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Luigi Ceccarelli


Exsultet on CD and Spotify

Compact Disc: Rai Trade RTC006 (2005)
gregorian chant and electroacoustic music
Exsultet, In Die Resurrectionis
performers: Giacomo Baroffio, Kim Eun Ju, Kantores 96, Sorores
total duration: 48′ 35″

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1 – Exsultet (16:54)
In Die Resurrectionis:
2 – Pascha Nostrum (09:44)
3 – In Die Resurrectionis (11:57)
4 – Vidi Aquam (10:10)

notes about the CD
by Franco Masotti

Apparently improbable, but in the end perhaps inevitable, the strange encounter between computer music and the Gregorian chant effected by Luigi Ceccarelli in the pieces Exsultet (1996) and In Die Resurrectionis (1997) brings to light certain unsuspected affinities and analogies between the chronological extremities of western music’s long journey from the depths of the Middle Ages until today. It is as if this whole process were closed in a circle, linking the sparse monodic vocality of the Christian hymnody at the origins of western music to the most sophisticated modern compositive techniques and the digital elaboration of timbre and musical structures. But it is not a question of technique alone, as much as of a whole ethos and an attitude towards the qualities of sounds themselves (which also include the word) and their reception.

«The Gregorian chant interests and attracts me – affirms Ceccarelli – because I believe it represents the highest expression of spirituality which was still completely free from formal “mechanisms” and superstructures. My music derives from a continual search for the “primordial” sound; the sound that maintains the uncontaminated possibility of communicating beyond conventions and genres. This is why I feel so close to the Gregorian chant, because of its combination of simplicity and evocative power at one and the same time».

With these two compositions Ceccarelli has not had a sort of illumination on the road to Damascus during his personal journey as a composer (although one could note that precisely there, in the stony deserts of Syria, the Christian chant was born, and one should remember this today, while the forced and artificial disputes between the West and the Orient continue). Nor can one say that they are the expression of an adhesion to the recent movements in contemporary music that have tried to deny the latest decades of New Music and have adopted short-cuts towards easier and less problematic forms of communication. In his poetic vision there is still an interest in the word and its role as the fonè, explored over years of rigorous experimentation together with some of the most vital and visionary troupes of contemporary Italian theatre (for example the Isola di Alcina – 2000 – together with Marco Martinelli and Ermanna Montanari’s Albe troupe, and the Requiem – 2001 – with Fanny & Alexander). In addition he has a particular interest in what one could call the spatial dimension of sound, assiduously explored in almost all his work. Also in this sense the encounter with the Gregorian aesthetic was inevitable, assisted above all by a central figure in his studies, well known at present in Italy (and elsewhere): Giacomo Baroffio. Baroffio features as the solo voice in both the compositions presented here and is the privileged interpreter of Ceccarelli’s reflections on the sonority and spirituality of Gregorian music and its possible use within his own musical universe. It is certainly worthwhile to consider some of Baroffio’s comments regarding the “computerized Gregorian chant” (quoted from his article “Gregorian chant and computerized music”):

«Compared to the Gregorian styles of the traditional schools of interpretation, the computerized version is notably different in every way. It is a genuine and total re-elaboration of the passage which continuously reappears in a sort of filigree pattern with flashes of sound which modify the melody line of the original music, the scansion of the words, the vocal timbre and the rhythm, in a polychoral interweaving in which voices and sounds – sometimes unusual ones – are superimposed, in a movement that proceeds thanks to a succession of nodal points of great intensity, points that represent the source and the high point of strong melodic and harmonic tensions».

Baroffio thus points out a characteristic of both Exsultet and In Die Resurrectionis, which is the evolution of the passages, starting from the destructuring of the sounds and timbres of the original material which is fragmented and then projected into the physical and mental listening space, with a slow and inexorable accumulation of energy. There seems to be a spiralling movement, with a sort of “descent into the Maelström” which enwraps the listener without giving him peace until the moment of the whispered climax. This unravelling of internal tensions, often hard and drammatical, sweeps away any suspicions – if there had ever been any – of an easy acceptance of anything that might be banally contemplative, inoffensive and vacantly reassuring (also the idea of ‘spirituality’ and a deviant concept of the ‘sacred’ – or at any rate their presentation as consumer articles – are today the object of attentive and all- pervasive marketing strategies). Without any consolatory traits, the music of Ceccarelli requires a larger and wider notion of listening, such as the one defined by Roland Barthes, who spoke of ‘exterior’ listening, which comes from outside and “interior” listening, which is listening with an evangelical significance, that becomes a voyage into the self.
But let us reconsider the words of Baroffio:

«The singer knows that the Gregorian melody, perhaps because it is essentially a prayer, underneath its sober linearity and the flow of its notes, conceals the stuttering of the person who finds himself in the presence of God: when the voice is choked, is altered, and disappears, but then is suddenly amplified and immediately adopts new colours.
Paradoxically the computerized Gregorian chant, constructed upon the execution of liturgical melodies, almost reflects their interior genesis and the sufferings inherent in the birth of a prayer that is only gradually able to free itself and that never tires of incessantly repeating a melodic micro-passage until a single note or two are able to embody the contents of the oration and to sing it with faith in God or, indeed faith in one’s fellow men. Because, apart from its origin and its privileged destination, the Gregorian chant is a language of the human person who is bringing a message from one heart to another, and from one intelligence to another».

The Gregorian chant has a spiritual relevance, imbued with a historical content which makes it extremely significant and evocative: it is a deep sound, because it is connected to the very roots of our western culture, but it is also distant, because it derives from a far-off time and is thus partly alien to our modern secular ethos and sensibilities. But, as well as this, as we indicated at the beginning, it possesses other important musical features which, being concentrated on the strictly monodic melody, in its apparent simplicity, bring out the perception of the dimensions of ‘space’ and of ‘timbre’. These have been two of the principal areas of research in electronic music, ever since its beginnings in the ’50s. In this sense, as we have said, the distance of the Gregorian chant from truly tonal music makes it paradoxically closer to the contemporary sound experiences. Also the rhythmical structure is extremely elastic. It cannot be determined according to quantitative and proportional schemes, and thus flows freely in an almost a-temporal dimension. In this way a revealing analogy emerges with the aspirations of much electronic music to become musica perennis, with neither a beginning nor an end (a tendency that is renewed, becoming more radicalized, in the ambient trends of the last two decades). We should also remember that In Die Resurrectionis was created as a sound-installation for the 4th century Byzantine basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna and it is inevitably influenced by this church’s particular architectural structure. It is a fact that basilicas and cathedrals were the places in which the awareness of the “spatial” dimension of music was born (for example, one could say that the idea of stereophonics began in the basilica of Saint Mark in Venice, with the choral innovations of Giovanni Gabrieli). This knowledge, neglected for centuries, was rediscovered and developed by electronic composers, but Ceccarelli is among the first to tackle sacred music with the computer. It is worth hearing him speak about his modus operandi, from the moment of capturing the sounds to be elaborated, so that we can understand that the material from which he starts is anything but neutral:

«Before having any idea of a composition, I went with the singers (Giacomo Baroffio and his ‘Cantores’, who appear in the Exsultet) to the abbey of Fossanova, which has ideal acoustic qualities for this type of music, and we made various recordings, above all of the reverberations of the sound. Only a space such as that, I thought, could reveal the true essence of a chant that derives all of its beauty and mystical charge from the effects of reverberation. My intention was to fully understand the way the reverberation of the surroundings can trasformation the voice. For the recording I positioned two microphones at about six metres from the singers, but they were pointing in the opposite direction, away from the source of the sound and towards the vault of the abbey-church. The result was a recording of voices with a very long and natural reverberation. This was, in my opinion, not enough to make all the timbric variations perceivable and so the sound was temporally dilated ten times with the technique of time stretching. Slowing the recording made it possible to clearly perceive all the timbric micro-variations that the environment confers on the voice and that are normally too rapid to be perceived by the ear. With this type of treatment, almost by magic, the coloring that space gives to the voice became clearly perceivable, and the chanting acquired a superior mystical quality, almost as if it belonged to a celestial sphere or dimension».

One should note that this “poetics of the reverberation” had an illustrious predecessor in the extraordinary work of Alvin Lucier “I Am Sitting in a Room” of 1969, which shares with the Exsultet this residual amplification – also emotional and conceptual – of resonances, not only of the surroundings but also of the body (it too is basically a part of the surroundings and acts as a resonant chamber).

We believe it is evident that Ceccarelli’s attitude towards the Gregorian chant is not ‘aseptic’: he contaminates it and lets his own style be contaminated, he transforms it and is transformed by it, in the context of a respectful approach which is also extremely – as always in his work – free and disenchanted. The dimension of the ‘pleasure of the text’ – reminding us of Barthes again – is present also in this creation, and this is by no means an element so very far from what must have been the original spirit of this music, which was not separate from the notion of enjoyment, both spiritual and aesthetic. One of the ways leading to the Good certainly passes through the Beautiful, and since beauty communicates pleasure, why should one deprive oneself in the name of a misled and misinterpreted idea of spiritual rigour? Exultancy is a kind of joy and indeed the authoritative voice of Saint Augustine reminds us of this:

«He who jubilates does not say words, but makes a kind of sound of joy without words… by enjoying the exultancy of certain words that one can neither say nor understand, a man breaks into a sort of voice of exultancy without words; he seems indeed to find enjoyment in the voice itself, incapable, because of too much joy, of explaining with words that which he enjoys».