Re: Pasolini/Stefano Battaglia

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Stefano Battaglia’s 2-disc Re: Pasolini is an ambitious project that seeks nothing less than to provide insight into the life, art, politics, and importance to Italian culture of Pier Paolo Passolini. While Passolini is known in the U.S. primarily as a filmmaker, he was a complex figure in 20th Century Italy and, indeed, Europe itself. He managed to have distinguished careers as a philosopher, linguist, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, painter, actor, and as a political presence in Italy. Originally born in Bolgna, he lived for a period in Casarsa in the Friulian countryside. He also later resided in Rome, a city with which he had a stormy relationship, in part because he saw it as representative of the encroachment of modernity on Italian culture. Pasolini saw the effect of this is a ultimately impoverishing Italian language and culture.

His films represent a visual poetry that stands alongside the work of other great Italian directors such as Rossellini, Bertolucci, and Fellini. Battalgia draws upon the films as well as the poetry, the political tracts, and the life story of this artistic giant, and manages to pull off an amazing work that could easily have sunk beneath its own intellectual weight. That is because Battaglia clearly has a great deal of warmth for Pasolini and much of his work. In addition, as an Italian, Battaglia comes to Pasolini with completely different expectations and a much deeper understanding of the traditions from which his art springs than the average American.

That warmth comes across very clearly across the first disc, which features Battaglia along with trumpet, clarinets, cello, double-bass, and drums. This is music that celebrates some of the more lyrical aspects of Pasolini and his work. For example, the opening number, “Canzone di Laura Betti” is inspired by the actress that Pasolini considered to be a muse. It’s one of the more jazzy pieces included in the entire work, with the brushed drums, the bass, and the trumpet melody line sounding like a modern European jazz group. The cello creates a counterpoint to the melodic statements of trumpeter Micheal Gassmann as well as Battaglia’s own playing. “Toto e Ninetto,” inspired by Pasolini’s film Hawks and Sparrows, is a gorgeous piece that heavily features Mico Mariottini’s sumptuous clarinet work. “Canto Popular,” according to Battaglia, ‘pays homage to certain Italian musical traditions.’ Stefano Battaglia’s piano playing is transcendent here; his classical heritage comes through loud and clear, but he’s able to restrain himself in the number of notes he plays.

All of this first group of pieces is inspired not just by its stated inspiration, but also the poetry and the denizens of the Italian countryside . “Cosa sono le nuvoie” is a piece that Pasolini wrote along with composer/singer Domenico Modugno for an omnibus film of shorts by Italian directors entitled Capriccio all’italiana. Battaglia’s soulful, down-to-earth piano and Roberto Dani’s subtle but restless drum work undercuts the mournfulness of Gassmann’s trumpet statements. Following “Fevrar,” inspired by a Pasolini poem in the Friulan dialect and “il sogno di una cosa,” an idealized portrayal of the farming community in that countryside, we return to Pasolini’s film work with “Teorema,” which pays homage to one of Pasolini’s lightest yet still stimulating films. This is followed by the gentle “Callas,” a jazz trio performance that pays tribute to the Italian opera star, who appeared in Pasolini’s Madea. The final piece of disc one, “Pietra lata” depicts Pasolini’s Rome, a place where the ruins of the ancient Roman civilization were surrounded by the hovels of the poverty-stricken in the underworld of the modern day city.

Stefano Battaglia offers program notes on each piece that reveal much of the source material and other background on the pieces, and he effectively sketches out the inspiration and meaning of much of the material in a paragraph or two. The booklet also features the Pasolini poem “The Song of the Bells” and a series of black and white stills from his films.

Disc two is a completely different affair. This disc takes Passolini’s stormy personal life and political beliefs as its theme and is written for piano, violin, cello, double-bass, and percussion. The warm glow of the trumpet and clarinet are dispensed with, and the music feels more improvisational and unsettled. There are eight pieces of various length entitled “Lyra,” all being interpretations of notes based on the constellation depicting Orpheus’ lyre. “Meditazione orale” is an improvisation by Stefano Battaglia that seeks, I think, to recreate the rhythms and tones of Pasolini reading his own work, in this case a scathing poem on Rome. In the original recording, Passolini recites the piece over music by Ennio Morricone. Here Battaglia tries to depict the imagery of the piece as well as the sound of Passolini’s voice. Battaglia’s piano is front and center on many of the tracks on disc two, but his playing is more chaotic, more of a whirlwind, and here there is less restraint than on the first disc, but all to good effect. The music on this disc never really seems like jazz, instead owing its structure and sound to modern Western classical and improvisational avatn-garde music.

Without question, the centerpiece of this second disc is the penultimate track, “Ostia.” This penultimate piece is the longest by far of any on the second disc, clocking in at over eleven minutes. The piece commemorates Paolini’s brutal murder on the night of November 1st or the early morning of November 2nd. That night, the Feast of All Saints, is a Catholic holiday that celebrates those who have preceded the living into heaven. Battaglia’s notes say that he inteneded this as a “Passion for Pasolini, a soundtrack to the violent and mysterious tragedy which occurred on that night…”

As the piece proceeds, it gathers momentum and becomes more agitated in the chords outlined by the string ensemble as well as by Battaglia’s piano work, but it always maintains a disturbing sense of calmness and of the inevitable. It is followed by the final track, “Pasolini,” which returns to the lyricism of the first disc, but is laced with a heavy sense of loss. It’s a beautiful and fitting conclusion to a program of music that is challenging, beautiful, and stands as a groundbreaking work with respect to its balance of improvisational and modern compositional elements. Closer at most times to contemporary classical composition than to jazz, it nonetheless crosses and obscures borders in much the same way that Pasolini sought to do. It’s a major work that puts Stefano Battaglia into a new realm of artistic achievement.

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