Pierluigi Billone ITI KE MI; Equilibrio. Cerchio Marco Fusi, viola, violin Kairos; CD
Memory is a tricky thing – one reason why critics often abstain from speaking in absolutes. You might witness a live event of seemingly ineffable magnitude. Yet assuming there’s no recording immediately available, no dispassionate document by which to check your instincts once the moment of initial contact cools and fades, who’s to say whether you overreacted?
Once in a while, though, you just go for broke.
On Thursday night, in a brightly lit meeting room at Boston University’s Hillel House, the violinist Marco Fusi performed a half-hour soliloquy that had all the swollen emotion and gravitas of Shakespearean tragedy. Hamlet or Lear, perhaps . . . or, to keep things on musical terrain, Wotan’s great oration from the second act of “Die Walküre.”
That’s the first paragraph I wrote in a 2015 Boston Globereview of a recital by Fusi, a supremely skillful Italian artist, presented by the Boston University Center for New Music as part of a residency by Pierluigi Billone, an Italian-born composer based in Vienna. Even now, two years later, I distinctly recall being shaken to the core by my initial encounter with Billone’s ITI KE MI, a monstrously beautiful soliloquy for a viola not just retuned, but effectively reinvented.
Still, even as I sent emails out to a gaggle of friends last month, urging them to attend Fusi’s performance of Billone’s ITI KE MI at Columbia University’s Italian Academy, I quietly worried. Had I oversold the piece? Did my subjective memories line up with qualities and merits intrinsic to the composition itself?
Marco Fusi performing ITI KE MI in Los Angeles, 2015
Video by Tina Tallon/SALT Arts Documentation
With the arrival of an exquisitely recorded, handsomely packaged new CD from the invaluable Austrian label Kairos comes welcome reassurance: ITI KE MI is a shattering experience, and Fusi is a supremely sensitive and confident advocate. The disc also includes a newer Billone work, Equilibrio. Cerchio, for unaccompanied violin. I heard Fusi in this latter work’s U.S. premiere at New York University’s Casa Italiana in April, the day after his Columbia performance. I feel now as I did then: This, too, is a fascinating and vital piece in the hands of a master interpreter; it impresses much as ITI KE MI did, but overwhelms somewhat less, perhaps, because of its more circumscribed range.
Billone studied with two of the most formidable and influential composers in contemporary music, Salvatore Sciarrino and Helmut Lachenmann, which surely accounts for his acute sense of space and proportion as well as the extremes to which he goes in handling implements and techniques. Even so, the percussionist Jonathan Hepfer offers this observation in the liner notes for Fusi’s new CD: “What distinguishes Billone’s music from all others, in my experience, is the degree to which the performer vicariously senses traces of the composer’s bodily presence when trying to absorb the sonic vocabulary of a given piece. While working, one feels the apparition of Billone’s hand demonstrating exactly how much pressure to exert when producing a given arcane harmonic.”
For ITI KE MI (“New moon. Mouth. Feminine.”), composed in 1995 for the violist Barbara Mauer, Billone restrung and retuned the instrument, then notated with a mix of conventional staves, graphic cues, and color coding an alien litany – one in which the vocabulary is utterly, defiantly abstruse, yet the emotional course and its impact are instantly discernible, inescapable. The music pleads, yawps, growls, and sighs with a relatable voice.
None of which is meant to downplay a listener’s discernment of the technical feat involved – “[T]his new tuning forces the instrument to vibrate according to frequencies which never belonged to it, thus radically altering the capability of vibration of the soundboard and sound box. It constricts the instrument to a momentary aphonia and a consequent rebalancing,” Fusi writes in his own booklet essay – but rather to state that in spite of Billone’s alienating extravagances, the result is profoundly recognizable, human to the core.
If the impact of Equilibrio. Cerchio (2014) is less instant and visceral, that’s likely because its sound world is less expansive by intent, its tonal palette and gestural range more limited: a taut sequence of drones, slurs, pealing harmonics, and repeated actions. What results is less the sound of a lion’s roar, more the sensation of a tiger pacing relentlessly in a cage – its muscularity and freedom of motion constrained yet always sensed, a kind of bottled fury. As in its companion work, Fusi gives a performance of poise, potency, and profundity.
In sum: an astonishing, treasurable disc. Miss it at your peril.
On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.