Fanfare Magazine
Robert Kirzinger

Rocco Di Pietro (b. 1949) studied piano and composition with Hans Hagen, Foss, and Maderna. He was a Fellow of the Berkshire Music Center in 1971 and also attended the Darmstadt courses. He earned degrees from SUNY Buffalo and Vermont College. He is the author of three books: The Normal Exception, Dialogues with Boulez, and Musician without Notes. He has taught as “an inter-disciplinary adjunct professor…in prisons and on many college campuses throughout New York, Ohio, and California,” including touring California prisons as an artist-in-residence and holding artist residencies at Ohio State, Stanford, Mills College, and SUNY Buffalo. His works have been performed by the Buffalo and Brooklyn philharmonics, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Orchestra, the Kronos Quartet, and conductors Gunther Schuller, Dennis Russell Davies, and Christobal Halffter, among others, and he has received grants and awards from ASCAP, Meet the Composer, the Kennedy Center, Ohio Arts Council, etc., etc. I had not encountered his music before, although I’ve owned his Dialogues with Boulez for several years. This two-disc release includes recent works going back to 1995 or even further, in that several incorporate within them yet earlier works by the composer, folded into the mixture, and re-readings, or improvisations on the written texts of prior works. Di Pietro calls these re-readings “doubles” or “multiples,” which is the explanation for some the piece titles above.

In a lot of ways, this music is hard to assess (but whose isn’t, really?). Listening to these discs without having read the accompanying notes, I found intriguing combinations of concrete and narrative sound-sources with live accordion, piano, and other instruments, many of the pieces seemingly trapped between music (as a time-based acoustic phenomenon), theater (as a time-based narrative phenomenon), and ambient sound (some complex sample-triggering wind-chime?). The composer’s often obscure comments on the music are cratered with quotations from and references to the saints of his aesthetic thinking: Henri Michaux, Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Derrida, the deconstructive-poststructuralist-postmodern axis, the citation of which is, for Di Pietro’s music, both illuminating and obfuscating. It’s illuminating in that we’re made to realize that the composer is aware of, and trying to draw on, different potential methods of apprehending and applying meaning to the “texts” of his work, using (as a starting point) the ideas of the primarily French, primarily last-generation) philosophical avant-garde. It’s obfuscating in that we’re made to realize that the composer is aware of, and trying to draw on, different potential methods of apprehending and applying meaning to the “texts” of this work, using (as a starting point) the ideas of the primarily French, primarily last-generation) philosophical avant-garde.

Knowing (/unknowing) what I do, having read Di Pietro’s comments, arguably put in jeopardy my initial thoughts about the music itself, which aligned the work with the American avant-garde of the 1960s and 70s, folks like Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, Steve Reich, and Ingram Marshall. I don’t mean to imply a great connection here, but the above-mentioned composers share with Di Pietro (on the evidence of the present collection) an interest in combining electro-acoustic musical investigation with more-or-less explicit social concerns. Whether this can be reconciled with the philosophical context of Di Pietro’s self-commentary in his booklet notes is a matter of perspective. In any event, I was somewhat surprised to hear this Maderna and Foss pupil with an interest in Boulez writing music that sounds like this music sounds, which is far removed (on the surface, anyway) from the Boulez-Maderna-era Darmstadt avant-garde, and far removed from Foss’s neo-Classic, traditionalist clarity. Of course, all three of these composers were also concerned with incorporating indeterminate or improvisatory elements into their work at one time or another. Di Pietro’s interest in the dialogue between “intuition and pre-planning,” as he puts it, is very much at issue here.

Finally, to the pieces themselves. Of the two discs, I found the second one—Containing Wave Fugue with Electronic LOST, Chamber LOST2, and Mobile Phone Dreams to be the more musically interesting. The two latter pieces, both from 2002, contain a lot of ensemble improvisation (echoes of Foss here?) spurred by relatively simple gestures—for example, a long section in Mobile Phone Dreams in which trombone and piano think aloud about a major second dyad, or a part later in the same work in which piano and electric guitar take on a blues progression. In addition to noise of recorded cell phones, their sounds are mimicked by the instruments, a texture that acts as a kind of refrain separating improvised duos between the pianist and one of the other players. Chamber LOST2 for Christian Boltanski is based in part on the monograms of actual lost children, the names of which were taken from those little advertising cards one gets in the mail: product on one side, tragedy on the other. Di Pietro’s use of these initials doesn’t strike me as being at all cynical or gimmicky, even as the actual musical context is pretty much  inaudible without a decoder ring. (Christian Boltanski, incidentally, is a French conceptual artist whose often temporary works and installations frequently make use of objects lost in public spaces—railway stations and the like.)

Wave Fugue with Electronic Lost (2003) makes use of the composer’s piano piece Wave from 1972, layering a performance of the piece (which is characterized by rapid, changing patterns) one bar out of sync with a pre-recorded version (hence “Wave Fugue”), and combining this with found and created taped sounds, from voices to techno beats to a string quartet and other lost sound objects. There’s more than a hint of classic minimalism in the Wave background of this piece, and an interest in repeating figurations is also to be found in several of the works on the first disc. A texture of layered descending chromatic scales played real-time on piano is the refrain of the fragment Tears of Eros (Torso Version B/Multiple—2001), which is excerpted from a longer, larger work. This piano texture is combined with many tracks of sex sounds, these episodes alternating with readings from Bataille’s Guilty and Sam Mangwana’s Life (both cited at the start of the piece). In Deconstructed Fountain from Ravel with Derrida Watching, a ghostly taped music is commented upon in the foreground by real-time piano music, variants of the same ascending arpeggio over eight minutes.

Chorale Injured Bird/Multiple (1997) and Dead Sleeping Soldiers (1995) share musical material and ideas. Both incorporate what Di Pietro calls “photos”—recordings of wild sound—crickets and a hearth fire in the former and the ocean waves and wind in the trees in the latter. N addition, the sharply articulated notes and chords of Chorale Injured Bird (the title comes from Di Pietro’s son’s drawings of injured and dying birds) reflect similar music played on synthesizer in the earlier work. Dead Sleeping Soldiers was originally written for a site-specific installation piece at an army barracks. The electronic keyboard is joined by a tape of another keyboard, plus live accordion. (It’s in these two works, plus Deconstructed Fountain, that Di Pietro’s music is at its most static.) Prison Dirges (Model Version B – 1995) is a series of brief life stories written by inmates, read and recoded by presumably other inmates, over a background of live, probably mostly improvised accordion music (played by the composer) and taped ambient electronic sound. While I like the sound, what makes the piece compelling is the stories themselves, which are unapologetically harsh, albeit also occasionally slightly self-congratulatory. Apparently these and similar stores are the content of Di pIetro’s book The Normal Exception.

I’m certainly cognizant of, if not completely immune to, the pitfalls of assessing work of one kind using the values of another kind of work, but I suspect what’s important to the composer is not whether I’m able to pick up on a strong correlation between the music and his aesthetic ideas as stated but whether or not the music itself makes for compelling listening. I hope that I‘ve been able to get across how though provoking this release has been for me. True, these pieces aren’t all equally successful as music, or put another way, as listening experiences, but much of it is very intriguing, particularly the three “LOST” pieces. This release, which goes by the title “Multiples/The LOST Project,” is available from and from the Electronic Music Foundation ( Di Pietro has a Web site for those interested in exploring further:

Robert Kirzinger

Fanfare May/June 2004