Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Cemetery Party in Venice - Music Amidst the Graves

The Barque of Dante by  Georgy Frangulyan Photo: Alloggi Barbaria
(Venice, Italy) Only in Venice can you end an international music festival in a cemetery, playing the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) directly in front of Stravinsky's tomb. On Saturday evening, October 1, 2011, a few hundred people journeyed past the The Barque of Dante, created by the Russian sculptor Georgy Frangulyan for the 2007 La Biennale Art Festival, to participate in Luca Francesconi's fourth and final production as the Artistic Director of the Venice International Festival of Contemporary Music. With Virgil pointing the way, the audience arrived on the Island of San Michele by boat.

Luca Francesconi:

TODD GIPSTEIN/National Geographic Stock
After three editions that have proven that culture is not a bore and an effort and have brought us the enthusiastic approval of the public, the lack of attention and even the lack of interest of politicians for music and research, for "non-horizontal" projects such as ours, made me decide to end my last Biennale with a provocation that is both ironic and somewhat melancholy. 

If it's true that the thought and knowledge born out of 5,000 years of art and culture are scrap, then let's make our farewells with an extreme tribute: a ritual procession on the water to the Island of San Michele in which we celebrate Stravinsky, Machaut, Verdi, Monteverdi, Gesualdo and even Nono -- but with simple instruments, ensembles pared down to the bone, performing the finale of Mozart's Don Giovanni not with an orchestra, but with a band. 

Photo at La Biennale Blog
If our culture is dead because it does not bring profits, then with the thirty pieces of silver that they give us we will set up a frugal but merry "banquet over the abyss."

By candlelight, we ventured past the uniform rows of Venetian tombs, the living among the dead, into the Orthodox section of the cemetery to where Stravinsky's simple tomb is located. At the site, Dirk Descheemaeker played Three pieces for clarinet solo by Igor Stravinsky (1918). We listened as the tones of the clarinet floated through the cemetery and gently nudged the dead to join us in a celebration of life.

After listening to some Verdi in the entrance way, we entered the Church of San Michele itself, the first Renaissance church in Venice, designed in 1469 by Mauro Cordussi. Waiting for us inside was the Orchestra from Teatro La Fenice. They started off with the Venetian composer, Luigi Nono (1924-1990), who is also buried at San Michele. Nono is considered one of the most prominent composers of the 20th century, and we heard Incontri for 24 instruments (1955), followed by another piece by Stravinsky, Concerto in mi bemolle Dumbarton Oaks (1937-38).

Scuola of San Rocco
Photo at La Biennale Blog
Then, from the choir loft came the A Capella voices of the Scuola of San Rocco singing ancient tunes by Guillaume De Machaut (1300-1377), Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566-1613) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). The beauty and force of the human voices -- only the human voices, unaccompanied by any instruments -- made me marvel at what a magnificent instrument our vocal chords are. That human beings were created with chords in our throats, able to produce sound and music, is a bit of a miracle.

Chromalodeon keyboard
Earlier in the day, I (and everyone in the audience around me) had been blown away by the Ictus Ensemble performing American composer Harry Partch's Barstow (1941) and The Letter (1943) at the Teatro alle Tese at the Arsenale in Venice. I didn't have a clue who Harry Partch was, and chatted with the vocalist (and flutist) Michael Schmid during the intermission, who told me Partch had created his own instruments to play his own music; Tim Mariën arranged the pieces to fit with the Ictus Ensemble. From Wikipedia:

Harry Partch (June 24, 1901 – September 3, 1974) was an American composer and instrument creator. He was one of the first twentieth-century composers to work extensively and systematically with microtonal scales, writing much of his music for custom-made instruments that he built himself, tuned in 11-limit (43-tonejust intonation.

...In 1941, Partch wrote Barstow, a work whose text comes from eight pieces of graffiti Partch had spotted on a highway railing in Barstow, California. The piece, originally for voice and guitar, was transcribed several times throughout the composer's life as his collection of instruments grew.

Ictus Ensemble The Letter 
Photo:  Anna di Manincor
After the intermission, Michael Schmidt alone on stage performed Sonate in Urlauten by Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) with just his human vocal chords and his breath. I strongly suggest that you find "Ursonate," on YouTube and listen to it yourself to understand the enormity of this feat.

UPDATE AUGUST 11, 2013: Reading this again after two years, I have to say that I think Luca Francesconi was a brilliant music director, full of passion, intelligence, wit and soul. He taught me a lot. Apparently someone uploaded Michael Schmidt's actual performance. (I will confess that I immediately developed a crush on Michael after watching him perform.) Here it is:

From Wikipedia:

Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters (20 June 1887 - 8 January 1948) was a German painter who was born in Hanover, Germany. Schwitters worked in several genres and media, including DadaConstructivismSurrealism,poetry, sound, paintingsculpturegraphic designtypography and what came to be known as installation art. He is most famous for his collages, called Merz Pictures.

The Ursonate

Schwitters composed and performed an early example of sound poetryUrsonate (1922–32; a translation of the title is Original Sonata or Primeval Sonata). The poem was influenced by Raoul Hausmann's poem "fmsbw" which Schwitters' heard recited by Hausmann in Prague, 1921.[23] Schwitters performed the piece regularly, developing and extending it, until finally publishing his notations for the recital in the last Merz periodical, 1932.

Many artists have cited Schwitters as a major influence, including Ed Ruscha,[32] Robert Rauschenberg,[33] Damien Hirst,[34] Al Hansen,[35]and Arman.[36]
"The language of Merz now finds common acceptance and today there is scarcely an artist working with materials other than paint who does not refer to Schwitters in some way. In his bold and wide-ranging experiments he can be seen as the grandfather of Pop Art, Happenings, Concept Art, Fluxus, multimedia art and post-modernism." Gwendolyn Webster

Photo at La Biennale Blog
Back at the cemetery, the audience spilled into the cloister for the last scene from Mozart's Don Giovanni, a Venetian all-time favorite, when the stone figure of the Commendatore arrives to take an unrepentant Don Giovanni up on his dinner invitation, and drags him down to hell. Stefano Bellon arranged the scene to be played by a band, not an orchestra; the vocalists were Andrea Zaupa, Enkhbat Nyamdorj and Gino Gobbo. 

After Don Giovanni went down to hell with the Commendatore, we took up where they left off and had our own ritual dinner out in the cloisters with great food and local Zitelle wine. I met three young American theater students (ciao Ellen, Nathan and Dean), who were in Venice for the very first time. They were thrilled that they had found their way into this unique performance. We all agreed that it was very strange that we had to come to Venice to learn about Harry Partch, an American composer who was working with "contemporary music" so long ago, and that none of us had known who Kurt Schwitters was before that day. If Luca Francesconi's goal was to make us think vertically, he certainly succeeded when it came to our little American group.

Photo at La Biennale Blog
At the end of the night, I sat down on the steps of the ancient well where Don Giavonni had defied the Commendatore earlier in the evening. "I lost my friends," I said to an interesting-looking woman, also seated on the well. "We will be your friends," she replied. It turned out that she was the composer, Alwynne Pritchard, currently the Festival Director of the Borealis Contemporary Music Festival in Bergen, Norway. Alwynne remarked how it was difficult to make such extraordinary demands on an audience, asking them to listen to a contemporary music concert at 4:00 in the afternoon, loading them all on boats to go to a cemetery after dark, shuffling them around a graveyard, and finishing up with a dinner served after 9pm. Only in Venice would such a thing be possible. 

To me, it was the perfect conclusion to the 55th Venice International Festival of Contemporary Music. After all, how many cities have their own Island of the Dead?

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. Wow! This looks like quite the soiree!
    How inspiring it would be to be present listening to the music of the very many who now lies in the grave to your left!

    The Wanderfull Traveler

  2. (Venice, Italy) Only in Venice can you end an international music festival in a cemetery, playing the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) directly in front of Stravinsky's tomb.

  3. Hey Cat, this blog is very cool, molto bello! Thanks for a great experience and good luck with your work in Venice. Viva l'arte!

    -Nathan, Ellen, and Dean

  4. Nathan, Ellen and Dean have finally appeared! The cemetery was packed for All Saints Day. I never saw so many people. They came in from the mainland, as well as Venice -- boatload after boatload. We do make full use of our cemetery here in Venice:)