The Music of Ceramics after Giuseppe Chiari

Conversation between Mauro Castellano and Roberto Costantino

Giuseppe Chiari, Pezzo per pianoforte e ceramica

Roberto Costantino: Giuseppe Chiari taught us to get rid of any and all prejudices against music. Music can be anything, you can Play a room and Play a city just like it is possible to play a piano with your elbows.
You interpreted Pezzo per pianoforte e ceramica (Piece for piano and ceramic), composed for us by Giuseppe Chiari, by setting up a prepared piano, meaning a piano in which to insert geometric volumes in terracotta – a hemisphere, a pyramid and some parallelepipeds of various sizes. You ended up utilising these ceramic pieces, following Chiari’s instructions, for the purpose of “not controlling” the sound of the piano, that is altered in this way, following the long-standing avant-garde tradition that starting from John Cage makes its own impression on a lot of radical music from the second half of the twentieth century. Here, however, the constraint is that only ceramic material be used as the complementary and “disturbing” element of the piano.

Mauro Castellano: In the twentieth century, the concepts of sound and noise were abolished and became simply sonority. This refines our perception.
Luigi Nono equated this listening with our interior world and invited us to exteriorise interiority. Listening to contemporary music is quite useful for this reason. It’s clear that it depends on our expectations. It’s a matter of continuing to sharpen our concept of perception. As far as Beppe Chiari is concerned, the prepared piano comes from this need and refers to John Cage.
John Cage’s first prepared piano came from a practical need. Cage had to create a composition for percussion but, for economic reasons, there were no percussion instruments nor percussionists and so he prepared the piano by putting in screws, bolts and rubber pieces. Cage indicates in the score where he wants the screws, bolts or rubber pieces to go. Instead, with Giuseppe Chiari, the composition is even more open because he decides where those ceramic objects should go, but does not anticipate what sonorities will be produced. From a musician’s viewpoint, both Cage and Chiari pose some problems. That’s because you study the piece at home, then when you play it on the prepared piano you have to disassociate the fingers from your ears, because you perceive sounds that are different from those that you listened to. For example, Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes are rather peaceful scores in G minor that, however, with the prepared piano, produce sonorities similar to a Balinese gamelan. The same thing occurs with Chiari’s ceramic pieces, that are like objets trouvés.
Cage pointed out that preparing a piano is the same thing as picking up shells on the beach. It’s very important to clarify this concept: people have to open up to a new concept of listening. This is countered by the mass media, because all the advertising and music that we hear on television is still written based on a tonal system that was in vogue up to the early twentieth century.

Roberto Costantino: When I think of ceramic, I think in generic terms about its materiality. Vice versa, the interest regarding the immaterial effects of ceramic leads us to the sound that resides in an immaterial aerial space. In other words, in this last case, we are interested in the shape of the manufactured piece – I’m thinking of the beautiful pictograms elaborated by Leonardo Gensini  on his ceramic pieces – but also and above all in the effects that the manufactured piece can produce. Instead, you Mauro, with your musical composition Brevi onde di ritorno  in a duet with Leonardo Gensini and his painted and played ceramic pieces, take us from the immateriality of ceramics to its evocation, through the transposition of sounds of ceramics into a piano score that makes them resound.

Mauro Castellano: In the twentieth century, musicians deciphered what was written while listeners were asked not to listen passively. Our willingness to listen means that our listening is always based on thinking, and therefore the act of composing and playing and the act of listening become creative. For what concerns Leonardo Gensini, there are some nice vases, but they make noise if struck. The inescapable Cage said that when an object is struck, what resounds is its soul. This also occurs with Leonardo’s ceramic pieces, and the piano, as a percussion instrument, does nothing other than echo these sounds. They are particular sounds because, by producing sounds that are not in tune and, as such, cannot be transcribed onto the staff, we end up going beyond the tempered system.

Roberto Costantino: Trisha Donnelly, as the base for her work, used Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C-sharp minor in which the piece begins with chords in fortissimo which are then repeated during the prelude characterised by an agitato tempo.
Trisha Donnelly thought of “preparing” a piano in which she inserted ceramic pieces and bells that exaggerate this fortissimo and agitato tempo of the prelude. In my opinion, Donnelly’s piece is wonderful and enjoyable because of how it “exaggerates” the timbres of the work by Rachmaninoff.

Mauro Castellano: John Cage, upon entering an anechoic chamber, meaning an acoustically insulated room, perceived two sounds, one high and one low. After leaving the room he asked himself what these sounds were: one was the sound of his nervous system, the other was the sound of his circulatory system. In other words, absolute silence does not exist, because even our body makes sounds.
I have always said that the most beautiful melody in the world is the calm breathing of a woman you love sleeping next to you at night. Breathing that is rich in harmonic, wandering and almost imperceptible sounds that, however, are at the origin of the timbre and that the Germans, in a more precise manner, define as Klangfarbe, i.e. “colour of the sound”.
In my opinion one of the most radical avant-garde compositions, written in the seventeenth century, is “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” by Monteverdi. In this work, Monteverdi accompanies the Canto of Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso by plucking the strings directly on the instruments, a bit like what occurs with the prepared piano, a choice that is accepted naturally because it is used to accompany a text.
Not many know that there is a historical precedent of the prepared piano, which dates back to 1712. Joachim Wilhelm Rust wrote a sonata for harpsichord in which the harpsichordist has to pluck the strings, always within the canons of the period, but the freedom to do so. Then, in the twentieth century, for Cage, Bussotti, Chiari and many others, it becomes normal to pluck the strings inside a piano. It is no coincidence that I mentioned Cage because the Americans don’t have the long-standing traditions that we do. The piano is no longer the instrument of Schumann or Chopin. And Cage, just like a child, has discovered what is a kind of new toy. And for a child, it doesn’t mean that one finger corresponds to one key – one finger might correspond to two keys. This is the idea that Giuseppe Chiari explained and interpreted so perfectly. Just think that at one time it wasn’t allowed to use the thumb to play the piano. There is a rather famous painting that shows Mozart playing the piano in a duet with his sister and the thumb is clearly resting under the keyboard. Chopin got around this problem and in fact was the one who invented the movement with which the thumb slides and creates a legato between the black key and the white key. The crux of the matter is that all the great composers have always been avant-garde composers. And this is the reason why we still listen to them today.

Roberto Costantino: Nicola Cisternino  draws on cuneiform script, one of the first forms of writing used for various millennium in the near East, in which special pointed pyramidal marks were engraved on clay. Cisternino had the ceramist Ylli Plaka make clay tablets that resemble archaeological artefacts: his musical writing develops in this way, on these terracotta supports, instead of on the traditional paper. This, I believe, is the most interesting aspect of his work, reutilising a long-lost primordial script as musical notation.

Mauro Castellano: The title of the work by Nicola Cisternino is Preghiera per Baghdad (Prayer for Baghdad) and was composed when the Americans were bombing the Iraqi capital. This work is a prayer for all the civilians who died and whose deaths were hidden from us.
Cisternino uses this type of cuneiform script, but how does a musician have to react to this type of writing? There is no predetermined code but there is writing. Thus, the musician is free to associate a sonority or a way of playing to each mark. The musician can decide that a certain mark is to be decoded with a particular sonority, based on his conscience, on his life’s experience, and on what such a mark suggests to him. But this is nothing new because Botticelli already said the same thing: “if you look at wet stains on a wall, our brain will still see landscapes”. It’s what we do as children: the easy-chair always has eyes, the washing machine a mouth…

Pietra Ligure, 12 August 2013