Our Mix event on Sunday 3 April at The Coronet Theatre features a collection of artists handpicked for their experimentation with contemporary music. One is maverick Italian composer Fausto Romitelli, and in this audio-illustrated guide Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, Philip Cashian, delves into his psychedelic and paradoxical style.
“At the centre of my composing lies the idea of considering sound as a material into which one plunges in order to forge its physical and perceptive characteristics”
Fausto Romitelli was born in 1963 and died in 2004 aged only 40, following a long battle with cancer. On Sunday 3 April the London Sinfonietta performs Professor Bad Trip Lesson II, written in 1998-99 for ensemble. Here I focus on another of his seminal works – An Index of Metals – a video opera for soprano, ensemble, multi-media projection and electronics. It was in the final months before he died that Romitelli fulfilled his lifetime ambition, to create “an experience of total perception, plunging the spectator into a magma of sounds, shapes and colours“.
An Index of Metals is a vast psychedelic soundscape that loops and swirls, stutters, accumulates, connects and juxtaposes layers and blocks of sound in a brilliantly unpredictable, but at the same time beautifully controlled way. Romitelli described the piece as a “desire to create a total perceptive experience“, which he undoubtedly achieves.
Listening to the piece through headphones is an absorbing aural adventure with the music constantly twisting and turning in completely unexpected ways, as he combines acoustic instruments with electric guitar, electronics and the female voice. It’s rare to find a composer who can truly combine electric guitar (as used in rock music) with acoustic instruments without falling into clichés, in fact all the music, to my ears, sounds fresh and unpredictable and is unreliant on gestures or ‘common sounds’ we’ve heard before.
The 50 minute piece is divided into 12 continuous sections which until No.10 (Hellucinations) alternate between sections with female vocals and shorter intermezzi. The first and last sections cleverly frame the entire work quite literally switching the piece on and off : No.1 (Introduzione) is a loop, like a record that can’t quite get going, and No.12 (Cadenza) is a slow sustain ( briefly referencing the opening as it starts) that gradually accumulates before suddenly being switched off.
Sections 3, 5 and 7 feature the female voice and are all titled Drowningirl. The music in all these sections is slowly descending, dragging the voice down. In No. 3 from 4’02” listen out for trilling waves of sound slowly slipping downwards.
In No.5 at 1’35”, 2′ 35″ and 4′ 47″ there is a recurring gesture that glissandos downwards acting as a kind of refrain in the movement.
In No.7 at 5′ 08″ you can hear descending patterns in treated acoustic instrumentals that fall into the electric guitar at 5′ 59″.
No. 10 (Risingirl) is the most engaging movement vocally and feels like a point of ‘arrival’ in the piece, almost operatic in places. My favourite moments are the busy flute and voice at 2′ 30″, the two note figure with feedback at 4′ 33″ and the effect of the voice suddenly being heard as if on the radio or distantly at 5′ 06″.
Speaking as a composer, some of the subtle links between sections really impress me and are worth listening out for. Like No.4 (Secondo Intermezzo) which begins with little popping sounds moving between left and right over the electric guitar and slowly changing in timbre and moving into the foreground. By the opening of No.5 they’ve transformed into a heart beat.