Francesco Filidei: The Italian Composer who Revived Opera
He is considered one of the most significant Italian composers of our time. His award-winning music has been performed by world-class orchestras. In 2016 he was named Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
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Speaking with Francesco Filidei is like hiking up a winding mountain trail that opens up to brisk views of cloudless sky and clear air. The complexity of his reasoning suddenly melts into an image starting from which everything seems clear. Francesco does with words what he looks for with his music: listening and understanding are born and rooted in the pauses and moments of silence with which he comingles his responses. Concepts of time and body often return in his words and are laced up in his music, because “every piece of music is like a life in miniature: it was born, it lives, and it dies in the flow of time.” The problem at the end of the day is this, as Filidei explains:
“What are we doing here? Music is my investigative tool. What am I, what is music, what is a piece of music? Where was it born, where was I born? Where will it die, where am I going to die? There are many ways of exploring these questions: physicists, mathematicians, philosophers do, but music is different: it flows through time and makes you live it, perceive it physically, not only rationally. It enters your body with its vibrations. It’s not just an abstract or mental experience.”
Francesco Filidei is considered one of the most significant Italian composers of our time. Born in Pisa in 1973, he graduated from the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence as well as from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, the city where he lives. His award-winning music is performed by famous orchestras all over the world. In 2016 he was n o m i n a t e d “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Ministry of Culture.
How did you become a musician?
When I was listening to a certain kind of music, the emotion was so strong that I then tried all my life to understand how music was able to provoke these sensations inside me. From there, I became a musician and a composer. My first piano teacher, who at the time treated me very harshly, was teaching music to all my cousins. My experience with piano starts there. Then, you know how Tuscany is, on one hand, you have a communist father, on the other, your mother goes to church: you try to reconcile these two things and you find yourself accompanying the choir at mass and playing the organ when there are communions, masses, funerals.
From making ends meet with masses and funerals, how did you build an international career?
I remember when I first met Salvatore Sciarrino. I saw him pass me by and I was asking myself: “Is it him or not?” He was looking very much like the cover of the record I had bought. My heart was racing; he was standing with other professors of the Florence Conservatory and when they said his name, I realized it was really him. One evening, while I was in the conservatory, I received an anonymous envelope from a secret fan: inside, there were four million lire, a considerable amount of money. I used that sum to finance my first year at the Cité des Arts, because I was penniless at that time.
Have you ever found out who the secret fan was?
Yes, he was a professor in Architecture and Restoration in Florence. He was living where the sequel to the “Silence of the Lambs” was shot. Anthony Hopkins knocks on his door in one of the scenes. He was a man of old times; he had been a partisan. During the evenings, instead of watching TV, he was going outside to see plays or to listen to concerts, including mine
Salvatore Sciarrino, one of your teachers, defined your artistic journey as the attempt “to imagine a music that has lost the sound element, so reduced to its skeleton.”
Salvatore Sciarrino used this definition when I was writing music just by rubbing my hands on the instruments. Back then, I wanted to completely exclude rationality. I was approaching the instrument in a physical way. I thus discovered that it was generating sounds. By pushing on the sustain pedal of the piano, I was getting it to speak on their own. From there, the first period of research was born. I was trying to reveal the structure behind the sound. That also led me to think of the architecture of music in a more meaningful way. Look at the stylist Yohji Yamamoto: he often works with black clothes, because they highlight the shape of the body. Similarly, in music, if you take away the harmony and leave the skeleton, the rhythm if you want, you can see the time goes by in a clearer way, and you can accentuate its flow more sharply.
From that point your music has evolved. How would you define this evolution?
I then decided to add the sound element that was missing in my first work, also because I was getting older. For me, it was like Lent. In that very first period, I was stronger, maybe, and the absence of the sound element made me want it even more. Thanks to that experience, I can now better control something that, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to really have in hand.
Opera is an art form that is undeniably linked with Italy. How did you start writing opera?
If opera recalls our tradition, it is then a matter of roots. We go back to the point of trying to figure out who we are. Music immediately reveals your origins; for example, you can understand from my music that I am an Italian composer who settled in France. Opera was born in Italy and it immediately identifies us. Music is not just sound. Music is the color of time and you can paint time even with gestures and scents. Music is the organization of these fragrances, of these expressions, of the feeling of the time that goes by. You can use gestures without sound and build them as if it were music and, thus, perceive the music.
Your first opera is named after Giordano Bruno, the Italian Dominican friar and philosopher who was found guilty during the Inquisition for heresy and sentenced to death in 1600. Why did you decide to tell this story?
Nanni Balestrini and Stefano Busellato proposed this subject to me at the same time. So, I said to myself, I have to write it down. The opera consists of twelve scenes, six for the trial and six for philosophy. Nanni Balestrini, who I met in Paris, had already written an initial collage of the philosophical scenes for Hans Werner Henze. I started from there.
Your second opera, “L’Inondation” (The Flood), took three years of preparation, 17 weeks of teamwork and six weeks of rehearsals. How was it born?
It was born because Joël Pommerat, the librettist, had agreed with the Opéra Comique to create an opera. They proposed several composers, but none of them was satisfactory for him. The director made him listen to the recording of Giordano Bruno. Pommerat had already written, in theatrical form, “Ça ira (1) Fin de Louis,” on the French Revolution. It ends just before the guillotines. He was not able to imagine the moment of terror in a theatrical form and he started thinking, also by listening to Giordano Bruno, that music could help him build the scene he was looking for. But we then chose another subject. “L’Inondation” is based on a short story by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
Your work was performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In the pictures, the 6,134-pipe organ looks really majestic.
Yes, it is one of the most beautiful organs in the world. I rehearsed for three consecutive nights in that hall. When I started the piece, I was motionless, I slightly pushed my foot on the lowest note and the whole room echoed, vibrated. Impressive infrasounds.
Your piece “Sull’Essere Angeli” (On Being Angels), performed by the flautist Mario Caroli, was inspired by the work of the American photographer Francesca Woodman. How did her pictures influence you?
In her photographs there is a strength, an ability to immediately identify the image, but a lot of fragility, too. This fragility is part of my piece. When writing the music, I imagined a flute that produces a melody, a kind of line that doesn’t know where to go. Naked, every now and then, this line comes into contact with the music produced by the orchestra, the “clothes” that dress it every time in a new way. However, at the very end, it remains even more exposed and fragile.
Francesco stops talking for a while. Behind him, Carlo Laurenzi, the electronic composer, is crossing the room. While interviewed, Francesco Filidei is in fact inside a recording studio of IRCAM, the Parisian Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music, founded by Pierre Boulez. The electronic composer starts experimenting with sounds. In the frame of the computer screen, Francesco keeps answering; he is dressed with a black high-necked sweater that, just like the dark clothes of the stylist Yohji Yamamoto, seems to highlight the shape of his reasoning. “We are working on Edgar Alan Poe, “The Masque of Red Death.” We integrated it with Dante’s “Purgatory”: the seven rooms of “The Masque of Red Death” were replaced by the seven sins. The librettist is Hannah Dübgen. We are preparing this piece for “Donaueschingen,” the most important festival dedicated to contemporary music in Europe.” It is the embryo of a life in miniature, a new piece of music. We will listen to it, when complete, in the flow of its own time.