Sylvano Bussotti

Sylvano Bussotti (born 1931), an Italian avant-garde composer, was one of the most audacious of the experimental composers of his generation. His ability to discover new sounds in conventional instruments was unsurpassed.

Sylvano Bussotti was born in Florence and received his early education there. Between 1941 and 1948 he studied at the Florence Conservatory, and in 1957 he became a student of Max Deutsch, a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg, in Paris. At the same time Bussotti studied painting and became acquainted with the principles of abstract expressionism and the concepts of aleatory (or "chance") music championed by John Cage and others.

In abstract expressionist painting a great deal was left to chance. The painter worked without a preconceived plan or drawing and sometimes dripped or slashed paint on his canvas. In the corresponding movement in music, composers believed that the traditional composer-performer relationship, in which the composer "controls" performance through the exactitude of his notation, should be changed. Instead, they held that the composer should establish only certain general situations and then allow the performer great liberty in fulfilling them.

As a result, traditional notation had to be abandoned because it was too precise. Probably because of his training as a painter, Bussotti was very ingenious in devising new notation. His scores often have no staffs, clefs, notes, or anything resembling conventional music. Instead, there are doodles, blots, or intricate line drawings. In his Five Pieces for David Tudor (1959) the score looks like Rorschach ink-blots; the performer is asked to approximate the shapes in sound. Naturally, no two performances, even by the same pianist, will ever be the same. In these pieces Bussotti extends normal piano technique in requiring that the fingernails be rattled against the keys and that the strings be plucked, hit by table-tennis balls, and rubbed.

In Frammento (1959), for soprano and piano, the singer intones a wide variety of fragmentary texts in several different languages while the piano punctuates with highly percussive sounds. At times, the singer sings directly onto the piano strings so as to make them vibrate sympathetically.

Bussotti, like other avant-garde composers of his generation, was interested in multimedia theatrical performances. His "opera" Passion, according to Sade was presented in Sweden in 1968. Without a plot and without characterization in the usual sense, it is in the tradition of the theater of the absurd. Another piece, written in the same year, is called Instrumental Theater. When the curtain opens, a piano, a harp, an electric organ, and a harpsichord are seen, along with a clothes rack on which there are numerous costumes. The performers change costumes from time to time, while projections are shown on the back wall of the stage, and tapes of distorted words and music are played. Here, too, every performance is different. Success depends on the ability of the performers to improvise and on the empathy of the audience.

Passion, according to Sade piqued Bussotti's interest in theater, which came increasingly to occupy his imagination in the 1970s. Turning his back on the radical experimentation that had marked his work in the 1960s, Bussotti began to incorporate more theatrical and operatic elements into his work. His Rara Requiem (1970) marked the beginning of this stylistic shift, which culminated in 1972 with Lorenzaccio, a virtuoso blending of dramatic genres most plainly influenced by 19th century grand opera. The work incorporates elements of ballet, film, spoken passages, and off-stage events into a seamless unity of which music is only one part. Eschewing experimentation for the craftsman's devices of the traditional theater, Bussotti manages to use all of the artistic tools at his disposal. As much a departure as it is, however, the composition's theme of memory and its quotation of the entirety of Rara Requiem as its fourth and fifth acts hearken back to earlier Bussotti works.

Bussotti continued to work with the techniques and eclectic mixing of styles perfected in Lorenzaccio for the remainder of the decade. He also found time for a wide range of academic and administrative commitments. In 1972 he traveled to Berlin on an award from the Deitscher Akademischer Austauschdienst. From 1971 to 1974 he was a professor of history of music drama at the L'Aquila Academy of Fine Arts and in 1974 held an open course in music analysis at the Milan Conservatory. In 1975, Bussotti was named artistic director of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Throughout this period he worked as director and designer on numerous stage works by himself and other composers. His major works during this period include the ballet, Bergkristall (1974), and the opera, Nottetempo (1976).

More recently, Bussotti has kept up his breakneck pace and astonishing command of genres. Il catalogo è questo is a cycle of symphonic movements for orchestra which the composer began working on the late 1970s. A series of operas centered around the character of Racine's Phèdre commenced with Le Racine (1980). Fedra (1988) transformed and expanded upon this piece, while L'inspirazione (1988) explores the theme of artistic creation, as its elderly protagonist oversees the production of a new opera in the year 2031.

Further Reading on Sylvano Bussotti

Paul Henry Lang and Nathan Broder, eds., Contemporary Music in Europe: A Comprehensive Survey (1965), includes a short discussion on Bussotti and his work. An excellent background study is Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961). A more recent work is A. Lucioli's Sylvano Bussotti (1988). A valuable essay on Bussotti's work, "'Auf der Suche nach der verloren Oper' Mozart's Musiktheater und sein Winfluss auf Luciano Berio und Sylvano Bussotti" appears in S. Mauser, Mozart in der Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts: Formen asthetischer und kompositionstechnischer Rezeption (1996)