‘Dangerous’ interlude: An evening with composer Nicola Piovani

Mariella Radaelli

Celebrated composer and pianist Nicola Piovani is hitting the road again with “La Musica è pericolosa” – or “Music is Dangerous” – a transcendent live narrative that runs through the highlights of his entire body of work in cinema, theater, symphonic orchestra and song.

At times sitting at the piano, at other moments walking around on stage, the award-winning composer for more than 130 films including an Oscar for the soundtrack of the acclaimed movie “Life is Beautiful” reminisces in music and conversation about his encounters with legendary film directors, songwriters and poets. He shares stories of his life through anecdotes, balancing memory and current reality, accompanied by an ensemble that retains distinct musical personalities warm in tone and expressive in delivery.

Maestro Piovani spoke to Luminosity Italia News about his profession and a wide range of issues deeply rooted in the real world of today on social, political and cultural levels.

Q: Mr. Piovani, your show is based on your essay “La Musica è pericolosa” published by Rizzoli. The title comes from a Fellini quote, something that he often repeated to you when working on the scores of his three later movies: “Ginger e Fred”, “Intervista” and “La voce della luna”. What do you miss most about Fellini?
A: What I miss about Fellini is Fellini himself. I miss talking to him, hearing about his day. I miss his presence, his voice. I certainly miss our conversations on the phone early in the morning, the reflections and observations on the current situation, on politics, customs, a book recently read …”
Nicola Piovini
The late novelist, screenwriter and poet Vincenzo Cerami watches over his friend and colleague Piovani in a vignette from ‘Music is Dangerous’.

Q: If Fellini were alive today, do you think he would be disappointed in our country? What he would tell you?
A: He would certainly be bitter, resentful like all of us, but he would tell us something more acute than a rant, something instinctively more analytical and definitely less banal than what we espouse. He would help us to understand.

Q: In the late ’80s you began an artistic partnership with the respected novelist, screenwriter and poet Vincenzo Cerami, who passed away more than three years ago. Is there something that he said that is particularly dear to your heart that you think of often?
A: “Pain has no quality, it is neither noble nor inconsequential — the merchant's pain over a bill is qualitatively the same as the Achilles pain on the body of Patroclus. It is painful.”

Q: What does this extensive tour with your show mean to you?
A: One of the beautiful aspects of this work is the journey that leads me to see places that I would probably never have chosen. I have recently visited the magnificent city Altamura that maybe I would have forsaken and I probably would never have gone to the seductive Thessaloniki.”

Q: You co-wrote two albums with songwriter Fabrizio De André in the ’70s. Do you think we can find similar incredible talent today in the Italian underground music scene? If they exist, why doesn’t mainstream music discover and support them on major labels?
A: Talent definitely exists. We do not meet them because the music listening market does not need talent, only characters. The market needs persons who know how to gain visibility even through trivial work. In addition, the love of success is too widespread. It often supersedes the love of music. Success can be the prize for art, yet often there is the prize without the art. Many so-called artists blame it on the record companies, but complicity by aspiring artists is a fact.

Q: “La Vita è bella” or “Life is Beautiful” starring and directed by Roberto Benigni had the biggest box office revenues ever by an Italian film. It had worldwide ticket sales of $229 million and also became the highest-grossing foreign language film in North America at $57.6 million. You won an Oscar for Best Original Score for that movie. As a successful composer what is your personal definition of success?
A: Success belongs to the past. Even grammatically the Italian word “successo” denotes the past participle. Success has literally already happened. I have to say that am very interested in the future and even more in the present.

Q: What are your current and future projects in the different fields where you work?
A: I have several theatrical and symphonic projects. One is based on a Shakespeare's text, another on a work by Eduardo De Filippo, another again is from Cerami. In addition, I am working on a concert for two clarinets and orchestra. I have few or no cinema projects.

Q: You said that “theater is the language of the future.” Why?
A: Cinema intended for the movie theater is showing signs of collapse. The figures say it all. Cinema only survives on the box office results from kids movies. While children love going to the movies, adults in the Western world go to the movies less and less as we are surrounded by a multiplicity of virtual images everywhere. They continue to proliferate whenever we look, in waiting rooms, at the airports, in bars, inside our smartphones.
We are turned into a passive audience that absorbs those images with distracted and superficial attention, where the language of advertising is the winner with unreflective messages and overly imaginative and excessively refined commercials. That kind of language is more suitable to fashion than art. Unfortunately that language is dominating, with many new blockbuster movies that look more like a series of commercials characterized by striking sequences that are meaningless and hollow. Instead, the theater has millennia of performance history and I believe future millennia to continue showing its value.

Q What do you think of the world turned upside down in the America of Mr. Trump? Would you ever have thought it could happen?
A: Trump scares me more than Isis.

Q: When Bob Dylan was selected as a Nobel poet laureate, it not only raised the ire of staunch traditionalists in the literary and academic world, but also among some Italian public figures that might not understand an entire refrain in his powerful songs. How do you view his selection by the Nobel Committee?
A: Each year on the occasion of the Nobel Prize, there is inevitably someone who resents the choice made by the committee or someone who would like to replace them and become the entire jury. There have always been controversies surrounding the choice of the Nobel literature laureates, starting from Grazia Deledda on to Salvatore Quasimodo up to Dario Fo.
As far as I know and understand, Dylan is a great poet. If there are better poets I don’t really know since I’ve read only a few. The controversies ignited by “colleagues” are fatally suspect of course — they are often marred by a subcutaneous, irrepressible jealousy.

Q: How can Italy and all of Europe protect themselves from the wave of nationalist populism that is flooding the West? Populist politics seems to be on the rise everywhere. Can this be a real danger?
A: The risk is there: the use of emotional appeals. The appeal to the gut more than reason really dismays me. It is like an emotional logic that is built on the calculations of an accountant.
While poetry requires passion, political judgment requires clarity of mind. When politicians invoke gut feelings through visceral speeches and reactions more than a reality based on facts, they end up vilifying and berating the innocent, putting into practice the art of deception, and celebrating the gluttony for fake news and mystification. That’s why people end up thinking that terrorism lands through refugee boats, but actually it is generated by the oil trade, by high finance schemes and by the warmongering logic of the powerful.
Islam itself has nothing to do with all of that. Hitler was a Christian, but his killing machine had nothing to do with the Gospel.

Q: How did you feel when you woke up the morning after last December’s referendum on constitutional reform? Were you happy or disappointed with the results?
A: Neither satisfied nor disappointed. I didn’t support or endorse any of the two political fronts or visions. I saw only the ugliness of an anti-dialectical fury invading the entire political campaign.

Q: What is the road to real recovery for Italy? What are decisive responses to the economic and financial crisis so the country can restore its prosperity and start to show effective signs of growth?
A: My political thought is amateurish. I entrust policy measures to professional politicians, the ones I trust. Nevertheless, I believe the big issue is legality. I instinctively think that big capital and big finance is built on illegal practices, on complicity with several different types and forms of mafia, on the corruption of some politicians who propose, support and create laws according the multinationals’ interests. In addition, there is lack of legality when some tax policemen do not investigate where they should, when some journalists do not write what they should and when demagogues continue to ride the collective waves of emotion just to make money.

Q: In today’s Italy, given the limited financial resources in culture, do you think your talented young colleagues suffer from hardships dealing with the profession? Times are not difficult for you, I believe.
A: It is not difficult for me because I am content with what I reap, which is always more than what I really hoped for as a boy. Definitely, it is more and more complicated for the young to show and showcase their talents.

Q: What do you love about Rome today and what can you cannot stand?
A: I always loved Rome and always will, in spite of everything. About the situation in Rome today, there is nothing left but crying. But we have a mayor who was elected few months ago. Let’s wait to see the fruit of her labor. It takes a year at least to reap some harvest. If she turns her promises into facts, at least a quarter of what she actually promised, then we will applaud her. I will certainly not evaluate her according what I read in the newspapers, but what I see as citizen of Rome while I am out and about in the city, taking into account the situation of schools, hospitals, buses, trash, traffic congestion, theaters, car-free bike paths, pedestrian areas, etc.
Now I only see the porchettari’s stalls and caravans returning in front of the historical monuments. That’s a serious affront to the beauty of Rome.”

Q: What is finest original film score of all time in your opinion?
A: The score created by Nino Rota for the Fellini movie “8½”.

Q: Besides the legendary Federico Fellini you worked with other important Italian film directors such as Mario Monicelli, Marco Bellocchio, Giuseppe Tornatore and Nanni Moretti, all great contributors to modern movies, and also with authoritative masters of the French and Spanish cinema such as Philip Loiret and Bigas Luna among many others. Is there a director or a screenwriter you would like to collaborate with at this point in your career?
A: I would like to collaborate with many, first Pedro Almodóvar, for whom the excellent Alberto Iglesias works extremely well, or Woody Allen, who seems to be doing quite well with jazz.

Q: Leonard Bernstein, a 20th century musical genius that you like a lot, said: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Is music still a secret weapon against the brutality of the world?
A: Well, anyway we cannot do anything more, apart from volunteering, which is an activity that should be kept private. It is something you should never talk about in public.

Q: What are you reading at the moment?
A: I am reading two books: “The Iron Staircase”, a great novel by Georges Simenon, and a demanding read from Giordano Montecchi on Frank Zappa’s music.

Q: What’s on your music plate these days?
A: Michel Petrucciani, Claude Debussy, Adele and don’t be surprised that I am listening to Andrea Chénier (a verismo opera by Umberto Giordano based on the life of a poet who was executed during the French Revolution) as well.”