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Monday, April 11, 2016

Yerba Buena Center For The Arts Celebrates Italian Musician Luciano Chessa With A Retrospective

Posted By on Mon, Apr 11, 2016 at 1:31 PM

click to enlarge Luciano Chessa - MELESIO NÚÑEZ.
  • Melesio Núñez.
  • Luciano Chessa
Luciano Chessa has had a long, rich career as both musicologist and musician. Now, after releasing six albums and spending thirty-plus years as a composer and performer, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is rewarding him with his own retrospective on April 30.

Born on the Italian island of Sardinia in 1971 to scientist parents, Chessa listened to Giuseppe Verdi records as a four-year-old, which inspired him to pursue a life in music. After attending the Conservatory of Bologna, he moved stateside and earned a PhD in Musicology from the University of California at Davis. Along the way, he was exposed to the work of German-American deconstructionist Geoffrey Hartman, whose aim to blur the line between the artistic and academic showed Chessa that there was an alternative to the dry traditionalism of his younger years. Today, he serves on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and regularly lectures at colleges and universities throughout the world.

In addition to composing and lecturing, Chessa is also a pianist, vocalist, and musical saw and Vietnamese đàn bầu soloist. Classically trained though he may be, his music is far from traditional. It may be easiest to label Chessa’s grating violins and minimalist piano as “avant-garde,” but he seems more comfortable describing the term’s militaristic roots than applying it to his sound.

It is impossible to discuss Chessa without mentioning Luigi Russolo, the subject of his dissertation and a central inspiration of his art. Known for his mechanized instruments called intonarumori, or “noise intoners,” Russolo experimented with noise as a counterpoint to the posh, operatic music that was ubiquitous at the outset of the 20th Century. Russolo’s inventions reflected the harsh mechanization of the industrial revolution, leaving audiences agitated and bewildered. Often credited as the Grandfather of noise-rock and techno, Russolo would point his intonarumori at the audience like “cannons,” going so far as to incite audience riots, as he reportedly did in 1914.
Chessa expanded his dissertation on Russolo into a book and produced a double LP featuring contemporary musicians performing his intonarumori. Yet Chessa aims not simply to reproduce Russolo’s work, but to evolve from it. His goal is to weave a sort of “tapestry” of noise and melody, uniting Russolo’s experimental starkness with the sort of accessible, Verdi-inspired melodies that his Italian professors might have thumbed their noses at. The result is both beautiful and baffling.

Chessa’s latest album, 2015’s Petrolio, reads like a survey of his work to date, and comes with his copious liner notes to guide you along the way. Named for the feeling he had when reading the eponymous last novel of another Italian polymath, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the record jumps styles while remaining true to Chessa’s noise-melody manifesto. In the album’s first movement, industrial clamor mingles with lilting piano and the empty space, offering perhaps the purest example of the Russolo-Verdi dyad. On “Quattro Canzoni Su Testi Dell’autore,” Chessa’s droll Italian vocals narrate driving rhythms and agitated, cinematic strings. Without warning, these give way to Friction Quartet’s furious chamber strings on“ Quartetto No. 2 ‘Delle Bomboniere,’” keeping the listener from getting too comfortable.

The orchestration is the most emotionally urgent part of the record, but Chessa sets it against an English reading of a prominent Italian luthier’s instructions on how to physically build a string quartet, varnish and all. Again, you are unsettled, at first by the intensity of the music, and then by the banal, ironic text he juxtaposes against it. From the horrific strings that could easily fit in an old, expressionist vampire film, to the alternatingly playful and menacing solo piano, it is uneven, unnerving, and fully enthralling.

As with all art, Chessa's thrives on conflict — conflict between expression and institution, between sour and sweet, between heart and mind. In bridging so many distinct approaches, he manages to take his audience on a journey that is both emotional and educational. Keep an eye out for his seventh album, Botteghe Oscvre, which is coming soon. 

Luciano Chessa: A Retrospective occurs at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 30, at Yerba Buena Center For The Arts. More info here
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Eric Millman

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