On the tenth anniversary of his death, Fausto Romitelli (1963-2004), considered one of the most original musical figures of recent times, is at the centre of numerous musicological studies and international concert programmes. His music by now features in the repertoire of many ensembles both in Europe and abroad. Instrumental groups from the United States, Canada, South Korea, Russia, Argentina, Israel, and Hong Kong regularly perform his compositions. His video opera An Index of Metals has had more than 50 performances around the world so far.
For Romitelli’s music the Ictus Ensemble (conducted by Georges-Elie Octors) is considered the historic performing group. As well as having contributed greatly to raising awareness of the composer’s music, it established a very special relationship with the composer which was much more than just a professional tie. We spoke about Romitelli with Jean-Luc Plouvier, the ensemble’s pianist and artistic director.
Could you tell us how and when your first meeting with the composer took place? Did your great empathy with the composer come about right from the outset?
I met Fausto Romitelli in 1997 at Royaumont Abbey during the premiere of his work Lost by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne de Montréal, with the voice of Marie-Annick Beliveau. He was 34 years old. His name was beginning to take on a certain aura, and he was causing a bit of a stir. Some said that he was pretentious and unbearable, but he was also the protégé of a number of important French composers (Levinas, Dufourt, Grisey), who treated him like a son. He was a kind of "favourite rebel". The director of Royaumont, Marc Texier, had keenly urged me to get to know him: "There’s something there for you," he told me.
I shared with Marc a taste for pop music, but also a strong interest in surrealism and its surrounds: Bataille, Artaud, Jarry, Sade — in short, something like a "literary culture of vice" which was notably lacking in the contemporary music scene of the time. Romitelli’s music had electrocuted me at a single blow, leaving me with a fixed conviction.
There was something there that I had never heard before, a funereal colour, a powerful impression of exhaustion (a music "beyond fatigue"), a sound that was terse and dirty, but in the service of a perfectly sublime harmony. And then there was this Hammond organ and its awful vibrato: a touch of bad taste for the initiated! I shook his hand and we became friends. He was in fact pretty arrogant, as I had been warned, a bit of a megalomaniac, a provocateur, but in an extremely humorous way that totally won me over. (You don’t like people for their virtues, as you know, but for the art with which they take charge of their faults. Romitelli was extremely able in this regard!).
In 2000 at the Strasburg Music Festival you presented the complete cycle of Professor Bad Trip, which included the world premiere of Lesson III. What was it like working with Romitelli? Can you tell us something about your experience?
A few months before the premiere of Bad Trip we invited Romitelli to our seminar for young composers in Brussels to assist Luca Francesconi. He improvised a very illuminating conference around his central idea of "generalised filtration", inspired by Marshall Mc Luhan and Guy Debord: the immediate experience of the world, its perceptible pleasure has been totally exhausted – he argued – to the extent that by now everything is filtered, mediated, distorted by technology.
Also, inspired this time by Georges Bataille (the writer who he admired more than any other, I think), Romitelli insisted that art could not resist technological violence other than through a response that was even more violent and artificial.
From that time on he was obsessed with the quest for a new sound that was anti-natural, violent and dreamlike, inspired by rock music, which he called "Trash". The idea of trash, of rubbish, of litter came back to him repeatedly. In fact, as you know, the last notes that he composed, the finale of Index of Metals, were destined to accompany the images of a waste-recycling machine filmed by Paolo Pachini. It’s quite possible that behind Romitelli’s sarcastic arrogance there lay a profoundly melancholy character, preoccupied with the Gnostic idea of the Fall. As if the world had been created by a malevolent god.
But what I’ve said here needs to be balanced by a contrasting perspective. For Romitelli is a paradox: he had an extraordinarily subtle ear, and he demanded of us a precision and sense of balance rather like an orchestra conductor conducting Debussy’s Nocturnes. The question of volume was for him a constant torture: at times he wanted screeching sonorities, and at times a perfectly transparent sound. He wanted to shock and seduce in the same gesture, and he was never completely satisfied with the result, judging it too pleasant here and too harsh there.
This year the festival of contemporary music Milano Musica is dedicating its 23rd edition to Fausto Romitelli, and the Ictus Ensemble is going to inaugurate the festival with Index of Metals together with videos by Paolo Pachini. You performed the world premiere of the work in October 2003 at Festival de Royamont. Can you tell us about this experience?
The memory I have of it is perfectly Romitelli-esque! The premiere took place in Cergy-Pontoise near Paris, a kind of suburban new-city in glass and plastic, bereft of a town hall and bereft of bistros, dominated by a gigantic shopping centre lit up with blue lights, which served as a cathedral. Fausto was in the hospital at the time, stricken by cancer and we were very worried. He had entrusted the realisation of the electronic parts, the arrangement of the score and the overall artistic direction to the tireless Paolo Pachini (the work’s video-creator). The coda of the work was not yet finished, and Romitelli was dictating it to Paolo from his hospital bed.
Our rehearsal of Index of Metals had been very exhilarating, almost too exhilarating... We were a bit overwhelmed by the force of this music (the cellist turned to me at one point during the last movement: "Isn’t it a bit Fascist at times?"). All that had thrown us into a strange and feverish state. I had a raging toothache. A famous sound engineer from Rome, who had been recruited by Pachini, put it into his head to subtly mix the acoustic instruments and the amplified sounds as Luciano Berio once used to do, whereas we wanted to effect a stereophonic diffusion, an out-and-out "wall of sound." I phoned Fausto. "Get rid of him immediately," he said, which we did. The atmosphere was electric.
Can we turn to your collaboration with the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with whom you have realised various projects some currently underway? What has this experience been like? Very different, I image, from a concert understood in the normal sense.
We are currently on tour with De Keersmaeker’s Vortex Temporum, a work for 7 dancers in which we play on stage, in the midst of the dancers, Gérard Grisey’s work of the same name. Anne Teresa has asked us to very slightly amplify the gestures necessary to produce the right sound and the right phrase, but without turning the instrumental play into a spectacle. She has too much respect for music to do that. Her choreographies are always a quest for the musical. In one way or another her dance always speaks of a body captured by the music: subverted by its power and, at the same time, put in order by its numbers.
It’s been 20 years that we have worked together, and we would clearly not be the same without these experiences.
Now I’ve been talking about the body. Fausto Romitelli’s success, to get back to him, is due in large part to the new image of the body that he was able to bring out in his music. His best works reconstitute the exact sensation of a body possessed by forces that are too powerful for it: a body on edge, over-stimulated, incapable of regulating its own pleasure, and which does not encounter the limits of its humanity other than through experiences made up of a mixture of ecstasy and terror.
The body here is ours in the hour of capitalism’s self-destruction. And there you have the reason why Romitelli’s radical music counts quite a few enemies, though at the same time a large club of out-and-out fanatics, whereas the neoclassical compromise is tolerated by everyone, but in the end is not liked by anyone (because it doesn’t tell us anything about our bodies, nor about our souls).
Like all authentic novelties, Romitelli’s music is also a moment of recapitulation: it pushes spectral experiences to the limit, those of Ligeti, and certain works of Heinz Holliger which sing of the sacrificed body. With Romitelli, the "new music" brings to a close its long battle to impose its own legitimacy. It has won.
Romitelli: work list