Stefano Battaglia: Re: Pasolini (ECM 1998/99)

Re Pasolini

Stefano Battaglia
Re: Pasolini

Stefano Battaglia piano, prepared piano
Michael Gassmann trumpet
Mirco Mariottini clarinets
Dominique Pifarély violin
Vincent Courtois cello
Aya Shimura cello
Salvatore Maiore double-bass
Bruno Chevillon double-bass
Roberto Dani drums
Michele Rabbia percussion
Recorded April and July 2005, Artesuono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Stefano Battaglia

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) was one of the twentieth century’s great auteurs. A true interdisciplinarian, he activated discourses of post-colonialism (The Savage Father), politics (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), and literature with comparable fervor. These honeycombs and more shaped the hive of his restless craft through an imagination of superimposition and mélange. In his book The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, scholar Sam Rohdie likens prototypical works such 1967’s Oedipus Rex (incidentally, my first experience of Pasolini as director) to archaeological sites. We do well to analyze them as such, brushing away the dirt of history ever so carefully so as not to damage a single bone. For pianist-composer Stefano Battaglia, the challenge of fleshing out this double album was therefore not to make him musical (Pasolini was notoriously meticulous about every aspect of his mise-en-scène, including sound) but to make him walk again. And surely, within the wide angle that is Re: Pasolini, we can sense his footsteps.

For the first half of the program, Battaglia is joined by Michael Gassmann (trumpet), Mirco Mariottini (clarinets), Aya Shimura (cello), Salvatore Maiore (double-bass), and Roberto Dani (drums), with whom he spins a veritably orchestral web in “Canzone di Laura Betti.” Like the album as a whole, it is a love song (in this case, to the eponymous actress and filmmaker) that unfolds compact wisdom. At its heart is a jazz trio, around which trumpet and cello spin their filaments—interpreters between worlds. As the first of many nods to the silver screen, it sets in motion Battaglia’s greatest strength: namely, his instinct for development. Like a film itself, the program has a beginning, middle, and end, and opens on this facial close-up with all the possibility in the world at its feet.

One face becomes two in “Totò e Ninetto,” a sonic fable in which clarinet carries with it the fragrance of a cutting room. The intonation and togetherness of the musicians here are such that one feels them to have arisen from the ground fully ripe. Two faces become many in “Canto popolare,” a nod to the Italian folk traditions that Pasolini so adored and the recession of which he lamented. For these few minutes, at least, their spirit flourishes anew. All the more appropriate that this should be the trio, unmasked. Maiore’s bassing is particularly gorgeous, at once anchoring and decorating the pianism with undulating care.

Gassmann’s trumpet, sounding like Enrico Rava’s, piles on the nostalgia in “Cosa sono le nuvole,” a song co-written by Pasolini and Domenico Modugno (of “Volare” fame) that sets up the poetics of “Fevrar.” Maiore again astonishes, content as he is to blend into the background, building off Battaglia’s lines in shadowy emphasis, sometimes surfacing as he does here with quivering little cries that seem to say, “I am here and my melody is now.” Chromatic shifts in the surrounding terrain catch us just before we fall off the edge. Literary impulses continue with “Il sogno di una cosa” (named for Pasolini’s sub-proletarian novel) and flit once again in “Teorema,” a plodding and morose twist of emotional lemon.

Act I ends with “Callas” and “Pietra lata,” the former of which brings heartfelt undercurrents to glowing fruition. A tribute in both feeling and practicality, it comes to us revised from an earlier, 1984 piece (in Battaglia’s words: “a simple music box melody inspired by the ascending vocal exercises used daily by singers”). The final tune is a chorale for Rome, a cave where shadows do not move, frozen in time like the stalactites of Battaglia’s slow-forming crystal.

The second disc shuffles personnel, Battaglia now flanked by Dominique Pifarély (violin), Vincent Courtois (cello), Bruno Chevillon (double-bass), and Michele Rabbia (percussion). The bulk of this parallel chamber setting consists of eight “Lyra” pieces, all of which deepen Battaglia’s engagement with Pasolini the poet. In various combinations of violin, cello, and piano (plus the occasional percussive spotlight), they build a storehouse of freely improvised mementos. Like an attic, they grow darker as more memories are poured into it. The string players tend toward the outer edges of their instruments, while Battaglia treads the middle path, forging music that sees itself reflected but does not recognize its own face.

These pieces, scattered throughout, give context to the weighty impressionism of “Meditazione orale” and “Scritti corsari,” both attuned to an adamant politic. Another diptych of sorts (if not for “Lyra VI” between them), in the form of Battaglia’s solo pieces “Epigrammi” and “Setaccio,” tells the story of Pasolini’s formative years. The dialogic elements implied therein flourish tenfold in “Mimesis, divina mimesis,” melting down Apollo and Dionysus in a crucible of prepared piano and percussion. Yet another pairing rolls the end credits. “Ostia” names the town where Pasolini was murdered in 1975 and evokes his last moments before slippage. It expands the molecules of the “Lyra” pieces to planetary scale, drawing wobbling arcs in a surreal yet naked comprehensibility. All of which brings us to the beginning, as it were, with “Pasolini.” As the first piece Battaglia ever composed in this vein, it is the seed of all that precedes it. On its tomb: a bouquet of black roses, each petal forged of gut and flesh and fronded with lens flares of the soul.

It would be easy to say that Re: Pasolini defies description, when in fact it yearns for it, if only because its honoree built a life around speech, character, and action—vital aspects each to our shaping of words. Despite, if not because of, its elegiac finish, the album confirms of all that is good and beautiful in life. It is the comfort of humanity, of communication, of sounds and the inclinations behind them, an all-encompassing embrace of something invisible yet common to it all. No small feat, to be sure, in light of Pasolini’s psychological knots. Battaglia and his allies have crafted a genre unto itself, a paragon of audio cinema that was a classic before it was even recorded. It is a pair of lips that passes us in the night like a kiss that might have been, but which instead hobbles on crutches of wordless keep.

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