The Mad Musical Scientist Of Burbank, Calif.

Sep 23, 2011
Originally published on July 1, 2014 9:50 am

"I was probably 12 when I trashed my first electric guitar," Diego Stocco says. "I totally disassembled it, and I wasn't able to put it back together."

It wasn't Stocco's first such experience; a year or two earlier, he'd been dismissed from music conservatory after sawing his violin in half.

Youthful rebellion wasn't to blame. Instead, Stocco was indulging a budding curiosity in the more unconventional ways music can be made — one that would lead him to his current occupation as a composer and sound designer with a mad-scientist streak.

Speaking with Guy Raz of weekends on All Things Considered, Stocco says he finds much of his inspiration in the mundane sounds of everyday life — for example, the ones he hears walking past his local dry cleaner in Burbank, Calif.

"Every day I hear these steam sounds, these clicks and mechanical things, coming out of the front door," Stocco says. "One day, I just went in and asked the owners if I could record a piece of music by using their equipment and the sounds that I could hear in that room as musical instruments. They didn't really understand very well what I was trying to do, but I promised them I wasn't going to break anything."

Stocco has also found his muse in the natural world. In one piece, he conjures rhythm and even melody by exploring the different parts of a tree: banging the trunk, shaking the leaves, stroking the skinniest twigs with a string bow. In another, he works exclusively with sand: pouring it, slapping it, swirling it in glass bowls. When he does use traditional instruments, it is as fodder for his invented ones — like the Experibass, which incorporates a double bass, a cello, a violin and a viola into one body.

"Experimentation with instruments is vital. It keeps music growing and changing and becoming something else," Stocco says. "There was much more creativity going on 2[00], 300 years ago. But then, somehow, the industry focused on specific instruments, and those are the ones that became mainstream."

That hard-line philosophy hasn't kept him from getting mainstream gigs. Stocco worked with Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack for the 2009 Sherlock Holmes remake, and some of his sounds are featured in the score of the new film Contagion.

"I really love creating a sound first, and the music after," he says. "It's the instrument that tells me what music I can play with it."

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GUY RAZ, Host:

One day a few years ago, Diego Stocco was sitting under a tree in his backyard, and he got an idea. Stocco is a composer and sound designer based in Burbank, California, and it didn't take him long to think: maybe I can make some music with this tree.

DIEGO STOCCO: So I went inside the house, I grabbed my double bass bowl, and I approached the tree, found one twig that looked like a string, basically, and started to bow it. And I found that it worked, so I decided to put together an entire piece of music out of those sounds.


DESIGNER: I started with a rhythm by hitting the cortex and shaking the leaves.


DESIGNER: After I had that element, I started recording the bass drum...


DESIGNER: ...which physically was made by a customized version of a stethoscope where I connected a microphone to it. So I was able to capture these very low frequencies, and then I went on with the twigs.


DESIGNER: And then I added and added until I felt I had enough takes that I could basically create a piece of music out of it.


RAZ: Trees aren't your only organic instruments. You've also made music with sand, which is incredible. I want everybody to listen to this for a moment. This is music from sand.


RAZ: Is this all made from sand?

DESIGNER: Yes, 100 percent from sand.

RAZ: How is that possible?

DESIGNER: And let me - well, basically, the first thing was to record one note from the sand. And to do that, I put a contact microphone in the sand, and then I was either robbing or moving my hand inside this glass bowl filled of sand. Then I took that note...


DESIGNER: ...and I mapped it on a sampler. At that point, I was able to play multiple notes like you would do in a piano.


RAZ: It's actually an incredibly beautiful sound. And it just makes you wonder what else is out there, I mean, the possibilities. You could, in theory, record anything, which I guess you've done. You even went to a dry cleaner and made this beautiful sound from a dry cleaner. And let's listen to some of that.


DESIGNER: Basically, everything came from sounds that I either created by moving the machines or just by recording sounds that were happening in that environment. For example, the press machines have pedals and levers. It looks like a weird drum kit that you can play.


RAZ: You grew up in Italy, Diego, and you actually went to a music conservatory. I mean, you were accepted at the age of 11, and you attended, right?

DESIGNER: It was a very brief appearance at the conservatory because they made me study the violin. I didn't want to study it. And so one day I got fed up with it and I sawed my violin in half. I put in the - yeah.


STOCCO: And so I went back to the school and the teacher asked me, so did you study today? I said, well, there was a problem with the violin. So I opened the - you know, the case of the violin, and he went, what happened to it? Well, I said, you know, I kind of sawed it in half, you know? And so they made me basically - there's a test that they made you go through. And they can confirm you or not and they just wanted to make me go through to kick me out, basically.

RAZ: Diego Stocco, you now live in Southern California near the center of the movie industry. And some of your work has been featured in movies. You worked with Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack for "Sherlock Holmes," and some of your work is actually, I understand, on the new film "Contagion."

DESIGNER: Yes. But in the specific case with Hans Zimmer, I got featured as a feature soloist because I was playing an instrument that I built and it's called Experibass.


DESIGNER: It's a combination of a double bass, a cello, a violin and a viola, all together in the body of the double bass.

RAZ: It's like a Frankenstein instrument.

DESIGNER: Exactly. Yes.


DESIGNER: I really love creating a sound first and the music after. So basically, it's the instrument that tells me what music I can play with it.

RAZ: That's Diego Stocco. He is a composer and a sound designer based in Burbank, California. That's where he's been speaking to me from. Diego, thank you so much.

DESIGNER: Thanks. Thanks so much.

RAZ: You can watch how Diego makes these sounds at our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.