Isola Santa: eerie soundscapes not of this world inspired by a mediaeval-era ghost village

Ambasce, Isola Santa, Italy, Dissipatio, DISS007 CD (2022)

Armed with two synthesisers (a Roland Alpha Juno 1 and a Modal Electronics Skulpt), a Wavetek Model 112 voltage-controlled signal generator, a prepared cassette recorder, contact microphones and various other objects, Alberto Picchi of Ambasce has put together an album of sometimes eerie and even scary crystalline soundscapes not quite of this material world and its dimensions. We might have guessed as much from the album’s name, “Isola Santa”: translated from Italian to English, the title is “Holy Island” or “Sainted Island” though the album cover and the chilly sounds of the album itself might suggest that the obverse of what we might consider holy and sanctified holds more fascination and appeal for Picchi. (By the way, Picchi is not to be confused with the footballer of the same name.) Certainly, a track with a title like “Lingua degli uccelli” (“Language of the birds”) implies concern with what is hidden behind something that is sacred and holy, or on the other hand, something quite mundane yet coming from the heavens – and that something not necessarily being celestial in nature or quality.

It’s actually quite a beautiful and pristine recording, comparable in some ways to the recordings that Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz used to make for Touch Records some twenty years ago if a bit more icy and less melodic. Some of the longer tracks like “Estasi” can be intense and confrontational with their insistent and hard-edged repetition but the sounds are never overly harsh or unbearable. Apart from the layer of birdsong present in “Lingua degli uccelli” and the whistling on “Operaio!”, few of the sounds featured are immediately recognisable. By the time it ends, the mystery behind “Isola Santa” seems even more impenetrable than it was at the album’s start.

“Isola Santa” is the fourth album by Picchi’s Ambasce project and refers to a mediaeval village built around a hospital for travellers and pilgrims overlooking the Turrite Secca river near Parco Alpi Apuane, a wildlife park in the province of Lucca in the Tuscany region of northern Italy. In the region surrounding the village there are apparently several ghost villages and towns, abandoned in the mid-20th century due to a hydroelectric project built in the area.