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.


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