Gianluca Verlingieri, composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

As a child I probably used to fantasize more about becoming an urban planner than a professional musician, since my parents always found the house full of hand-drawn road maps, with a number of sheets of paper stuck from the living room to the bathroom!

However, even though there were no musicians in my family, I was inundated with tons of recorded music from a very early age. Our neighbour ran a hi-fi shop where I could listen to various recordings of mainly classical and opera, music which was used to test audio systems. I spent whole afternoons there pretending to conduct those recorded orchestras with completely invented gestures!

Then, during a family trip to Australia, I was awe-struck by two little cousins playing “Chopsticks” on their upright piano and it all started from there, with my first piano lesson taken once back home in Italy. I remember it took place at the edge of an indoor swimming pool, since the primary school hadn’t enough classrooms to host pianos!

Many years of study in piano followed at the conservatory in my home city (Cuneo, in Piedmont, Italy), with degrees earned also in composition and electronic music, but nothing! I still didn’t think of making a career out of it.

Then the meeting with some of the most established Italian composers (Alberto Colla, Azio Corghi, Ivan Fedele and Fabio Vacchi) of whom I became a student for many years in post-graduate academies such as Santa Cecilia in Rome, Chigiana in Siena, Regia Filarmonica in Bologna (where a 14 year-old Mozart took a counterpoint exam), Arena di Verona Opera Acadamy and others was decisive to change my mind and perspectives for the future.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Besides the aforementioned Italian composers who have been fundamental to build up my skills and personality as a composer over the years, I have to say that any other great composer I met and trained with, even if for only a short time, left a precious and different influence, sometimes creating also a friendly relationship beyond teaching: from Kaija Saariaho to Luis De Pablo, from Luca Francesconi to Peter Eötvös, from Peter Maxwell Davies to Alvin Curran, from Mauro Lanza to Yan Maresz and Elliott Sharp.

Furthermore, some sacred monsters I’ve never met in person but heavily influenced my compositional style: György Ligeti, György Kurtag and Luciano Berio. The latter’s widow hired me to identify and catalogue the composer’s private sound archive, an amazing mine not only of surprises about his music but also 20th century music and culture, now hosted at Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel. To do so, I was hosted in Berio’s house in Florence for two years, in the very loft where he set up his first Tuscan studio. What an incredibly inspiring experience for me!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The most recent has been to explain to my two-year-old that dad’s laptop isn’t just for watching Peppa Pig!

Joking apart, I would divide the answer between challenges related to my life as a composer, and challenges related to the music I compose.

In the first case, a real challenge is learning to say “no”. It is difficult to give up interesting projects, but you have to choose and focus on a few things at a time, even if at first you would like to do everything, and perhaps it is right to do so for a while.

Another challenge, the biggest for me, was to reconcile my professional development with my health problems and those of my loved ones: I kept cancer at bay, I faced the sudden severe disability of a family member, sometimes thinking of not making it. But music itself was my spring of salvation.

As for the more strictly musical challenges, in the multimedia-architectural-opera Tre Movimenti di Luce (Three movements of Light), staged at the 78th Maggio Musicale Fiorentino for the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth, the genial stage director Giancarlo Cauteruccio used three different locations (including an engine room in the basement and an outdoor cavea on the roof) of the new Florence Opera House building for staging hell, purgatory and paradise, making the audience take a path by feet through corridors and stairways to reach each one. Well, conceiving music for the ascent to heaven and the sight of God was one of the most difficult challenges ever.

More recently a challenge that seemed impossible was to transcribe the first act of Puccini’s Turandot for two pianos, omitting what is the heart of the opera, the lyrical voices! I transferred them to the pianos, with a particular instrumentation technique. It worked!

How would you describe your compositional/musical style?

Imagine a dream, where wrecks of sounds and music of every age, geography and nature interact like eccentric characters of an imaginary stage: I like to think of my music as the narration of this dream, each time different and unpredictable. I “translated” this vision in a compositional method that I called “analysis and resynthesis”. For me, “to analyze,” means “to fathom”, to explore existing musical designs: from past eras, from more recent, non-classical styles, or from international folk traditions (much like Ligeti’s exploration of the Banda-Linda).

In regard to the “resynthesis”, I like to refer to the thought of Luciano Berio, who said that the best way to analyze a piece was to do it by composing another piece. The re-synthesis phase in my way of composing is therefore the combination and personal elaboration, according to my own style and logic, of the elements drawn from the analysis of pre-existing materials. The result of this process must not represent, obviously, a false reconstruction – a bit kitsch and without any meaning – of a past that no longer exists; or, even worse, a bad copy of a geographically distant sound world that makes no sense to reproduce outside of its local and functional context.

As a composer, how do you work?

Although I’m constantly struggling with times and deadlines (do you know any composer who is not?), it is rare that I start a piece writing suddenly music notes on a blank staff. For each new composition in fact I can spend a few months without writing music at all, but carrying out research, analyzing the possibilities of the instruments and, if known, of the interpreters involved. I also dissect the existing repertoire, and then, in the end, I organize the text notes, diagrams and sketches on sheets of paper, connecting them together on the floor of my studio, as I did as a child with the street maps I drew by hand. Viewing from above helps me organize ideas.

Sometimes this initial period of research includes preliminary sessions of work with the musicians, and in that lucky case I also like to direct them in a guided improvisation, sometimes extreme for what I ask them to do, which I record and can become a valuable source material for an acoustic and electroacoustic composition.

At the end of these long preparatory periods, often carried out in a maniacal way, the music comes out in no time, and I have experienced being able to write it everywhere, wherever I can carry my laptop and some sheets of paper: on a plane for example, or outdoors at the edge of a fountain, as I once did in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library.

Tell us more about your new album, Musica Ritrovata

Musica Ritrovata is a culmination of over 15 years of musical exploration, taking seemingly juxtaposing elements from existing music and concepts, according to my abovementioned compositional method of “analysis and resynthesis”. The title itself is a playful reference to existing music, Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata (loosely “searched-for music”), that in my poetics become, with a word pun, “Musica Ritrovata”, that is “re-found, rediscovered” music, but also, for me, “reimagined” music!

Schubert, Debussy, Maxwell Davies, Ligeti, Buxtehude, Central African rhythms, Cossack folk tunes, God Save the Queen, the B.A.C.H. formula, electronic music techniques applied to acoustic music, a string quartet that sounds like a bagpipe … All are ingredients of a personal interaction, a “convolution” (to use another electronic music term) that never sounds as the models, although sometimes evokes them in filigree.

I also like to think of “musica ritrovata” as “reunited with music”, like reuniting with old “friends”. I mean metaphoric friends: the existing music that has impressed me in my personal history, the composers I love, the “ear worms” that I can’t eradicate from my mind. But also friends in flesh and blood, because the album came to life in the middle of a pandemic and me and the award-winning sound engineer and friend Davide Ficco did some of the technical work remotely, but we waited for the end of the lockdown to finally meet in studio, and for our workflow and state of mind to be better. Music is sociality, at each level.

What are the pleasures and challenges of working with other musicians?

I’m particularly proud of this new album, Musica Ritrovata, also because it brings together a “dream team” of amazing musicians, from world class players to young emerging artists who will become world class soon, thanks to their growing international recognition. They are Michele Marelli, the world’s greatest virtuoso of the basset horn; Emanuele Torquati, “Champion of Contemporary Music” according to the New York Times; the historic Trio Debussy; Simone Beneventi, prominent percussionist of the contemporary scene and Leone d’Argento at the Venice Biennale; Gianluca Cascioli, who doesn’t need to be introduced, having been conducted by Abbado, Muti, Mehta, Gergiev, Maazel and Rostropovich. And there is also Balint Karosi, winner of one of the most important international competition, the BACH Prize in Leipzig; Michele Lomuto, Berio’s favorite trombonist since the Eighties; the award winning Quartetto Lyskamm and accordionist Ghenadie Rotari, already a protagonist at Carnegie Hall and Berlin’s Philharmonie despite his young age.

I must say that I have always been lucky to find excellent interpreters for my music, and of course it’s a pleasure to work with people who are able to add something valuable to your work, so much so that in my opinion they too are part of the compositional process, always. The challenge, therefore, is to live up to them, to stimulate them adequately, to make them feel co-authors.

I experienced this situation very well working with Baroque and Renaissance musicians, for the composition of contemporary music with period instruments, another passion of mine: in that case the composition was really born instantaneously, making everyone creators of a shared magic.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Um… Maybe that’s when you start getting a fair amount of criticism and negative reviews? More seriously, success for me is reaching a condition where you create art with a good balance between the freedom to be yourself, following your ideas, and the expectations of others (audience, whoever commissions your music, critics, performers… ) who are important actors in the sociology of art and culture, also because they give you direct or indirect means to realize your ideas.

What is your present state of mind?

Curious, and intoxicated with new projects and ideas, as always!

Gianluca Verlingieri new recording ‘Musica Ritrovata’ is available on all platforms from 4 February 2022.

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Photo credit: SERGIO BERTANI