Interview by Oliviero Ponte di Pino with Luigi Ceccarelli
Published in the internet magazine “a Teatro” September 2001
1- Why did you approach the theater? Was musical theater already a line of work that you pursued in your musical research? (excuse the ignorance).
In fact I have always been a musician very close to the theater and the visual arts. And not only because I have collaborated with artists of the most various disciplines, but above all because, beyond the knowledge of a specific technique, I believe that the work of each artist is in relation with the whole culture and not only with his own language. When I think of the works that have most influenced my work, as well as musicians, the names of painters, directors, architects or writers come to mind.
From the very beginning of my musical education, when I was still a student at the Pesaro Conservatory, my interest in the visual arts was very strong. In the mid-1970s I worked together with a group of students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Urbino to design an installation involving the entire Conservatory building. It was a sound and visual journey that transformed that austere academic environment into a place of extravagant encounters: concrete noises of environments, noises of objects and fragments of various conversations were freely associated with objects and environments of poor art.
A few years later, my professor of Electronic Music, Walter Branchi, introduced me to the painter Achille Perilli and the artists who worked with him in “ALTRO, intercodice working group” It was a group made up of artists from various disciplines ( painters, photographers, graphic designers, architects, dancers) who created shows starting from the idea of an equal relationship between all artistic languages. I worked with them from ’77 to ’80 in the creation of “Abominable A”, a theatrical performance in which all the sound part, made by me, consisted solely of words starting with “A”, read in sequence by vocabularies of various languages and electronically edited.
Later the group was transformed into “ALTRO teatro”, the dance company directed by Lucia Latour and with Lucia we continued to make dance and music shows until the mid-nineties. Our working method was very influenced by the inter-code work, and also in this case the planning of the shows was done with team work criteria. In addition to music, I created complex multivisions on the computer that served as scenography. Among all I would like to mention “Anihccam” show inspired by Fortunato Depero, who at the beginning of the 90s had great success in Italy and in Europe.
My approach to the theater of speech, on the other hand, began recently and was a journey in stages, born in a completely unpredictable way for me starting from the radio.
In 1994 Radio Tre commissioned twenty Italian musicians as many “Radio Films”. With this term, invented by Luca Francesconi, he proposed to composers to create a musical work starting from a story and using the language of cinema and the electronic technologies connected to it, but obviously in the absence of an image. There were two relevant innovations with respect to the type of commission that is usually made to a musician: the obligation to use digital techniques in the composition not only as a technical aid but as a creative element, and the request that the text and the plot of the story they were absolutely understandable, unlike what usually happens in research music. For that occasion I made “La guerra dei discs” on a text by Stefano Benni based on the novel “Terra!”.
Unlike most of the other musicians, who did not deviate much from a rather traditional musical work with the addition of a recited text, working on the War of Records I discovered a new language that is very congenial to me and that uses the digital techniques to combine concrete sounds, abstract sounds and texts together, considering them elements of the same language in which the sounds of words and ambient noises are musical elements in their own right, and the musical elements, in turn, become extensions of phonetics . Later I composed other works that employ this same approach, for some of which I also created the visual part. In particular, for RadioTre I made a series of small pieces of five minutes with text by Valerio Magrelli entitled “I Viaggi in your pocket”. Then “La comedia della vanità” by Elias Canetti with the radio direction of Giorgio Pressburger. This work, in addition to being broadcast on the radio, was represented in stage form a few years ago at the Mittelfest.
The actions of the actors took place live, while the sound, including the voices, were those made by me in the studio.
2- In the case of both the “Alcina” and the “Requiem”, I understand that you have worked a lot on the text and its verbal texture, to give them a substratum, a sound materiality. What are your goals? (in short, what is the word-sound relationship from your point of view) And how did you work? Did you ask to change the text according to your needs?
My work on text and verbal texture is complementary to that of the writer and director; it is a work that considers the sound dimension of the theater as a whole and starts from the meaning of the text to arrive at the sound: the sound of the voice, the sounds that delimit the space of the voice, the ambient sounds and their interaction with the voice.
Unlike how a musician works in the theater or cinema, my way of making music in relation to a text does not simply consist in superimposing a comment or “creating a background”, but in organizing a sound universe that integrates with the action and with the image and that it becomes part of the narrative and emotional structure so intimately as to be inseparable from the rest. In short, mine is a contribution to the creation of a unitary work where every sound and visual element responds to the same rhythm.
When I start working on a new play, I first study the text and try to think of it in relation to the voices of the actors. Using digital technology, there are many things a musician can do to improve the acting and expressiveness of the word in the general context. For example, making all those phonetic details that are normally lost, because they are too weak compared to the background sound, perceptible through amplification. (This may seem a very trivial technique also because everyone in the theater uses it now, but in general it is used in such a crude way that it usually worsens, instead of improving, the quality of the voice.) The amplification of sounds and especially of the voice requires great technical knowledge, but above all it must be considered as a creative fact. I consider amplification as an acoustic microscope which, like a visual microscope, makes an otherwise unimaginable microcosm of sound perceptible. Over time I have learned that the expressiveness of the voice, its ability to communicate the deepest meanings, is largely given by those accessory and apparently involuntary sounds that are always present when we speak but that we do not consider signifiers such as uncertainty of pronunciation, the breaths, the clicks of the tongue, the noises of saliva. A few years ago when I tried to clear the voices of these disturbances I realized that the voice was losing all its emotional capacity. Today I usually tend to enhance the noises, sometimes even completely eliminating the vowel sounds, the ones that are normally the most important in singing.
Even if the result of the voices treated by me may seem very natural, in reality it is sometimes necessary to obtain it a very strong treatment: the timbre processing of the voice, which is obtained by analyzing every harmonic component of the sound down to its smallest details and then perform selective processing. If at the beginning of the era of electronic music, in the 1950s, the electronic instruments were rather coarse and the sounds that were obtained had an unmistakably “electric” flavor, today we have reached a degree of flexibility of the machines sufficient to have very elaborations. sophisticated and similar in quality to natural sounds.
With the treatment of the voice it is also possible to make the text more intelligible.When an actor realizes that to make himself understood he no longer needs to continually speak loudly, and that his every slightest sigh can be heard, he begins to use many shades that normally would be imperceptible. Ermanna Montanari for example, the interpreter of Alcina has learned to use this technique in a truly admirable way.
My method of working with instrumental sounds is very similar to that with voices and this allows me to have a perfect interaction between sounds and voices. In the case of traditional instruments then, and above all of wind instruments, the relationship between instrument and performer is very close to that of the actor with his own voice, since these instruments are nothing more than an extension of the oral cavity of the player. With the horn player Michele Fait, with whom I made the sounds of the Alcina, and with the trombonist Renzo Brocculi for the Requiem, we worked extensively on the breath and on the emission of accessory sounds, those that cannot be written in a score , and for this reason we have studied particular types of microphone recording. We also experimented with various modifications to the instruments themselves (trombone and horn), to obtain particular sounds.
The convention that distinguishes so-called “musical” sounds from noises no longer exists. So why not consider ambient voices and sounds as music? With new technologies we realize that all sounds, whether they are produced by musical instruments, voices or the environment, can be used for artistic creation.
Of course, a musician in the theater does not work alone and this necessarily implies a great harmony with all the other authors of the show, director and actors above all, but for me the relationship with the scenography and lighting design is always very important. I strongly believe in collective work and I am convinced that the success of a work depends on the degree of collaboration that is reached within the company.
In the particular case of the Island of Alcina it took a lot of courage on the part of Marco Martinelli and Ermanna Montanari to accept my interference in a type of work, that of the Teatro delle Albe, so technically different from mine, but between us immediately established a perfect creative harmony. In the Requiem I had the opportunity to further expand my relationship between music and theater. Fanny and Alexander have always used digital technologies and combining our skills we have created a very complex show.
3 – You work a lot with electronics. What relationship is created on stage with the actors’ “live” voices? (For example, what relationship is created between the “fixed” times of the bases and the more flexible ones of the actors and the audience? How do you manage the relationship between these two “rhythms”?)
In the realization of a theatrical performance, an increasingly important part is reserved for the relationship between man and machine. Starting from the first decades of the last century, through the artistic avant-gardes such as futurism, constructivism and expressionism of the Bauhaus, the theater has become a dynamic machine in which scenography and light have developed a great flexibility assuming the same importance of the text and of the acting.
In this perspective, the use of electronic technology is a further step in the scenic invention that gives us the possibility to manipulate images, movements and sounds considering them as elements of a single score.
I believe that the greatest advantage brought by digital machines in all human activities, and therefore also in theater and music, is their programmability. By this I mean the possibility to fix the events very exactly in time and to repeat the programmed sequences whenever you want, making any changes without having to repeat the whole sequence every time from scratch.
Theoretically this working method is very similar to the one that has been used in cinema for some time. In fact, in the theater before the use of computers all this was almost impossible. And then in the theater there is an element that makes everything much more fascinating: the live interaction, in real time, between man and machine. Today, technology provides us with machines that are no longer rigidly tied to predetermined times and therefore we can make digital sequences and live actors interact in various ways.
Making prefixed sequences interact with live theatrical actions has always been very stimulating for me from a creative point of view. In every show there are problems of interaction between the acting time of the actors (or even of an instrumentalist who plays) and the predetermined sequences of sounds, lights, stage movements. The search for the most suitable resolutions has often led me to find new dramaturgically decisive ideas.
In the case of the Alcina, for example, the opening and closing of the microphones of the actors and the changes in reverberation of the voice are programmed in time. So during the show it is not necessary to perform mechanical operations and you can concentrate exclusively on the most delicate variables of the show, such as the intelligibility ratio between sound and voice. The movement of sound in space is also completely automated: there are up to twenty-four contemporary sounds that are moved in space, each one following its own path. In the Requiem a much more complex system is used consisting of three synchronized computers: one of these manages all the sounds pre-arranged on 24 tracks, another manages the processing of live voices over time following a score for each actor. The third computer is used for controlling the lights in sync with the sound. To do the whole show “by hand” it would take more than ten operators, and a great confusion, while we are only two. The only thing we have to partially control by hand is movement of voices in space following the movement of the actors.
As for the relationship between the times of the actors and the times of the sequences, it is usually the actors who follow and take the references from the sounds and lights, which initially obliges them to a longer learning job, but later when , the times are well calibrated, increases their safety. Of course the opposite is also possible, to have the actors follow the machines, even if technically it is a bit more complicated. In the Alcina, for example, there are moments in which it is Ermanna who gives the reference time and everyone adapts to her. In 1995 I wrote “Macchine Virtuose”, a concert for the group of percussionists Ars Ludi where the performers are the reference of the computers, which perfectly follow their every slightest variation of tempo and dynamics.
In live amplification there is a new aspect that often disturbs the musicians a lot, but in particular the actors: the total lack of control of one’s own sound emission. The amplified voice is broadcast by a loudspeaker, which for technical reasons cannot be too close to the sound source, so the actor cannot hear the result of his own amplified voice exactly as it is heard in the audience, unless a complex system is used. of headphones (hear monitor). The actor is therefore forced to trust the operator who controls the microphones, and this makes the operator a real interpreter who stands between the live sound and the amplified sound.
In the 1960s Karlheinz Stockhausen composed “Microphonie II” for amplified and filtered tam-tam and this is, to my knowledge, the first work that employs a concept of “series” orchestration in music, that is, with chain modifications of one same sound, as an alternative to traditional “parallel” orchestration, where the sounds produced individually by the various orchestras add up. In Stockhusen’s piece, two performers play a two-meter diameter tam-tam. Two performers amplify the sound by holding a microphone each, selecting only some details of the sound to be amplified according to a specific score. Two other performers modify the sound taken by the microphones by varying two filters, also according to a specific part. For my work in the theater this subsequent treatment of amplified sound is very important, because in this way it is possible to manipulate the actors’ voices in a musical way.
In Italy, the work of the electronic operator is normally considered a purely technical task and this is the cause of the extreme backwardness in the use of new technologies. I’ve listened to a lot of gigs completely ruined by bad amplification. And in the theater I have seen even worse. In the theater, the technology used for sound mostly dates back to thirty years ago: two loudspeakers are placed on the sides of the stage and all recorded and live sounds are sent from there. Thus sounds and images no longer correspond spatially and while the actor speaks in one position, the sound of his voice can be heard elsewhere, perhaps mixed with other voices. Such a demonstration of barbarism is today inconceivable if one thinks of the high technical quality available (which for example cinema exploits very effectively).
A fundamental part of the work of a musician who uses electroacoustics is the design of the sound space. In the realization of a show, the design of a diffusion system that recreates an artificial sound space as it is done for the image by the set designer and the lighting designer is a priority for me. This sound space must consider not only the scene but all the space in which the representation takes place, including the spectators. The voices of the actors must therefore be amplified and repositioned in space.
4- What can the function of musical theater be today? (or a musical theater?) (also in relation to the production costs, the situation of the opera houses and their audience …)
Our culture is moving more and more towards a holistic vision of the world and also among the various artistic languages the need to overcome traditional schemes towards greater interaction is increasingly strong, consequently today’s communication methods require languages of a superior logical type to the previous ones.
The theater in recent years has shown that it is open to a renewal in this sense and has increasingly become the natural venue where all the arts converge to give life to a global creative environment. In all this, music, understood in its broadest sense of the art of organizing sounds, has a fundamental and irreplaceable role.
The relationship between word and sound has always been of great importance in music and its highest expression in the past has been the eighteenth and nineteenth-century opera and opera. Today, however, the revival of the bel canto technique in music is hardly practicable. An often embarrassing demonstration of this are the majority of contemporary operas that remain tied to this technique. Furthermore, the Italian opera organizations have proved unsuitable to host and promote new musical forms within them, both from an artistic point of view and from a technical and organizational point of view. In opera houses, operas of the past continue to be represented almost exclusively with orchestras and singers who perpetuate their tradition, while to justify the new, the settings are renewed using the most advanced techniques.
This is why contemporary works need to find alternative spaces. This is not an easy task, also considering the orientation of the public financing system completely unbalanced towards tradition and with worrying temptations towards pop music.
I believe that the research theater environment at this moment is very receptive also for what concerns new music. This is demonstrated by the increasing attention that many theater companies show towards contemporary music and the increasingly widespread need for collaboration with musicians in the creation of new shows in which music is an integral part of the conception.
My work with the Teatro delle Albe and with Fanny & Alexander is directed in this direction, which has given interesting results both from a theatrical and musical point of view.
However, I believe that musical theater, in addition to seeking new alternative spaces, must have the intellectual strength to venture into larger territories and to confront other artistic forms.
Continuing to speak of musical theater in traditional terms would mean isolating contemporary music even more, and relegating it to the ivory tower in which it has been isolated for too long.