Experimentum Mundi

Giorgio Battistelli

Traverse Theatre, 8 September 2009 4 stars

experimentumThe title means, approximately, an experience of life. But that hardly starts to give an impression of what Giorgio Battistelli's delightful score is about. This is a theatre piece, as the avant garde classical tradition knows it, but with an ironic twist: the drama, or rather the theatricality, is provided by an ensemble of skilled artisans. Skilled, that is, in a variety of crafts; a mason, cobblers, smiths, knife-grinders, a pastry-maker, coopers, carpenters, pavers, a percussionist, four singers and a narrator.

Battistelli's original idea in 1981 when he first created the hour-long score, was to celebrate the continuity of life as experienced in his home town, Albano Laziale. Over the years and some 200 performances around the world, some of the artisan fathers have given way to their sons, fostering a unique relationship and bond between the performers and their score.

The theatrical spectacle is made by the artisans in the act of practicing their respective crafts. With the exception of the pastry-maker and the mason, the trades are represented by pairs. Their actions make sounds of different kinds. For example, the pastry-maker opens the performance by cracking six eggs into some flour. The splat, and the scrunch of the crushed shell, are amplified, as are most of the other players' actions in a carefully-choreographed rhythmic routine. The mason comes in, and his is the lively master pulse, at around 130bpm.

The other artisans contribute a polyphony of timbres, many made by hammers striking a variety of materials; stone, metal, wood. One carpenter uses a wooden plane, which makes a more pleasing sound than a metal one would. When the grinders enter, a new visual dimension is made by the showers of sparks (drawing gasps of delight from the audience), and also the slightly bizarre spectacle of one grinder pedaling the bike-like machine, holding the knife to the wheel with one hand, and reaching down to turn the page of the score with the other. The entire performance, you see, is carefully notated, and all the players attend to their tasks with one eye on their part and the conductor, Battistelli, sunk in a pit in front of them.

Behind the craftsmen, a solitary percussionist plies his trade. The timbres at his disposal echo those in front of him: mostly drums and untuned metal of various kinds; in other words, no vibraphone, marimba or anything like that. The sounds, and indeed the compositional content, are reminiscent of the percussion in Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale. In the narrator's texts, meanwhile, there is an echo of the experimental music theatre of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, though the ordinariness of the language is more overtly unstudied. Battistelli uses entries on the various crafts in Diderot and D'Alembert's Dictionnaire Raisonné, a gesture that holds out a hand to continuity, but also to that certain measure of irony. The audience, in a sense, is treated to a tableau vivant strikingly similar to the decontextualized illustrations that the Dictionnaire is famous for. The question one might want to ask is: what will become of the pastry once it has been made? What of the beautiful piece of paving, held in place by a wooden frame? And what of the useless barrel (having neither top nor bottom)?

And, while the celebration of everyday noise certainly evokes personal memories of small-town life (resolving the question of how the four-strong female chorus fitted in: clearly their thread of sub rosa chat suggests that they run the post office), one reflects that in just the same way that most of the crafts have their industrial, mass-produced counterparts, so too now does the world of sampled drums offer a timbral standing reserve. If Native Instruments haven't sampled this for a Battery kit, they should- the sound of the coopers' four-pound hammers beating the iron bands into place is the climax of Experimentum Mundi, and a truly fantastic sound!

By Peter Cudmore

Photo by Roberto Masotti


DervishesRelated articles:

Concert Review: Whirling Dervishes of Turkey at last year's Edinburgh Festival
Opera review: Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera in Edinburgh
Concert Review: Steve Reich evening at last year's Edinburgh Festival

Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum