I have long admired the music of Fausto Romitelli. His epic video opera, “Index of Metals” (2003) pointed toward new worlds of expressive possibilities for young composers like me writing experimental music for instruments and electronics at the start of the 21st century. The piece features a soprano and three enormous panels of colorful video abstractions behind an amplified ensemble of musicians. It opens with a striking sample taken from Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You, Crazy Diamond” (1975). As if dropping the needle on a record, a sparkling G minor chord played by strings ramps up, holds, and then cuts. On each iteration, an orb of light appears on the video screens and then vanishes.
Blending elements of French spectralism, psychedelic rock, science fiction, and noise, Romitelli’s music is a potent mix of things amplified by its contradictions. It’s carefully crafted, yet somehow rough around the edges; it’s full of subtle timbral colors and combinations, yet often overlaid with teeth-gritting guitar distortion. Romitelli’s music, with its embrace of diverse styles and genres, pointed toward exciting new territory for the 21st century “classical” composer—an alternative to the cold and distant modernism of the post-war European avant-garde. Rather than positioning himself as an artist somehow separate from popular culture, Romitelli embraced gestures found more often in rock concerts and discotheques than in classical concert halls. But his life was cut short. A year after writing “Index of Metals,” Romitelli died of blood cancer, at the age of 41.
I wanted to know more about Romitelli, where his creative vision came from, the sort of person he was, how he arrived at the music he composed. After all, people are products of their environments—their time and place, the books they read, the movies they watch, their families, friends, and lovers. And so I set out to interview some of those people who were closest to Romitelli in hopes of getting a glimpse into the world that made him the artist that I so admire.
The following are excerpts from interviews I conducted on the phone and over email with Romitelli’s friends and fellow composers Riccardo Nova, Giovanni Verrando, Atli Ingólfsson, and Massimiliano Viel, and his partner of eight years, Luisa Vinci.
Riccardo Nova: Fausto and I were both studying with Franco Donatoni. Donatoni in those years was teaching in Milan, not at the Milan Conservatory, but at the Scuola Civica [Municipal School of Music], which was very active with contemporary music. There was this annual course with Donatoni. We were focusing on the scores of the students and listening to music, analyzing together and discussing—all things which were not really happening in the conservatory.
Massimiliano Viel: I first met Romitelli in a class at the Milan Conservatory where we were both students. It was the early ‘80s, something like 1984. The topic of the class was “Poetic and Dramatic Literature.” Were we friends? Well, only in the way two young Italian composers in the ‘80s could be friends… that is, cautiously. There was a lot of competition between composers. For example, Donatoni was inundated by young composers who wanted to get into his good graces, often by imitating his style. That’s why we used to call these students “Donatini.”
Atli Ingólfsson: I came from Reykjavík in 1985 to study at the Milan Conservatory. I got news of this mythical figure, Fausto Romitelli, who was our age and studying in a different class. We of course thought that our class was the best at contemporary music-making and research. But the news reached us that one or two others from a different class might deserve our attention. So Fausto became quite a close friend to Pietro Borradori and then through Borradori, I was introduced to Fausto.
Riccardo Nova: A lot of our conversations revolved around discussing the music that we would like to create and criticizing the contemporary music scene in Italy, which was a bit academic and still is. In the ‘80s, we founded an association called Nouve Sincronie, a European network of composers and ensembles. It lasted until the end of the ’90s.
Giovanni Verrando: Fausto (and perhaps our whole generation) was more accustomed to listening to music in our daily life from a PA system. We talked about the need to structurally change the listening experience of the live concert, permanently introducing loudspeakers, microphones and so on. In my opinion, for Fausto the PA system was also a consequence of two different issues: his research into sound properties that he learned from the spectralists, and the connection with the aesthetics of underground electronic music and groups like Pan Sonic.
Riccardo Nova: With Nuove Sincronie, we were organizing more traditional concerts with one piece after the other and clapping in between. After that, we decided that this was not for us. So we started digging in other directions. We began organizing concerts that were more organic, without interruption, with multiple stages surrounding the audience and with visuals. For instance, maybe a one hour event, without interruption, with different things happening—the public could move from one stage to the other. The public was not sitting listening to the concert from the front, but instead, they were surrounded by the sound, with a lot of electronics and very powerful amplification. It was really more in line with the sound of a techno or rock concert, not the acoustic, classical sound.
When Fausto died, we did a program tribute to him with “Professor Bad Trip” I, II, and III and some other pieces of ours. It was in a contemporary museum hall with different stages, two ensembles, and electronic music. There were around 1,500 people. So it was totally packed. In fact, all the concerts we were organizing were totally packed, because audiences from the techno scene and from the experimental electronic scene came, not only academics. You know, with all these different people there was a completely different energy from a traditional contemporary concert.
Today, we’ve lost funding, so we stopped doing it.
“The spectral music of the brutes”
Giovanni Verrando: I met Fausto for the first time in 1990, at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. For a few years we met occasionally, mostly for musical reasons. Then, in 1997, I met him again at IRCAM in Paris. In those weeks we were both coincidentally dumped at the same time by our girlfriends, and so we didn’t sleep so much. We decided for a couple of weeks to attend these nighttime screenings of experimental cinema in the Latin Quarter. From that moment on, we were close friends.
Atli Ingólfsson: I could imagine organizing a concert under the title of “Milano Grotesque.” It would be me, Fausto, Riccardo Nova, and Giovanni Verrando. All of us have a certain grotesque vein. And certainly Fausto was a big part of this. He introduced impulse and brutality to spectral music. Gérard Grisey and I even talked about it. I was studying with Grisey at the time. He would jokingly say, “Oh, this is the spectral music of the brutes.” And Fausto was proud of that. He realized that he had a special voice. We were both skeptical of the French idea of elegance in music. We used to joke about how we didn’t fit in. At one point IRCAM did an anniversary edition of pieces that Ensemble Intercontemporain commissioned. The only two composers left out were me and Fausto. [Laughs.]
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“Today I will compose a little bit of shit”
Luisa Vinci: He was full of irony. Because he was a man who considered himself a composer, there was a certain level of narcissism there. I think every composer must have some to survive—you must believe in yourself, because there is a lot of competition. Fausto was very confident about his musical ideas. But at the same time, he never took himself too seriously. He was competitive, like all the other composers, but in the right way. Because, the priority of his life was to survive. I think that was his number one goal. And he was competitive but in a scherzando—an ironic way. You know, for instance, we had this top list of the worst pieces of contemporary music that we would joke about. We would pass the time smiling a lot about these with Riccardo Nova and Giovanni Verrando, and other composers—we were a group of friends, of three or four composers always joking around.
Fausto would also work a lot, but he always found time for fun. I remember when Fausto was composing “Professor Bad Trip” I, we decided to go on vacation in the village of Gallipoli. I would spend the days on the beach alone, or with a friend. Fausto wrote all the time, sometimes until 2 a.m. And after, we would eat and then go out to the discoteca—you know, to the disco to dance! It was a crazy holiday.
Riccardo Nova: Fausto belonged to a very culturally and intellectually active family. His father was a doctor, his mother was a housewife and his two sisters—one is a lawyer and the other is an economic adviser. And the area where he was from is a highly cultured region. It has a lot of influences from Austria, from Tyrol, from the east. In the 19th century, it was a meeting point for art. So Fausto was very cultured, but he also had a big sense of humor—especially about music. We were always making fun of ourselves. We would joke about being “minor composers.” We would say that we would be remembered as “minor composers” of the 20th century. Fausto didn’t have a big ego in the Romantic-era sense. He would joke, saying, “Today I will compose a little bit of shit.” He didn’t take himself too seriously. We were always making fun, laughing. And of course, you could go from heavy topics to super light—you know, we could go from speaking about girls, to books, to music. We spent so much time talking, whether it be at the bar, in the car when we were driving, and so on. These things I very much miss now.
Massimiliano Viel: Fausto had a bit of a poshy attitude, accentuated by his erre moscia lisp. (In Italian culture very rich people are stereotypically portrayed with this lisp.) But in general he was affable. There was some stiffness that seemed to come from being educated in a wealthy family, moreso than from shyness. Overall, he had a kind of detached and sarcastic, yet sympathetic, way of dealing with composers.
Atli Ingólffson: When we would talk, sometimes I would mention a composer and he would say something like, “Oh, he’s pathetic,” for instance. This is a world that probably isn’t allowed anymore. I mean, there was nothing that was politically correct about our exchange. And it was cruel. But it wasn’t cruelty deep down, of course. We weren’t openly attacking people or trying to take down careers or anything like that. But we allowed ourselves a really straightforward expression about our opinions and other music. So there was this kind of sense of scandal. And of course we were also being a bit rhetorical too by exaggerating our views. Like a common phrase in Italian that we would jokingly use would be lo dovrebbero fucilare [we must shoot them]. We’d say, “Oh, that guy, [lo dovrebbero fucilare].” As either a suggestion or pity: You know, jokingly, “He should be put out of his misery.”
An index of influences
Riccardo Nova: Every week or so I would call and talk with Fausto, even when I was living in India. In the ‘90s, when I was living in Amsterdam, we would constantly talk on the phone, speaking about books most of the time. Toward the end of his life, one of the last books he was reading was the complete memoirs of Giacomo Casanova. But Fausto said he didn’t want to bring it to the hospital. He said, “I will read it, but I don’t want to read it in the hospital. I want to read it in a nice place.” This book is like 3,000 pages. Fausto liked it a lot. I introduced him to this. But he didn’t finish it.
While I was always interested in science fiction, Fausto started with classic authors like Proust. He was a big fan of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, he could recite some of it by memory. But then he became very interested in science fiction with authors like Philip K. Dick and Stanisław Lem—these kinds of science fiction classics. And Fausto was a fast reader. He could read maybe one book every week. So he would go from Dostoevsky to Proust and then Nietzsche and then some philosophic essays. He was reading everything. But with Proust, he was always going back there.
Atli Ingólfsson: We had a common interest in literature and philosophy. Fausto was an avid reader. He constantly read philosophy, theory, and also poetry and novels. He liked reading social theory too. I remember a period where he was reading a lot of Max Weber. And we loved to discuss these things. I had a degree in philosophy from the University of Iceland, so I was conversant in these things. I also had an enormous curiosity for Latin poetry. Fausto loved Latin poetry and so we admired some of the same poets.
Giovanni Verrando: In 2002, we went to the cinema in Milan, to watch David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” We were so impressed and thrilled that, when we left, Fausto said: “Next time Lynch will have to add electric charges under the seats, because it’s almost impossible to give stronger shocks than this.” This shock was, in a way, what he was looking for in his music.
Luisa Vinci: He was inspired a lot by the books he read. For instance, there was a period in which he was fascinated by the process of what happens in the body, especially when using drugs. And he read a lot about it. There were also times he was fascinated by writers like Philip Dick or Georges Bataille.
Adventures in the Sahara
Atli Ingólfsson: He looked like he was a very nervous person. And this was just because I believe there was so much going on in his head all the time. He was the type of guy that couldn’t stand still. If we were talking at a concert or something, he was constantly moving around. And, of course, I noticed this all the more after he got sick. And after he was in remission, we traveled together to Stockholm. He was constantly looking at his hands, seeing if he had a rash. That was one of the symptoms of his cancer. Sometimes he would see a pimple, and he would start scratching it and looking at it, he couldn’t stop looking at it.
Riccardo Nova: After his bone marrow transplant, we didn’t speak directly about death. When he was in the hospital following his transplant, I could not visit him—but I was also in India so we could only speak on the phone. And he was still making fun and laughing, but with his oxygen mask on. Even though he was weak, his humor was still there. But we did not talk about death. I was saying, you know, you will come out. But yeah, we could not go there, directly to the topic of death. At this moment, I didn’t feel like it was appropriate. Before, when he was not in the hospital, we spoke about reincarnation, these kinds of things. But not when he was in the hospital.
Luisa Vinci: Our time together, as a couple, was very chaotic but very happy. We had beautiful adventures—sort of adventures—let’s say, “adventures in the Sahara.” It was beautiful to be together. We also had a lot of problems. But it’s normal. That’s life. When I think of Fausto, there is always a smile, there is always irony, and there is always a love of life. He had this capacity to be leggero [light] in front of huge problems. This was really something very, very important for my life. He had a lot of health problems, but there was always a smile. And even when he was really suffering, there was always a lightness and a smile.
Give it an odor
Atli Ingólfsson: We both were attracted to the grotesque sides of life. We believed that the grotesque should be taken seriously. It’s a worldview. If you look at Fausto as a whole this all this comes together, his fascination with prog rock, and so on. His impact was huge and we’re still digesting it. If you listen to his compositions, there is this fascination with taking composition down from a pedestal, and down to dirty real life—giving it an odor and a taste—sort of opening up the area outside of logic. We were educated to create forms, and then imagination was supposed to do the rest. This became somewhat of a dogma. But then we discovered that the piece itself could have a personality, a character. It had more than just structures. It could be flawed—it’s not neutral. It was fascinating for us to delve into this realization that music was just like a person, that it has its own intentionality or attitude beyond its structure.
Luisa Vinci: In France, there was a moment in which they started to understand that the music of Fausto was something unique. I think Ensemble Intercontemporain and IRCAM eventually understood that his music was really original, and so they started to program his music. This was a big moment in Fausto’s career, because he started to receive a lot of commissions. With the commission of “Professor Bad Trip” I, II, and III it was clear that he was developing a new way of writing.
Giovanni Verrando: Fausto permanently introduced, into the chamber ensemble, instruments like electric guitar, electric bass, and so on. In my opinion, he helped change the sound world of the 20th-century chamber ensemble. Pieces like “Professor Bad Trip” III, for instance, are precisely part of this process. In this piece, acoustic and amplified instruments are blended with electric instruments in a very personal way—let’s say, in Fausto’s way. He loved words like “fusion,” “liquify,” “distortion”… and “Professor Bad Trip” III is a manifesto of his point of view. Fausto felt that the musical context needed a change. His way of building connections with non-notated music (electronics, rock and so on), to introduce unusual instruments into “contemporary classical” concerts, and his very personal language were a bit shocking—mostly for musicians that had an academic, or let’s say conservative approach to composition. This is one of the most important legacies that Fausto left to the young composers: Don’t be scared to insert your personal point of view. But work and research around it, to make it stronger. I see that many younger composers quote him, through his words or his music, probably because they feel that Fausto’s music helped change the sonic paradigm of contemporary music. ¶
Correction, 2/13/2022: An earlier version of this article contained mistakes in Italian phrases.
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