2018 Summer Christopher Lazzaro Temple Rome Temple Summer

Painting the Roman Landscape in Music

As I wrote in the description for my proposed final project in the photography class I’m taking here: “Every landscape tells a story.  It tells of a culture, a time, and a climate.  Each holds the potential to evoke a sense of longing, of loneliness, of mystery, or of contentedness in its observers, and some may well be called ‘home.’  Italy is a land of many such landscapes, which have been settled, toiled in, fought over, cherished, abandoned, and transformed, each in its own time with its own story.”

I believe this is true for music as well.  In my last post, I briefly touched on how my music has drawn inspiration from Impressionist aesthetics, and the same principle applies here as in the above: if you can “paint” a scene or a landscape with your music, you have the ability to tell a wordless story that embodies any or all of these things.  And that’s precisely what I intend to do with my music.

I also mentioned my last musical project prior to arriving had been a suite of sketches of sorts, for string orchestra, inspired by a characteristically Appalachian musical vocabulary.  For better or for worse, I have found myself still living in that musical space even while immersing myself in Rome and traveling around Italy.  After careful consideration and extensive discussion with my mentor, I have decided to continue in that vein–rather than compose something better fit to my setting inorganically.  This is not, of course, to say that my music will not absorb local influences.  If you’d like to hear something that’s characteristically Sicilian, for instance, I’ve been quite taken by Lautari’s “Malarazza” and “Bando do dimoniu” in the past week.  Only time will tell how an interpretation of an Italian musical vocabulary might play out in my own work.

But even if, what might a landscape sound like, and in particular, the landscape of the city of Rome?  It’s a puzzle with a million different pieces, and not a question you can answer without thoroughly understanding the identity of the city in question.  In as little time as I’ve spent here, I’ve been perplexed by the layers and layers of history involved: republican, imperial, pagan, Christian, Catholic, contemporary–all caught in a crisis of identity between the romanticism of historical prevalence and the reality of aging without renewal or replenishment.  Much of the city remains in ill-maintained conditions, and the exceptions to this tend to be so overrun by tourists that the underlying significance of the site is supplanted by novelty.

As complete or incomplete and accurate or inaccurate as this assessment may be, if this was the portrait I was to paint, how might I do it?  The most critical and central aspect of anything I write (usually) begins with the melodic line.  I could borrow a fragment from some age past, for instance a cantus firmus from Rome’s rich liturgical traditions, but there are always going to be more aspects of modern Rome that it is irrelevant to.  Starting something from scratch is not nearly as simple as I am accustomed to, either, since the cityscape is so diverse.  If this were to be compared with the highly rural southern Italian region of Basilicata (which I recently visited), for instance, you could travel for miles and miles and remain in the same aesthetic world.  In Rome, it only takes a few blocks (or incroci, as streets here are measured by intersections rather than segments on a grid).

Stepping aside from melody for a moment, then, take the harmonic vocabulary, or the instrumentation.  Each segment of Roman history would lend itself differently to these aspects.  In other words, there are so many traditions to respect that anything incorporated would be at the expense of something else.  The only viable solution would be a monstrous conglomeration of everything important that every part of Rome was and is, a veritable nightmare of aesthetic incongruity.  Or, alternatively, I could (once again) look back to Respighi, who wrote four discrete movements on different groves of pine trees in Rome, or four discrete movements on different fountains in Rome, each its own consistent, contiguous, cohesive portrait and/or narrative.  To me, this seems much more musically viable, but I continue to wait for a Roman locale that provides sufficient musical inspiration.

Until then, this lopsided waltz for the string suite has been running through my head virtually nonstop.

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