Ksenija Stevanovic: The Vicarious Lives of a Dead Artifact (ENG)

2009

On Alessandro Bosetti’s “Gesualdo Translations”

It all begins with failure. The woman is unable to sing. She says: « I can’t do it. » Already from the start we are at an impasse. 

I wondered why a gesture of ineptitude is placed at the beginning of « Gesualdo Translations ». It almost functions as a signpost for the listener: the translation itself is dysfunctional, humble and spurious. This discrepancy affirms, however, the vitality and pertinence of the translation. Italians have a saying: traduttore traditore, an alliteration in the form of a pun that captures the essence of the translation process. 

To begin with, there is no translation without failure and, moreover, there is no translation that does not take into account the passing of time. Time encapsulates the impossibility to know. Therefore we cheat. 

As a musicologist, I consider the works of Gesualdo da Venosa to be the sacred pinnacle of musical art of the Late Renaissance. He was bold and forward-looking, unabashed by the constraints of the epoch in which he lived. This is just one side of the coin, the other being his infamous biography: a prince, a recluse and a murderer. A biography that resonates strongly with the idea that history is fundamentally a progress of cultural time, wherein the past imprints the present, whose modernity and power had not been recognized as such. This idea affirms our supposed privileged position as interpreters of the past: from our vantage point, we can recognize an anomaly. 

When we long for the beauty and fullness of the past, we are actually talking about our desire to colonize the past for our own purposes. In a similar way, this colonization has always been an inescapable corollary for the marginalized and less powerful on this planet. 

I asked myself: Could I listen to « Gesualdo Translations » and abandon the interpretative sediments that arise from its title? Can I forget Gesualdo’s past?

And this is what I heard speaking to me:

First, there is the city – 17th century Naples – where Gesualdo lived, and the present day Naples. These cities are somehow the same and completely different. The dialogue between the song and the city starts immediately after the woman has declared that she will not be able to sing. From the room, we step into the city in a gesture of real beginning and of creation. There is the city itself with its traffic and people, their dialect and mores, their « neomelodica » music and humor. There is a priest whose sermon introduces Itene, o miei sospiri, the lament of a beautiful and pious woman. There is pain and there is desire, as strong as ever. There is Alessandro’s idea of the city as a « magical, baroque, surreal place » that he encounters and juxtaposes with Gesualdo’s madrigals.  His walk is fun and funny; there is color; situations and atmosphere are mirrored onto each other. He is a translator on the move playing tricks and games. Female voices intone Io tacerò, ma nel silenzio mio while the city hums around them, accompanied by sounds of stonato basso continuo. The keyboards turn to mimic the street organ. Alessandro combines the voices – one voice tries to sing all the vocal lines of the polyphonic madrigal – creating strange, bastardized, liminal versions of Gesualdo’s originals, tentacled portraits of their ancestor’s musical DNA. The chromatic interplay of madrigals from books V and VI, opens the space for unstable pitch relationships and the sonic richness of a natural, untrained voice. These are the magnificent voices of random citizens of Naples in search of the melodic essence of the madrigals, never succeeding, always failing. And yet, they are all the more true to music as a communal form of expression than the virtuosic realm of early music performance. This bastardization is revealing – it exposes cultural frictions between the strata of a divided contemporary society, between the past and the present, between the noble musica ricercata and the very essence of urban popular experience. At the same time, an uncanny feeling arises from the use of language: the juxtaposition of everyday Neapolitan dialect with Italian madrigal poetry as presented within the context of a work of art. Bosetti creates a vocabulary of sorts, a dictionary of his sonic dream translation of Gesualdo. The most frequently occurring word is morte: it comes from the past, from the somber world of the late 16th century master, from his macabre universe built around love, obsession, desire, despair and annihilation. The female voice sings Dolcissima mia vita, a che tardate la bramata aita? This morphs into a segment punctuated by bird song and harpsichord tuning, creating a delicate universe of its own within the piece and yet, reaching beyond. 

The world of « Gesualdo Translations » is not a “lost Ark” for the listener. On the contrary, what we hear is very much alive. It is gioco e luce. It presents us with an interplay of the ephemeral and the unskilled, stemming as much (maybe even more) from the present as from the totality of an imaginary past. « Gesualdo Translations » may be heard both as an utopian examination of the sonorous environment in which we are living, and as an instrument of reconciliation and dialogue. While listening to it, I understand that we humans – alive, dead or yet to come – may not understand each other, but the ongoing communication, the translation « between the times » is important for any future commonality to emerge. Here, everything – the voices with their natural impurity, the improvised feel of the instruments, the sonic rhythm of the city – misleads us and nevertheless, it succeeds.

In this way, the opening failure to sing, to reproduce the sacred text, is essential to the rest of the work. Indeed, we cannot sing the madrigals as they were sung at the time of their genesis. We can only understand through our own, removed, experience. We project and we cheat. Bosetti in « Gesualdo Translations » has created a multi-layered commentary on a dead artifact, creating, in the process, a dialogue that extends through the ages.

© Alessandro Bosetti / 2021