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Digging Through Plastic: Tiziano Popoli's Collected Recordings
Richard Foster , January 21st, 2021 08:58

A collection of the works of 1980s recordings by one of Bruno Maderna's former students reveals a composer far too much fun to be confined to the academy

In Inferno, his recent book on 1960s trash culture, Ken Hollings cites how Andy Warhol listened to music whilst painting. “Warhol painted while relentlessly blasting the same song, a 45 rpm over and over until he ‘got it’ . [...] ‘The music blasting cleared my head out,’ Warhol revealed.” Warhol’s process of “getting it”, one where songs are played to death and disappear into another form of consciousness, recasts popular music as a disposable energy source rather than something we should preserve.

This cavalier approach to pop music is one that is thrilling and fecund, pushing the medium to its limits whilst using it as a conduit to make something else. The Warhol quote and the process it illuminated also popped into my mind whilst listening to this extremely enjoyable compilation of the work of Italian composer, Tiziano Popoli. Pop music certainly seems to have energised Popoli, too, who once said of the medium, “What attracts me is [...] its power to immediately and directly reach the listener: at times in a trivial way, but sometimes also brilliantly.” In this respect the compilation’s title is also brilliantly appropriate. Burn the Night / Bruciare La Notte hints at both the cleansing, ground-clearing properties of fire and the hedonistic aspect of having fun with making poppy sounds that have a “magical power over feelings and emotions.”

Many of the tracks found on Burn the Night / Bruciare La Notte have something rough and ready about them; elements that are swiftly assembled and presented, both for maximum effect and as a way of capturing the essence of the creative impulse. Fun to play, or to clear your head out while you burn up the night, in other words. Opening track ‘Twist’ reveals itself as a montage of chopped up voices, the cadences and pitches hacked and hustled into a brisk rhythm. These vocal clips morph into the sort of humanoid bleeps that could have been made by contemporaries such as Mantronix or Jean Michel Jarre, as well as the cut ups of more academic sound artists. Tracks like ‘Twist’ and the mysterious title track also betray a distinct feeling of the brashness of the 1980s: all those bold colours, programmed beats and angular shapes, sound and sonic imagery there to shock and sell the latest upgrade in Western pop culture.

Yet Tiziano Popoli was also a student of legendary composer and conductor Bruno Maderna, and seems to have been enamoured enough of his methods to write about them in various academic titles, mostly about post-war European music theatre. Of course, working with Maderna also situates Popoli close to the heart of Italian post-war composed avant-garde music, with names such as Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Mario Bertoncini – and Il Gruppo (a.k.a. Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza), whose members included Bertoncini, Frederic Rzewski, and Ennio Morricone.

So where can we place Tiziano Popoli? Last February, during a panel at Ljubljana’s MENT festival, the organisers of Belgrade’s wild and wondrous youth club HALI GALI claimed the main creative and social action in their club was not in the rooms where the music was playing, but in the spaces in between. “It’s always in the hallways” was a quote that stuck in my mind and mirrors one of the observations Popoli makes (one of a number of lightbulb moments in this release’s superb introductory notes, from Bradford Bailey). Popoli enrolled at the Conservatorio Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna in 1982, throwing himself into the world of the contemporary Italian avant-garde and tackling all forms of experimental music-making. Whilst there he began to hear music outside the spaces it was prepared in. “I was struck by the wonderful cacophony that I could hear from the central corridor; all the music that the students were rehearsing resounded simultaneously.”

I’d suggest Popoli’s work from the 1980s is essentially spatial, a liminal music happy to exist “in the hallways” between determined or accepted musical spaces. He embraces the results of accidents and experiments, and makes work that has no time for fitting snugly in any canon. This is what we hear with cuts like ‘Svelf’ (which is maybe a mishearing of the German word, zwolf?), ‘Night Flight—Prozession’, ‘L’amour Fou’ and ‘Iunu Wenimo’; compositions that sound like momentarily overheard conversations, music made “on the move”, if you will. ‘Iunu Wenimo’ – a louche lofi disco number introduced by a curious soundscape (workmen drilling in a train station’s entrance hall?) is a brilliant example of seemingly disparate sounds being shuffled around and appearing in cameos, like slides in a magic lantern show. Now and then there’s a distinct sonic similarity with another trickster who was tuning into dissonant frequencies, Holger Czukay. (In fact the two may share a Pope, as the voice on ‘L’amour Fou’ doesn’t half sound like John Paul II’s, who takes lead vocal duties on Czukay’s Rome Remains Rome).

You could also classify Popoli’s music as one that dabbles in a form of functional, “quotidian minimalism”, unpretentious and seemingly concerned with surface, but noticeably invested with a strong moral hinterland. This is something you can see in a great minimalist in the visual arts – and another Bologna resident – Giorgio Morandi. Both artists seem to draw on deep wells of patience, happy for their respective audiences to discover new aspects of their work in their own time. We hear this forbearance with reflective cuts such as ‘Minimal Dance N. 1’ and the gentle fifteen-minute long essay, ‘Mimetico Erretile’, which are also very much of their time: light if studious forays into the modern classical world then dominated by the likes of Phillip Glass. The tracks also share a spirit with Popoli’s collaborations such as the 1985 LP, Scorie, a theatre score made with Marco Dalpane.

As mentioned, Popoli composed for the theatre, and this sense of drama is well represented with performative pieces such as ‘Se Son Rose Fioriranno’ and the mildly trippy ‘Una Libbra Di Cielo’. His is definitely the sort of music that was built to accompany other art forms on opening nights, or to score films. Tracks like the moody ‘Blues Padani’ are there to be heard in the open, or wherever the shaman decrees. Their flimsiness and instability, indeed their quixotic natures demand different collective headspaces than a standard concert hall.

We started with an illuminating quote so we may as well finish with one – this time from an anonymous head called “quiet friend” who uploaded Popoli and Dalpane’s Scorie LP to YouTube. “Quiet friend” calls the LP the result of “two dudes from Bologna with a dx-7 and a 909 exploring negative spaces, digging through plastic and finding earth.” The simple fun in creating music that this quote suggests doesn’t lend itself to the trope of careful creation that has held sway this last decade. For one thing, Burn the Night / Bruciare La Notte is music from outside the academy, and indeed, outside the gig circuit. It is music that lives in the space where pop meets fine art and performance or theatre, for better and for worse; where hybrids mutate, far away from the hierarchical, “post-payola” tastemakers who currently categorise “lost” or unreleased music. Burn the Night / Bruciare La Notte is all too bitty and wayward – and too much fun – for anything too reverential.