MAURIZIO BEN OMAR
In conversation with JONATHAN HEPFER (Milan, Italy - 2011)
I’m curious about your career. It would be nice to just talk about for a moment how you got interested in new music and where you studied and your background.
My parents were artists. This is a picture, of my dad. He was a dancer. And so this is the picture from 60 years ago. This is my father. My mother is the first one. And so I was interested in music since the day I was born, because I listened to music in my household since my father had this little group of dancers. He was one of the first black people in Italy. When he came to Italy, he arrived in 1925, before the second war, and there weren’t many black people then. He came from Libya. But the name ben Omar came from my grandfather, who was very, very dark. My family originally comes from Chad.
Italy is a funny country. When my father arrived in Italy, in Naples, it was very strange. Nice, but strange. And the law of how names are passed from generation to generation amongst the Arabic people is very long, like in Spain. And the first part was too long for Naples. Ben Omar. In Italy, ben is like von in German, no? And so ben Omar is the son of Omar, which is the name of my father. And so the bring ben Omar as though it were my family name when he arrived.
Italy is a funny country. When my father arrived in Italy, in Naples, Napoli. Particular. It's a very nice town, but very particular. And the law of the Arabic people is very long like in Spanish, is the name of the father. And so the first part was too long for Naples. Ben Omar. In Italy, Ben is like von in German, you see? And so, 'ben Omar' is the son of Omar, which is the name of my father. And so they bring ben Omar like my family name when he arrived. But the name of my family I have on one paper from Chad is Mayouf.
And I listened music with drums when I was just a little baby. I started learning piano at five. And at fifteen, I went to study piano for eight years at the conservatory. And at the same time, I studied composition, because I had an interest in that. But I didn’t finish composition or piano.
My teacher of composition was the Italian opera composer Azio Corgi. And he said to me, you’re not such a good pianist. (Laughter) Maybe it’s better if you play percussion, since he knew that my father played Arabic instruments. And so at fifteen or sixteen years old, I studied composition, piano and percussion. I began to study classical percussion at the conservatory. And at that moment, piano finished for me, but I continued composition, which I studied for nine years. It was important for me to understand the scores.
In Milan, when I was a student, I was one of the first young musicians interested in contemporary music. This was in ‘72. And I played my first concert of the second year that I studied percussion, because nobody wanted to play contemporary music. Especially professionals. It was chamber music with contemporary groups.
Next year will be my fortieth anniversary of my career as a percussionist. I’ve always had this interest in experimental music, in contemporary music, because I arrived from composition.
Early in my playing career, with my old teacher of composition, I went to the academy in Sienna, which was a very important academy of music. And I played a piece of his for six musicians. One percussionist, plus strings. We stayed there as musicians in residence for two weeks, playing new music. And so for that, I was one of the first Italians playing contemporary music, really until the end of the ‘80’s when Jonathan Faralli arrived. He is a serious colleague. Anyway, this is my background.
So, during our correspondence, I told you that I was particularly interested in two pieces that you perform: Giacinto Scelsi's Ko-tha for guitar, and Franco Donatoni's Omar for vibraphone. I want to start by asking you about your experiences working with Scelsi, since he is a figure that has a lot of mystery surrounding him.
He was very peculiar, Scelsi. He was a Count, part of the Italian aristocracy. And he was very, very, very much a snob. He was very rich, and had many houses. He was born at the beginning part of the twentieth century, so it was another time. And because was a count, and he was so rich, he didn’t want to write the music himself. He thought it was beneath his position. So he paid other people to actually write out his music for him.
And the question in Italian musical culture is whether or not Scelsi’s music is any good, because many people are not sure if maestro Scelsi really knew what he was doing. People are not sure how to handle this question. But for he, this is not a question, because I know that Scelsi just had a very different approach to making music because of his position in life. Scelsi knew very deeply what he wanted from music, and for the solo pieces, he played them with instruments himself.
He was a very eccentric person. He was afraid of being cold. Always, he went everywhere with a coat. Even in summer! (Laughter) He was afraid of noise as well. He always stayed on the top floor of the house, three or four floors up. And by the way, on these floors, he had many paintings of Picasso, Monet, Manet, and so on. Incredible, incredible atmosphere.
And he was very fond of young female singers. Always, he had many singers around. (Laughter) I knew him when he was almost eighty years old.
And so I have a funny memory not about Ko-tha, but before, with the trio for three percussionists. I’m talking about the unpublished trio for three percussionists. And he said to me, “hey Maurizio, I found a big box of music. I have this trio I forgot about.” And he gave me the music for the trio, and it was great! “We can play this, if you’d like, next month in Royaumont.” So two colleagues and I prepared this piece, which was very, very good. Ritualistic.
And at the concert in Royaumont, there were many people, and Scelsi was in the middle of the crowd. And we played the end of the piece, and the public applauded. And very slowly, Scelsi came to the stage to bow with me and my colleagues. And after we bowed together, he reaches to his ears and removed his earplugs! It was in front of the public, but he was really so afraid of the noise – it was three or four percussionists. But it was hysterical watching him remove his earplugs in front of the public. (Laughter) And he said to us, “very, very good! I am happy!” And he returned to the audience, and put the earplugs back in for the rest of the concert. He was very, very strange. (Laughter)
I read somewhere that he always wore white. And he had very blue eyes.
Yes! Lo sguardo – his gaze! He had very, very intense, fantastic bright blue eyes.
I was amazed because in a bookstore in Strasbourg, we found two volumes of writings both by and about Scelsi. Articles about him. Interviews with him, poetry by him. “Les anges sont ailleurs” and “L’homme du son.” In those books, I saw some photos, and it was true: he was always wearing a big coat. Was he a nice person?
Yes! Yes, he was a very nice person. Extremely educated. A very nice person. Really.
In Rome, I stayed in his main house, which was behind the Ifori Romani and the old Coliseum. And from his window, you could see both of those. It was an enormous house, really in the center of Rome. But he had so many homes in Rome and the rest of Italy.
So this is just to introduce Giacinto Scelsi. And when I stayed at his home, I spent a month there with great pleasure. It was very, very nice.
When he first came up with the idea of Ko-tha, he put a guitar flat on his legs, and he recorded it. And he just played around to find the sounds – to find the music. This is how Ko-tha was born. And for other pieces, he would perform the piece, record it, and after show somebody. And he would ask them if they would help him to write down what he had played. I don’t know if he knew how to write music in an Occidental way. Africans don’t know how to write music in Occidental ways, but Africans know music for percussion very well. (Laughter)
And so Scelsi was confusing for many people in Italy because of that question. He was and is played in other countries, especially in Northern Europe. The French love him very, very much. In Italy, however, he is not a beloved composer because of this academic question.
And so when you were working with Scelsi on Ko-tha, and you already have the score? Did he play improvise on the guitar for you in person?
He didn’t play anything for me himself. We listened together to the recording of him improvising on the guitar, because he said that he wanted to create this atmosphere.
At his home, he had many percussion instruments, I think mainly because he wanted to try things out when he was writing Khoom. Do you know Khoom? I absolutely suggest you listen to this piece. It’s for string quartet, two percussionists (although I prefer to played the part alone, which was something we decided on together), french horn and soprano. I played on a good recording of the piece with the Arditti String Quartet.
There’s a percussionist named Adam Weisman who lives in Berlin. He plays Ko-tha very well. And he told me there’s a piece that’s essentially Ko-tha, but in concerto format. The guitar part is very similar to Ko-tha, but this piece also has six male singers and three percussionists. It’s called TKRDG. Do you know anything about this?
No. I don’t think so. But do you know the subtitle of Ko-tha? "Three dances of Shiva." The piece has three parts. And often the guitarists only play first part because it’s more well-suited to their skill set. It’s less rhythmic, and more about plucking the right strings.
Do you actually play guitar?
No. Not at all. We played together. I would play Maestro Scelsi. And he knows that there are two possibilities for the piece – either a percussionist or a guitarist could play it. And the interpretations are so different, because the guitarists aren’t generally so good with the fast rhythms or the polyrhythrmic material. And for most percussionists, it’s not so clear how to play the various strings. It’s not really something we’re trained to do. But Scelsi and I worked together to find some possibilities.
And you asked me about the strings between the bridge and the tailpiece. This part was already in the first experiments of Ko-tha, which took place in the ‘50s. This particular type of guitar was really common during those years, with the strings extending beyond the bridge. Like a cello. And often, when people play Ko-tha, guitarists use the sound of the strings between the neck and the tuning pegs as a substitute for this sound, but it’s really not the same sound. This is much more obvious with amplification.
When I was in San Diego I found and bought a guitar with this construction, and it was perfect for the piece. And it was ruined because they made me check it on an airplane!
But, you know, this guitar wasn’t born like this. First, I bought a guitar – I don’t know if it was for country or jazz or something, in any case, it had a big body, which is good for all of the percussive material in Ko-tha – and I asked them to add the part between the bridge and the tailpiece.
The stand is also quite nice!
I didn’t like the position that Scelsi proposes for this piece, with the guitar resting on the performer’s legs. So, I decided to go to a luthier, and he helped me build a stand. The stand is better anyway for the guitar because when the instrument rests directly on your legs, it mutes a lot of the sound. With this custom-built stand, the guitar can sound much more, since the stand only touches the instrument in a few places.
It’s very comfortable, and it breaks down easily for when I travel. I play the piece kneeling, because the piece is a ritual. Three dances for Shiva. And for the public, it also looks better. You see, for me, the music of course is the principal thing. But there are other things to consider when performing. The presentation is a major component.
The color that Scelsi loved was blue, but more clear. Azuro, like the color of the sky. I don’t know how to say it in English.
Cerulean? Sky blue?
That’s easy! (Laughter) And this was the signature of Scelsi, with the cicle and the line underneath. Often you find this symbol on his scores. And so we chose this position, kneeling like for a ritual in front of the public. The hall would be dark, and I would play the piece in this blue light. With gold light too, because it’s the color of Scelsi.
Because it’s mystical piece. And it’s better for the public to focus their concentration only on you. And we chose to have two microphones. One on the wood, and hovering one over the strings. It’s important for performer to have the freedom to move.
And the tuning, I prefer not to use the normal tuning. Because it feels to much like a guitar in the normal tuning. So I used other intervals, and tuned the lowest string lower than E. I don’t know which pitch I chose, but it’s good when the lower strings are tuned lower than normal, because the rattle a when you strum them. So the tuning was lower than normal, and far from the typical tuning of a guitar.
In the score, Scelsi says to use the normal tuning of a guitar. But later, we decided on something different. You can choose other tunings. It’s really whatever you like! But it’s important to go far from the normal sound of a guitar. And when I play this piece – I’m no guitarist – I’m left-handed, and so I prefer to use my left hand if I have to play a lot of notes. And I use only the right hand on the strings. And one month before, usually, I don’t cut my nails on left because I need them for certain passages.
Because the three typical sounds in the piece are the low sound with the fingers (I often use my thumb), the cracking sound with the knuckles and the higher cracking sound, which you make through flicking your fingernails. Especially when my fingernails are longer, you hear three different sounds. It all clear from Scelsi’s explanations in the preface to Ko-tha.
I always see pictures of percussionists who play the piece with the guitar on their legs. There’s one very good Italian guitarist (she played with the Ensemble Moderne), Elena Casoli. She’s very good, and she teaches in Bern. Sometimes we play the piece together, where she plays the first dance, and I play the second and third. She is a very thin woman. She sits on the floor with two guitars and plays the piece on both sides. It’s beautiful. I could introduce you, if you’d like.
There are other interesting pieces of Giacinto Scelsi. The most famous, although I’m sorry to say, I don’t like it very much, is the Funeralli of Achilles. Do you know it? But there is another piece for percussion and cello: the Funeral of Carlo Magno. Do you know it? I like this very much.
Was this with Frances Marie Uitti?
No, although she played the piece with others. I’ve known her for many years. She came from Amsterdam. I suppose she played all of Scelsi’s music in the ‘60’s with her boots. Wonderful woman. Fantastic. Scelsi was very, very happy when she played his music. Really. (Laughter)
I noticed that in the recording of Ko-tha you seem to have a very deep sound that comes from the body of the guitar. It’s much lower than anything I’ve been able to produce acoustically. Was this maybe because of the amplification or the contact mic?
I use always amplification and I ask for enormous reverb. (Laughter) Because the piece is ritualistic. And if it’s possible, I use the enormous “cathedral” reverb. And if it’s also possible, I for four or six loudspeakers, not just two, so that the public listens to the piece like it was coming from the sky.
Can you tell me more about Scelsi’s process of improvising, transcribing, and then working with interpreters like yourself?
When Scelsi passed away, there was a big cultural question in the newspapers and on television in Italy about whether or not Giacinto Scelsi was actually a great composer. Important musicologists in Italy, for example, Roman Vlad, knew the name of the musician that worked with Scelsi to actually notate his pieces. I could tell you the name, if I write to my friend in Roma. So there was an old composer who Scelsi paid to write down his music. The composer chose the signs for all of the different types of effects. This is what happened. In Italy, that’s what they say, and I suppose that this is true.
But for me, the question was NOT if Scelsi has or hasn’t written the music, but rather, if Scelsi has a deep musical idea. This was just his way of working. I don’t know the name of the composer who worked with Scelsi, but I can tell you in a few days. I’ll ask my friend who is the tuba player who worked with Scelsi for many years. He lives in Rome.
When you were working with Scelsi, did you already have a score to work with? Or did you two improvise the piece together from scratch?
Well, yes before we really started working together, Scelsi gave me the score and we listened together to his improvisation. And working with him in Rome, I came to understand what he wanted. Essentially, at the time I worked with Scelsi, I had the score and I went to his home in Rome and I stayed for a week. Together we worked through the score and tried out different solutions for some of the more problematic sections of the text.
After one week, I told him that it is really not so easy to play the piece with the guitar resting on my legs, because I couldn’t get the right equilibrium of the dynamic level between the strings and the body of the instrument.
In the first version of the score, it is written to play with the normal guitar tuning. I didn’t like that, so I asked if it would be possible to change the tuning. So I thought about the piece for a week, and afterwards, I spoke to him, and together we chose the final solutions for all of the things that were not clear in the original score.
There were certain things in the score that I asked, “Maestro, is it possible to change this,” either because they were too difficult, or I saw an interesting possibility to add something. We added certain effects and techniques like harmonics, and rasgueado, especially in the second dance. I would show him things, and he would say whether or not he liked them. And we worked together in dialogue to make a version that made us both happy. You can hear many of these differences on my recording.
So none of these decisions actually made it into the score?
No. I still use the first score. He didn’t publish a new one after, even with all of these changes.
Has your version changed since you worked with Scelsi thirty years ago?
When I play Ko-tha today, I still play the version I worked on thirty years ago with Giacinto Scelsi.
In your recording, during the third dance of Ko-tha, there are moments when I hear a voice murmuring or whispering something that sounds like a prayer or something. It’s not written in the score, but I always loved it. I was wondering if you had some sort of secret ritual that you had worked out with Maestro Scelsi.
Ah. No, it’s not intentional. Perhaps the microphone was too close and during some difficult part, you heard some breath or murmuring. (Laughter) It is a live recording, which I really prefer. It fits my conception of the music better. Because I play differently in concert than I do in a recording studio. My final contact is with the public. In a studio recording, the focus of interpretation is only on precision. But this is not so important for me. I give more value to character than precision in music. Many famous pianists and the beginning of the twentieth century, like [Alfred] Cortot, were not precise. But recordings of his performances are really incredible, even with many mistakes. It’s about what you consider your role to be as a musician.
Would you be open to making an edition? Like YOUR edition, since you were the one who was able to work?
It’s not so easy, because if I were to prepare an edition, it would only be would be my words, not the words of Maestro Scelsi. I know I worked with him, but it’s different. If Scelsi were alive to authorize the edition, like Stravinsky was when the Histoire du soldat part came out, I would consider it. But it feels complicated, both with respect to Scelsi and my colleagues as well. I don’t know. I think my recording is what I have to give.
So, since Scelsi is no longer with us, how much liberty does the performer have to change things in the score if he likes something else more?
Now, obviously it’s not possible to have the same experience that I had, because Maestro Scelsi isn’t alive. There’s a big difference, for example, if you play Donatoni’s music, the text is the text. The music is finished. With Scelsi, there is more room for you to make adjustments.
But back to Scelsi, during that era in Italy, many composers were writing music that posed similar problems as Scelsi. Sylvano Bussotti, for example, is the same! Bruno Maderna, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Giorgio Battistelli, who is younger.
It seems to me that the more you know about the piece, perhaps the more freedom you have within it. I have been trying to work on Ko-tha for several years, and I always try to be extremely faithful to the text, but I never get anywhere with this approach. I think this is why I’m so interested in the working relationship you had with Maestro Scelsi. Were there any ideas that you showed him that he rejected?
Well, Maestro Scelsi was a man with a deep culture and a free mind. So if I showed him something and he didn’t like it, he would work with me to try to find another possibility.
This is also the type of relationship I had with [Sylvano] Bussotti and a few others. Bussotti lived in Florence, and since I played contemporary music, he asked me to come to Florence to play his music. And so on. There is a score by Bussotti called Git le Coeur, which is only one circle and a few notes, but the piece is supposed to last seven to ten minutes.
When I played Bussotti’s opera for two actors and three musicians with many cirlces, we had to decide together how we are going to interpret certain freedoms in the music. And we do this with great pleasure, because if a composer is really an artist, they will have a clear idea and be able to come up with a solution. We played many times the Music for Strindberg. August Strindberg. Miss Julia. It is an important piece. It lasts about an hour.
His approach to performing is different than in other music when you are expected to play your part perfectly. If you are an improviser, it’s different. The way you fundamentally approach performance is different. So he explained that he wanted this or that type of situation, and we made our decisions together. And with Giacinto Scelsi, now I don’t remember what he didn’t like, because it was so many years ago. But, when he didn’t like one of my suggestions, he would work with me and we would come up with something else that worked for both of us.
When were your first encounters with Franco Donatoni?
When I first met Donatoni, I was studying in Milan, and Donatoni was one of the teachers of composition there. And so Donatoni knew me when I came to play percussion. I played in the first pieces, for example Lumen, which was great. And he asked me why I was using four mallets? Because before me, in order to play Lumen, the orchestral percussionists in Italy were only using two mallets. And he realized that, ah! with four mallets, he can write other pieces, and so he wrote Spiri, and other pieces. Because when you play Lumen, there are many arpeggios. Do you know Lumen? It’s a very simple, but very good piece. Sextet, I believe.
I know Arpège and Ave very well, but Lumen only by name. Beautiful pieces.
Ah! Ave is with glockenspiel. It is older. An older one. And there are many arpeggios, and with two mallets for the percussion, it’s quite difficult, but with four mallets, it’s no problem. And after this, he wrote many pieces like Spiri, which is for oboe and violin soloists and a little ensemble. And so it was just good luck for me that I was in that situation at that time.
For me, Donatoni was a big influence. He was my maestro. A truly great friend. He was very kind, but was a strong shock when he showed me Omar. (Laughter) For me, it’s very, very different from anything that came before. It’s a very, very difficult piece for me. And I like the second movement much more than the first. The first movement, in my opinion, is the demonstration of the musical material, which is very, very strong.
Can you tell me how Omar came about with Donatoni?
Well, Donatoni was the teacher at the Accademia di Chigiana in Siena, as I said before. My teacher taught composition there as well. It was a summer course that lasted always one month. Students from all over the world came there. And all year, he would write a new piece for one instrument. The commission was never very big, so he decided all year he write for one instrument. He wrote a flute piece, and many others.
And one year, he said me, “now I would like to write for vibraphone solo.” In general, the idea, the architechture of Donatoni’s music is strictly mathematical. And the model of the first piece for flute, Fili, is like a template. He used this mathematical approach when he chose the notes and built the piece in that way. And every piece in this category of his catalogue have two movements for one solo instrument. The first movement is always the presentation of the structure. But if you pay attention, you can see that the first movement of any of these pieces can be played on any instrument. Like the Musical Offering of Bach. They don’t show anything unique about the instrument that they are written for.
And so it’s for me so hard technically, the first piece, because it’s abstract. And I told him that in general for four mallets technique for marimba and vibraphone, you can play on piano with two fingers to simulate the physical space of the instrument. And pay attention if you change position between black and white! (Laughter)
At the beginning, there are many of these awkward positions, it is very, very dangerous for me because it is so difficult to continually change the position between black and white. If the black is on the inside in a chord, it is physically very challenging.
I like very much the second movement because this piece really for the vibraphone. He uses dampening, the different velocities of the motor, different type of mallets. This year, I gave a lesson to a young Italian percussionist. Very, very young. Sixteen years old. He was preparing for the competition in Eindhoven. He is the youngest musician in the entire competition, because he is only sixteen. And we have worked very much on the second part, because the first he has played without any problems. Technically, all the notes are there.
But on the second movement, we tried to find a really different perspective. I spoke about this with Donatoni. It is a totally different situation with the second piece of Omar. When he used very fast motor, I tried with him a few very soft mallets. He use, for example, if he uses a marimba grip, you can have a ripple role. With very, very fast motor, the sound is magical. Donatoni and I worked together much more on the second than on the first movement, and now with students, I prefer to speak much more about the second. But the piece was born for that.
One of the things that interests me with Donatoni so much is the way he reuses his own material. For example, there are passages from Omar which are quoted verbatim in Arpège. And I think it is remarkable that this collection of solo pieces like Omar, Mari, Rima, Alamari all have the letters M, A and R in their titles.
Donatoni was interested in mathematics, you see, about the structure of the pieces. Yes, Omar is my name, but another person important to Donatoni was the pianist, Maria Isabella de Carli. And so Mari is just the abbreviated name of Maria Isabella. Alamari was written only because he had one piece called Ala. There is also Rima, which is an anagram of Mari. He loved to joke with words. He was a very clever and eccentric man.
It seems like something very interesting in the history of all of these composers, especially in the case of Donatoni and Scelsi, is that they famously had mental breakdowns of some kind. That’s what I’ve read about like Scelsi was trained in maybe Vienna or something as a composer and was writing a very specific Viennese maybe Schönberg influenced style of music and then decided to give it up and to listen to single note on a piano decay. And I’ve heard something similar about Donatoni, whom I heard was kind of eccentric. Do you have any interesting anecdotes about either of them? I’m trying to find out something about the psychology of these people to the best extent that I can.
I will tell you a very funny story about Donatoni. At the beginning of ‘90’s, several Italian musicians went to Melbourne, in Australia. There I played Ko-tha, and another solo piece.
And Donatoni arrived, because he was an important Italian composer. And one day, he wasn’t feeling well. Very sick. And so Maestro Donatoni, who was a very strong, big man, said “ah! I feel okay!” And he told us, “I would like have Italian food now.” Okay. And we went to an Italian neighborhood and we each had a good dish of gnocchi and after a very good dish with strawberries and a lot Chantilly. Really a lot. So there was a lot of sugar. (Laughter) And he ate a lot of it.
And so after this, we started to get worried, because he was feeling very sick. Very, very, very, bad. He went to the hospital. And there they found out that he was diabetic! He didn’t know before. And he went into a coma. But he was very strong, so he recovered. No problem. After one week, he began to feel better again, BUT he was in a hospital without any clothes, and so the hospital gave him pyjamas. But the pyjamas weren’t big enough for him!
And what he remembered from being in the coma was that the doctor and his old assistant were really worried about him. They called the embassy and so on. But over the loudspeakers, and in conversations, which he heard unconsciously in his coma, he remembered hearing the name “Alfred” repeated continuously, “Alfred, Alfred, Alfred, Alfred,” because it’s the name of the hospital where he was staying. And so he wrote an opera, set in a hospital, in which he actually played himself as a hospital patient, and he called the opera “Alfred, Alfred.” (Laughter)
But it’s a fantastic story, because after he recovered, he was very proud. He said, I am diabetic, but it’s no problem! I can eat and drink what I want, because I am strong enough to handle it! (Laughter)
And Sciarrino, because you have Esplorazione del Bianco and Appendice alla perfezione.
(Laughter) Ah! This is a peculiar piece, Esplorazione del bianco. Many years ago, I knew Sciarrino in Milan. He is younger than Bussotti and Donatoni. And he arrived in Milan in 1980 or so. I don’t remember very well. And I play many pieces of Salvatore Sciarrino in orchestras, contemporary music ensembles and so on. But Esplorazione del bianco is, a funny piece. The story of the piece is very, very funny.
I have it here.
It’s printed? Esplorazione del Bianco? Ah. And Appendice alla perfezione is a funny story. I don’t know whether he wrote this piece when he taught in Milan or Perugia, but he told me he was in a meeting of all of the professors at the school where he was teaching, discussing all of the school’s problems. And he was really bored, so he started thinking about writing this piece during the meeting, instead of being bored to death about the school’s money problems and so on. (Laughter)
At that time, he already had a project with an important Italian jazz rock drummer named Tullio de Piscopo. And he had written him this experimental piece for extended drumset called Esplorazione del bianco. But the problem was that Tullio de Piscopo was an improviser, and he didn’t want to play the piece. So, Salvatore showed me the score. And for me, I told him I thought there were too many instruments, and I tried to discuss this with him, but Salvatore wouldn’t change anything! (Laughter)
Because, for my sensibility, I would prefer in this score that there would be a slower metronome marking, and different types of instruments, because I don’t think the sounds in the piece are all that interesting. Specifically, the tom toms. And you also have cassa pedale, tamburo, bongos, piatti, Charleston. And then there are also echoes of crotales, which is a beautiful idea, but most of the time it is just for the drumset, because it was written for de Piscopo.
But he said, no, I prefer this solution, and we didn’t have the possibility to work together to change anything. I played the piece twice, but it really wasn’t written for me.
But you know it’s dedicated to you, right?
Yes! But – and this is a bit of gossip – Salvatore was not happy was Tullio’s version of the piece, because he was an improviser. I think that’s why he dedicated the piece to me, even though it wasn’t originally intended for me. (Laughter)
For me, it would be interesting if I could slow the tempo and change the instruments. Maybe instruments with special, longer sounds instead of the thump of a drum. For example, Javanese gong, dobachi, water gourd. When I look at the score, I hear a different instrumentation in my head. And you need time to play each of these sounds, so that you really can hear their colors. I would need a slower tempo for that than what is currently written. There isn’t a metronome marking, but he writes that the performer should play all of the material in one minute. So it’s fast. Very, very fast.
It seems impossible to play all of that material in just one minute!
Not only technically, but musically, it just seems wrong. (Laughter) If I have four minutes, I have time to change the color of the instruments and so on. And so, I’m very sorry, but I can’t really get behind the piece completely. With pieces like this, when I find that a certain part of a piece is impossible to play as written, I always try to come up with solutions that sound good to me.
I was always very interested by this piece because you have the Appendice alla perfezione from La perfezione de uno spirito sottile for fourteen campanelli. It’s the exact same piece as Esplorazione del bianco, but just with different instrumentation. Do you know anything about why the two pieces are so similar?
I know Salvatore used this same material from Esploriazione del bianco when he thought of an important piece like La perfezione spirito sottile. It was at that meeting of all the professors I told you about, and he decided to use some material from the percussion solo.
But Salvatore Sciarrino is a fantastic musician. Very sensitive. Wonderful artist. I would like the possibility to do my own version of the piece in the future. I’d like to show another dimension of this material. Sciarrino always liked the silent part of the music. And the very quiet dynamics. Once we played his opera Lohengrin with our ensemble, and I liked it very much because all instruments were amplified. And so you can really hear all the parts. Because often the music is very soft, and the silences are very long. It’s not easy for the public.
I found your version of Zyklus recently on the Stradivarius label. And I’m very curious about your interpretation, because it sounds like you use brushes and hand drums. And I’ve never heard that in any other version.
This was from a live concert six, or seven years ago at La Scala. Yes, it’s very soft, and I give a lot of attention to sound color. This has always been my focus, actually. I am not a technical performer. My way of playing is much more coloristic. I think it’s my primary quality as a musician.
I always try to play to my strengths as an interpreter. The version is maybe far from Stockhausen’s vision of the piece, but I don’t know if music always has to be only about exactly what the composer wants. I think I have absolutely to respect what the composer has written. But if the score contains the possibility to choose different ways of handling musical issues, you can do all kinds of things. And I respect the notes that are written, and so my approach to Zyklus is made with my own sensibility. And Stockhausen wrote that you can choose different type of mallets, and so on.
And so for that concert we also played part one of Steve Reich’s Drumming with the bongos, and because the stage of La Scala is so big, we played Tambuco of Carlos Chavez, which has many instruments.
For my version of Zyklus, because it’s the only solo piece on this concert, similar to what I said about Scelsi, I needed one light just for the percussion setup, with the rest of the stage dark. If the audience sees the entire stage with all the instruments, they will be distracted.
And so I chose to begin and end with the tam-tam, because it’s good for me, and good for the public with the lights. And so I start the piece in blackness, and with the first boom on the tam-tam, suddenly, the lights come up. When I end, the piece, “boom,” dark again. For five seconds. Because I told you that for me, it’s important to create a particular atmosphere.
But today, the preference in the world seems to be on speed and virtuosity. The athletic part of the music. But this is not my way. And so I always create a softer, quieter color in my sound. I am happy you listened to this! I am very proud of that recording! (Laughter)
This approach would be impossible with Donatoni. With Donatoni, the notes are the notes. You have to play what is written.
It seems like you have dealt with a lot of composers who try to write music that goes beyond what is humanly possible, or that use sounds that are difficult to capture through notation. You mentioned before that with Donatoni, the text is the text, but with Scelsi, Sciarrino or Bussotti, there is more to the equation. Do you have any thoughts on this?
One time, I went together with Donatoni to go see a concert of Max Roach in Milan. And he was an incredible musician – he made so many sounds on the hi-hat. And I said to Donatoni, “pay attention: don’t write this, because it’s different than what you do. If you have improvisation, then you have all of these different types of sounds.”
And Donatoni had asked me the same question when we went to India the first time. He said “the tabla are so fantastic! I’m going to write a tabla part for you!” And I said “NO!” (Laughter) I love tabla, but I don’t play tabla! It’s not so easy to write for instruments that are designed primarily for improvisation. The approach is different.
I think that’s really important to understand about your way of working and thinking about percussion – and music in general. Is there a general philosophy in your playing? Or maybe a general philosophy of teaching or even being human? I’d like these interviews to be available for a new generation of percussionists. It would be lovely for them to be able to learn more about the people behind the music. I’m curious: what would you like to see happen with this art form of playing percussion?
What would I say to a young colleague? I have a simple idea, but I feel that it’s not so common. Often, contemporary music is complicated because it contains so many difficulties and complex passages or problems. But we should not forget that music – all types of music, popular music, music of various ethnicities, an so on, is about communication.
So you have absolutely to work hard, and respect the notes written in scores, but you, and all the young musicians out there should never forget the true purpose of making music is for communication with the public. Precision, and technical perfection are of course good, but it is a pity if in caring for the details, you forget the larger picture of the music.
Once, I attended a clinic given by Max Roach when he came to Italy. And one Italian drummer went to him to show off virtuosic polyrhythmic effects of six, five and so on. And when he was finished, Max Roach said, “yes, fantastic, but where is the music?” Perhaps my vision is romantic, but I know if you play and perform with your focus on the overall musical experience, then the public, not just the specialists, not just the other percussionists, but the public will be interested in contemporary music too.
Because when you listen to great interpreters, and they are playing music of other centuries, this is always the most important thing. For me, sometimes when we pay too much attention to the precision, we forget the most important thing about our work as musicians and artists.