Gigi Masin may now be lauded as an ambient pioneer, but he has only ever followed his heart. Having recently released his new album, ‘Vahinè’, he reflects on how living with love, loss and the sea has shaped his music

“Venice is a city made of more than 100 islands,” muses Gigi Masin, the 67-year-old composer and multi-instrumentalist who has spent his entire life on the Venetian Lagoon. “There is a mood in literature that people are islands, no? But in Venice the islands are connected by bridges. We are islands, but connected with each other. There is no separation. We are not lonely.”

The notes of solitude and companionship flowing beneath the surface of his new album, ‘Vahinè’, spring from the most devastating of sources. In 2021, Masin lost his wife to illness. In the nights following her death, he found himself awake in the early hours, zoned out and tuned in to a documentary about the traditional Tahitian dance of ’aparima. Amid the grief, he felt a connection.

“It was at the same time as sensual as a woman but as beautiful as nature,” he explains. “For me, it is the key to make the sorrow less painful and just become proud to have lived with her.”

Slowly picking up the pieces, Masin returned to making music, recording between 20 and 30 tracks that form the basis of the record. He had no explicit intention of making an album about his wife, but instead describes ‘Vahinè’ – which means “woman” in Tahitian – as “photos of moments in this year without her”. Like his acclaimed 2014 retrospective, ‘Talk To The Sea’, this is an emotional work, but not a sentimental one.

“At a certain point, I thought it could be a nice idea to dedicate this work to her,” he says. “My wife loved to dance, but in the last year she needed help to walk, so to dance was impossible. I think that in the deep sorrow of losing someone you love, there must be something about the joy of freedom from the illness, no? And I’m sure she is now a dancer, a butterfly. In a certain way, she is free from illness and back to life.”

Call it positivity or resilience, but Masin has made a career out of keeping going. Born into a nautical family – one grandfather a sailor, the other a gondolier – as a young boy he would spend his summers swimming and fishing in the Venetian canals, before the cruise ships and tourist effluence turned the water sour. Obsessed with Radio Luxembourg, he set his sights on becoming a radio DJ and he didn’t have to wait long. By 18, Masin was beginning a 10-year stint on the airwaves that would constitute an invaluable musical education.

“When you realise a dream, it gives you more questions than answers,” he declares with the avuncular poise of someone to whom profundities come naturally.

As a young man, Masin spent two years in the Italian navy as a radio operator overlooking the Adriatic Sea, where he would scramble Yugoslavian navy frequencies with Ralph Vaughan Williams recordings. Later, having accumulated an expansive knowledge of music from across genres, he was invited to work in theatre, soundtracking plays and performances with his own unique form of sample-based musique concrète.

Whether playing records at the wrong speed or running a single tape through three decks to create warped drones, Masin became a master of reel-to-reel, enjoying the simplicity of the technology and the creativity inherent in the limitations it imposed. But when it came to producing his first album, his musical inspirations hailed from elsewhere.

“My mind is like a house,” he says. “The first floor is folk music and the second is jazz, and in my head, I’m mixing them.”

His listeners, however, heard a mezzanine that Masin wasn’t even aware existed, and he was duly bemused by the “ambient” tag that his 1986 debut, ‘Wind’, received.

“I thought it could be a nice jazz album, but people said, ‘No, it’s ambient’,” he laughs. “And I said, ‘What’s ambient?’, because I really didn’t know. I knew Brian Eno was the keyboard player for Roxy Music, but I never knew about ‘Music For Airports’.”

It’s clearly a category Masin still struggles with, particularly when he lists his formative influences as John Coltrane, Nick Drake and, above all, iconoclastic folk singer John Martyn. For his London show in November, Masin played in a jazz club wearing a John Martyn T-shirt.

“I always want to make music like John Martyn but without copying him,” he explains, clearly enamoured as much by the honesty and soul-baring qualities of the work as by its formal characteristics. “It’s about the man behind the music, with all the difficulties in his life. For me, this could be a method, an idea, something to work with. You have to explore yourself and be naked on the stage.”

Complete with hand-drawn inserts and a letter penned in his fluent script, you only need to look at the care and attention with which ‘Wind’ was released to see the extent to which Masin had revealed himself. Greeted with indifference and even a degree of ridicule at his decision to give it away for free, he withdrew.

He says he had a feeling that ‘Wind’ would be “my one and only album”, although another did follow three years later. His 1989 collaboration with This Heat’s Charles Hayward, ‘Les Nouvelles Musiques De Chambre Volume 2’, would ultimately be the bridge between Masin’s early work and the welcome recognition he has enjoyed in recent years.

“We are always on the run,” he reflects, as if quoting from the John Martyn songbook. “Maybe the old ideas need to be rethought in a different way, in a different language, in a different colour.”

Not one to dwell on a setback, Masin released one further album – ‘The Wind Collector’ in 1991 – before moving on to spend several years away from the music industry. From an office overlooking the Rialto Bridge, he worked in telematics for the Italian postal service by day and played background music for poetry readings by night.

Fate intervened in 2007. A flood at Masin’s home swept away decades of his work, submerging all that connected him to his life as a musician. Instruments, master tapes, reel-to-reel experiments – nothing was spared.

“I have the feeling that the flood was the sign of a goddess,” he muses. “For me, it was really a fortunate moment. It was incredible. I woke up the day after a different man.”

Photo: Anna Semenova

Aside from what this says about Masin’s capacity for growth in adversity, the clean slate offered him the opportunity to reset his musical routines. Familiarising himself with the computer as an instrumental toolkit, he slowly set to work once more.

“Too many musicians use the computer – the machine – like a language to try to realise the music,” he says. “But you have to be the master. The responsibility is yours.”

In the 15 years since, Masin’s career has blossomed in ways he couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Picked up by Björk, Nujabes and others, a sample from ‘Les Nouvelles Musiques De Chambre Volume 2’ had already alerted the curious crate diggers.

In 2014, a compilation with Amsterdam label Music From Memory emerged that presented his work as a coherent whole for the first time. Across 17 tracks made between 1985 and 2010, ‘Talk To The Sea’ displayed the full breadth of Masin’s multi-instrumental talents, from zither and trumpet to synthesisers and radio sampling.

The collection was a revelation, becoming the entry point for a new audience who heard in his gentle electroacoustic compositions something warm, honest and devoid of generic tropes.

“I make the tracks because I love to play,” explains Masin, trying to demystify his process, but somehow only serving to heighten it. “It’s not a method, it’s just a sensation.”

He is right in so far as it can be challenging to put into words why something connects. Masin’s chords and melodies play on the water’s surface like moonlight. Show, don’t tell, he seems to say, wordlessly.

“Not that my music is perfect – it’s not one of the best,” he says. “But maybe my need to improvise and not think too much about what comes from my computer is direct from my heart. I’m fortunate that people listening to my music easily connect it to the life they have.”

Masin says he received many messages during lockdown from people who have turned to his work in difficult moments. In the last year, he has needed music to do this for him too. On ‘Vahinè’, tracks like ‘Shadye’ retain a sense of tranquillity that has come to define his sound over the last 35 years. On others, such as ‘Barumini’, the swell is greater, like blood rising in a moment of fear, loss or regret.

“Not all of the days are positive and lovely,” he admits. “But I try to look forward without anger, without sadness.”

“In the plausible intimacy of approaching evening, as I stand waiting for the stars to begin at the window of this fourth-floor room that looks out on the infinite, my dreams move to the rhythm required by long journeys to countries as yet unknown.” So writes Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa in his novel, ‘The Book Of Disquiet’ (first published posthumously in 1982), with a cadence that captures something of Masin’s own introspective sound worlds.

Although he has lived his whole life in Venice, Masin gives the distinct impression of someone who is always travelling. He speaks of a kinship between Venice, Pessoa’s Lisbon and Istanbul as port cities defined by exchange, transience and water.

In Portuguese, saudade describes a longing for something that may not return, and the modern Turkish word hüzün (melancholy) is used by writer Orhan Pamuk in his novel, ‘Istanbul: Memories And The City’, to convey the collective emotion of that city. There may not be an Italian word for the melancholy that Masin evokes in his Venetian soundscapes, but through music he has found a way to express it.

“The sea is a metaphor for life,” he explains, returning to a favoured theme.

The video for ‘Marilene (Somewhere In Texas)’, the first track on ‘Vahinè’, ends with the words “dedicated to all the islands out there”. A metaphor too, but also a reference to Tahiti, Gavdos – the Greek island that inspired Masin’s 2020 album, ‘Calypso’ – and Venice, where it all begins and ends.

Because whether you see Venice as a city of islands or a city of canals is essentially a matter of perspective. Like music, it’s a question of substance and space, of sound and silence. Masin is a true master of this relationship, a musician who intuitively understands that a moment of stillness can make the chord that follows all the more powerful. He knows you can’t have one without the other.

“The sea is strong, it is bad, it can be cruel, but it’s more similar to life, more similar to other people,” he reasons. “They are sometimes cruel, sometimes friends, sometimes lovers. There is something magic in the sea.”

Alongside his solo work, he is also part of Gaussian Curve with Jonny Nash and Young Marco, a group that others have described as ambient but which Masin would undoubtedly call jazz.

“With Gaussian, we don’t need to talk about what to do,” he says.

Gaussian Curve have so far released two albums, ‘Clouds’ (2014) and ‘The Distance’ (2017). Masin has also recorded with multi-faceted electronic jazz group Lifted and Italian duo Tempelhof, as well as contributing to Chicago house producer Ron Trent’s latest long-player, ‘What Do The Stars Say To You’. More prolific than ever and driven by the opportunity to meet new people, he’s relishing every minute.

“There is a jazz word that explains it better – it’s called interplay. It’s not only about the music. It’s about the humans. In the same way that you play with the musician – you listen to that musician, and you learn what he is playing in the way that he plays, in the way he moves in the studio and how he interacts with you – you have to be without any defence. Sometimes it happens in life too, and they call it love.”

When not collaborating or touring, Masin makes music at home – usually once his teenage sons have gone to bed. He sets up his equipment in the living room and when he is finished, clears it away to make space for the family the following day. It’s a quiet routine, but along with his regular trips to the Laguna, it helps to structure his creative and domestic worlds. It’s hard not to sense an absence in this scene.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and say, ‘No more music’… humanity, my kids, my love, the future, travel, books, movies, back to life,” he discloses, with disarming honesty. “But music is so under my skin, I can’t imagine that one day I’d stop recording.”

In this sense, he has achieved another dream – of becoming a professional musician who no longer works in telematics or provides background music for the narratives of others, but one who writes and performs on his own terms.

“Every record comes with the same bump in the heart,” he says, still thrilled by the prospect of sharing his music with others. “The heart is always exploding. It’s an epiphany, like Christmas Day…”

This feels like an understatement. Once again, Gigi Masin finds himself on a new island. For all the talk of looking forwards, ‘Vahinè’ represents a moment of change – “a sort of goodbye to making music in a certain way”.

As he has done in the past, he finds beauty and power in the act of releasing, in the truest sense of the word, a feeling to help him move on with renewed purpose.

“When you make a record, the music is not yours – it goes out into the world,” he concludes. “And the sensation with ‘Vahinè’ is that it could travel a lot without me and maybe get back home one day.”

‘Vahinè’ is out on Language Of Sound

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