Ksenija Stefanovic on Alessandro Bosetti’s “Gesualdo Translations”

It all begins with a failure. The woman is unable to sing. She says: “I am not going to make it”. In the very beginning there is an impasse.
I have been wondering why the gesture of inaptitude is placed at the forefront 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”, and this alliteration in the form of a pun, captures the essence of the translation process. To begin with, there is no translation without failure and there is no translation that does not take into account the passage of time that encapsulates the impossibility to know, and therefore we cheat.
I as a musicologist see works of Gesualdo da Venosa as a sacred pinnacle of music art in the Late Renaissance. He was somebody bold and forward looking, unabashed by constraints of the epoch he lived in. This is one side of the coin of his opus, the other being his infamous biography of a prince, recluse and a murderer, which is heavily influenced by the idea that history is fundamentally a progress of cultural time, wherein the past imprints on the present, whose modernity and power, had not been recognized as such. This idea affirms our privileged position of interpreters of the past and our supremacy in comparison with the past, since our time is the most advanced and we have the vantage point from where we can recognize the 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 the colonization has always been the inescapable corollary for marginalized and less powerful of this planet.
So, I asked myself: Could I listen to “Gesualdo translations” and abandon the interpretative sediments that arise from its title? Can I forget its past?
And this is what I heard speaking to me:
First, there is the city – 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 is starting immediately after the woman has declared she will not be able to sing. From the room we step into the city in a gesture of real beginning, of creation. There is city itself with its traffic and people, their dialect and mores, their “neomelodica” music and humour. There is a priest whose sermon introduces Itene, o miei sospiri where a woman is beautiful and pious, and there is pain and 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 colour, mirroring situations and atmosphere. He is translating on the move playing tricks and games. Io tacerò, ma nel silenzio mio intone female voices while the city hums around them, accompanied by sounds of “stonato basso continuo”. The keyboards turn to mimic street organ. Alessandro combines the voices – one voice tries to sing all the vocal lines of the polyphonic madrigal – creating strange, bastard, liminal versions of Gesualdo’s originals, tentacled portrait of their ancestor’s musical DNA. Chromatic interplay of madrigals from books IV, V and VI, opens the space for unstable pitch relationships and sonic richness of a natural, untrained voice. These are magnificent voices of random citizens of Naples in search of the melodic essence of madrigals, never succeeding, always failing voices. And yet, they are therefore more true to music as a communal form of expression than the virtuoso space of the early-music performance. This bastardization is revealing – it reveals the shock of cultural exchange between the strata of contemporary divided society, between the past and the present, between noble musica ricercata and the very essence of the urban popular experience. At the same time, the feeling of uncanny comes from the “usage of language” – the juxtaposition of Neapolitan everyday life dialect and Italian madrigal poetry presented within the language of an artwork. Bosetti creates a vocabulary of sorts: a dictionary of his sonic dream-translation of Gesualdo. The most dominant of the words is “morte”, coming from the past, from the sombre world of the late XVI century master, from his macabre universe built around love, obsession, desire, despair and annihilation. Dolcissima mia vita, a che tardate la bramata aita? sing(s) female voice(s), morphing into segment punctuated by bird song and harpsichord tuning, creating delicate universe on its own within the piece and yet, excaping from it.
World of “Gesualdo translations” is not the lost Ark for the listener. On the contrary, what we hear is a life in full presence. It is gioco e luce. It gives us interplay of ephemeral and unaccomplished, stemming as much (maybe even more) from the present as from the wholesomeness of imaginary past. “Gesualdo translations” is heard as an utopian examination of the sonorous environment we are living in, and as a means of reconciliation and dialogue. While listening to it, I understand that we – the past and present of all of us – may not understand each other, but the ongoing communication, the translation “in between 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 – betray and succeed.
In this way, the opening failure to sing, to reproduce the sacred text, is vital. Indeed, we cannot sing the madrigals as they were sung in the time of their birth. We cannot understand them but as our own, removed, experience. We project and we cheat. Bosetti in “Gesualdo translations” has created a multiple commentary on a dead artefact, creating in that process a vibrant community of everyday and contemporary listeners.
©  Ksenija Stefanovic, 2014.

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