Venetian Fried Fish, Italian Music, and the Art of Page Turning

I went to the Venice Biennale near the end of its run to hear a piece by my friend Oscar Bianchi and to see the art of 96 artists from around the world. Venice was glorious—still warm, not very full of tourists—and the frittura mista di pesce was still as I remembered it from seven years ago. (It’s the greatest snack I have ever had—a kaleidoscopic assortment of tiny whole fish, shrimp, and other little sea morsels, quickly dipped in a thin batter and perfectly fried, served on brown paper with salt and lemons.)

The concerts at this year’s Biennale were curated by Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli, and he put together several “Made in Italy” concerts of works by young Italians. The four works I heard ran the gamut of brilliant to dull, but I was especially captivated by the buzz while walking to the concert, performed at the Arsenale—an area once used for ship building, now converted into a maze-like series of On the Waterfront-type warehouses devoted to Big Art and concerts. Michael Kimmelman, in the New York Times, described the traversal akin to a “forced march,” and I can see the comparison, though I felt a real sense of building excitement while walking towards the concert hall among dozens of others. While the “Made in Italy” concerts were rather well-attended, the sold-out shows were by non-Italian composers as performed by non-Italian ensembles (for example, Buenos Aires-born Martin Matalon’s new score for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, performed live during a screening by the German ensemble musikFabrik; or the American JACK Quartet playing Zorn, Kurtag, Cage, and Eotvos).

After a four-hour train ride back to Rome, I was reeled into turning pages for the 28th Festival of Contemporary Music, curated by the beguiling Ada Gentile. I enjoy turning pages because it keeps me from doing what I usually do in concerts—fall asleep. A few nights later, I turned pages at the Villa Aurelia for a piano recital. The pianist was Andrew Russo, an astounding musician, who played eight insanely difficult works—six of them by Americans, all of them still alive and kicking. More than any other work on the program, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Superstar Etude N. 2 (2002) really kept me awake and thinking about the strange phenomenon that music doesn’t necessarily mimic its creator. That is, quiet, demure, short, bespectacled, humble Aaron Jay looks and acts nothing like his etude, a roiling, cavalier, breathtaking study in finger-splitting virtuosity. I really love when that happens—when I come across a composer, and he and his music are diametrically opposed. On the other hand, Evan Ziporyn’s Gebyog (2001) sounds just a lot like him—groovy and fun, yet utterly focused and determined.

The state of Italian new music is a bit troubling, from what I’ve seen and heard thus far. Most of the promising young composers are quickly leaving Italy for other European cities or the U.S. On both the Biennale program and at the Villa Aurelia there was a distinct stylistic divide between those composers who had remained in Italy (hints of neo-classicism or forlorn imitations of 1960s serialism) to those who had ventured out (touches of French spectralism, American pop, African rhythms). I know that there are barely, if any, non-Italian composers teaching at the conservatories. Perhaps this is akin to immigration politics, giving badly needed jobs to Italians, but I fail to see how non-porous borders can help art.

In a couple of days, I’m heading over to the Polish Institute to hear the Silesian String Quartet play music by two Poles and two Italians. If the composers show up, I’ll ask them about the state of Italian music, snap a few photos, try to figure out if they “look” like their music, and perhaps ask them for fried fish recommendations.

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