Program notes by Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She has been the commissioned writer for Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits series since 2018.
Luca Francesconi is based in Milan but spends four or five months of the year in a little stone house on a remote Greek Island somewhere in the vicinity of Rhodes.
“It takes me two weeks to step on the brakes,” he says from the confines of a Zoom window that could be anywhere. “Then, you finally find this rhythm, which is probably our real rhythm. And, when you go back, the first reaction you have is the feeling that everybody is totally nuts. They’re running all over the place. What for?
“But now it’s been a few days,” he adds, indicating that he is back on the continent. “I’ve done some concerts already, so I’m poisoned and polluted like the others.”
For the 66-year-old composer, the pandemic was a time out of time. Locked down with his wife in Milan, an epicenter of the virus, he attempted to follow the threads of official information as filtered by the media. What they said was happening didn’t make sense to him. And he couldn’t escape the odd sensation that he was looking out his window at a black-and-white science fiction movie of the 1950s with a monster lurking around the corner of the deserted street. He finished his tenth opera Timon of Athens, after William Shakespeare’s play, in the spring of 2020, a solitary task no matter the circumstances.
“This work, this job, you know, is very lonely,” he says.
Now, in the fifth decade of an illustrious career that includes a 2018 Antonio Feltrinelli Prize for Composition, circumstances have dictated that Francesconi continue to wrestle with pandemic losses. A violin concerto Corpo Elettrico for Patricia Kopatchinskaja, in which the voice of solo instrument is transformed into a cyborg through an electric guitar rig, was a co-commission from six orchestras and originally scheduled for a dozen performances. It has only received two. Duende. The Dark Notes, Francesconi’s previous violin concerto written for Leila Josefowicz, won the 2015 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Large-Scale Composition.
Timon of Athens, the tale of a wealthy philanthropist who discovers how little people care about him when he loses his fortune, was scheduled to premiere at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera in November of 2020. It was canceled, a blow Francesconi describes as devastating. His previous opera Trompe-La Morte (after Balzac, 2017) was staged at Opera National de Paris under the baton of Susanna Mälkki and won the Prix Italiques. Quartett, his 2012 opera, has received over 70 performances.
...the topical concerns of his compositions also mirror his personal concerns regarding a sense of dislocation in Western culture that comes from our bombardment with media...
The composer speaks freely about being on the verge of a significant shift in his musical language, about cutting ties that he doesn’t need anymore, about wanting fewer projects and to prepare for them more deeply, developing his ideas while reading broadly in different fields: “from anthropology to religion, and mathematics to physics, for instance,” he says. But the topical concerns of his compositions also mirror his personal concerns regarding a sense of dislocation in Western culture that comes from our bombardment with media, concerns that span the period preceding the pandemic and extend through the fading global health crisis.
“The most revolutionary thing we can do today is connect the body and brain,” he explains. “Our brain is lost in the virtual cables somewhere, and the body is completely disconnected. It’s treated like an object. People take it to the gym and sculpt it, carve it like a wooden statue. And it’s got nothing to do with brain, you know? This is scary. The real problem of human being is to put these two things in communication…
“We cannot behave like spoiled brats in the kindergarten nowadays as composers. We have to keep our eyes very open. It becomes almost a sort of resistance to the violence around, which is not only physical violence, but is all kinds of violence, which are connected with this hypertrophic flood of information. There’s a sort of bulimic state of perception, and we are completely immersed into this cloud, which becomes dark in the end.
“As the old saying goes, ‘By night, all cats are gray,’ which means that in the end, in this overwhelming quantity of information, everything is equal to everything else.”
Francesconi was born in Milan in 1956. His mother worked in advertising, and his father was a painter. “The house was full of artists with cigarette smoke like fog and drinking and swearing,” Francesconi remembers. “It was super intellectual. Outside was like the jungle with gangs of little kids throwing stones, and I had a great time.” His father played records from a collection that included music by Second Viennese School masters (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg), contemporary composers (Birtwistle, Cage), and jazz (Miles Davis, Modern Jazz Quartet). At the age of five, he was inspired to ask for piano lessons after attending a concert by pianist Sviatoslav Richter.
Francesconi’s trajectory in those formative years followed two distinct paths: formal piano study that eventually culminated in his enrollment at the Milan Conservatory and working from the age of ten in groups that played “horrible” rock music at parties, schools, and churches. Eventually, he would study jazz. He describes how his musical universe expanded in a series of encounters: with The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and the electric music of Miles Davis that boldly announced itself in the 1969 album Bitches Brew. Francesconi ultimately spent a year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“I remember one evening I was at a concert with Herbie Hancock,” he explains. “And I stopped and said, Okay, hold on. This guy is digging in his own roots. Which are not my roots. I could be a good jazz pianist, but I’m not going to be able to create stuff. I can add some little licks, but that’s it. So I walked out of that concert. I was really shocked. I said, Hmm, so do you think I have to dig into my own roots? I had the feeling that I was walking in a long corridor and statues of Beethoven, Brahms, and Verdi were staring down at me.”
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.
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.”