INTERVIEW: Stefano Battaglia (first London appearance since late1980s. Poet in the City, Kings Place, 1 March)

Stefano Battaglia
Photo credit: Roberto Cifarelli /ECM

Milanese pianist STEFANO BATTAGLIA, who has made seven albums for ECM, will be making his first appearance in London for a quarter of a century, at Kings Place on 1 March 2018, in an event promoted by Poet in the City. The Sea Opens will see him sharing the stage with Turkish-Kurdish poet Bejan Matur. Interview and translation by the London correspondent of Il Foglio William Ward:

LondonJazz News: You haven't performed in the UK for some 25 years. Any reason for this return? What are your expectations for your visit here?

Stefano Battaglia: I’m a lucky guy, I travel the world performing the music that I have composed, but I'm also aware that what I do doesn't necessarily suit the tastes of a local audience, even in such an important musical culture like the UK. I guess that over the last quarter century, there just wasn't that much interest in what I do: no worries.

Actually my only appearances in London go back some 30 years ago, when I was invited by that great drummer Tony Oxley, with whom I’d won a prize for the joint album project Explore. I was only 20 at the time, so to come back with a different life experience will be amazing, I can’t wait!

LJN: You’ve now recorded some seven album for ECM: given your rather socio-political outlook how do you reconcile your interest in some of the world’s most burning political issues with the distinctly aesthetic ethos of a label like ECM?

SB: Ever since politics has become the expression of economic interests, I am no longer interested in entering the fray, on those terms. What I’m interested in is “ethos” as a guiding principle for living, expressing the finest aspects of humanistic culture.

I’d say the same thing goes for ECM which is frequently perceived as being predicated around “aesthetic” ideas, when in fact its guiding principle is “ethos”. I don’t think there are any other record labels in the world which so explicit embrace the principle that in music there should be no distinction between ideologies, races, cultures, religions.

ECM must have the only catologue that features ancient music as well as contemporary classical; folk and traditional music; mainstream jazz and free jazz, Classical and Baroque, new music and electronic stuff, being concerned only with the idea of uncompromising beauty and artistic integrity.

I am totally signed up to this philosophical approach, of Dialogue-through-Beauty.

LJN: Can you give us some clues about what inspired you when you were making your solo album Pelagos?

SB: I often realize that as a musician, I run the risk of closing myself off into a hermetically sealed, self-indulgent magic bubble. But what of my role on this planet? I can’t just be a competent musician, I must contribute towards the survival of the planet. Sometimes it drives me nuts to observe this constantly self-referential carousel of the music industry, with its endless self indulgent “homages” to “the canon”, be that to Vivaldi or Hendrix, to Chopin or Frank Zappa, when there are people dying in civil wars, or trying to survive even the most basic subsistence level.

What is happening in the Mediterranean now is devastating. Once the open forum of peaceful cultural and lively commercial exchange, it has now been reduced to a watery grave, like in the times of Homer’s Odyssey.

LJN:  How did you meet Bejan Matur and what prompted you to collaborate with her in this performance at Kings Place on 1 March?

SB: I met Bejan at a poetry festival in the mountains of central Sardinia, and heard her recite her work in her native language (of which I don't understand a word) and I was deeply moved by the eloquence of the deep emotions she expressed so forcefully. I went to congratulate her afterwards, only to discover that she too knew my work and loves what I do – isnt that amazing?

Her being Kurdish, and being heavily involved in her people's struggle for survival and dignity, what with my own ethical principles and sense of priorities, I could not pass over the chance of an artistic collaboration like this!

LJN: Why did you think of combining certain distinct elements of Poetry and Jazz to create this unique narrative of the current migrant crisis in the Mediterranean?

SB: I think that Art – the performing arts –should go back to having a more active role in public life, not just as sterile entertainment. Its memory is different from that of formal history, ours is a meta-memory. Picasso’s Guernica memorializes the devastating effects of the Nazi bombing in Spain far more effectively that any formal historical account. Improvisation is about the “hic et nunc” – the here and now! And despite all the terrible things happening within its confines, the Mediterranean offers the ideal forum for a creative dialogue between different cultural expressions and disciplines in a truly efficacious, dynamic manner.

LJN: How important are your Italian – and even your Milanese - roots in terms of inspiring your work, which has such a declared universalist nature ?

SB: Whilst Im perfectly happy to accept my Italian-ness as a simple fact it’s not a choice. True personal identity isnt a question of style or geography, but something deeper: a combination of personal desire and of a sense of “voluntas” – will or determination – in harmony with truth. The misunderstanding comes about when one thinks of Art as being just "language” – Logos, a syntactic construction. But music isn't a language, it's a meta-language. Sure there is grammar in it, but beyond that there exists in it a "mystery zone" with its own rules, which must be cherished on its own terms.

When we hear a Korean sing the Blues, or an African play the Goldberg Variations, we only hear the idiom , the language, but there isn't a deep sense of “ownership”, of profound understanding. That’s why it’s necessary for us to travel to hear other cultures’ music performed within their own cultural context, or alternatively, have those musicians travel so that we can witness their deeper cultural truths on our doorstep.

Britain is a good paradigm of this: Elizabethan theatre invented “la canzone” – the song – and it is within that metaphysical “created space” that subsequent generations have explored and developed the genre: John Dowland, William Byrd, Thomas Morley & Orlando Gibbons. I can still hear echos of that creativity five centuries later in the work of Peter Gabriel or Thom Yorke, just as the same life blood paasses through Hogarth and Reynolds and Turner, via Purcell to Genesis, through Britten to Peter Hammill and Scott Walker. This is the meaning of Identity.

LJN: After an angry and highly divisive electoral campaign Italy is on the verge of general elections (4 March). What is the outcome you most fear?

SB: It’s hard at times in Italy to distinguish nowadays between Mafia bosses and legitimate politicians, such is the degree of ambient corruption at all levels, and perhaps more worrying, the supine acceptance by the electorate of such a dangerous state of affairs. History teaches us how the conflict between mankind and the collective memory is sustained by the fact that society regualry forgets that without Culture there is no real memory of anything: the Arts are the memory of any given civilization. The Italians seem perennially condemned to forget this basic truth.

LJN: For some decades now, Italy has been the victim of a serious decline in its acknowledged position as a Cultural Superpower. It seems to lack ideas, creative energy, focus, discipline – not to mention the money – to compete with its rivals. Normally, a political/economic crisis – like the one Italy has also been facing these last 30 years or so, produces strong anti-bodies in the shape of a strong cultural response. But (perhaps with the honourbale exception of you and a few others) there has been none.

SB: I think the key word here is creativity, which is like a muscle: it needs to be exercised to work properly. I don't think we are short of ideas or creative genius, but nowadays the sort of creativity required by society is of digital invention, and no longer of music, dance or poetry. In a digital society like ours, true, profound creativity is considered “surplus to requirements”.

The matieral and sensual comforts offered by our consumer society, and the pointless distractions offered by our electronic devices are so enticing that as a society (and I don't think this is by any means exclusive to Italy), we no longer have the stimulus to be creative, or even to experience the joys and even the pains of the natural world, outside our urban constructions. Thinking that material comfort is key to individual well-being is a decadent philosophical short-circuit. Beyond the obvious geographical, literal sense of “identity” I honestly don’t feel part of this materialist society, in a broadly philosophical sense. (pp)

Stefano Battaglia Artist Page at ECM Records 

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