”...que si j’eusse été entre ces nations qu’on dit vivre encore sous la douce liberté des premières lois de la nature, je t’assure que je m’y fusse très volontiers peint tout entier, et tout nu.”
Somehow I was going to be an architect, seduced by the impossible beauty of the city where I grew up. I remember fondly my assiduous frequentations of Rome’s old courtyards during the never-ending summers of my youth: the sudden coolness of the air after the scorching heat of the narrow cobbled streets, the subdued light, the stillness.
The enchantment lives on, but it has acquired a different, more abstract quality: instead of buildings, I ended up crafting sounds, as far away as you possibly can from the solid boundaries of materials and shapes. Many years after abandoning my architecture studies I had a painful glimpse of a parallel universe: I was interviewing Renzo Piano for a television documentary in his studio perched on the hills west of Genoa, overlooking an infinite blue among the olive-trees – the essence of the Mediterranean, the South, in a civilised, tamed version, but still quite powerful… – and I wondered if this visible outer order, the purring organisation of a world-class architecture workshop in the background, this almost indecent convergence of aesthetic and practical values, were the right answer to my restlessness.
Like many in this strange business of composing music, I crave concentration and silence: the freedom of solitary creation is pure joy, day after day. Yet, I could not at the time, and still cannot, come to terms with the narrow, artificial, often sad world of so-called contemporary music. It is a fine but ultimately empty construct, soon to be catalogued as a historical oddity. It seems to me that contemporary music is lacking three fundamental elements: it has no name, it has no audience and it has no real cultural role. As a niche in a niche, it perpetuates itself on the belief that it has some intrinsic value.
During a rainy summer holiday in Switzerland, I was about twelve, we visited for a few days St Moritz. At the Belvedere, in one of the empty reception rooms overlooking the valley, an ancient Blüthner grand piano seemed to wait for my brother and me. I can still feel the physical pleasure of touching the keys, and improvising endlessly on a descending tetrachord taken from Modern Jazz Quartet’s Blues on Bach. The rich, mellow consistency of the octaves in the bass, the sweet, harmonious midrange: pure bliss… This, and the memory of listening over and over again to John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things some years later, late at night in my bedroom.
For all of us the most enduring musical memories are always the earliest: the aura of Pollini’s Deutsche Grammophon recording of Chopin’s Études, a moving combination of the sepia cover, the unattainable perfection of the performance, and the spell of the quiet streets of the Aventino in Rome, where my friend Pietro lived and where I discovered classical music; Miles Davis’ Carnegie Hall concert, Schoenberg’s piano pieces, again performed by Pollini, Astrud Gilberto and Erroll Garner all retain their initial magic.
If I have to single out one episode, it will certainly be the unforgettable afternoon when I attended for the first time a classical music concert. I was thirteen, spending three weeks in a kind of summer camp to learn English called “The Meadows” near Lucignano, in Tuscany. The enlightened owners had prepared a varied cultural programme for the kids, and one afternoon we found ourselves on the way to Gargonza castle, a haunting, Dantesque fortified village perched on a hilltop amidst forests and rolling fields. I don’t remember who played the piano that afternoon, but I do remember two pieces in the programme – Debussy’s L’île joyeuse and Barber’s Piano Sonata. I listened in awe as a new world opened before me – the experience deeply transformed me. On the way back, on the bus, I told my somewhat sceptical friends that it had been the happiest day of my life.
We have to solve this paradox – contemporary creation versus the museum of classical music: on one hand we have an unbelievably rich repertoire of works from the distant past that never ceases to move and amaze us, on the other a vast, crowded landscape of new creation that demands – mostly very loudly – our attention.
[work in progress]