Designing Ambient Symphonies

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Sunday 17 July 2011 (Michael Bugeja - The Sunday Times of Malta)

Cygna - photo by Tonio Lombardi

Tracking him down is tantamount to searching for the Holy Grail, not because he is that difficult to find, but because he spends much of his time away from the island or locked away in his studio. Travelling is in his blood, but his journeys abroad are usually to do with the sublime music he makes, spreads and shares on a global scale rather than for touristic concerns. He is Maltese musician Mario Sammut, but fans of his engulfing sonic sculptures know him better as Cygna, quite possibly Malta’s best-kept secret musical phenomenon. A free spirit in the true sense of the word, Sammut is guided primarily by the creative urge to convey emotions through music, often the kind that conjures images of wide, open spaces and soul-liberating otherworldliness.

It wasn’t always like that however, and as with several other musicians, Sammut’s first musical steps were guided and overtly academic. “I started studying classical piano when I was 6 years old” he tells me. “That lasted for about 6 or 7 years, around which time I decided to pack it all in as I went completely off the piano”. The hiatus only lasted around a year, however. “By then synthesizers had arrived and opened up a whole new world for me to explore”; and once he had got his hands on a synth, Sammut wasted no time in joining a band. “My first band was Obscuritas Aeternum; we played Black metal”. Having heard Sammut’s all-engulfing often-meditative aural soundscapes, Black metal is probably the last genre I would have expected him to be interested in. “I’m a big Black metal fan”, he reaffirms. “In fact, it is the music I listen to the minute I wake up, day in day out”.

Still ruminating over this rather interesting though surprising discovery, I ask whether it was his 4-year stint in the band that led him to pursue a solo career. “Not quite”, is his reply. “I was already doing my own thing even when I was in the band”. Hugely interested in arrangements from the very beginning – a result of his classical roots I suppose - he goes on to explain how he used to get the guitarists in the band to play the violin and cello parts. As he reminisces, I get a feeling that Sammut belongs to that category of musician who likes to be in control rather than controlled. “I suppose I am”, he concedes. “It’s probably why I never joined another band after I left Obscuritas Aeternum, which was a great experience nonetheless”.

Having flown solo for the past 5 or so years, Sammut says he totally loves to work alone as he feels there is more space for him to explore new ideas. “Working on my own is creatively liberating as it frees me from having to rely on other in order to move ahead with what I’m doing. Using words to communicate isn’t as effective as projecting emotions through musical notes”. I’m fascinated when he explains that despite the deeply electronic nature of his music, his approach to composing remains rooted within the relatively classical set-up of piano, harp, violin and cello. “The electronic sounds come later; an enhancement to the music rather than the essence… but they play a vital role in the final production”.

Creating original music has also been a definitive characteristic in Sammut’s musical development. “I’ve always hated having to play other people’s music” he confesses. “When I was studying, having to learn other composer’s pieces was torture for me. I love Chopin, but I don't need to learn his music by heart to appreciate it!” He emphasizes that learning to play those pieces never gave him the same gratification that writing his own music does. “That is why I quit studying and decided to focus on doing my own thing”, Sammut continues.

Bearing in mind he has been doing his own thing for a number of years now, as well as the fact that he is constantly working on new ideas, one obviously assumes there must be a significant archive of music waiting to be released. Apart from his new album Opus Ena, Cygna’s music has featured on various compilations by key labels such as in France, Audio Ashram in India and Sentimony Records in Ukraine. Most of his new work goes through a lot of changes; sometimes it is forgotten or even lost. "I write and delete ideas constantly, and if I spend a few days or weeks working on something, I can easily get bored and move on to something new”. In my mind I’m picturing a hard disk brimming with unfinished works-in-progress.

“There used to be even more”, he confirms, his face suddenly reflecting a hint of disappointment as well as a look of resignation when he tells me how he lost all of the music he had written in the early years. “I had about 200 midi files saved on 4 floppy disks which I always carried around in my pocket. Unfortunately I never made back-ups and I lost all the data when the disks ended up in the washing machine”. If it wasn’t so frustrating, such an incident could almost be funny.

Despite that setback however, Sammut managed to maintain his creative momentum. “I’ve always wanted to release my own album, so the natural thing for me was to put that mishap behind me and move forward”. Embracing the internet’s widespread reach, he uploaded some of his music onto his personal MySpace site. “I was contacted by a Greek label asking for more of my music and that led to the birth of Cygna as a project”. That was four years ago; three since the release of his Live @ EarthGarden album, which was released in Greece only and distributed to some 3000 people. Since then Sammut has seen his work increasingly picked and featured in various key compilations and magazine reviews alongside some of the top names in ambient music, resulting in a prominent international profile and a reputation as one of the leading names in the genre.

Music aside, he stresses upon the importance of his interest in the scene behind electronic music. “I studied electronics at Fellenberg Institute and I’ve always been into how things work in order to design and build them myself. My interest goes beyond the musical aspect of electronica; I’m equally enthralled by the machine that produces the sounds”. This brings to mind the term ‘sound design’, which seems to have gained ground in contemporary electronic music. “I see sound design as the art of sculpting sounds that are used to enhance a musical arrangement”. He proceeds to give me a small taste of the endless sounds he has created (and manipulated) for different compositions, including some very interesting ones he sampled from a home-made waterphone which he describes as “a complex instrument that offers a never-ending source of sounds”. Along the way he also mentions the various projects he has written music for – from art installations and exhibitions to film and TV productions as well as theatre, his most known being that for The Rubberbodies Collective – acknowledging that he gets his inspiration from pretty much anything and everything without exception, interpreting it all in his own unique way.

Despite his burgeoning public profile, Sammut admits he’d much rather lock himself away in the studio than perform live onstage. “I’m in my element when I’m surrounded by the tools that help me realize what is in my head. In the studio I have everything I need. Playing live offers a different kind of excitement but the studio is the place I’m most comfortable in”. Nevertheless, he has performed live various times, more often than not at festivals abroad, among them two editions of the prestigious Glastonbury Festival in England. “I’ve played in Croatia, Greece, Spain, UK, Italy and France a few times too. In fact I’ve only just returned from playing at the HADRA Trance Festival in the French mountains… it’s a beautiful location but not so easy to get to”. And before I even have time to ask anything else, he adds, “I’m playing at Buskett on August 6 at a Pinkpube event”.

Locally, his last live performance was the launch of Opus Ena, his debut album, featuring seven lush slices of open-ended ambient music that is alluring in its ethereal quality and overwhelming in the way it colludes with the emotive side of the listener. The launch was held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta and employed an innovative approach in which all present wore headphones to get a better grasp of the experience. “The idea was to ‘isolate’ each individual and eliminate external distractions so that each person could immerse him or herself wholly in the music”. It was definitely not the most conventional of album launches, but then again, Sammut doesn’t do normal; the adventurous nature of his music confirms that his aspirations are way above and beyond the norm.

Opus Ena is out now on IT Records as a 3 part digipack. The album is available directly via iTunes or directly from the artist by sending an email to