updated 4 February 2019
© Marco Delogu

Fausto Romitelli

Italian composer born 1 February 1963 in Gorizia; died 27 June 2004 in Milan.

One of the most promising composers of his generation, Fausto Romitelli, born in Gorizia (Italy) in 1963, died prematurely in 2004 following a long illness.

He studied with Franco Donatoni at the Accademia Chigiana in Sienna, and at the Milan Scuola Civica. Beside Donatoni, his first major influences were György Ligeti and Giacinto Scelsi, and later Stockhausen, Boulez, and Grisey. His works from the 1980s, notably Ganimede (1986) for viola, and (1989) for fourteen musicians, already reveal his treatment of sound as (in the words of the composer) “a material to be forged.”

In the 1990s, he continued his investigations into sound in Paris, notably at IRCAM and with the founders of Ensemble l’Itinéraire: Murail, Grisey, Lévinas, and Dufourt. While at IRCAM (1993 to 1995), he participated in the Cursus (IRCAM’s composition and computer music course) and collaborated with the Musical Representation Team during a research residency. The research he undertook there on synthesis and spectral analysis was key in the composition of subsequent works, such as Sabbia del Tempo (1991) for six performers and Natura morta con fiamme (1991) for string quartet and electronics.

A non-formalist, Romitelli embraced hybridisation, obscuring the boundaries between art and popular musics. Distortion, saturation, and references to psychedelic rock (cf. works such as Acid Dreams & Spanish Queens [1994] for amplified ensemble, EnTrance [1995], and Cupio Dissolvi [1996]) characterise his musical universe. The cycle comprising Professor Bad Trip I, II, and III (1998-2000) combines distorted instrumental colours, electric instruments, and accessories such as the mirliton (a recorder-like instrument) and the harmonica, and was inspired by Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle and The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones, written while the author was under the influence of psychedelic drugs.

An Index of Metals (2003), a video opera for soprano, ensemble, and fixed media, with video by Paulo Pachini, is Romitelli’s crowning achievement, showcasing the composer at the peak of his creative forces and the summit of his musical language.


© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2019

Sources

  • Site de l’ensemble Ictus (voir ressources documentaires)
  • Site du label Cyprès (voir ressources documentaires)

By Pierre Rigaudière

“Writing is the place where our distance from what we have gathered is verified. It is our work on writing that transforms our own language, making our expression emerge1”. Describing his relationship with writing in this way just a few years before his premature death, Fausto Romitelli was shining a light on the guiding principle of his singular approach. It was a way of defining himself as an integrative composer, open to the contributions of non-written music, yet attached to writing as a regulative force, a filter, a means of gaining distance – and above all the most likely condition for fostering expression. If his goal was “to integrate different materials into writing without giving up conceptual rigor”, the federating element had to be a “style capable of metabolizing different influences…2

The legacy of spectralism

The legacy that Romitelli sought to “gather” is multi-faceted. In the 1960s, he was inspired by the work of Ligeti, with whom he shared an interest in the use of detailed writing to affect the overall color of the sound. French advances in spectral music had an even greater impact on the composer. The mineral world of Hugues Dufourt’s impressive Saturne was a major source of inspiration for Romitelli, both in itself and because it reinforced and expanded the impact of the early successes of Grisey and Murail. The influences of these composers are most prominent in Romitelli’s Nell’alto dei giorni immobili (1990). This sextet draws on the harmonic fusion deployed by Grisey and Murail, as well as a dynamic framework built on successive bursts of energy from the attack transient of the fundamental pitch, and was inspired by Dufourt’s electric guitar sound. With a similar instrumentation, La sabbia del tempo (1991) displays a more formal approach to spectral synthesis and confirms the composer’s interest in process dynamics; at the same time, Romitelli sets himself apart from his elders in his attempt to suspend time within the piece, rather than having it evolve or orienting it. The question of time is at the heart of the composer’s first two published works, and indeed almost makes them into a kind of diptych. In the second piece, time is depicted with the image of flowing, suggested by the hourglass in the Gabriele d’Annunzio poem excerpted from the Madrigali dell’estate, and embodied by the metronome that bursts into the piece. Its corollary is an almost symbolic, theatrical process of degradation, oriented toward crisis, a model that would remain dominant in the majority of the works that followed.

Composed during his time in Cursus (IRCAM’s composition and computer music course), the string quartet with electronics Natura morta con fiamme (1991-1992) shows an exploration of how spatalization could be worked into composition, an exploration that is not taken up again in Romitelli’s later work. More than recorded, synthesized sounds, Romitelli would come to prefer the flexibility offered by electronic keyboards and effects applied to electric guitar sounds, especially sounds captured very close to the bridge. In Natura morta con fiamme, these provided complex acoustic material that, when contrasted with the consonant harmonies based in harmonic spectra, illustrate a duality prized by spectral composers. In Les idoles du soleil (1992-1993), the first half of the diptych Mediterraneo, vertical writing in blocks that are set vibrating by tiny movements of details, which, bolstered by quarter- and eighth-tone intonations, show a desire for acoustic fusion.

Electric music

The other facet of the legacy Romitelli “gathered” cannot be found in the tradition of composition, nor in “formalism or dogmas relating to the purity of musical sound3”, which he was quick to condemn. Romitelli was drawn to the energy of rock music, although he criticized its lack of harmonic inventiveness, and in particular to the new acoustic horizons being explored in psychedelic rock in the 1960s. To him, these trends in music converged in certain ways with spectral music –¬ in any case, in terms of the sounding result. Once one has noted how he placed these convergences at the center of his approach, it is easy to understand why the composer could not be satisfied with any simple compromise between the two legacies – such a compromise would resemble a kind of New Age aesthetic more than it would any real “compositional work”. Romitelli instead felt himself obliged to work toward a kind of deep hybridity. His initial attempts at this fusion can be heard in Cupio Dissolvi (1996) for fourteen performers, where a rock organ and percussion that makes intensive use of ride cymbals erupt toward the end of the piece. While the sounds are highly connotative, the irregular meters and powerful but harmonically corrupted bass indicate his desire to maintain a certain distance from what he is connoting. The initial hissing, in which one hears the residue of Larsen effects, sets off a wide descending spiral, hinting at falling and entropy, processes that may be counted among the composer’s strongest stylistic traits. Here, they are directly linked to the title, borrowed from Paul’s epistle to the Philippians (“I wish to be dissolved)” as well as from a verse of Emily Dickinson’s, murmured by the musicians (“Great streets of silence led away”).

Lost (1997), which belongs to the same triptych, is a tribute to Jim Morrison. Written for voice and fifteen instruments, it once again places the electric bass in the limelight. For some fifty measures, the instrumental performance features harmonic progressions directly inspired by pop music. But this substrate underpins combinations that hint at Ligeti, whose influence shines through in the geotropic motifs of the piano, as well as in the use of an array of instruments designed to warp the overall timbre: a kazoo, played by the soprano (or mezzo ad libitum) and the pianist, a pan flute, and the harmonicas played by five of the performers are not far off the slide whistle and ocarina of which the Hungarian composer was so fond. The intonations (quarter-tone or smaller), at times just “slightly lower”, appear here as vestiges of spectralism, melding with other outstanding stylistic traits – the veiled or even hoarse vocality demanded of the performer, strings used largely for harmonics, descending tones or half-tones employed as the central motif. Taken together, they form a whole that represents the fusion the composer was seeking to set in motion. The electric guitar composition Trash TV Trance (2002) is perhaps the most representative of this instrument’s importance in Romitelli’s creations: veiled by the hiss of the amplifier and by electric “buzzing,” usually transfigured by effects pedals that saturated and warped the sound, the sound of the guitar took on an iconic value for him, one that was inextricably linked to the expression of “the violence of massive alienation and the processes of standardization that surround us4”.

Trance and artificial paradises

These hallucinatory sounds, these hypnotic repetitions and transformations of the motives – varied, warped looping was a key formal model for the composer – are of course the fruit of Romitelli’s deep and abiding interest in trance states and, more broadly, in altered states of consciousness. Not wholly equivalent but very frequently associated in the composer’s poetics, trance and psychotropic substances became explicit themes in his titles starting in 1989, with the unpublished Have your trip, and then with Acid Dreams and Spanish Queens (1994). With the material he created using frequency modulation and spectral distortion, EnTrance (1995) is probably the last piece of Romitelli’s whose actual sounds are crafted in ways that betray direct ties to spectralism. It is also his first – and only – piece in which the performance itself is its own trance ritual: because it requires them to rapidly alternate between forced inhalations and exhalations, the music actually affects the physical state of the soprano, and, to a lesser extent, the wind instruments. The text, borrowed from the Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which discusses states of consciousness and perception after death), is a Tibetan mantra, meaning that it remains cryptic to its listeners – illustrating how Romitelli, like his spectralist predecessors, often obscured the semantic dimension of the texts he used.

After that came The Poppy in the Cloud (1999), for monotone choir and ensemble. Once again, the title contains an allusion to mind-altering substances; it also features the same Emily Dickinson poem that makes a fleeting appearance in Cupio Dissolvi. The allusion returns in Professor Bad Trip (1998-2000), where the composer sought to “work the musical aspects most directly linked to the perception of the phenomena described by Michaux […]5”, following his experimentation with mescaline and other hallucinogenic substances. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Self-Portrait were a direct source of inspiration, as well. They provide Professor Bad Trip’s key formal feature, the triptych structure, for which “the same material is worked on three times6”. In Lesson 1, a distorted guitar encounters a pitch pipe, harmonica, and kazoo. The piece’s abundant use of repetition causes the listener to lose their footing, and in the end one cannot tell what if the repetition is literal or not. The electronics are both obscured and strongly present in the instrumental ensemble’s aura, and they are half revealed in a postlude that appears to be in murky resonance with all that has just occurred, perceived through the filter of an altered consciousness. Far more fragmented in appearance, Lesson 2 creates a similar effect, augmented by an electronic bass played with an E-bow (electronic bow) and a bottleneck. The motive of descending half-tones, the dreamy chords of the third part, or the harmonic seesawing between two chords separated by a third are some of its recurring features, which are envisioned each time from a different angle. The repeated, accelerated bass that appears in the second part is highly colored by a rock and roll mood, and hints at the wild ending of Lesson 3. There, with no electronics other than effects pedals, the acoustic space is saturated by feedback, and it comes to life at the pace of a heartbeat; its sudden interruption inevitably takes on narrative significance. The harmony, conceived mainly in terms of torsion in this triptych, attempts to simulate the warped perception caused by psychotropic substances.

Objectifying a world

Romitelli was clear about what he perceived as his role as an artist. By choosing to make his works into “objectification[s] of a world7”, and, more specifically, objectifications of that world’s violence, he was taking a specific stance in that world, one aspect of which was resisting standardization. For him, Francis Bacon was a role model in this regard, and the work that marked Romitelli most strongly was his later material, which lasered in on violence by stripping away as much unnecessary detail as possible. The bloodstain on the clean surface in Blood on the Floor is all the more unsettling because it is set off by the rough orange walls of the narrow room, whose angles seem to have dissolved. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, Romitelli appeared to be hesitating between two ends of an expressive spectrum: on the one hand, shock; and on the other, a vague but persistent unease. With his warped and slippery intonations and his fluid but intentionally grating sounds, which he fed with effects such as double harmonics and electric guitars with E-bows that sounded almost like an ondes Martenot, as well as with his almost uninterrupted polarization on an A, in Blood on the floor, painting, 1986 (2000), Romitelli seemed to be gravitating toward unease. Indeed, the piece is part of a constellation of works for which the composer took a particularly delicate approach to orchestration.

The string orchestra in The Nameless City (1997) is divided into three differently-tuned groups, and typifies one of the techniques employed by Romitelli to destabilize the listener’s experience of his music. It was also born of a desire to control space through writing. In this case, the space itself played the role that might otherwise be occupied by electronics: “the group’s sound material is reverberated, ‘processed’, and projected into a stereophonic space by Groups I and III8”. Similarly, the performance techniques used in the two halves of Domeniche alla periferia dell’impero (1996 and 2001) help to disorient the listener: the diphonic sounds, at times combined with an embouchure glissando for bass flute; the wandering microtonal intonations; the constant diffraction of the strings with harmonic play that seeks to create fused sound material and smooth out the curves and angles – all of these create a final result that is never far from a mute tension.

As the composer himself invited the listener to do in his notes on the work, it is tempting to see in Amok Koma (2001) the actual process of a musical objectification of violence, in which “the idea of ‘musical process’ is only a pretext that makes it possible to reveal [his] true interest: the arrival of a hidden violence that is revealed only in the material’s chaotic drift, in the ritual of its destruction as a form-giving discursive element”. The formal pair “repetition/deterioration9”, observed so many times before, in this piece drives the nine instruments as well as the electronics. This formal pair very quickly becomes unpredictable because it is non-linear, and the listener is deprived of the reassurance of anticipation. An insistent rhythmic loop, rendered particularly oppressive by a bass drum and hi-hat cymbal beat, along with non-symmetrical aksak-type figures, dialogue with alarming moments of stasis, as in the final coda, which holds a fun-house mirror up to the initial anapest chimed out by the piano.

Romitelli uses strong polarization, based largely in the slight scordatura of the low string of the electric guitar, to maintain unity in the orchestral piece Audiodrome - Dead City Radio (2003) – this despite its form, which is composed of short sections that alternate pulsing drive and repose. The reference to Strauss’s Alpensinfonie, which can, from a narrative perspective, be associated with the idea of engulfment – which, once again, takes the musical form of a process of deterioration applied to a simple material – was a rare practice for the composer. His careful relationship with music history, at once respectful and distant, meant that he largely abstained from playing with quotation.

Toward the light

The last two months of Romitelli’s creative life were spent in the feverish activity of a composer who knew that illness was advancing on him, working on his “video opera”. The work, titled An Index of Metals (2003), written for soprano and eleven amplified instruments, called on “total” synesthetic perception, and even a “loss of bearings10”. It went in the direction of Georges Bataille and Romitelli’s own (unrealized) Story of the Eye project. In the libretto, three poems of Kenka Lekovitch, “Hellucinations,” tangle together, as their portmanteau title suggests, alienated visons of a hell that explicitly boils in a teaspoon, leading to corrosion, falling, and ultimately dissolution. Symbolic of drugs, but also of melting metals with their fluid and constantly changing forms, this poetic imagery calls forth slow musical entropy. The truncated quotation, constantly interrupted and reprised, of the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond*, never makes it past the song’s first chord, symbolizing the first phase of deterioration of a sound fabric that, as the interlacing “intermezzi” and “hellucinations” progress, takes on more and more noise residue, becoming ever-more prickly with electric charge. While the invocation of trance rituals and even of “possession11” were not new for the composer, his tendency toward excess might be seen as one manifestation of the manifesto-like tone noted by Jean-Luc Plouvier12; the work’s clarity simultaneously underlined his divergence from it. The video was created by Paolo Pachini and Leonardo Romoli without any synthesis techniques, and Romitelli was careful to point out that the visuals were then subjected to the same computer processing as the sound, as if it were important for him to underline that the two distinct types of sensory input had been fused together in the same crucible. Seeking to create, at least metaphorically, a state of altered consciousness in the listener, the composer attempted to short-circuit any intellectual form of listening, diving directly toward “the body’s physiological reactions13”. While Romitelli did not necessarily shy away from using a formalized approach to writing to achieve this goal, he nevertheless crafted the piece starting from a fairly restricted base of material, carefully tested and refined, whose homogeneity gave the whole a strong stylistic fingerprint. Romitelli had a sense of the gesture that sets a work in motion, the movement that gives it its decisive energetic impulse.

Romitelli’s premature death no doubt affected the way his work has been received. It precipitated – almost in the chemical sense of that term – a global vision of an oeuvre that, while certainly coherent, gains nothing from being idealized as any kind of monolithic achievement. It is to be hoped that in the future, discussions of the music, which are to this day partially frozen by temptations to pay tribute to the man, will over time lose their dramatic tone and instead offer more serene accounts of the music – of the specificities of each work in all their strengths and weaknesses. This could only do service to an artistic vision driven by constant adjustments, which owes its flavor as much to the composer’s doubts and questions as it does to his convictions.


  1. Interview with Véronique Brindeau, Accents, N. 15, September-December 2001, reprinted in Alessandro Arbo (ed.), Le corps électrique; voyage dans le son de Fausto Romitelli. L’Harmattan, 2005, p. 159.
  2. Fausto Romitelli, “Le compositeur comme virus,” cf. Arbo, p. 132.
  3. Attaquons le réel à sa racine”, interview with Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Reprinted in Arbo, 2005, p. 43.
  4. Interivew with E. Denut in Musique actuelles, musique savante : Quelles interactions ?, L’Itinéraire/L’Harmattan, 2001. Reprinted in Arbo, 2005, p. 163.
  5. Progam note for the work published in the Musica festival program, 2000. Reprinted in Arbo, p. 135.
  6. Ibid, p. 137.
  7. Interview with Véronique Brindeau, Accents, N. 15, September-December 2001, reprinted in Arbo, p. 161.
  8. Notes for the score.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Program note.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Jean-Luc Plouvier, introduction to the liner notes of the CD/DVD, Cyprès CYP5622, p. 16.
  13. Interview with E. Denut in Musique actuelles, musique savante : Quelles interactions ?, L’Itinéraire/L’Harmattan, 2001, p. 76.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2012

Documents

Bibliographie

  • Alessandro ARBO, Anamorphoses : études sur l’œuvre de Fausto Romitelli, Paris, Hermann, 2015.
  • Alessandro ARBO (textes réunis par.), Le corps électrique. Voyage dans le son de Fausto Romitelli, éd. L’Harmattan, 2005 [titre original : Il corpo elettrico: viaggio nel suono di Fausto Romitelli, ed. Teatro communale di Monfalcone, 2003 ; recueil des entretiens et des écrits de Fausto Romitelli, par Alessandro Arbo, Pierre Michel, Marco Mazzolini, Pierre-Albert Castanet, Éric Denut, Danielle Cohen-Levinas, Omer Corlaix, Véronique Brindeau].
  • Alessandro ARBO, Oltre le periferie dell’impero : omaggio a Fausto Romitelli, Turin, Trauben, 2014.
  • Éric DENUT, Fausto Romitelli, a Short Index, texte en ligne sur le site de l’ensemble Ictus avec extrait audio et extrait vidéo de An Index of Metals (lien vérifié en novembre 2022).
  • Nicholas MOROZ, « Hacking the Hallucinatory: Investigating Fausto Romitelli’s Compositional Process through Sketch Studies of Professor Bad Trip: Lesson I », in Archival Notes, n°5, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, 2020, p. 59-84.
  • Ingrid PUSTIJANAC, « Spectral Morphology and Space in Fausto Romitelli’s Natura morta con fiamme », in Archival Notes, n°3, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, 2018, p. 119-135.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, preliminary notes, sur le site du label Cyprès, www.cypres-records.com (lien vérifié en novembre 2022).

Discographie, filmographie

  • Fausto ROMITELLI, Linda Oláh : soprano, Ensemble Miroirs Étendus, Fiona Monbet : direction, « An Index Of Metals », 1 CD B Records, 2022, LBM043.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, Domeniche alla periferia dell’impero, Prima domenica, Ensemble Multilatérale, direction : Léo Warinsky, dans « J’Ouïs », 1 cd L’Empreinte digitale, 2020, ED13260, avec des œuvres de Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Franck Bedrossian et Yann Robin.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, Solare, La Lune et les Eaux, Seascape, Coralli, Simmetria d’oggetti, Highway to Hell, Trash TV Trance, dans « Solare », 1 cd Stradivarius, 2018, STR 37099.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, Gofi d’Ombra, dans « Golfi d’Ombra », 1 cd Stardivarius, 2014, STR 33998.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, « Anamorphosis » : Amok Koma ; Domeniche alla periferia dell’impero ; La sabbia del tempo ; Nell’alto dei giorni immobili ; Blood On The Floor ; Painting, Talea Ensemble, direction : James Baker, 1 cd Tzadik, 2012.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, « The Nameless City » : Amok Koma ; Flowing down too slow ; Domeniche alla periferia dell’impero ; Nell’alto dei giorni immobiliThe Nameless City, ensemble Musiques Nouvelles, direction : Jean-Paul Dessy, 1 cd Cyprès, 2012.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, Cupio dissolvi, Ensemble Phoenix Basel, 1 cd MGB, 2008, avec des œuvres de Jim Grimm, Beat Furrer, Jorge Sanchez-Chiong et Alex Buess, n° MGB 110.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, Audiodrome [œuvres orchestrales] : Dead City Radio. Audiodrome ; EnTrance ; Flowing Down Too Slow ; The Nameless City, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, Donatienne Michel-Dansac : soprano, direction : Peter Rundel, 1 cd Stradivarius, 2005, STR33723.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, Paolo PACHINI, An Index of Metals, ensemble Ictus, direction : Georges-Elie Octors, Donatienne Michel-Dansac : soprano, 1 cd et 1 dvd Cyprès, 2003. Livret complet disponible sur le site de l’ensemble Ictus (lien vérifié en novembre 2022).
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, Professor Bad Trip, ensemble Ictus, 1 cd Cyprès, 2003.
  • Fausto ROMITELLI, Chorus dans « Entente préalable », Les Percussions de Strasbourg, 1Cd collectif Universal Label Una Corda - MFA 12, 2002, avec des œuvres de Jean-Pierre Drouet, Philippe Hurel, Michaël Jarrell, Christian Lauba, Philippe Leroux, Michaël Levinas, François-Bernard Mâche, Martin Matalon, Marc Monnet, Gérard Pesson, Jean-Marc Singier.

Sites Internet

  • Éditions Ricordi : www.ricordi.com
  • Site du CIRM (Centre National de Création Musicale) : www.cirm-manca.org [notes de programme de Dead City Radio: Audiodrome ; Amok Koma ; An Index of Metals]

(liens vérifiés en novembre 2022)