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Italian Sound

Issue cover
Cover Caption: Luigi Russolo amongst the intonarumori (noisemakers) in Milan, 1913. Image via
Deanna Shemek and Arielle Saiber, EditorsRossella Carbotti and Aria Dal Molin, Managing Editors

Sound and Sense

Fifth Elements: A Research Program in Italian Sound

What can it mean to talk or write or shout about "Italian sound"?  I search for answers to this question in the history of Italian(ate) opera, dance, cinema, anthems, popular songs, taxi horns, violins, headphones and mopeds, as well as the braying of Neapolitan donkeys, the clanking of Roman lawyers abuzz in procession, the vociferations of Futurists at war, and the silence of Etruscan funerary sculpture.

Leopardi and the Power of Sound

This essay (a translated, updated version of the last chapter of my book, Leopardi Sublime: la poetica della temporalità) examines Leopardi's conception of the role of sound as a major poetic device (a figure of sound).  His writings on how sound produces poetic meaning and affect,  scattered throughout his notebooks, Lo Zibaldone, have much in common with later 19th and 20th  century poetic and linguistic investigations into what Roman Jakobson will call "the poetic function" or the paradigmatic axis of language use.  For Leopardi, sound produces meaning in a more direct (or non-mimetic) mode than lexemes, and is inherently connected to his theories of the indefinite, memory and recurrence, and "il vago."  The recurrence of a sound is therefore both the subject of many of his idilli and also a principle structuring device. In the concluding section, the essay turns to to Paul Valéry's theories of poetic sound, and to several lyrics of William Wordsworth, in order to initiate a possible "conversation"  between these three poets.

Three Poems by Giacomo Leopardi

Translation of three poems by Giacomo Leopardi.

Translator Patrick Creagh and the Sound of Italy

This is a brief introductory essay about the life and achievements of translator Patrick Creagh (1930-2012), whose previously unpublished versions of three of Giacomo Leopardi's Idilli appear in this volume of CIS devoted to "Italian Sound". Includes commentary on Creagh's ideas about translation and the challenges of translating lyric poetry.

Come un fulgore azzurro: Umberto Saba and the Verdian Sound of Italy

This article probes the political contours of the fascination that the Italian poet Umberto Saba (1883-1957) had for the composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).  Born in Trieste in the late 19th century, when the city was still a province of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Saba aspired to participate in the Italian literary tradition. Saba profoundly identified with Verdi, whom he saw as a symbol of Italy itself. Through a close analysis of the textual and intellectual influence of the composer on Saba's poetry, I argue that Verdi is decisive in Saba's struggle to shape his Italian national identity.

Compositori, impresari e pubblico nell’Anello di Ugo Fleres: Un ritratto del mondo musicale operistico alle soglie del Novecento.

The purpose of this research is to examine the relationship between literary and musical forms in a novel by Ugo Fleres, l’Anello ( 1898). Fleres, italian writer, Pirandello and Luigi Capuana’s friend , tells the story of Ottavio, mediocre composer, who inherites by a suicidial musician a drama, L’Anello. He decides to stage the opera and lives by proxy the experience of artistic perfection, pretending to be the author of this brilliant composition ; the Anello, wagnerian drama, shocks the public at first but,  after a while,  it arouses an incredible enthusiasm. Ottavio, unable to repeat the work that he stole, characterized by  incomparable modernity,  composes wearily trivial operettas, and he turns into the distorted doppelgänger of an ingenious artist. On the other hand, in his desperate attempts to create, the main character gets to futuristic solutions, that seem to overcome the antithesis among sound and noise as it will be placed by Luigi Russolo in his manifesto L’arte dei rumori, years later. The novel focuses the mechanism of musical composition and  the interaction between word and sound, taking inspiration by Wagnerian total art but, at the same time, denying it in the deeply divided self of Ottavio. Equally significant  in the story  is the representation of  contemporary Italian music and opera world, seen in all its aspects – public, singers, journalists, managers - , with a wickedness that eliminates definitively the last traces of Romantic idealization. 

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Dacia Maraini's Norma '44: An English Language Translation

This is the first English-language translation of the play Norma ’44 (1986) by Italian feminist writer Dacia Maraini. Norma ’44 is the story of two Jewish Italian women who are forced to stage a production of Norma while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War Two. Starting with the title itself, the play incorporates references to the famous bel canto opera Norma by composer Vincenzo Bellini and librettist Felice Romani (1831). The plot of Norma ’44 clearly parallels the plot of Bellini’s opera, with the characters of the play; Karl, Sara, and Lidia, directly mirroring and echoing the protagonists of the opera; Pollione, Norma, and Adalgisa. Karl puts a recording of the opera on the phonograph and from that point forward each actor intermittently sings along with his or her respective part. Maraini structures the play as a series of rehearsals for the ultimate performance of Norma for Colonel Saidler, a performance that never takes place.

Female Voice in Dacia Maraini’s Norma ‘44

This essay provides an introduction to and interpretation of the play Norma ’44 by the Italian feminist writer Dacia Maraini (1986), translated here for the first time into English. Maraini’s play focuses on the story of two Jewish Italian women imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War Two. Starting with the title itself, the play incorporates references to the famous bel canto opera Norma by composer Vincenzo Bellini and librettist Felice Romani (1831). The plot of Norma ’44 clearly parallels the plot of the opera, but Maraini’s play additionally engages with the predecessor text through a layering that is meta- and inter-textual, historical, and mythical. The characters of the play; Karl, Sara, and Lidia, directly mirror and echo the protagonists of the opera; Pollione, Norma, and Adalgisa. Not only do they interact in the present time of the play in ways that unconsciously imitate the plot of the opera, they also concurrently rehearse and stage the very same scenes from the opera. This produces an uncanny mirror-like and echo-like effect of which Maraini’s protagonists become conscious of only once it is too late to change the course of the dramatic action. While the opera can be seen as the structuring device that informs the tragic action of the play, it serves as much more than just a plot device. Specifically, the opera functions in the play as a musical and cultural subtext that evokes the distinct power of the female voice and the strength of female solidarity and friendship. Although the principal events of Maraini’s drama echo to some extent those of Bellini’s tragic opera, Norma ’44 is not merely a modern adaptation of the opera as much as a feminist take on some of its key themes. With its powerful female protagonist and matriarchal milieu, the opera by Bellini and Romani has an arguably proto-feminist orientation rare for its time, providing a compelling foundation for Maraini’s contemporary work.

Pinocchio, ossia C’era una volta un pezzo di legno Dal capolavoro letterario alla mia opera per bambini

La sfida: trasformare un meraviglioso capolavoro della letteratura, il “Pinocchio” di Collodi, in un lavoro teatrale musicale per bambini (e adulti), impiegando solo un narratore/attore e un clarinettista. Le difficoltà nel lavorare su un personaggio diventato figura universale la cui storia, densa di simboli, è sia favola per ragazzi che allegoria della società moderna e delle sue contraddizioni. Il lavoro su un testo intenso che esplora tutta la gamma delle emozioni umane. Il delicato filtraggio per arrivare ad un lavoro teatrale di circa 60 minuti che evidenziasse i significati più profondi di un faticoso “cammino verso la crescita”. La scelta di “anticipare” il finale ad un momento speciale, concludendo sulle parole poetiche e amorevoli che un figlio, Pinocchio diventato ragazzo, rivolge a suo padre: “ Appoggiatevi a me, caro babbino, e andiamo, andiamo... Cammineremo pian pianino, e quando saremo stanchi ci riposeremo...”. E insieme (ancor più difficile!): scrivere una musica che sapesse “creare” la scena ed essere Teatro, che fosse tutt’uno con il testo ed esprimesse ciò che le parole non possono. Musica affidata ad un clarinetto, strumento qui adatto a creare un mondo di suoni ed emozioni fortissime, con la complicità di quella simpatica “follia” che molti clarinettisti hanno. Come tutto questo è stato da me affrontato per giungere all'opera teatrale Pinocchio, ossia C’era una volta un pezzo di legno.

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From Brighton Beach to Bellagio

American composer Elliott Schwartz, born and raised in Brooklyn, discusses the various ways in which the legacy of Italian music has shaped his stylistic development. He also recounts the circumstances which led to his 1980 resident fellowship at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, and the creation of his string quartet "Bellagio Variations." Schwartz's essay includes a brief non-technical analysis of the quartet, and links to a recorded performance.

Futurist Sound

Futurism in Venice, Crisis and “la musica dell’avvenire,” 1924*

In January 1924 the latest incarnation of Futurist music theatre, Il Nuovo Teatro Futurista, began a twenty-eight city tour of the peninsula. The Venice stopover, at the Teatro Goldoni on January 25, prompted a flurry of media activity. Press reports, manifestos, and one-off periodicals advertized and then discussed the performance. Central to this Futurist-controlled discourse was the notion of la musica dell’avvenire, one that built on recent technological developments to provide a way out of a perceived crisis of musical language. The Futurists positioned themselves as inhabiting a moment of transition: soothsayers of a musical future that no one else could imagine. In this article I argue that these three aspects—Futurism as a media enterprise, la musica dell’avvenire, and cultural crisis—share a common impulse, as offshoots of contemporary concerns with media and technology, culture and posterity, and language and crisis, all of which had a pervasive import in postwar Italian culture. I suggest that the Futurists sought to control media networks, so as to take charge amid a culture of crisis. Yet in the process, their rhetoric of extremes saw a disavowal of all they were most reliant on—something that in the end proved their undoing. In particular, their futurology was contradicted by a reliance on older media, genres, and sounds, which revealed them to be an embodiment of the crisis from which they were trying to detach themselves. I seek to excavate the aesthetic and historical stakes that contributed to this deep-seated contradiction, and to illustrate the predicament at the heart of postwar 1920s Italian culture: of forging a path to the future amid the ever-present ruins of the past.

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Futurist War Noises: Confronting and Coping with the First World War

The aim of this article is to examine the Futurists’ understanding and interpretation of war noises and sounds before, during and after their First World War combat experiences. Firstly, the article examines the Futurist interest in war noises prior to the outbreak of the First World War, secondly, it analyses the Futurists’ experience of war noises during their time in combat, focusing particularly on the figures of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, and Luigi Russolo. Finally, the article examines how the Futurist pre-war pronouncements on war noises offered them a ‘road map’ of how to behave in battle and provided them with successful strategies for coping with the intensity of life in the trenches.

Il suono dei futuristi: la musica in «Lacerba» e altre polemiche musicali (1913-1915)

This paper analyzes the reception and discussion of the new futurist music in the Florentine journal Lacerba, generally considered one of the most important avant-garde Italian literary journals in the early twentieth century. As is well known, materials published in journals help us understand the climate and the spirit of a period in its making. However, such sources must be carefully contextualized by taking into account both the authors biographical backgrounds and the historical and social milieu of the journal. This article discusses and contextualizes the thirty musical contributions that appeared in Lacerba as well as other articles that were published in the same period in the journals La Voce and Il Marzocco, which were involved in an ongoing controversy with Lacerba. Between 1913 and 1915, figures such as Marinetti, musicians Francesco Balilla Pratella and Francesco Cangiullo, painter-inventor Luigi Russolo, music critics Giannotto Bastianelli and Fausto Torrefranca, all actively participated in the raging controversy on Futurist sound and its highly innovative character. Each of the above, as a creator and/or observer, contributed to the reflection on the quality of sound, whose fruits – though mainly theoretical - broke new ground for the development music in the twentieth century.

Fascism and Sound

Da Yeah a Ueee senza passare dal MinCulPop - Strategie di coesistenza e resistenza del jazz italiano durante il fascismo.

The present article aims to explore the ambivalent relationship between jazz and Italian authorities during the fascist regime, with a particular focus on the case of Alberto Rabagliati, the singer/actor who, along with other acts such as Trio Lescano, had managed to mediate American jazz with the Italian melodic tradition, creating an insitutionally-acceptable genre. During the years of the so-called MinCulPop (the ministry of propaganda), several jazz events and musicians were banned, on the basis that they would promote foreign and, particularly, negro cultures. Other songs, from other genres, the so-called canzoni della fronda, were also censored, when the authorities would perceive that the lyrics would contain anti-fascist messages. In this essay, the author suggests that a particular canzone della fronda (surprisingly untouched by the MinCulPop) was actually a swing number by Rabagliati himself: Quando canta Rabagliati. In it, it is argued, the singer (and the song’s authors D’Anzi and Galdieri) provide a subtle yet accurate description of a real jazz performance, literally under the nose of the fascist authorities (the song was the signature tune of a successful national radio program). Far from being a political type of protest, the song is here analyzed as a statement of artistic resistance: the resistance of performing a certain genre of music in a country where such genre was prohibited.

‘100% Italian’: The Coming of Sound Cinema in Italy and State Regulation on Dubbing

During the critical transition from silent to synchronised sound cinema, various commercial and politically oriented solutions were adopted in Italy to cope with the challenges posed by the advent of sound film technology in domestic screens. This paper sets out to describe how in the first half of the 1930s the fascist government intervened to solve the question of audible foreign languages in Italian cinemas, and to limit the economic expansion of foreign distribution in the national territory. I shall observe the position taken by the translation of foreign cinema within the increasingly nationalistic environment and the function of dubbing in reinforcing the cultural and linguistic standardisation promoted by the regime. Economic protectionism, political film censorship, cultural propaganda and social concerns related to Italians’ literacy will be discussed as important factors leading to state intervention in the development of the dubbing practice.

Transnational Pop

Transnational Neomelodica Music and Alternative Economic Cultures

In the 1980s, another popular Neapolitan vocal music scene emerged that today thrives in a position of ambiguous alterity to the once-dominant “traditional” music industry that thrived in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century. La canzone neomelodica, or neo-melodic song, is produced, distributed, performed and consumed in an alternative political economic culture, where the so-called formal, informal and illicit economies overlap. The neomelodica music scene constitutes an alternative music industry that encompasses a range of affective-aesthetic sensibilities and economic practices that cause friction with dominant attitudes in Naples regarding “Neapolitan culture” and dominant aesthetic and economic norms performed by the mainstream Italian music industry and its publics. Unlike classic Neapolitan song, neomelodica song has enjoyed national and transnational success largely limited to circulation among southern Italians living throughout Italy, in parts of Europe, and in North America. We describe the neomelodica music scene from an aesthetic and moral/political economic perspective. We analyze how the unique ethico-aesthetic qualities of the neomelodico milieu and neomelodica song’s relationship to other Neapolitan and Italian music genres have conditioned neomelodica song’s national and transnational articulations while at the same time transforming transnational neomelodica music into a unitary and fragmenting repertoire of southern Italian identity.

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“Italian Tango” Between Buenos Aires and Paolo Conte

This essay will attempt to disentangle the “DNA” of the intricate music of tango in order to reveal the Italian strand of its genetic sequence, following it trans-historically and trans-continentally from its inception in Buenos Aires to its contemporary return to one of its ancestral homes, Italy. Outlining a little-studied version of “Italian sound,” in the following pages I will aim to unearth the Italian roots of tango in Argentina, which require a thorough description because they are often overlooked, by considering some textual examples. I will then follow the tango’s long branching out to Italy, through a brief treatment of the successful arrival of this music on the peninsula and through consideration of some of its most original all-Italian versions, the tangos by singer and songwriter Paolo Conte. The perspective offered here will be that of an overview covering a century of “Italian tango” and will especially privilege the connection between the tangos of Buenos Aires and those of the Asti-born Italian composer.