Bucharest: The rich food of mercy

Simon really feeling it in St. Joseph's Cathedral. Photo by Louisa Billeter.
Simon really feeling it in St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Photo by Louisa Billeter.

After the peculiar wonderland of Venice, it was a relief to arrive in the bustling metropolis of Bucharest. With its young population and unpredictable traffic, Bucharest is a living, breathing city. Upon arrival the choir was broken up and ferried out to a series of apartments by the genial Domnul Bogdan. The choir was dispersed in the region around the National University of Music and the venue of our single concert, St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Finally! Our own rooms! No more queues for the bathroom! But with luxury comes isolation and the realisation that we didn’t really know where we were, where anybody else was, or where our next rehearsal was to be.

Architectural juxtaposition
Architectural juxtaposition

Wandering out to orient ourselves, one had the impression that Romania’s history is inscribed in its architecture. In the centre of Bucharest, the French Second-Empire buildings of “Little Paris” jostle with crumbling modernist apartment blocks. Art deco buildings reflect traditional bold, triangular decoration, while wrought iron railings all over the city sport the rising sun of the former Socialist Republic of Romania. In the nearby mountains, castles from the medieval period to the nineteenth century reflect the territory’s importance as a trade route and pleasure retreat. To return to the theme of the last blog post, the city is itself a palimpsest of architectural style and political history. The country’s feverish drive for development, for access to the Schengen Area and the Euro, has not been met with a property boom that would erase this history. Instead, the beautiful nineteenth-century buildings bought dirt-cheap after Ceaușescu’s fall slowly crumble. Billboards are erected over ancient façades and public squares are used for parking lots.

Decorative detail in our modernist apartments.
Decorative detail in our modernist apartments.

Though we knocked down our best old buildings long ago, Australia has certain parallels with Romania, including a meat-intensive local cuisine thankfully embellished by multicultural street food. Both countries also suffer from a cultural cringe among their aspirational youth. Ceaușescu’s pro-natal policies resulted in Romania having one of the highest concentrations of young adults in Europe. Bucharest now has a burgeoning hipster culture, with Melbourne-style cafés (complete with Melbourne prices) and bars. A former manager of one of Bucharest’s most fashionable bars explained to us the pressure amongst fellow Romanians to speak English over their boutique imported beers.

A nice detail near the University of Music.
A nice detail near the University of Music.

At the center of our visit to Romania was the rector of the National University of Music, Dan Dediu. Australian audiences are now familiar with Dan Dediu’s Stabat Mater setting, from its raw opening cries to the spacious chords of the “Eja mater.” The piece showcases the composer’s acute sense of harmony and choral texture, drawing inspiration from two other great chromaticists, Gesualdo and Verdi. John broke up Dediu’s chromatic onslaught with original Gesualdo and Verdi pieces, including the latter’s “Ave Maria” setting based on a repeating “enigmatic scale.” The melodic lines entwining the scale sit well in the voice, tempting the choir to sing out as one hears in so many performances and recordings. John’s original direction had a marvellous effect. As the choir dropped down to let the enigmatic scale cut through, the piece gained an architectural continuity worthy of St. Joseph’s Cathedral itself. The Stabat Mater ends with what can only be described as a penitential mega-mix, with motifs from each movement returning in juxtaposition. Though the piece begins with a scream, it ends with the most exhausted “Amen” you have ever heard, and not just because of the choir’s flagging breath.

Mihai Murariu gives some pointers to the choir.
Mihai Murariu gives some pointers to the choir.

Unfortunately, we saw little of the composer of this masterwork. Dediu kept his distance during rehearsals, though was effusive after the performance. The same cannot be said for Dediu’s student, Mihai Murariu. Murariu is a mountain of a man and an excellent composer. He towered over John during rehearsals, offering some very helpful pointers on his meandering piece Rugăciune (of which, he informed us, he was glad to hear the “real notes” for the first time). It was a pleasure to sing in Romanian, the easternmost Romance language. Like so many things about Romania, the language is familiar yet strange. You leave with the uncanny sense that, although the country might be entirely new to you, you have been there before.

To return to the sacrificial theme of the first blog of the tour, the chromaticism of the Stabat Mater is a lance that pierces consonance. This sacrifice grants access to a third-hand pain, the pain of the Virgin Mary beholding the pain of her son on the cross. In its scope and persistence, the pain of the Stabat Mater is great, and so is its function in bringing the audience together. Never did we see so many people smiling in Romania than after our concert. And, as always seemed to be the case throughout the tour, after the sacrifice came “the rich food of mercy.”

Celebrating Rob's 40th.
Celebrating Rob’s 40th.

Much was made of the choir’s patience and resilience throughout the tour. People looked after each other and formed bonds that will only strengthen with time. A particular highlight in this regard was Catrina and Marc’s decision to organise a birthday dinner for Rob Franzke, which turned out to be a marathon meal that even the choir’s supreme teamwork could not conquer. Bonds were especially formed amongst the newer members of the choir (you know, those who have been in Astra for less than twenty years). I think I speak for much of the choir when I say that I returned inspired about what the choir could achieve in the future.

Graffiti in Bucharest. Photo from the Astra Facebook page.

If I could name a highlight of the tour, I would be hard pressed to choose between singing to the frescoes of Santa Catarina, climbing the stairs past the improvising choir in Venice, or even being absorbed into a raucous accordion-fueled party in the Carpathian mountains. I would say it was one sunny morning in the Chiesa di Oggnisanti in Camino. We rehearsed the Australian composer Kim Dillon’s Im Frieden dein, a simple piece alternating a group of soloists and the full choir. Singing “the rich food of mercy,” the choir, the space and the soloists all seemed to click into place, one of the hard-won effects of a group working together in an intensive environment. There were a few misty eyes in the room as the secondary group of soloists sang out magically from within the ranks of the choir and the nonnas of Camino pedalled by outside.

Treviso: The throng of innocents

To get to the Veneto town of Treviso, the choir trudged across Venice every day and caught a train to the North-West. At the other end of the half-hour train trip, one must navigate through the throng of the nightly passaggiata, or evening walk. The entire town of some 80,000 people seems to spill out onto the streets to stroll about, look in shops and talk. At this time the city centre becomes so congested that pedestrians completely take over the road. Compared to the seething crowds of Venice, the amiable throng of Treviso makes the streets seem particularly safe.

Ron gets into the tiramisù.
Ron gets into the tiramisù.

My favourite of Treviso’s claims to fame is that it is the home of radicchio, the red salad green. As one Trevisano proudly declared to me at dinner: “Radicchio from Treviso is the only radicchio”. The method of growing the bitter, dark-red chicory is perfectly suited to the region, with its many permanently-running springs. Once the plant has grown, it is picked and placed in running water to leech out the chlorophyll and bitterness. In fact, good radicchio is not supposed to be bitter at all, but slightly sweet (though my own Triestino father insists that they praised the bitterness of radicchio in Trieste because it was thought to reflect the vegetable’s iron content). Those less enamoured of salad may be surprised to know that Treviso is also the home of prosecco and tiramisù. Filippo Perocco, our host in Treviso, made an enormous batch of the dessert for a special dinner put on in Astra’s honour. As we learnt over dinner, local lore is divided as to who first came up with the name, which translates as “pick me up.” The G-rated story has it that a hotel owner made it for his ailing wife. Another story tells that the name originated (for obvious reasons) in a brothel.

Chiesa di Santa Caterina

The choir prepare to rehearse in the chiesa di Santa Catarina. Photo by Ron McCoy.
The choir prepare to rehearse in the chiesa di Santa Catarina. Photo by Ron McCoy.

Food aside, Treviso is home to a number of beautiful churches, including the deconsecrated church of Santa Caterina. The cavernous building with its wide cloisters is now a museum exhibiting a palimpsest of decoration from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Frescoes from different periods overlap on the walls, which were badly damaged when the church was used as a magazine during the Napoleonic occupation and from bombing during the Second World War. The church was restored after the Second World War and now houses a fifteenth-century cycle of frescoes by Tomaso da Modena that was salvaged from another church.

Finding music among the frescoes.
Finding music among the frescoes.

The frescoes tell the story of Saint Ursula who, according to legend, was killed by the Huns along with her entourage of eleven thousand peregrinating virgins. Astra programmes are themselves palimpsests of different musical periods, but never has one been so appropriately framed. The concert began with Hildegard von Bingen’s hymn Cum vox sanguinis. The hymn to Saint Ursula was sung by Matthew Thomson, whose pure voice was supported by drones from the choir. The addition of a sung dialogue between Thomson and Katrina Seiffert gave the piece a dramatic character like the figures on the Tomaso frescoes. Adding layer upon layer over the Hildegard, the concert also included works by the baroque composer Schütz, a twentieth-century piece by Schoenberg and contemporary Italian, Romanian and Australian works.

One of the frescoes still attached to the wall of the chiesa di Santa Catarina.
One of the frescoes still attached to the wall of the chiesa di Santa Catarina.

Like the church of Santa Caterina, Astra is deconsecrated. Though it may inspire spiritual reflection, the choir has a fundamentally secular mission. The museum status of the Santa Caterina church gave the choir a good opportunity to trot out Riccardo Vaglini’s Viatico. Viatico is a harmonically very traditional piece of choral writing based on an absolutely obscene text. The piece was composed as a response to a critic who said that Vaglini was deficient in basic musical skills (see? I said he had a mean streak).

The chapel of the innocents.

The church was also ideally suited to Astra because it provided numerous spaces in which to perform, from the non-sacred sanctuary to the incredible chapel of the innocents depicting yet another mass murder. The concert began near the sanctuary, far from the audience. The Astra Improvising Choir made good use of the resonant chapel, singing shifting chords from Dan Dediu’s Stabat Mater. My favourite place in the church was in between the parallel rows of screens supporting the frescoes by Tomaso. It was as though we were singing directly to the figures in the paintings, the surfaces of which reflected and altered the sound of the choir. After exploring every corner of the room, the choir finally (and one has the sense, begrudgingly) came to rest in front of the audience and the church’s

Kim at the organ. Photo by Ron McCoy.
Kim at the organ. Photo by Ron McCoy.

towering split-key organ. In rehearsal, Kim Bastin took a cool ten minutes to adjust to the keyboard, which offers different tunings for enharmonics such as A# and Bb. He was then easily able to accompany the choir through Dan Dediu’s Exultate, Jubilate. Much shorter than the Stabat Mater setting that we also brought on tour, Exultate, Jubilate is “Dan Dediu light.” The setting is a catalogue of ingenious textures and tunes that got stuck in our heads until we were well settled in Bucharest.


Astra was performing in Treviso as part of the annual festival curated by the ensemble L’Arsenale. As the ensemble’s founder Filippo Perocco explained in an interview, L’Arsenale formed ten years ago from a core of young performers and composers. For the past three or four years, the ensemble has turned to the peculiar instrumentation of soprano, saxophone, accordion, guitar, piano, synthesizer and home-made instruments/lo-fi electronics. Unfortunately, Astra was not able to attend a concert by L’Arsenale, but we were able to hear the magnificent playing of the accordionist Igor Zobin in Inventario. At the beginning, Perocco asked friends to compose for the ensemble, but the ensemble has since reached out to composers around the world through their calls for scores and international residencies, including stints at Harvard University and in the south of France. Why is Treviso the centre of this remarkable musical activity? Simply because Perocco and other members of the ensemble are from there.

Treviso also provides the fortuitous link between Astra and L’Arsenale. Australia’s favourite musical impresario Sergio de Pieri is also from Treviso and was Perocco’s first music teacher, as Perocco explained:

Filippo Perocco and "The Saint". Photo by Ron McCoy.
Filippo Perocco and “The Saint”. Photo by Ron McCoy.

My relationship with Astra goes back 15 years thanks to Sergio de Pieri. He was my first teacher of music and is a good friend. He invited me to Australia and, in the third week of my stay, he said “We will go and visit a friend of mine. He is a conductor who makes very interesting projects and programmes with his choir.” I met John McCaughey and I remember well that it was a very sympathetic meeting, from my point of view. Since that time I have had a very good relationship with him. I have composed two pieces for Astra and he has also performed other pieces of mine: A Question and Three Credo Fragments.

Talking in the echoing nave of the church, surrounded by sacred art in a deconsecrated space, I asked Perocco whether religious forms were still important to him.

They are not important to me, but they are part of me. They are part of me independently of my faith. I was an organist for many years and played at mass every Sunday. This kind of ritual and relation with sacred music was constant in my musical education.

So, when the opportunity arose to write the Kyrie setting that Astra sang in Treviso, he jumped at it. The crisp but resonant acoustic lent itself to both the piece’s strident monophonic cries and sparse, piano passages. Perocco wrote the piece as part of a collective project to compose a mass. A different composer wrote each part of the mass, which is called Missa Mosaica. Perocco’s influences also range well beyond sacred music.

The important influences for me has changed over the years. At the beginning I was thirsty for a lot of different music. I could appreciate a piece by Helmut Lachenmann, as well as a piece by Louis Andriessen, so two very opposite ways of thinking about music and two different aesthetics. This is still part of my attitude toward music. I like sincerity in music independently of its aesthetic. The matter of sincerity belongs not just to composers but also to performers. Performers and composers can sometimes be like athletes. When the athletic musical gesture becomes more important than music, it becomes a bit boring for me, whether this is in performance or composition. I don’t like too much self-confidence. I prefer something precarious.

Later that evening, as the choir counted their way through Perocco’s exposed entrances in front of a large and expectant audience, I wondered whether he had not found his ideal choir.

Matthew Lorenzon writes the Partial Durations contemporary music blog with support from RealTime Magazine.

Camino: Many Shall Come from the East and the West

Rolling into Camino
Rolling into Camino

Travelling east from Venice, one enters the autonomous region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Vast plains stretch eastward to the Slovenian border. In the extreme East of the region, the capital of Trieste opens Central Europe to the Adriatic Sea. The plains also reach northward to the towering mountains that form a natural border with Austria. Water rushing down from the mountains forms the Tagliamento, which divides the region in two. Along this river lies Camino al Tagliamento, a beautiful town sporting one of the richest musical cultures in the region and, following extensive research by the choir, some very fine wines.

Bella villa across the road from the library.

As our bus rolled into Camino, the setting sun flashed through rows of trees and over vineyards. The red roofs and distinctive brickwork of the region expand out from the town centre, which consists of a blazing yellow villa and a library. Beautiful old bicycles dot the roadside. The locals see no problem with leaving them propped up on the curb when they go inside. The area is strongly bilingual, with signs written in both Italian and the local language, Friulana. The local library also served as the venue for much of the town’s contemporary music festival, Camino Contro Corrente (Camino Counter-Current). The library features a beautiful and intimate new auditorium, one of the town’s two modern performance spaces.

The library. Photo by Ron McCoy.

Camino’s performing arts culture is the result of generations of local teachers and practitioners. The composer, conductor and musicologist Davide Liani grew up in the town and went on to become director of the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello in Venice and Palermo. He continued to teach and organise master classes in Camino throughout his life. The town was also home to the renowned Zanin family of organ makers. The festival concluded, according to tradition, with a recital of opera arias by the Camino-born soprano Francesca Scaini, who has maintained an international teaching and performing career.

Matt excercises control.
Matt exercises restraint.

The powerhouse of contemporary music in the region is the Zorzini family, including the gifted twins Francesco and Carlo. Francesco spearheads the festival, rallying the town to support the concerts and musicians. Members of the community took turns to help cook for the three-dozen members of the choir every lunch and dinner. This was not an easy task and the choir was amazed and grateful for the stream of pasta, polenta and meat dishes that regularly emanated from the small kitchen of the parish centre. A drop of grappa, possibly drizzled over a slice of local raisin cake, usually concluded the long meals (and led to some interesting intonation in rehearsal). Francesco further rallied a team of drivers—including the indefatigable Daniele (“Dalmato”/”Biscuits”) Locatelli—to ferry the choir from their digs on opposite sides of the town. One had the impression, talking to the locals, that any young person in the town could scribble down a fugue or a chorale, if not generate a body of original, contemporary compositions.

Strade dell’Este

John talks to Slovene television.
John talks to a crew from Slovene television. Photo by Ron McCoy.

The theme of this year’s festival was “strade dell’Este” (roads from the East). The festival included another concert by Gisbert Watty and Frauke Aulbert, who performed two beautiful Greek songs by Stefan Hakenberg. Aulbert’s rendition of the curved lines of Scelsi’s famous piece for solo voice, Hô, was utterly entrancing in the complete darkness of the auditorium. The pianist Erato Alakiozidou performed her muscular programme of contemporary Greek piano compositions. Some more laid-back pieces included the meditative Remaining Sounds of a Deep Sea by Calliope Tsoupaki. A pleasant surprise in the festival was Nicola Ventrella’s solo recital of piano works by Kaikoshru Shapurij Sorabji. Ventrella performed six of the 100 Transcendental Studies, which are amusing in their use of a mundane form with such grand ambition. It is truly a pity that we do not have the opportunity to hear the longer piece St. Bernard de Comminges (“He was laughing in the tower”) more often. It juxtaposes textures like a Messiaen piece, but the harmonic language is more traditional. Chorales and eerie counterpoint give way to thunderous chords and figures that range across the keyboard from the resonant bass to (in this case) the humorously-puny treble.


Vineyards on the walk into town.

What better place to explore the theme of East and West than Camino, which sits along the easiest land route from Western Europe to the East? What better way to explore this theme than to invite an Australian choir? An Australian choir is appropriate not because we are geographically (according to most maps) very far to the East, nor because Australia is a melting-pot of Western and Eastern cultures, but because Australia’s remoteness works as a sieve that collects a unique arrangement of cultural artefacts from the rest of the world. In Australia, distance works like a telescope, blowing certain works out of proportion and filtering out others. Think of a window made of hundreds of small lens-shaped bubbles or panels. I’m not making the old argument that one’s perspective distorts the cultural landscape, but that objects like musical works make their way relatively intact into the Australian context in differing proportions. The major works repeated over and over again on the international stage are often sieved out and, in relative silence, the value of lesser-known works becomes evident. Which other choir in the world would find the time to sing so many works by two composition teachers and their current pupils, then travel to Camino to perform them?

Astra rehearses at the Auditorium Davide Liani. Photo by Ron McCoy.

Astra had the good fortune to present three concerts, including the magical performance of Riccardo Vaglini’s Inventario mentioned in the previous blog. The other two concerts were sacred and secular respectively. The sacred concert in the Chiesa di Oggnisanti gave us the opportunity to perform Francesco Zorzini’s own Libera me, a subtle and beautiful piece. From opposite sides of the church, the choir intones on slightly-shifting chords. Slight rhythmic modifications in different parts produce a heterophonic effect before the choir suddenly drops to a whisper. Swelling syncopations and a counterpoint of different note values is used to vary the otherwise stern, flat texture. Gianluca Geremia, a young composer from Venice, was also in attendance to hear his Agnus Dei. Geremia explained to me over a plate of pasta how the expansive piece, with its long, stretching phrases, originated from a harmonic idea and was then shoe-horned into the Agnus Dei text (or, rather, the other way around). The choir performed Filippo Bresolin’s O magnum mysterium, once more trying to manage its transition from spoken to sung voices amidst a difficult tempo change. It is one of the most difficult moments for the choir, along with the intonation of the exposed, perfect intervals at the start of Gianandrea Pauletta’s stunning Hoc Est. The concert ended with the rollicking hit Pastores loquebantur by Clemens non Papa—something nice to walk out the front door to. Though the night was cold, the audience willingly followed us out into the street.

Masterminds. Riccardo Vaglini and Francesco Zorzini at the launch of an exhibition by Denis Riva. Photo by Ron McCoy.

After the mammoth sacred concert, we were up early for our secular programme in the small amphitheatre. It was a very rewarding chamber music space to sing in, as one could hear the rest of the choir perfectly. As well as showcasing much-loved classics like Schoenberg’s Mond un Menschen, we were also able to air a few more Australian compositions, including Lawrence Whiffin’s playful Revolutionary Fugue and Keith Humble’s Nocturne III. Humble’s piece, dedicated to John McCaughey, is based on a ninth-century Chinese poem full of images of homesickness. The final line, implying a sunrise, is painted with a series of saturated chords that the choir held as they moved towards (but not out) the door.

Dinner at the Villa Scaini. Photo by Ron McCoy.

On our last night in Camino, the choir was graciously hosted by the Scaini family. If the delicious dinner of local specialties was not enough, we were thanked with a local Friulana song. During his speech, John mentioned the mysterious aura of Camino. I couldn’t agree more. The humid atmosphere (relative to Melbourne!) and earthy smell of the fallow, fertile fields give the air a lucid, expectant quality. The sun shines upon the town from dawn to dusk, occasionally coloured by clouds and haze. We often walked by the farms and vineyards to rehearsal and every step was intoxicatingly beautiful. Even the roadside ditches have a certain poetry about them. Then there are the people. After the touristic bustle of Venice, it was wonderful to arrive somewhere that was going about its own business quite independently of your intrusion. It was as though we were watching the town through a screen—no doubt compounded by the language barrier of Friulana—until somebody reached out and said “hello.” This feeling was strongest when we left the church on the eve of All Saints’ Day. The town was silent, the streets were empty, but the graveyard was festooned with flowers, torches and candles.

-Matthew Lorenzon

Matthew writes the Partial Durations contemporary music blog with support from RealTime Magazine.

Venice: Walking Shadows

Getting lost has never been so much fun.
Getting lost has never been so much fun.

Orienting oneself in Venice is a uniquely enjoyable experience. Even though most turns take you in precisely the wrong direction, these wrong steps are rarely regretted. Each corner presents a new scene of breath-taking beauty. One moment you are staring up at the bare brick façade of the Basilica dei Frari (which houses Monteverdi’s tomb), the next you are stumbling across the marble folly of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (which houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of contemporary art). It has to be done slowly. Moving too quickly risks rendering you speechless with an overload of stunning sights.

Hot Autumn in the North-East

Our first week was an unbroken string of sunny days, the perfect welcome to the mini-festival in which we were performing: Autunno Caldo A Nord-Est (“Hot Autumn in the North-East”). Trudging around the humid canals, one quickly recognises the origin of the name. A warm southerly wind, the cirocco, blows into Venice in Autumn, delaying the cold of winter but aggravating the tides that periodically swamp the narrow streets. The festival takes place in a hall on the top floor of the crumbling seventeenth-century Palazzo Pisani. The building now houses the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello. A piece of fallen marble prohibited the front entrance from being used and a flood on the top floor warped the floor of the performance space, but the show went on.

Two video works launched the afternoon, including Sara Tozzato’s grotesque spectacle of a dying pigeon flapping around in a town square. After witnessing the death throes for ten or so minutes, somebody picks up the pigeon in a newspaper and moves it to a more comfortable grassed area. The overwhelming question of the piece is why Tozzato did not do so in the first place. A recital by the virtuoso guitarist Gisbert Watty and vocalist Frauke Aulbert represented the more hard-edged new music scene. An audience favourite was Aulbert’s inventive performance of Aperghis’ Récitation, no. 11, where the performer must repeat a small number of phrases many times in different ways. Watty was joined by the guitarist Gianantonio Rossi for a performance of Intermezzo by Thomas Reiner (who many will know from Monash University). Reiner treats the two guitars as one instrument, augmenting the harmonic possibilities of the instrument in this tightly choreographed piece. The finale, Luigi Nono’s La fabbrica illuminata for solo voice and electronics, can only be described as great fun. The vocalist’s dramatic outbursts unleash torrents of gibbering and crashing around the audience. If only one could hook up a system to do this at home. “Good morning!” one would cry, to peals of thunder.

Dragging Piece amongst the improvising choir.
Dragging Piece amongst the improvising choir.

The composer Riccardo Vaglini centres the festival around his ensemble, the Collettivo Rituale. The group is dedicated to the provocative and agitprop works by the Fluxus movement. Out in the shaded courtyard the audience were offered cigarettes as part of Miako Shiomi’s Smoke Poem, a work that we cannot expect West Australian Opera to perform any time soon. The performer writes a name on their cigarette before smoking it. One is not supposed to tell others the name of one’s cigarette for fear of weakening the spell, but I am led to understand that certain members of government featured prominently. Walking up the beautiful marble staircase of the conservatorium (some dragging stuffed toys by strings as part of Nam June Paik’s Dragging Piece), we were treated to an incredible imitation of an Australian forest. The Astra Improvising Choir spaced themselves throughout the staircase imitating whip-birds, cicadas and frogs. At one point the choir burst out into a glorious chorus of kookaburra calls. The height of the stairwell gave the sense that one was ascending through a canopy of birds and insects.

Once installed in the sunlit fifth-storey hall, the choir wrapped instruments in paper for Genpei Akasegawa’s Kompo before seating themselves for a more traditional piano recital. The pianist and composer, Gianluca Geremia, proceeded to mash the keys with his hands and then, as he moved progressively further from the piano, with a duster, a rug beater, a mop and a variety of brooms. Somebody should tell the Melbourne Recital Centre what the conservatorium in Venice lets people do to their Bechsteins. Spaced around the periphery of the hall, the Astra choir gave a performance of Takehisa Kosugi’s South. The piece involves pronouncing the letters of “South” over fifteen minutes (although Astra performed a somewhat shorter version), a direction that includes some ambiguity as only the first letter of the word is pronounced phonetically. Vaglini, a very sweet man with a delicious mean streak, shared his dirty laundry in Yoko Ono’s Laundry Piece.

Far from understanding Fluxus pieces as random provocations, Vaglini is interested in how Fluxus performances breathe life into everyday or established art-objects. As Vaglini explained one afternoon in Camino:

For many years I composed the same sort of thing. I used the same chords, the same solutions. There were many years in which I did not invent or find really new things. But I found something new in the way things can be put together.

A Fluxus performance is both destructive and affirmative. It breaks the rules to inaugurate new artistic materials. This is the meaning behind the name Collettivo Rituale. Vaglini described the name as

like an oxymoron. If you invert the position of the words, “rituale collettivo,” it’s something like a religious ritual. But if you say “collettivo rituale,” the substantive “collettivo” is like a collective from the seventies. It is some group of people who do not just want to desecrate sacred things, but to transform the quotidian into the sacred. The process works both ways.

I think that, in the case of Collettivo Rituale, the “sacred” concert setting comes first. Collettivo Rituale often observe conventional concert etiquette, including rows of seating and accepting applause, in order to provide an artistic frame for mundane actions. Their form of presentation is in stark contrast to Astra’s. As Astra audiences will be aware, John McCaughey has a phobia of conventional seating and will make the choir leave the building before the end of the concert if he can manage it. To McCaughey, (borrowing from Helen Gifford’s choral cycle Catharsis), “everything is [already] plundered, destroyed.” Destruction and exile form undercurrents of the Astra programmes for this tour, from Heinrich Schütz’s “Auf dem Gebirge” and “Viel warden kommen von Morgen und von Abend” to Jack Body’s setting of psalm 137. To McCaughey, we were long ago cast out from the land of comfortable pot-pourri programmes and are wandering the artistic wastes with much “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (remember that, choristers, next time he insists on cutting the last note of the Schutz short). Irregular “Astra seating” would not work for a Collettivo Rituale performance. The sacralisation of the mundane requires an already-sacred space in which to occur. Like a religious sacrifice, the mundane action must first be anointed—through a performance space, an audience and silence—for its worldliness to be destroyed and for it to be reborn as an artistic material.


Riccardo Vaglini and his students sit in on rehearsals for Inventario
Riccardo Vaglini and his students sit in on rehearsals for Inventario

The Astra choir’s performance of Vaglini’s Inventario on Wednesday 29 October was a great example an artistic frame transforming everyday objects into art. The choir acted as a physical, as well as musical frame for the diverse objects brought into the performance. We sat around the edge of the space, behind the audience. To our surprise, the audience included the conductor of Salvatore Sciarrino’s new opera La porta della legge, which members of the choir had attended only a few nights earlier. In Inventario, the choir chants the dates of Vaglini’s diary entries, filling the space with ceremonial tension. An actor, Pietro Malavenda, begins to describe the contents of Vaglini’s compositional archive as though he were presenting them at an auction. Childhood sketches, student exercise books and fragments of compositions are each itemised by the actor and performed by an ensemble consisting of guitar (Gisbert Watty), cello (Paola Furetta), accordion (Igor Zobin) and piano (our own Kim Bastin). The Astra improvising choir and the larger choir also participated in the performance of Vaglini’s fragmentary archive.

Several pieces, including Inizio for piano, guitar and cello called, are repeated several times. Alongside framing, repetition is another way in which Vaglini transforms musical fragments into parts of a whole. Vaglini explained the rationale behind the piece:

I had a transparent plastic page from 1993–4 with a title “Inventario,” one guitar staff with a slow glissando. I had put it away somewhere and forgotten about it. When John asked me for something for Melbourne in September, I remembered this short fragment and I wanted to examine where that composition began. I inventoried all of my little pieces of paper. It was very chaotic. There were pages of different sizes and importance: School exercises with mistakes and corrections, pages with music and text about the music. I needed a way for all of that chaotic material to become comprehensible. The idea was to accept heterophony as the ordinary condition of life, but also to find some obsessive form. The ear is not like the eye, which can rest on a particular part of a painting for an hour. What you hear passes away continuously, so you need some repetition to create something to hold the attention of the listener.

It is remarkable that a choir will agree to sing fragments of a composer’s personal archive for over an hour (though Astra is a remarkable choir). The emotional sincerity of Vaglini’s music, which is perceptible even in the scattered fragments of Inventario, is an incredible encouragement to performer and audience alike. This sentimentality reaches a peak at the end of the concert, when the Astra improvising choir moves through the audience, singing fragments of music that they remember from their childhoods. The audience joins in, before all of the different melodies melt away, leaving only Vaglini himself singing a Greek lullaby. Like many of the musical fragments in the piece, Vaglini’s lullaby stops mid-phrase. This had a marvellous effect in Camino, where Vaglini’s mother was in attendance and sang the lullaby along with Vaglini. At the usual moment, Vaglini stopped, leaving his poor mother singing the last notes in the entire concert. It felt as though the entire artifice of Inventario was intended to bring about that moment.

Sacrifice and Tragedy

Participating in Vaglini’s genre-defying ceremonies does not at all feel like one is “breaking out” of a mould or that “anything goes”. The scores of the pieces are sadistic lists of rules that one is expected to interpret with the rigor (and multiple interpretations) of a biblical scholar. Nobody wants to do the wrong thing with their butcher’s paper or to drag their stuffed toy too roughly across the ground. Artistic ritual retains from religious ritual the sense that something terrible could happen if it doesn’t go correctly. Philosophical anthropologists speak of sacrifice as a way of dispelling social disharmony. The paradigm case is the biblical scapegoat that is loaded with the town’s sins and driven out into the desert. God forbid the goat sneaks back in!

A tomb at the Chiesa di San Stae. In true Macbethian style, the inscription reads “his name and ashes are buried with his vanity.”

What if, instead of dispelling social disharmony or creating a new artistic aura, the ceremony unleashes carnage upon all that surrounds it? In the gloriously resonant church of San Stae, above its striking skull-and-crossbones tomb, Jerzy Kozlowski intoned Helen Gifford’s Walking Shadows. The piece is a setting of the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth. Macbeth bemoans the ordinary state of life, which is only “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” To rise above the “petty pace from day to day” he has sacrificed the king outside of any ceremonial injunction, but it has only brought more death to his doorstep (or portcullis). Instead of a neat sacrifice, Macbeth is a messy tragedy.

Choristers enjoying the autumn weather.
Choristers enjoying the autumn weather.

Venice is becoming what Steve Lerner and Naomi Klein call a “sacrifice zone.” That is, an area of land, often inhabited, that is allowed to become environmentally devastated for other, usually economic, gains. Returning to Venice from the beautiful town of Camino (about which more later), we awoke to the first rain of the tour. During yet another dawn stroll to the lagoon, water lapped the paving stones and surged up from the drains in St. Mark’s Square. The next morning we were awoken by the city’s deafening flood sirens. Autumn’s acqua alta had arrived. The seasonal tides now swamp the city for up to a quarter of the year, a portion that is only increasing as the natural sediments of the lagoon wash away, the city sinks into the depleted water table and the ocean rises around it.

It was interesting to see the choir’s varied emotional responses to acqua alta. Fascination quickly turned to melancholy at seeing this beautiful city ankle-deep in water. The ocean gushing up also through the drains provoked fear, not just for Venice, but for all the cities that cannot afford an expensive system of ocean barriers. Astra arrived in Venice amidst the breakdown of local government over the construction of MOSE, a system of barriers intended to protect the Venetian lagoon from high tides. When technological miracles fail to materialise to protect one of the world’s greatest cultural treasures, what hope is there for hundreds of less-affluent coastal cities?

Is the disappearance of Venice beneath the waves the largest durational art installation in history? Like the Fluxus pieces above, the city has an artistic frame and involves a process of transgression. The cultural value of each façade and paving stone sees it bound in place by planning regulations. Yet, the entire city risks destruction due to human activity, beginning with the diversion of Italy’s longest river, the Po, in 1604 (a lesser of two evils, as this initially saved the city from being inundated with silt). We continue this four-century-long performance with the daily ritual of immolating fossil fuels.

Venice may be a durational art work, but is it really a sacrifice? I don’t think so. A sacrifice, if performed correctly, leaves the world unambiguously. Its disappearance is sanctioned by its perpetuity in another realm. A sacrifice zone, on the other hand, remains on earth, as though the goat had scrambled under the portcullis and was still hanging around in the town square. One day, Venice’s most precious paintings and pieces of marble will be chipped from the buildings in which they rest and dispersed throughout the world, or perhaps deposited in a miniature, replica city. Meanwhile, the buildings will lie a few feet below the lagoon for a new breed of tourists in wet suits.

Sitting in a hotel room in gumboots, it is hard to remember the thrill of flying over Venice, listening to Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 as though it were ringing up from St. Mark’s Basilica. Early on Monday morning we depart for Bucharest. We are sad to be leaving behind the architectural marvels, the great works of art and the new artistic comrades-in-arms. Less-so the souvenir shops and the floodwaters.

-Matthew Lorenzon

Matthew writes the Partial Durations contemporary music blog with support from RealTime Magazine.