Arykanda, Turkey. Photo Susan Levenstein
The ritual cleansing begins. A countdown to the end of work, the end of time, the beginning of the "big sleep." Some say it was the goddess Diana’s idea, but most attribute this wise custom to Augustus Imperator – how well the labor unions of ancient Rome bargained back then for a long vacation in mid-August. So the last hoes, hammers, drills, sickles, pitchforks and saws are laid to rest, the work place meticulously put in order, all the refuse and debris hauled out for collection; homes give up their broken refrigerators, cracked marble tables, flea-ridden dog baskets, ancient computers and wayward fax machines, rusty ironing boards and mouse eaten roller skates, oh yes, broken skis and terminal potted plants. The home vomits itself clean and pure. It too rests. Human labor at last lifts its eyes to heaven in a sign of appreciation, and the holiday begins in silence. In this stillness nothing moves except "mad dogs and Englishmen." The theories of Newton, Einstein, even Xenakis are momentarily rendered useless, for particles, mass, velocity, time, and space do not exist here - save for the lesser species like cicadas or tour guides.
Yes, the Feriae Augusti, now known to the Italians as Ferragosto, is the theme of this work, but my process of sonically describing and distilling this hallowed day of rest, a project of uncertain goals and dimensions became ever more elusive - how can one, how does one translate stillness into sound? So I decided to create another Ferragosto, or "Un altro Ferragosto" which would be part dream, part cinema verité, part autobiography, part none of the above, yet all a celebration of sounds which I have recorded over the last 35 years on or around the 15th of August, mostly in Italy, but also in other parts of the world. Above all I wanted to feature sounds which either have an inherent component of silence or those which reflect non-motion in motion.
From the very start I was confronted with a massive amount of material (20-25 hours of recorded tapes including documents of much of three Ferragosto days: 1967 in La Serra di Lerici in Liguria, 1991 in my present residence in Poggidoro, 35 km southeast of Rome, and this year in Rome), so my first structural thoughts were to abandon all complexity and artifice and simply present a large portion of a very simple and authentic "documentary" recording of my landlord’s family having a traditional Ferragosto meal. Over this I would record myself composing music at the piano, which on any given day would be what I do in my studio-apartment above theirs. And through this natural counterpoint of events (them at lunch and my music making) I imagined a kind of "binaural" image of Ferragosto as in a film or video where we see the lives of two families at the same moment – one traditionally sitting with the extended family at the table and one, respectfully ignorant of the holiday, pursuing his creative life in music. The above scene does in fact become a very featured element in this work, but I was inevitably drawn to paint a larger, more fanciful picture and bring in some marvelous sound events that are indigenous but invented, such as the gigantic wall of cicadas, as well as elements from distant lands, like the improbable concert of muezzin from Istanbul where I did indeed record on or about August 15th some five years ago. Other principal moments include my former companion Edith Schloss obliviously singing Ravel’s Bolero as she began her day of watercolor painting in the farmhouse overlooking the Bay of La Spezia. From the same location is presented for the first time in my work a sound that has fascinated me for years and which I have recorded on many different occasions: the harmonic hum of the ferry boat which daily crosses from Porto Venere to Lerici and beyond – this floating cushion of melodic overtones drifts in and out over the whole bay in a daily maritime concerto. Now this amazing "music" has finally found a permanent place in my own music. The most cinema-verité moment is Susan reading me the newspaper La Repubblica dated 15 August 2002 on a park bench at the Pincio in Villa Borghese in Rome – to our amazment an article on an upcoming concert of mine appeared in that edition. Then there is a fantasy chorus of mating elk, which in the Western states of the USA traditionally begin their rut in mid-August. There are some other dream elements which appear as if out of nowhere, such as a recording of a station conductor in the Berlin U-Bahn, and various global tour-guides in St. Peter’s in Rome and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
In order of their appearance I will list the sound events in order and approximate time of their appearance: The opening sound – itself an invitation to the show – was made by a Sri Lankan sword-swallower in Campo de’ Fiori, who calls "guarda, guarda…" ("look, look here…") before he begins his excruciating bit of street theater. This leads to a concert of the "end of work" using every imaginable kind of tool and machine sound, closing abruptly on a single motor of a fishing boat going out in the black of night (07:00). This is superceded by the stillness of the "harmonic" humming of my beloved ferry boat from the Bay of La Spezia, highlights of the newspaper reading, and then straight to lunch with my landlord’s family (09:30) – about 12 people – which is to my ears anyway an unedited symphony of incomprehensible language color, food and joy … Upstairs, at the piano, I am in the process of composing my own music, now called "Inner Cities 2," which is also a piece about stillness. There are some strange interruptions, including the sound of thousands of Canadian geese taking flight, but essentially the country lunch sequence continues until it is overwhelmed by a gigantic concert of cicadas (24:00) and a subtext of lovemaking. Following next on the heels of the sounds of Istanbul’s Muezzin (26:30) is the massive sound of thousands of tourists milling around under the magnificent dome of Santa Sofia in Istanbul (32:00). This roar gives way to motionless drone of the Porto Venere ferry. From here Edith, her son Jacob, and the dog Caspar take a walk on the Rochetta (34:30), and Edith paints, sings, and dialogues with a trapped fly in the window (41:00). This concludes with the elk mating fantasy (44:55) and a return to the lunch table at Poggidoro (46:30), with the countermelody of an after-lunch game of billiards where in utter silence the balls create a stochastic music of space and probability which, together with the intrepid fly in the window, ends the piece joined by a seldom heard American Maritime signal – a wave-activated whistle (transposed downwards) which I recorded nearly 20 years ago for my "Maritime Rites Radio series" off Sandy Hook in the Ambrose Channel (the entrance to the New York Harbor).
In truth it has been years since I have composed a piece of "musique concrète" as pure and direct as this; in the process I have rediscovered those luxurious spaces, luminous spaces, in all ambient music where very little or even nothing happens – where significant and insignificant sounds are equals. Today in a world moving at out-of-control speeds and densities, uncomfortably wired to our cell phones and batteries of artificial intelligence gear, we exalt our conquest of "real time," yet no one has time to listen to anybody else eat a plate of holiday fettuccine, or the music of a boat which may take 30 minutes to cross the bay, or the reverberation time emerging from the visions of a pre-modern religious architect. So it gives me much pleasure to return from the digital insane asylums of instant sampling and listen with you to a work which reflects both the pace and flow of nature and its endless distribution of free music.
Special thanks to my creative alter ego – Domenico Sciajno who assisted me in editing, mixing and recording this work and to Goetz Naleppa for the original inspiration.
concept and composition
Un Altro Ferragosto (2002), for tape. First broadcast Deutschland Radio Berlin,