Angel of Havoc: The Otherworldly Truths of Sara Ardizzoni's Looping Maelstroms

GP talks to Sara Ardizzoni about her spellbinding, beguiling, sometimes terrifying music, and how she creates it.
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“My machines are an integral part of how I perform as Dagger Moth,” says Italy’s loop-driven guitarist, composer, and solo artist Sara Ardizzoni. “Even my albums are conceived around a looper and effects pedals to bring my pieces to life. It’s not an “I-wish-I-could-but-I-can’t” compromise because I don’t have a band. This is a creative choice.”

Ardizzoni is an extremely striking and charismatic presence as a performer, and yet her music is so tenaciously cinematic that it almost makes her fade into the sonic milieu. Her pieces are like visitations to some astral cathedral of human triumphs and foibles—beauty, horror, love, and angst—and all ruled by the sounds of a single guitar. It’s a spellbinding, beguiling, and sometimes terrifying journey, as Ardizzoni taps, slaps, picks, shreds, twists knobs in realtime, and shifts between fuzz and crystalline tones to not only animate her songs, but to also sidestep timbral and thematic redundancies that can make loop-composed music appear repetitive and wearisome.

What guitar and amp combination works best for your live-looping adventures?

I need a good, full, clean sound, because it’s an important starting point for everything else I do. So for the last three years, I’ve been performing with a Fender Classic Player Jazz-master and a Vox AC30CH head and matching cabinet.

I’m also curious about your signal-processing pathways.

When I started Dagger Moth six years ago, I was aware that performing alone meant having to deal with two main issues. On one hand, there were the infinite possibilities of freedom in the creative process. On the other was the need to give myself technical and aesthetic boundaries within which I could wander. I needed a versatile looper, and I went for the Boss RC-50 Loop Station. I was also intrigued by the idea of experimenting with a Korg Mini Kaoss Pad as a multi-effect device for the guitar.

At the moment, I split my pedals into two chains. The first one goes from my guitar to the amp input, and it consists of a BOSS tuner, a BOSS TR-2 Tremolo, a DigiTech HardWire RV-7 Stereo Reverb, an Ibanez Delay, a BOSS MO-2 Multi Overtone, a Marshall Guv’nor, and a ProCo RAT. The second one goes in the amp’s effects return, and that’s where I run the Kaoss, my RC-50, and an Ernie Ball volume pedal.

I also use the RC-50 as a mixer to send electronic samples to an active monitor speaker and the guitar amp. In addition, I keep the RC-50 connected to a TC-Helicon VoiceLive Play for some effected vocal loops and a Korg Kaossilator for synth-noise loops. As you can imagine, when I’m onstage, I’m trapped into an interesting architecture of cables and wires—my electric cobweb.

Do certain pedals drive your inspiration for soundscapes?

For some songs, the idea was already there—carved out using digital plug-ins while recording on my laptop. But I’ll use the pedals later on to find more colors. Other tracks are born from random experiments with my pedals. I might find an interesting sound by chance that becomes a building block for an entire piece. This was the case for “Ovaries,” where the main riff came out after messing around with the RAT, the BOSS Multi Overtone, and a tremolo effect from the Kaoss Pad.

What are some of the challenges in constructing pieces from loops?

In general, working with loops means you must have good timing and be very precise. But there’s also the risk of becoming too predictable. Therefore, I try to add some challenges to the game. I avoid the usual structure built on consecutive layers, where consecutively looping one phrase over another means every part gets heard at least once before ending up in the arrangement, because you obviously have to record it first. I try to mix up these live loops with prerecorded electronic samples that pop into the song, taking the ear unexpectedly somewhere else by suddenly fading in and out. In addition, I avoid what I call the “karaoke effect” of being too obvious by never playing along to backing tracks that are the same length as the song. I interact with very short samples—just a few seconds long—while playing and singing. Of course, this often turns into a manic tap dance instead of a concert!

Another challenge is that my effects are set differently for every song—as are all the volume controls for patches and phrases in the RC-50—and I move quite quickly from one song into another during my set. Maybe it’s just that I like to complicate my life. Or, perhaps it’s better to say that I enjoy making complicated things look simple.

Do you meticulously work out your pieces beforehand, or do you improvise over a main theme?

Ninety percent of my music is precisely worked out, and the remaining ten percent is improvised. I don’t leave much to chance, as that could be a risky approach. There are too many things going on, and considerable focus is required. Unfortunately, if something goes wrong, I can’t blame another bandmate!

How does all of this technology inform and direct your creative process?

The effects and guitar techniques serve a simple purpose of channeling my emotions, and drawing the listener into my little sonic planet. I have a curiosity for different sounds and musical genres, a strong rejection of stereotypes, a natural inclination to sonic hybridization, and I enjoy building something that’s not easy to pigeonhole. In the end, however, I want heart and guts to prevail over the technological aspects.