and the kind of heat they emit after a precise time of ignition.”
At the time of Elicoide, Nanni was working as a keyboard player at the Nova recording studio in Vicenza. The bulk of the album was written in 1986, and it was recorded, printed, and distributed in 1987, released on the small label owned by the studio. Before recording, all of the musical drafts were ready in MIDI format, the timbres already prepared. “Mitochondria” is the only song on the album with another featured musician, the double bassist Paolo Grandi, who wrote and performed the melody. Its songwriting, Nanni recalls, was finished during the crisis resulting from the Chernobyl disaster.
After embarking on a new path of study at the age of forty, Nanni is now an accomplished psychologist in Bologna. Though he’s been quiet from a release perspective for the past twenty years, he says he is more musically active than ever. Even so, “Elicoide is the album towards which I have the most intense feelings,” Nanni reflects. One listen, and it’s easy to see why – Elicoide splits the difference between organ and organism, inspiring both movement and deep listening in an endless, symbiotic dance.
Written and performed by Franco Nanni The melody of “Mitochondria” written and performed by Paolo Grandi Contrabass performed by Paolo Grandi Produced by Franco Nanni & Nova Studio Recorded and mixed in 1986–1987 at Nova Studio (Vicenza, Italy) Engineered by Marco Vignato Re-mastered by Andrea Merlini
Hardware: SCI’s Prophet 5 & Sixtrak, Yamaha DX7 & TX7 Roland JX8P, CBM 64 Computer, SIEL Midi Interface SMPTE Sync.
Software: Jellinghaus, Steinberg Research
Cover Art by Miriam Mirri