Perfect Sound Forever


by Daniel Varela
(August 2014)

Sounds join images of moving thoughts, resulting the same use of - even evanescent - inner images.
Looking for a communicative language that non refuses complexity.
Harmonic and dynamic layers. Pedal and resonances strata. Extremely short forms, because extension is boring.
Fusion and confusion of styles, genres, atmospheres but from internal world: an insightful game (rebounds of sense) homogeneously blurring, connected from underground, useful to communicate senses density.
Avoid the virtuoso temptation, looking for intimacy and concentration.
To be always (only) music.

(Girolamo De Simone, Desiderata. In: Ice- Tract. Musici per Immagini. Edizioni Curci, Milano, 2000.)

Italy has been a rich, musical land for centuries with different cities having their own scenes and these centers have relevance for developing many kinds of music. Contemporary and experimental music is just a part of the phenomena but it is an important way to follow some aspects of tradition that in Italy is particularly present in the work of many contemporary artists who have never denied its relevant role. We could argue that cities like Venice have Luigi Nono, Rome had outstanding figures like Giacinto Scelsi and Gruppo Nuova Consonanza (even American expatriate ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva, aka MEV), Milan has the RAI Sonology Studio which bred the remarkable Luciano Berio's electronic work and also the city was very important for John Cage (and during the seventies was the place in which recording label Cramps published experimental works by Cage and Fluxus artists like Walter Marchetti and Juan Hidalgo) and then there's Florence with its scene of experimental composers like Giancarlo Cardini, Daniele Lombardi, Pietro Grossi, Albert Mayr and the Fluxus legend Giuseppe Chiari.

Naples was not the exception even when sometimes, it is seen as a "not metropolitan" city by some in northern Italy. With a long and rich art history (Greek and Spanish periods played a role in his cultural history), Naples also has well kept secrets related to contemporary and experimental music. One of them is freelance, self-taught composer Luciano Cilio (1950 - 1983) who created impressive, delicate and one of a kind musical works with plenty of simplicity and an evocative even melancholic character. His work could be associated to a new tonal approach and a sort of new impressionism with restrained, static and even minimal style and was very influential for younger composers like Girolamo De Simone. In fact, De Simone could be seen as a disciple of Cilio, following some of his ideas (in fact, he took part in some fragments of Cilio's recordings published as Dell'Universo Assente by Milan label Die Schachtel in 2004 as expanded version of Dialoghi del Presente in 1977, the only recording available made by Cilio). De Simone was not only following after Cilio, he also expanded this compositional language of simplicity, restriction, small scale forms and even beauty, an aesthetically doubtful category but certainly true for De Simone's work based on a carefully written consonance in which it is possible to find moments of tension and mystery also.

De Simone met Cilio in 1982 and also knew John Cage in 1985 who was with Merce Cunningham in Naples at the performance of one of his Events. Such important impressions were some of the roots of De Simone's interests as well as his contact and studies with composer and pianist Riccardo Risaliti, who displayed a personal language with roots in romanticism (almost scriabinian), tonality and certain neo-Satiesque vein that put him near the margins of some minimal music. With Fels and Cilio, De Simone made his premiere in 1982 at a concert in Villa Pignatelli, a magnificent domus pompeiana from the 19th century.

De Simone was also an outstanding author and musicologist who, starting in the 1980's, played an important role in spreading news about new music activities via Konsequenz, a magazine started in 1994 and an association funded in 1985 devoted to printed editions, recording and concert production. In fact, one of his first written work was his book of essays Le Parole Sospese (1988, "Suspended Words") in which he started to develop his thoughts on intuition and composition through concepts like "Art as Unreachable Truth But Communicable" and "Art as Non- Communicable Truth But Accessible" and loneliness and death of the work, a domain in which the intangible, elusive and fragile character of a music falls into the unreachable realm.

Despite these theoretical but poetry-like statements, De Simone also wrote firmly grounded investigations on music. His monograph editions on composers Pietro Grossi and Giuseppe Chiari are strong examples of his focus of interest that is also an abstraction on these resources related to his personal music, which is not visibly related to Fluxus (Chiari) or research laboratory electronics (Grossi). This is also an interesting fact about his music because its simple, tonal and at times music-box color is not related to a kind of naiveté but is more a result of a concentrated process that does not ignore John Cage or other extreme avant garde experiments.

"Pilar" (1996) - with a version for piano and electric guitar from 1998 - is a good example of lyric Italian minimalism which has an usual and discrete sense of drama and melancholy. Minimalism here is not a flat, phasing, systemic, or mathematical expression. Changes are due to chordal sections or electric guitar melodies (even with interesting distortion effects) that resemble gestures from Harold Budd's music as well as certain song forms from Michael Nyman or Wim Mertens' music in a Mediterranean key. Harmonies are a balance between impressionism and jazz that returns to slow movement, pauses and breathing in which beauty (even as an elusive or subjective category) is not a denied concept.

This same kind of climate is possible to find in the later piece "Flobert" but it is more restrained due to the use of few notes, horizontal line textures and homophony even with some resemblance to Arvo Pärt's "Fratres." This piece was written after the tragedy of Flobert - a factory of fireworks in Sant'Anastasia at foot of Monte Somma near famous Mount Vesuvio, the Pompeii volcano - where in 1975, an explosion left a dozen of dead people. One of his important works is the cycle Ice-Tract (1997 - 2000), a group of pieces based in images. "Scheggia d'assenza" let us see again the effects of Cilio's music through which open chords and far away sounds with subtle dissonances bring a haunting and calm soundscape. Again, it would be possible to trace some parallel with Budd's music without the synthesizers or the electric resonance cloud effect. From the same cycle, "Gi – Random" is a piece in E-flat minor with a series of arpeggios linked to a Debussyan sound world and moments of Arabian or Muslim/North African scales and harmonies. Gradually, a sense of drama is found due to a strong chordal movement on the left hand but again, a subtle final in suspension arrives. "X-Time" is a slow evolution of arpeggios grounded in E flat minor that reaches to a fast waterfall of sounds recalling varied forms of minimalism, not in a repetitive-motoric vein but more as a harmonic and melodic knitting work. "Mnemo" is also based on first arpeggio section, a middle in a 6/8 delicate impressionist waltz and a final section based on left hand arpeggios and right hand scales in a sort of perpetuum mobile. In these works by De Simone, it is possible to find common ground with other forms of small scale European minimalist composers (mostly Italian) like Luca Miti, Enrico Piva and Gigi Masin among others who all use repetition and at the same time, a delicate lyrical and even romantic pianism that could be seen as a local Italian color.

Many of De Simone's pieces like "Terra" ('Land, Earth or Ground'), part of "La memoria e l'incanto" ('Memory and Incantation') reinforces a sense of wandering in a music that has some contact points with impressionism and at the same time, with new tonalisms like Californian Cold Blue composers but without the connection with jazz chordal tradition because there is always an evident or subtle connection with European classical music history.

In "Border Music" (2000), De Simone played a compilation of different composers including his maestro Eugenio Fels and others like successful new tonality Italian master Cecilia Chailly. After some time, in 2003 came the CD Napoli Non Canta ('Naples Doesn't Sing'), which has an impressive version of Cilio's "Sonata Number 4," a 'microsonata' written in 1978, a truly piece of jewelry never released before. Also another piece of important research from those times was a De Simone compilation entitled Metamorfosi di Canzone Napolitane (2006, 'Metamorphoses of Napoletanean Songs'), an aesthetic statement about many of his continued investigations into traditions.

One of the most significant works by De Simone is "Shama" (2008) a cycle of pieces with plenty of charming delicate sounds, deep breaths, a meditative sense of time and an abstract melancholy which converges into a blurred field that the composer searches as a motto of his work. The composition is based on an ancient concept:

"Listening (Shama) is a wrong word.
It has the meaning of acceptance
in the sense of science and knowledge because all the perceptions are knowledge."
Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed. XII Century

"Questa Terra" ('This Land') is a small-scale form with unusual mystery and a sound reminiscent of jazz and an impressionism language. Other compositions like "Campane O Della Solitudine" ('Bells of Loneliness') takes four notes based on bells sounds that slowly falls into a series of electric chordal layers in the midst of which there are sparse delicate piano notes. Budd's 'lovely music' concept and Brian Eno's ambient world is evident through tonal ambiguities and wallpaper-like effects. De Simone developed once more in this seminal work some enlightening concepts like 'Border music,' an idea about music composition between categories, a sort of an open music in a solitude and creative atmosphere and - in an Italian critic chronicle - a metaphonic construction taking the piano as a platform with suspenseful, non percussive sounds, and sound layers coming back to simple molecular elements. With nostalgia and homage and steps beyond maestro Cilio, De Simone offered an impressive album.

Another important aspect in De Simone's work is his research of ancient traditions in religious music of the vesuviano region. Hymns to different virgins, churches and processionals display slow movement Baroque treatments, counterpoints that take shape as variations on dance rhythms or theme and variations form based on melodic-rhythm transformations and evolutions. Some of these principles are the basis of another remarkable work in De Simone's career: his Trilogia Bianca (developed during some years around 2010 and 2012 as part of longer work in progress digging passionately in the Partenopean traditions). Trilogy is formed by CDs Ai Piedi Del Monte ('At the Mountain Feet'), Inni e Antichi Canti ('Hymns and Ancient Chants') and Di Transito e d'Assenza ('Passage and Absence'). The first one is a sound impression based on research about music and musicians near Mount Vesuvio, the famous Pompeii volcano. Based on ancient religious hymns and images at the foothills and mountains in villages and cities like Somma Vesuviana, Sant'Anastasia and Pollena (the place where the famous Gaetano Donizetti in lived and composed). As in many contemporary art situations in Italy, these expressions shares spaces and are concurrent without a sense of contradiction. Liturgical chants again mixed with gestures of austere romanticism or fragments of "figurative minimalism" (let us say including melody and accompaniment and a degree of simplicity easy to reject from traditional contemporary avant garde visions). Inni e Antichi Canti is a collection of antique religious chants from church services or popular religious festivals. Inspiration was taken in part from Byzantine monk Giovanni Mosco, readings from the Desert Fathers (the earliest Christian monks inhabiting the desert land of the Middle East from the end of the second century AD onward) and from other sources related to ancient Christian traditions and the crossroads between Western and Non Western spirituality. In some pieces, De Simone used a spinet tuned in an antique Syrian system reaching a hybrid with Baroque, impressionist and minimal elements. Di Transito e d'Assenza is dedicated to the memory of his mother and again, De Simone shows an exquisite sense for miniatures. ScarlAct is remarkable due to the austere use of electronics and piano processing reaching a strong effect of expressive palette of colors until a clear reference to a "ghost" form of Scarlatti (curious people could look for strange connection to Akira Rabelais' Spellewauerynsherde, built up from found sounds, field recordings of traditional Icelandic accapella lament songs recorded in the late 1960's or early 1970's). Different music and ideas by Luciano Cilio, Cornelius Cardew and Astor Piazzolla are not so evident in De Simone's choices on this record. Short pieces with the common interest of melody, modalism and static moments (Cardew's number is "The Croppy Boy," based on an Irish song), Cilio's haunting harmonies and Piazzolla in a more lyrical vein, a melancholy character closer to chanson française and expanded harmonies of jazz than tango in its typical rhythmic-dance form.

In 2013, De Simone wrote "Il soffio sofferto. Per Luciano Cilio, nel trentennale della scomparsa (1983 - 2013)" ('Breath Exhaled, For Luciano Cilio in the 30th Anniversary of his Passing'). This was a new reflection on breath in an intimate, silent and austere setting displayed in sound microforms, in this case based in a text of Alfonso Gatto,that was reduced to simple air particles.

"Frammenti angelici" (2013, 'Angelic Fragments') returns to chordal writing with slow arpeggios and sparse single notes in middle and high piano register. Just one fast note motive in the lower register changes the sections of the composition. In a third part, it is possible to listen to a different waltz and popular (real or imaginary) folk forms that arrives later to an impressionist accompanied melody.

Another interesting point in De Simone's work is a sequel from ScarlAct that is Jommelli Granular (2014) in which materials from XVIII century composer Niccolò Jommelli are transformed through granular synthesis procedures. Original sound matter is taken from a clavichord due to the special vibrato quality after strings are played and due to this concept, a kind of sublimated vibration produces a haunting sound world with very slow movement. Using different filters, De Simone mixes the digital sounds with a small Moog model with two oscillators that reaches into a soundscape with eerie consonances. In a performance like "I Cinque Sensi" (2014, 'The Five Senses,' for Cantine Olivella), it is possible to find arpeggios (abstract from Jommelli granular, the last album, Naples 2014, Konsequenz), romantic triadic harmony, slow movements with sparse movements of right hand melodies evolving to subtle dissonances and bridges that open melodies in suspended ways with Satiesque elegance (also could think in people like Catalonian genius Frederic Mompou), bi-tonal ambiguity and great moments of sound contemplation. Sometimes, De Simone pays some tribute to Eno's sound world as heard in "sguardo su quel che rimase" (2014, 'Looking about Rhyme'- abstract of Sogni, Esorcismi 2008), an electronic abstract piece with breath sounds illustrated by images of churches and ruins from Naples countryside. "Organum" (2014) is of course based on forms of ancient polyphony in which suspenseful chords praise slowness and miniatures. It has blurred Satie from Rosecrucianism period and rubati movements that resembles a touch of romanticism and some recalling of Gurdjieff and De Hartmann hymns.

In pop writing, chronicles usually describe the work of musicians as comparisons between their styles related to other in a supposedly similar vein. It is a common exercise when journalists has a lack of technical music language and formal music training and writes more as a sort of illustrated fan or clever witness. Nevertheless, it could be useful to use this old strategy to recommend delicate music by De Simone for those who are interested in an impressionist and warm musical language that could be linked to composers that have some interest for consonant new music (with some of them having worked or shared events with De Simone): Michael Nyman, Tuxedomoon, Brian Eno, Roger Eno and less-well-known-in-America composers like Giancarlo Cardini, Daniele Lombardi and Antonello Neri. It would be possible to argue for a wider interest for a younger, refined pop-educated and hipster generation with a fondness for sounds from interesting artists working with new chamber music based in abstraction of song forms like Hauschka, Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Richard Skelton, Julia Kent, Hildur Gudnadottir, Sylvain Chauveau, Johann Johannsson or Max Richter and many other very active in the European scene. The point is that - trying to go far away from comparisons again - Girolamo De Simone's music implies a rich and formal traditional background that does not ignore achievements and compositional methods of radicals like John Cage, Giuseppe Chiari, Pietro Grossi or the great Luciano Cilio. He explores a path in which extreme compositional methods are processed, abstracted, distilled and concentrated in a way that could be simple in aspect but strong in construction and beauty.

For those who can read Italian, details on Girolamo De Simone's written and listening
work please follow the links:

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