Francesconi pursued diplomas in piano, conducting, and composition at the Milan Conservatory. After seeing a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht at La Scala in Milan in 1981, he enrolled in an intensive composition course with the senior composer in Rome that year. But Francesconi’s final formative encounter was with Luciano Berio’s Laborintus II, “a fantastic piece that uses a lot of jazz in it. I was coming from Miles Davis and I heard this.” He became Berio’s assistant and worked with him from 1981-84.
“I had finally gotten in touch with the real consequences of Western culture, which was 5,000 years old,” Francesconi states. “It was all concentrated in this kind of thinking. And I understood that I needed a rich, articulated language, the implications of the musical matter, and that their relations are more than the object itself. This is one of the most important, deepest legacies of our heritage, of our history. That’s what I was looking for.”
Francesconi’s music owes something of its language to these two, central avant-garde composers of the post-war era, including the discipline of its craft. But it also more freely assimilates a range of Western classical musical styles and other materials
including jazz than is typical for the previous generation.
“There are some composers who pay attention to having a signature style,” says Brad Lubman, Co-Artistic Director and conductor of Ensemble Signal. “They want to have some identifying feature where you could turn on a recording and know this is Composer X or Composer Y. And there are other composers for whom writing music is a much more universal and global discipline. Luca is one of these people. There is not one Luca Francesconi style.”
That said, Francesconi’s music tends towards gestural intensity. It expresses itself with a forcefulness that leaves little room for vulnerability, nostalgia, or pity. When hope appears, it is leveled by uncertainty.
Unexpected End of Formula (2008), which Francesconi has dedicated to fellow composer Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935), is a work of caricature. Lachenmann received his own Miller Theatre Composer Portrait concert at the suggestion of Lauren Radnofsky, Ensemble Signal’s Co-Artistic/Executive Director, in 2010. This evening she performs as the piece’s cello soloist.
Francesconi offers the following explanation for the composition’s title: “The formula is him,” he says, referring to Lachenmann himself. “Or it would be even more fair to say his epigonists, the people who copy him. It’s really the end of the Western culture, this ultra-hyper rationalized kind of thinking. And it became a mannerism. It became completely academic. So I was ironic and polemic towards these people who don’t invent anything and just copy what has been already done. But not with Helmut, who is 87 and has the right to do whatever the hell he wants to.”
In terms of the piece’s actual construction, the formula is also a string of numbers that designate its pitch content. Francesconi took them from a familiar telephone number. “It actually belongs to my ex-wife,” he says.
“It starts with one layer, and I chose the sounds very carefully. Everybody is moving altogether in a homophonic texture. Then the orchestra is divided in two, and there is a second layer, which is slightly delayed. It becomes out of phase, and you have more events. Then the orchestra is split into three parts. So the texture becomes really complex and redundant until it reaches the point where you can’t fit anything into it anymore. What happens is that everything is saturated and it explodes. And I say, Oh, enough. Enough, enough of this cerebral, academic stuff. Now we make music.”
The role of the cello is not precisely what one might expect of a solo instrument in a concerto. “He’s a transformer,” Francesconi explains. “He is locked into acoustic noise until this catastrophe happens. When I say, Ah, basta, what happens is that the energy, which was noise, is transformed into electricity. In that moment, the cello goes through one of these guitar rigs that I’ve had fun using for a number of years. It becomes a kind of cyborg, and it’s pushing the whole language towards new boundary lines. And the end also is very enigmatic.”
Trauma Études (2018) similarly insists on the primacy of visceral experiences. As Francesconi writes in his composer’s note, “The paradox today is that, in our privileged western world, the shock, the real traumatic event has been banned. We never really live it. [I’m] not talking about the most obvious tragedies like war or famine. These ones we have exported somewhere else. Even Death has been put far away, in everyday routine, concealed, removed. We don’t talk about it. Even disease is inconvenient.”
Asked if the pandemic has shifted his views, he replies simply, “It’s a confirmation of my previous analysis.”
Although the piece is structured as a single movement, it is formed by distinctive blocks of musical materials. The first section is studded with vigorous unisons that grow shorter and closer together. “You have traumatic events,” Francesconi explains, “which means explosions, a form of alienation that we live every day. We are completely filled up with this hyper information, which leads to a fall of presence, which means that everything becomes noise in a way. It’s the equivalent of a traumatic experience, where the relationship with the world stops making sense.”
But after these explosions burn themselves out, the musical materials go through a process that Francesconi describes as cleaning and throwing away. Then protean musical cells emerge, repeating, and eventually coalescing into a melody.
The piece almost approximates the shape and purpose of ritual forms, and Francesconi compares it to the tarantella traditions of Puglia, the region that occupies the heel of Italy’s boot. In the folklore, music holds the cure for a woman who has suffered the bite of a venomous spider. She dances as if possessed for three days and nights before she is restored to health.
“Really, she was interpreting the pain, the trauma, and the fear of death of the whole community,” Francesconi explains. “These rituals were very important to the community because they returned the woman to the horizon of meaning.”
The outcome of Trauma Études, however, is less decisive. There is no solution, only a temporary conclusion, a suspension.
“I’m trying to save and to throw away the debris and keep the ruins of the memory path that I can find in this incredible explosion of telematic and technological mud,” he says. “It’s a sort of microhistory of music because I pass through all of these states of the matter until I find some primitive figures: cells, more and more repeating micro figures, step by step. In the end, we reach a big, naïve melody. And the repetition is always a very important part of this because it’s a sort of impotence that we have today. Repetition is now like smashing your face against the wall and then coming back…
“This is a huge responsibility. I don’t know how many people understand it. If there is a role for a composer today it is to do this terrible work, which is choosing and expelling and banning and throwing away what is not absolutely necessary. But, on the other hand, to keep what is absolutely necessary, which is going to be just a small percentage, just a fragment of the past.”