L'opera prima (The music chore)
Italian verison published in Ars Nova. Venti compositori raccontano la musica di oggi. Sara Zurletti, Roma, Castelvecchi Editore, 2017.
February 19, 2017
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I consider myself a pure composer, not in the sense that I wish to claim the purity of my sources of inspiration, which are instead numerous and wide-ranging, or that the results of my artistic research are in any way absolute (which is far from my case), or in the way I conceive the task (or rather the “mission”) of a composer. I write music and teach composition, and I view both as an expression of thought – with a strong will to recount and bear witness to the aspirations of our time – respecting history and endeavouring to act on the present to leave traces that are as “clear” and efficient as possible to the future of humanity. I would like to add that I have never been engaged in an organization role or in artistic direction: these are surely legitimate fields of activity, but only complementary to the main task of writing, of reflecting on one’s personal research and transmitting one’s personal experience.
There is no presumption is this attitude, only the desire to stress the importance of the work – the works – as opposed to the figure or personality of the artist. This is something I feel strongly about, especially in these times dominated by marketing, activities that are more or less mundane (although useful for the divulgation and awareness of such a phenomenon as the creation of music, today increasingly placed under discussion by models of cultural consumption of an industrialized type), but in my opinion of secondary importance compared to the expressive contents of a work of music and its shaping into an artistic form.
I personally lay emphasis on single works that can, or cannot, create a pathway able to re-establish the figure of an all-round artist, of undisputable worth, not the opposite: that is say, I don’t agree with the unquestioning need (psychological-social) for genius, inevitably a producer of masterpieces that a superficial and straightforward view of history and progress (ever more slave to technology and the market) has accustomed us to. I prefer to say that in these times and spaces dominated by globalization, the figure of the artist has become parcelized and anonymized: in the midst of this proliferation of artists and aesthetic orientations I believe that due consideration should be given to single efforts, sometimes successful, at others insignificant. And it is with this attitude in mind, and these single efforts, that I would invite people to consider my work, without any ideological or, often unconsciously, mercantilistic apriorisms. A history to be reconstructed without the schematisms and certainties of the past, reconnecting the threads that lead us from the past to the present and that can guide us towards a future that gives sense and function to an artistic activity that has become marginal, or rendered artificial by a series of mechanisms of cultural “protection” that increasingly drive it into the ghetto of an elitarian practice.

So I feel inclined to say that all radical composers have always had an awareness of history and their relation with it, which they would break and then reconstruct. This is true for all the great artists of the past, both distant and recent, and among the latter, after those of the historical 20th century avant-garde and those who have passed away more recently (Nono, Grisey, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Boulez), I would include the name of Helmut Lachenmann. The works that these emblematic figures have left us, in virtue of their intrinsic power, teach us that the contradiction and destruction of social conventions, or of the cultural habits in which they expressed themselves, together with those of language, have always acted constructively on historic development and on the way they are exploited. The revolutionary scope of a work is thus inseparable from the inexplicable mystery that it contains, where the artist is in part deus ex machina and in part the actual vehicle of the force of this mystery that pushes, work after work, to change the world.
The term “revolutionary” could be applied to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, even though at the time he was considered an academic; while “conservative” (that is, able to conserve tradition) could be used for the music of Arnold Schönberg, still today considered awkward to listen to by a large portion of the public because he was in revolt against tonality in an artificial manner.
This is why I prefer to replace the term “radicality” (of an attitude) with that of “creativity” (of a work). The former creates barriers and false certainties, the latter enhances the growth and modification of artistic expression and cultural fruition, by working on thought: which is compelled to address the doubts and mysteries inherent in a work and the links that need to be established between single works – of which one has a good and deep knowledge – no longer framed by an ideological system of reference.
Such considerations may seem outdated, now that we are experiencing the anti-ideological times of the end of history, of globalization and of cultural democratization at every level. And yet still today we tend to divide artists on the basis of the justness of their direction or their position (aesthetic, if it can still be considered such, given that the tendency seems to rely on concepts of a promotional type, key words, logos of a low level of logos), instead of on the strength of single works: which may be more or less accomplished, pointless or heralds of the future, or rich in a power to be explored, whether understood or not, and all this irrespective of the trademark of their author. I believe that the considerations set out below will help to provide a clearer picture of my thought which, I repeat, I wish to express with modesty and all due respect to the work of my “colleagues”, both of the past and the present.

My position (not a conclusion to be “exhibited” in the music I write, but a stage in the path that the works of all composers delineate and develop) is as follows: a composition is creative if it takes into account the two dimensions that meet in the art of music and allows them to interact in a wholly particular relation, that is to say, acoustics (associated with perception) and language (associated with listening). In my article Raisons et occasions dans le choix d’un poème qui devient musique [1], I put forward the idea that the parameters of a musical composition serve only to structure the possible ways in which these two dimensions might be related to one another. Throughout the course of history, the acoustic world (the soundscape) is evoked by the purely cultural and codified dimension of musical language, which tends to confront the sonic stimulus in a mimetic fashion, transcending the linguistic code; vice versa, the sonic and natural dimension of sound phenomena seems allude to linguistic laws that can be culturally codified. Both dimensions are deeply intertwined according to criteria pertaining to each composer’s style, taste, and technical knowledge, and are equally linked to the development of the writing techniques and instrumental evolution of their own time, mutually exchanging functions and effects: the linguistic dimension disseminates into the acoustic one, and vice versa; progress (in terms of a novel sound object, brought into the instrumental domain for the first time) finds itself cohabitating with tradition (of consolidated composition and performance practice).
Some artists and analysts appear to want to point out inexorable developments, suggesting that after modality, tonality and atonality, attention has now, in recent years, been moved to the exploration of “sonality”. I find this idea, whereby each compositional dimension supersedes and excludes the other, to be a reductive position dictated more by motivations of a self-promotional type (with regards the artists) or of communicative simplification (with regards the analysts or music programmers); in other words another way to re-establish divisions and barriers, in the name of a truth or of a criterion of modernity that sets aside any deep assessment of the artistic outcome of each single work. This formulation, in which the approach to composition is purely linked to the present and unmindful of history, seems unacceptable: personally, I am interested instead in a conception that integrates all these dimensions, in such a way that history might live through the assimilation of the parameters that each system (first the modal one, then the others) has developed. Only in this way can the form fulfil the essential role of creatively assimilating the past.
When speaking of contemporary music the term “sound” has now been used for many years, and with a certain amount of ambiguity and confusion, to indicate an exclusive parameter of the musical writing: hence the proliferation of “sonic” or “bruitiste” scores and the extended use of “advanced” instrumental techniques to create a particular sound dimension so peculiar as to make other parameters secondary, including the more general dimension of the form, which is instead very important for me. As a result we have the composer who limits him/herself to being a sound designer, we have listening that becomes a phenomenological perception implying the annulment of historical tradition and of one’s own cultural experience in favour of the contemplation of the instant, and the listening memory that no longer interacts with the activity of perception, transforming the act of listening into a journey of the imagination and the temporality intended by the composer into a time fully experienced by the listener. Divertissement, wellness, seduction instead of knowledge. Sedation instead of thought.
Also the technology applied to a musical project appears aimed at pursuing the same goal: to guarantee on the one hand the “modernity” of a work or of a compositional practice, and on the other to create an environment that connotes the musical perception in a totalizing manner. The exploitation of technology in the context of a compositional process should, instead, be regarded in a much broader sense: it offers a higher degree of lucidity and allows a refinement of the means of research in the formalization of the artist’s musical visions and intuitions. For me it is a form of “writing”, a tool that, just like traditional writing, allows the artist a grip on the material he is exploring and from which he is attempting to root out the internal logics and develop them further in an extended formal framework. It is an even more sophisticated and efficient means of harnessing freedom and directing it along a path of knowledge. It should certainly not be seen as an easy shortcut for creating a “modern” sound (and in the idea of sound the notion of space dissolves and becomes quite secondary) or the ostentatious display of the “new” embodied in a musical composition, considering the fact that today modernity and the idea of progress are expressed above all through technological development.
However, at this point I would like to look more deeply into the means of disseminating contemporary music and its relation with the public, since this implicitly constitutes the endpoint with which creative mechanisms interact. The situation for a composer today, particularly in Italy, is difficult: channels of communication with the public are lacking and there is increasingly less space afforded to contemporary music in the programmes of opera-orchestral institutions. The reasons for this go back a long way: the lack of any real and systematic artistic and musical education in schools, the structural inadequacies in the context of musical teaching at a professional level; an extremely uneven spread across the country of opportunities to listen to live performances of so-called art music; a widespread and persistent mentality leading music to be considered solely and exclusively in terms of entertainment and a social rite dissociated from its intrinsically artistic contents. And for contingent reasons further aggravated by the general political-social-cultural situation of recent years: the pervasive diffusion of a cultural industry that reduces any form of artistic product – books, disks, films, concerts – to a product to be sold, mercenary objects and surrogates of art for direct consumption; the introduction of marketing at all levels (to the extent of substituting artistic reflection and questions of musical communication with strategies and objectives of a commercial and mercantilistic nature); costs of music production (concerts, operas, multimedia events) considered excessive in a time of general crisis in which the result is assessed exclusively in economic terms and the number of operators involved is high. Music is a collective phenomenon, both from the perspective of its production and its fruition: in the current way of thinking which increasingly demands an optimization of the ratio between production costs (of the event or of the artistic object proposed) and the quantitatively assessed gains (number of people reached, number of tickets sold), the benefits afforded to our awareness and knowledge are totally neglected. I would like to add that, from this point of view, many composers (especially younger ones, anxious to make themselves known and to enter a system that grants them “visibility”) believe it preferable to renounce their mission for creative research of a high artistic and creative level (dialectically shared with a complicit public), hiding instead behind the anachronistic idea of the great artist, unfathomably convinced of their own worth without considering the purely artistic results of their work, and of the need to deal with their “image” through the tools of marketing. I note, for example, that facebook is full of declarations about the definitiviteness of self-declared masterpieces and of phenomenal successes among the public. In an era in which the consumer of music (practically the whole human genre), western or westernized, has lost the awareness of the historical (and intrinsically artistic) worth of a true genius of the distant or recent past (Bach and Schönberg, to name just two), we now proclaim the importance of the simulacrum of the great composer of today, just as great as (and regardless of) his historical predecessors, so that it is still possible to affirm the existence of a tradition or of the need for a “great art”. At the same time singers are elected as poet laureates (as in the recent case of the Nobel prize assigned to Bob Dylan) to combat the elitism of so-called “cultured art”.
As far as the avant-garde of the second part of the 20th century is concerned, what remains of that experience is, for me, the artists’ will to confront the question of research and experimentation in the right terms, that is to say always taking into account questions of history and perception, resulting in a musical practice that respects the human dimension (whether the music is produced acoustically or electro-acoustically). No lesser or greater than in the past, when research and experimentation was considered an integral part of an artist’s work, even though not sociologically framed in terms of a collective avant-garde. In other words, it still holds that the ultimate purpose is to communicate awareness through a means that has a ludic value (but not as an end to itself). Therefore, working for the progress of the civilisation to which you belong, not so much for the sake of a positivistic and absurd idea of “progress” of the artistic object, as if it should be reduced to a technological means in constant evolution, but for the civil growth of a community. Today, unfortunately, we are instead witnessing the opposite trend: music is considered as a background to other activities, as a psychological aid, a socially approved modifier of states of mind; but not with the ultimate purpose of producing a primary benefit: that is to say of increasing individual and collective awareness and knowledge, a possibility that is often denied to music if it is taken as mere entertainment.
With regards the idea of “cultured” in music (I don’t wish to speak on behalf of other colleagues and friends, some of whose musical tastes I am well aware of), I personally still have an elective relation with classical music. This is not taking an elitist stance: the art of music or so-called art music, the legacy of a certain tradition in which an important role is assigned to the writing (and consequently to the pre- or post-compositional theorization and parallel to the development of the interpretative and exegetical practices), is expressed through this means, which still today (and perhaps now more than ever) is taught scientifically in universities and academies. This doesn’t prevent us from having a relation with music, with all music, with non classical musical genres, with practices of listening and of interaction with music in general that are much more pervasive, instinctive, irrational at many different levels, when all this nourishes our personal inspiration or the desires of our musical body. But I believe that every sort of creative idea (and in my opinion there are no such things as illegitimate or secondary ideas) must inevitably pass through the filter of writing (of writing in a broad sense), that is – as the composer Wolfgang Rihm would say– of a tool for “fixing freedom” so that others, and first and foremost musical performers, are able to live the experience and make it live. “Classical music” is a patrimony of works of art and of ways of thought (not a series of academic procedures and ephemeral rites). This is the sense in which I conceive my elective relation with it. It is through such things that I ground my relation with the world of creation: in the greatest liberty and curiosity of wanting to learn, which, as we know, constitutes the primary act of living.
With this in mind, I agree with Helmut Lachenmann, who – as a composer with a long and certainly not academic history – strives to defend the idea of Art with a capital “A”. I would like to repeat once again that there is nothing of elitism in this stance. A song of light music and a Lied by Schubert are both testimonies of their time in a simultaneously high and low sense (nothing prevents a “high” public – educated to classical music – from listening to and appreciating a light song, as sometimes happens to me; or, vice versa, a “low” public from approaching and being convinced by art music). But the two genres have different artistic goals (both highly demanding with respect to the canon to which they belong) and involve – in enabling and activating them – different modalities of fruition. The Lied, for example, places the stress on an illuminated listening to the poetic text by the composer and on the participation at the highest level between the poetic universe and the musical one, in which music and word are set in complex and changing relations, at times expanding on each other reciprocally, at others establishing a deliberate and not trifling relation of distancing. All this requires a particular kind of musical writing and listening, which focuses primarily on the object of our perception, thus transforming the perception into the comprehension (or an attempt at comprehension) of the values of the poetry, of the music and of their complex interplay: something that a “secondary” type of listening, instead, does not permit. For this reason I think that the Lied and the popular song can only partially share the same performing and receptive platform. The fundamental distinction is the exigency of the “writing” (in a broad sense, that is to say holding together a complexity of elements in a balance that transcends this complexity and transforms it into something fresh and natural), that gives rise or not to a cognitive type of relation and distinguishes it from a purely seductive type. This leads to a modality of fruition in which the listening remains “primary” and doesn’t, instead, become “secondary”: only “primary” listening is capable of producing an effect of the pleasure of comprehending the artistic object, without allowing it to become a sedative or therapeutic pleasure linked to the effect that the object or the artistic setting induce – where the object almost disappears during the activity of perception. In “secondary” listening, the resulting emotional state is compatible with other activities: socialization, primary functions such as eating, sleeping, watching the television, chatting, doing private or domestic chores. There are, of course, songs that are works of art (precisely because they generate the type of fruition that I tried to describe above), and works of so-called art music that also induce – among other things – a therapeutic or seductive-sedative effect, without, however, these becoming their ultimate value. This, surely, is the main way that the public at large (which is becoming ever smaller) listen to art music. But it is surely against this impoverishment of the modalities of fruition that composers must combat with a high qualitative level of the writing of their works and the exigency of the motivations that determine them.
Within the mechanisms of mediation of musical communication an essential role is played not so much by contemporary music criticism, which in my opinion is not currently enjoying good health, but rather musicology. I would like to dwell a moment on this aspect. Musicology has great potential when it doesn’t establish a tautological and merely analytical-reconstructive relation with the score and with the genesis of a composition, but when it synthesizes its constructive procedures, identifying at its base a common profound logic (if there is one) and interpreting it in relation to the motivations expressed by the composer (consciously, therefore) and by the score (of which, at times, the composer is not conscious) and to the aesthetic-philosophical implications deriving from it. The main problem with musicology, I believe, is that of its pertinence with respect to the musical text. It suffers, at times, from an excess of intellectualization aimed at explaining the musical surfaces, or the most hidden depths of a composition (both of which are not peculiar to the comprehension of the text or of its author if their elements are not considered in the context of the practices and habits common to a given genre or style, when they don’t become abstract references and confirmation of the analytical method of the musicologist himself). Instead, a genetic type of analysis (and not purely formalistic, or philosophical-psychological) of the score, if well performed (and here I wish to mention the case of Nicolas Donin and his team Analyse des pratiques musicales at IRCAM) can be of use to the composer, in the sense of allowing him a critical awareness of certain mechanisms normally executed in the process of composition, but also of his personal habits, his tendencies or idiosyncrasies, his repetition compulsion, the difficulties resolved or carefully avoided, the contradictions and arbitrarinesses, and the composer’s relation with the intuition and taste that shape his style of writing.
I would now like to say a few words about the relation between a composer and the musical panorama of his time, which he is obliged to take into account and towards which he must feel it his duty to act. Returning to what I said at the start of the article, and as I have already written elsewhere [2], there are three words that inspire my musical research: curiosity, freedom, coherence. Let me repeat my conviction: a musical composition can be considered as the synthesis of a multicultural approach starting from the conditions in which we, today, undertake culture and art (and moreover not independently from the influences of the cultural industry). The artistic outcome can display, or not, this multiplicity of approaches or of sources of inspiration. For this reason there have existed and still exist currents and fashions: neo-romanticism, postmodernism, cross-over, new melting-pots (again, more in terms of sound than in musical content true and proper), etc. I increasingly tend to view the composer as a multi-identitied artist who, instead of blending the different inputs at the basis of his work into a unique and defined style, which characterizes his entire production or periods of it, is able, thanks to his creativity, to express himself differently from one composition to the next, as if he were more than one person at the same time, thus satisfying his curiosity and his desire for freedom. In this way the composer can trace from one piece to another, with intellectual coherence and competence in writing, a coherent creative path in which– almost a posteriori – the signs of a unique and perfectly personal style can be identified. Emblematic composers in this sense were Stravinsky and Ligeti, as well as our Maderna (too often undervalued). But also Schönberg (who went back to being a “tonal” composer at the end of his career, never having definitively abandoned the “Viennese” features in his music). And, in the more distant past, certainly Bach and Monteverdi. There is also the social aspect as well as the cultural role that today’s artist assumes within the society of mass cultural consumption. What one could say about the current trend is that today’s music no longer seems to occupy a well-defined place among the arts and the creative phenomena, and obviously I have no clear, or especially effective, answer to this problem. Defending the social role of the artist by focusing on the mechanisms of the society of spectacle, of education and of the cultural industry is surely important. But very often this action doesn’t allow the creative talent widespread throughout this country to be exploited and doesn’t do justice to some truly outstanding artistic figures (perhaps already internationally recognized). By taking for granted that this (almost trade-unionist) defence will guarantee the survival of art and the need to participate in its fruition, you often end up by favouring the same old faces. In reality, as I have tried to say above, in doing so you defend the idea, bourgeois and passive, of a simulacrum of artistic and social practice according to which still today – and irrespective of the worth of his work – there must be the great genius, heroic and misunderstood (or even, in our times full of glamour, very understood) embodied by some figure of an artist considered to be the heir to the glittering times of the past. And so we see singers confused with poets, piano bar players taken for neo-Pollinis or neo-Mozarts, corrupt politicians and speculators passed as great statesmen. And it is even possible to see artists working fully aware and cynically in this direction, in other words that of marketing, which for the last fifteen years or more has totally replaced the ideology and the aesthetic creeds of the defunct avant-gardes. As if it were more important to defend the idea that there can still be artists in the antipoetic and globalized world in which we live, even before trying to think about and say how we can express ourselves artistically today. As if the fact of marking out a territory with the presence of some important personage alleged to be a genius (often with the aid of the author’s personal management or of the lobby he has been included in) means defending the spaces of creative freedom, totally overlooking the contents with which this space has been filled, and so freedom becomes expression. In this sense I hope for a figure of an artist who tries to express a truth (unfamiliar, only sensed, experienced, glimpsed, felt visionarily) through a “writing” that is exacting and of a high qualitative level, which for me is like saying: transforming the complexity of one’s dreams in relation to one’s personal vision(s) of the world, putting them into an artistic form that is transparent and extremely balanced (in all the meanings of the word “extreme”), until making it natural to hear – and listen to – that multifaceted plot. Only by maintaining this fundamental requisite, without lowering our guard, can we truly defend the space of freedom represented by artistic expression. Certainly not by ordaining someone as an “Artist” or delegating someone to be so with more right than others to defend the very existence of Art. Art defends itself and lives by filling itself with content and not with the ego of the artists.
In conclusion, returning once again to the conditions for the dissemination of contemporary music and the future of the musician, one cannot help but note and lament the lack of any design for a cultural policy at a national level – even more serious in the field of music – able to link the valorization of our heritage to education, to its fruition, to its conservation and its transmission. Transmission also and especially means linking History to the future of the new generations of consumers and producers of culture, that is to say the creating artists of today who with their marks and in the ways of interpretation of their works actively conserve the values of the past by projecting them and transfiguring them into the future, thus linking the vision passed down by the universal heritage of tradition to the visionariness of their own personal dreams. In this framework, I could say that in an era in which the avant-gardes, the ideologies and the sense of history have ended, this future will depend on the composers who will place at the centre of their work the creativity and the quality of their compositions and not so much the importance of the person that created them. The same is true for the institutions, which would need to be managed by persons competent and motivated to act in the name of a cultural heritage to be conserved and transmitted in a pervasive and active manner, and of that future to be created and brought to life: an intellectual and political class not interested in affirming egoistic values and virtues aimed at safeguarding their own person and not intent on using their role to give hagiographic prestige to their own personal destiny. In the immediate future I envisage – but I hope to be just exaggeratedly pessimistic – a musical and cultural life ever more subject to lobbies (publishing, political, artistic) in defence of the “niche” that is supposed to represent art music today, which ends by obtusely rewarding a fetishist and anachronistic vision of an artist, democratically snobbish, that is alleged to be needed for the sake of the indispensable survival of Art, presumptuously with a capital “A”.

Stefano Gervasoni, 2016
(translated by Mike Webb)
[1] S. Gervasoni, “Raisons et occasions dans le choix d’un poème qui devient musique”, in Le choix d'un poème. La poésie saisie par la musique,http://www.pur-editions.fr/detail.php?idOuv=3772
[2] Cfr. S. Gervasoni, http://www.stefanogervasoni.net/index.asp?page=writings&id=11tings&id=11
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