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Luigi Ceccarelli


Notes on the relationship between music and text in “L’Isola di Alcina”

Notes on the relationship between music and text on the Island of Alcina

In “Il parlar franco” (Review of dialectal culture and literary criticism) pp.27-35. Villa Verucchio (RN): Pier Giorgio Pazzini Printer Publisher. 2002

Each step of evolution is an addition of information to an existing system. For this reason the combinations, harmonies and discrepancies between successive elements and layers of information will present many survival problems and will determine many directions of change. Gregory Bateson (Mind and Nature)

Even for a composer like me, who has always been close to musical theater and new technologies, and who for several years has rediscovered radio play and melologue as new forms of expression, the proposal to create a theatrical work with a text in the Romagna dialect was at first rather unsettling.

First, because as a Romagna, forced to emigrate more than twenty years ago to be able to be a musician, it was the first time I was offered the opportunity to return to work in my places of origin. Second reason, which worried me more, because, even though I loved it very much, I had considered the dialect as a language dedicated exclusively to conservation and thus also the whole culture that underlies it: impossible, I thought, to be compared to my language, which, however, keeping itself within a context of “cultured” music, projects itself into the present and in the search for new and unpublished sounds. Using electroacoustic techniques and computer processing skills, my music tends to move away from Western classical music, however rich and interesting, rather taking transculturality as a reference model: a broadening of the horizon of language that goes from the avant-garde. more extreme to Gregorian chant, from free jazz to Persian and Indochinese music.

So the theatrical work to which I was proposed to collaborate was “L’Isola di Alcina” (the Island of Alcina), subtitle “Concerto for horn and voice of Romagna”, with the written text Nevio Spadoni and the staging of the Teatro delle Albe, that is to say the direction by Marco Martinelli, the lights of Vincent Longuemare and an actress with experience of the dialect like Ermanna Montanari.
From the first meeting with Marco Martinelli and Ermanna Montanari (creators of the show) and with Nevio Spadoni, urged by Franco Masotti artistic director of the Ravenna Festival, I felt that my reservations were completely out of place, and the direction that the work took from the first moment it was very stimulating and very close to my way of conceiving contemporary music and musical work. The starting idea was to build the work as a synthesis of poetry, theater and music, where each of the individual components, while maintaining all the value inherent in its own language, integrated into the others in complete synergy. A way of working that is very congenial to me, and of which I have experience since the late 1970s.
The “Isola di Alcina” is a monologue freely inspired by the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto. Story of enchantments and magic operated by Alcina, an Ariosto sorceress split into two sisters, overwhelmed with different outcomes by the same love for a stranger who arrived in their country. The island becomes a place in the Romagna countryside, where the two sisters are the keepers of a kennel where (perhaps) former lovers turned into dogs are locked up.

The structure of the text, written in a dialect that becomes harsh and harsh language, is not that of the story, which is instead briefly exposed before the performance in order to give the audience the narrative elements necessary for understanding the context. Rather, it is an alternation of invectives, curses, love song, which the protagonist (Ermanna Montanari) addresses to her sister, who has gone mad to the point of losing the use of the word.
As in much contemporary literature, therefore, not a plot that unfolds from beginning to end according to a narrative sequence, but a series of monologues that gradually outline the inner state of the characters, revealing more and more, in a crescendo of emotion, their static drama. This type of structure seems to adapt perfectly to my music, never based on predefined structures and on thematic and formal development, but also conceived as a succession of emotional tensions and distensions created solely by the intrinsic nature of sound objects. The relationship between Nevio Spadoni’s text and the sounds with which the music for “Isola di Alcina” was composed developed starting from the phonetic characteristics of the recited text, trying to draw the constitutive elements of the musical structure from the phonemes of the voice itself.
Thus overcoming the prejudice that separates music from acting, we have at our disposal as musical material a very wide range of sounds ranging from the most open vowels (the clearly intonable sounds, constituting the raw material of singing), to consonants (sounds that have transients of very short attacks and which have a great importance as rhythmic elements such as the “T”, the “P”, the “C”, or sounds like the “R” or the “S” that can be held for a long time and have the characteristics acoustic noise), up to those emissions that are usually considered involuntary or insignificant sounds (while they are instead a fundamental component of the expression) such as the uncertainties of pronunciation, the puffs and breaths that separate sentences.
The incorporation of the reciting voice into musical language is certainly not new. Since the beginning of the last century the ideas of expressionist music and historical avant-gardes in general, including Italian Futurism, have in fact made bel canto and opera music obsolete, since these no longer respond to the expressive needs of musicians in an era devoted to the subversion of traditional values. 

The search for new and more effective forms of expression has thus forever changed the relationship between music and vocality. An example, certainly not unique but among the best known in musical literature, is Arnold Schoemberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”, written in 1912 on poems by Albert Giraud for soprano and chamber group. In the “Pierrot Lunaire” Schoemberg uses the technique called “Sprechstimme”, where the acting is considered a real musical element like singing. In the score both the pitches and the rhythm of the text and the expression notes for the recitation are written. In order to avoid that the vowels prevail over the rest, the singer does not intone the notes clearly, but only briefly leans on the written pitches. The result is a synthesis between singing and recitative that gives the composition a less lyrical but much more intense expressive character.

On “L’Isola di Alcina” the concept of the Sprechstimme is much more radicalized. There are no more notes to sing, and the vocal musical part consists of the sounds of the Romagna dialect, which Ermanna Montanari modulates in an infinite range of expressive nuances.
“I realize I’m interpreting a score”. “For the actors and the public it is a question of entering the notes”. Thus speaks Ermanna Montanari of “L’Isola di Alcina”, a work of which she is the absolute protagonist.
Another technique that I have always used in my music is amplification. The amplified voice (obviously with high-quality technological devices and with careful sound direction) reveals an unexplored sound world because with it it is possible to bring even the slightest subtlety of voice to a perceptible level. This is also why opera singing is outdated today: there is no longer a need to scream to be heard, as opera singers or actors did (and often still do). Today even the faintest breath can be made perceptible, and indeed amplified until it becomes deafening. And then without the problem of constantly keeping the volume of the voice high, a reciter has a wider dynamic range available and can obtain a greater variety of expression.

Thanks to the text by Nevio Spadoni and the interpretation by Ermanna Montanari, with the progress of the work on “L’Isola di Alcina” I have increasingly realized how the Romagna dialect is an extremely rich language from the phonetic point of view (much more than the Italian) and what expressive power it contains; a source of sound variations that can hardly be found in other languages ​​and which are an immense source of inspiration for a musician.
An example of musically interesting tonal nuances, among the many possible, can be seen in a fragment of the “Sogno e Invettiva contro la sorella” (Dream and invective against the sister) (“A sera tota impiruléda / che e ‘curdoun de’ bligval / u m’avreb strangulè / s ‘u n’fos sté par cla dòna / ch’ la l’à sguplè “) Here there is a series of” e “(impiruleda, strangulè, sté and sguplè) very characteristic. In the pronunciation from the Ville Unite dialect (Spadoni is from San Pietro in Vincoli and Ermanna Montanari is from Campiano in the province of Ravenna), as in many other local varieties of the Romagna dialect, these “and” progressively go towards the “a”, without but never reach it, in a light but significant gloss. A timbre change that can take on many interesting variations and serves to further reinforce the expressiveness of the sentences. Examples like this one could cite many others; the whole text by Nevio Spadoni is an astonishing timbre of sounds that are now harsh, now sweet, but always strongly characterizing.
A proof of the tonal quality of this text, which goes beyond its literary significance, is the success achieved by the performances of the show in regions outside of Romagna, both in Italy and abroad. Although the text has never been translated, even the public who does not understand the dialect remain fascinated by the very strong expressiveness of the voice, and although Ermanna Montanari is considered exclusively an actress in the theatrical environment, she receives many times compliments from musicians who consider her a great singer. “Alcina’s monologues, his solos, are clearly musical writing, in step with the melodic and rhythmic speech which is the reality of musical vocality after the end of singing. Because singing died in interesting musical theater, it was time that he died, he could no longer bear it. Here you can see the genius of Ermanna Montanari. Actress and vocalist, it would be good that the Encyclopedias of music add her name to those of Cathy Berberian and Gabriella Bartolomei”.

As previously said, also for the instrumental part of the music I had decided to take inspiration from the phonetic characteristics of the voice. And so I chose the sounds of an instrument, the horn, which like all wind instruments is nothing more than a machine for filtering and amplifying the voice and the breath. In 1999 I had made “Breaths”, for prepared horn and horn sounds on magnetic tape, experimenting with new sounds of the instrument, including a bore extension system, with the horn player Michele Fait at the Agon studio in Milan. This work is the basis from which I also started to create the music of the Island of Alcina. Here too, all the sounds that are heard, apart from the voice, are horn sounds (except in the part of “l’Amore di Alcina” (Alcina’s Love).

Naturally my method of composition always presupposes a creative work on the timbral transformation of sounds, and therefore the sound of the horn has been processed electronically on the computer (the work of art is essential to science and technology, as most of us have taught us. great artists of the past).

The horn sounds have been reworked both from the timbric point of view and from the melodic and rhythmic point of view, obtaining sounds that are not always attributable to the instrument, but often trying to enhance the components of the horn player’s vocality by obtaining sounds that could represent the expansion of the narrator of Ermanna. Thus, above all the noises were highlighted: attack transients, breaths and murmurs, which interact rhythmically with Alcina’s voice or merge with it, forming a single sound whole.

“L’Isola di Alcina” is divided into nine parts, each of which presents a different relationship between text and music.

The first of these is a prelude, exclusively instrumental, which serves as an introduction to the scene and the dark and intense atmosphere that characterizes the whole show. The horn plays the only truly melodic part of the whole work; which is made up of only three notes: those at the limit of its acute range, very difficult to play, but with a strong evocative character. (“The beginning is dazzling and full of authentic pathos: a French horn that evokes the very lively, passionate and somewhat threatening ghost of John Coltrane launches cries that are immediately crushed and enriched with percussive sounds of material vitalism). Artificial sounds, obtained by sampling and computer processing from a series of French horn sounds, yet they sound as if they were something else”). Here the spatial dimension of the sound is also presented; the high notes rotate around the audience completely enveloping it in a three-dimensional perspective, created by a complex computer-controlled spatialization system.

The second part “Prologo in ottave” (Prologue in octaves) introduces the lines of the Alcina dell’Ariosto; Alcina / Ermanna evokes the past, the father and the beginning of work at the kennel. A held sound, in the background, maintains the emotional tension that gradually continues to grow, overwhelming the voice in the final and returning to completely fill the space.

The third part “Sogno e invettiva contro la sorella” (Dream and invective against the sister) contains in itself all the timbre and expressive variety of the Romagna dialect. It is the most complex and virtuosic part for the voice, which moves in an infinity of inflections and different characters. The sound of the horn, transformed and shredded to become pure noise, accompanies the text with minimal interventions, as if they were degenerate slags of the word, and emphasizes the harshness of the atmosphere, sometimes exploding in unsettling and peremptory caesuras.

The fourth and fifth parts “Lo straniero e l’invettiva contro gli uomini” (The stranger and the invective against men) are musically very different from each other. In the first, the phrases of the text are interrupted and counterpointed by the breaths of the horn player, while the second begins with dark tones and at the same time lyrical, with the horn holding a very low, grainy and meditative pedal, internally rich in microtonal variations.

The sixth part “Risate nel canile” (Laughter in the kennel) from the musical point of view is the re-exposition of the initial atmosphere, with its melodic and spatial theme, to which are added the barking of the dogs / riders coming from the kennel below the scene, for the first time emerged from the shadow in which he is relegated. In the next part Alcina utters her Invective against dogs. It starts almost jokingly to become more and more sarcastic and terrible. The horn participates in this transformation starting from a high-pitched sound up to a very dense and powerful sound magma.

“L’amore di Alcina” (Alcina’s love) is a total change of atmosphere. Here the caustic sorceress / sister is completely transformed, and in an atmosphere of dreamy dejection she will reveal that the stranger, secretly from her sister, was her lover, and she too was abandoned by him. The sound environment here also changes completely, and the sounds of the horn are replaced by chords, held and very slow, of large gongs made to resonate by vibrating strings. The particular technique of excitation and amplification of the instruments enhances the slow and very delicate inharmonic variations that the chords continuously form and undo. Only in the central part, accompanying the only moment of emphasis of the text, the space is filled with the sound, lacerating and powerful, typical of the great gongs.

In the final part “Finale dell’instupidimento” Alcina screams the desperate helplessness of her state, with a dramatic and obsessive repetition: “A m’so insmida”. The musical part is a hellish counterpoint of many asynchronous rhythmic lines, each made up of a single detached note, in an overlapping of accelerated and slowed downs that reaches paroxysm. These rhythms are superimposed on strained sounds, in an extreme crescendo of intensity and density that overlaps the voice.

Alcina’s voice overhangs the sonic pandemonium with its powerful harshness while the scene remains frozen in desperate stillness. At the end, after the rhythmic bailamme, from the broken voice reduced to a very faint whisper, one last gasp emerges that expands into a very dense and definitive cry of the horn. The sound magma invades, like a long wave, all the space around it, and then retreats and returns a second time even more penetrating. The emotional wave of the two sisters overwhelms and cancels everything.

Luigi Ceccarelli Cesenatico, August 2002