The 79-year-old Italian composer, artist, filmmaker, opera director, and all-around avant-garde polymath Sylvano Bussotti graced San Francisco with his presence last week, culminating in a Thursday evening dedicated to him at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
It started with a showing of his newly restored 1967 silent film "Rara" with the composer playing piano onstage from a hand-made score as the mood struck him, while watching his own movie that featured a vanished hippie artistic generation in Rome. The effect was mesmerizing and a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime experience.
On the rooftop waiting for the film's start, I asked various Thursday SFMOMA partygoers if they were fans of Sylvano Bussotti, and most of the young people had never heard of him. Finally, I talked to Wood Massi, a San Francisco City College Music Department Professor, and he said, "YES! I wrote a dissertation on modern graphic notation in music, and Bussotti is one of the greatest and most important experimentalists in notation in history." See below for an example.
In response to an email, Massi wrote to me after the concert:
"As you could probably tell, I was transfixed watching Sylvano Bussotti, one of the two or three greatest composers from Italy in the middle and late twentieth centuries and today, fingering both his hand-made score and the piano as he and we watched his 1960s film together."
"It is a graphic and homoerotic tour de force starring himself and lots of hunky Italian young men along with Cathy Berberian (below, with Bussotti in the 1960s), perhaps the most renowned Italian performer of avant garde music from that same era."
"It was also a treat to see in the film photos of my late friend John Cage (below left). Cage's score "Aria" which he wrote for Berberian is a modern classic, and the notation is as striking in its way as Bussotti's. Cage did work in the U.S. similar to Bussotti's -- graphic music notation, extended performance technique, enhanced performer choice, etc. -- and they both were gay, though Bussotti seems to have been more "out" about it."
"I once asked Cage in an interview if he was gay. He said he was "Merce-esque," a reference to his life partner the great choreographer Merce Cunningham (above right). Another time I asked them both before an audience at UC Berkeley about their personal lives at home in New York. The audience gasped and Cage simply answered that he did the cooking and Cunningham the dishes."
Because I planned the evening stupidly, I wasn't able to stay for the concert after the film that began at 9:15. My stomach was growling, there was nowhere to sit, and cranky is not the right mood to be listening to new music.
Richard Friedman, the KALW radio host, was at the event, and even though he agreed that he probably would have enjoyed "Rara" more if was a gay male, he stayed for the whole concert and found it completely worthwhile. His report:
"Actually, you should have stayed, although I will admit I had the same urge to leave when you did. Eventually (around 9.45) most people had left. The last pieces were (to me at least) very exciting. Especially the three two-piano pieces with Chris Jones and Ann Yi. I just hope that they record those pieces sometime soon. Video would be even better because their performance was very well choreographed!"
Professor Massi also reports:
"I did stay for the complete concert, and it was also an intense process, more arduous than the film screening. There were a variety of pieces and the concert went on until about 11:00, though the audience became less and less problematic as it thinned greatly by the end. Bussotti's music is largely atonal and without periodic rhythm and can sometimes seem too much like the same thing over and over. More than the stalwart rhythm and harmony used in traditional and popular Western music, Bussotti uses a kaleidoscope of texture, timbre, dynamics, and contrast to create form. It takes some getting used to, but the surrealism and the purity of the music can put the listener in a sort of trance -- if it doesn't drive you from the room."
"My favorite piece was "Geographie Francaise" from 1962. Bussotti performed in this piece, speaking from a script in beautiful French with a total command of the pace and tone of the language and the music. His memoriam piece for Berberian carried a similar feeling. The ensemble piece, "Autotono", for nine players offered up a large and fascinating variety of sound, while the closing piece "Tableaux vivants avant la Passion selon Sade" from 1964 interpreted one of Bussotti's graphic masterpieces with two pianists crawling all over each other and their pianos to provide an almost orchestral range of sounds."
"Bussotti seemed pleased to be performing and to be recognized by the audience for the world-class artist that he is. It was deeply gratifying to me [Massi is pictured above] to be able to whisper a quiet "grazie" to the maestro as he left the performance space, a thank you for his inspiring bravery in art, image, and sexuality."
Also due gratitude is composer Luciano Chessa (above left), who has known Bussotti for decades, and who was largely responsible for the film restoration of "Rara." Chessa also curated the event, working with the adventurous musicians of sfSoundGroup, who all deserve congratulations.