Creating music in the era of contamination

A discussion on the deceptively simple theme of ‘contamination in music’ provided much food for thought, reaffirming the desire to talk about music and ideas, to try to understand one another better and more profoundly. Text by guest author Zeno Gabaglio

Jazz in Bess: Creating music in the era of contamination

Round table discussion on the theme of ‘Creating Music in the Era of Contamination’: (from left to right) Zeno Gabaglio, Nadir Vassena, Maurizio Chiaruttini (moderator), Gabriele Pezzoli and Carlo Piccardi. (Photo: Giorgio Tebaldi)

Writing a report on an event you’ve taken part in comes with one major problem: the conflict of interest. This most partial of creatures precludes any reasonable expectation of objectivity, so readers are warned that every aspect of the account from this point will be marked by the utmost subjectivity.

But let’s rewind: on 7 June 2019, a round table discussion on the theme of ‘Creating Music in the Era of Contamination’ took place in the convivial surroundings of Jazz in Bess in Lugano (the closest thing Ticino has to a Jazz club – but this magical venue deserves an article all of its own…). Four diverse exponents of Ticino’s music scene were invited to take part: Nadir Vassena (a composer, teacher and stalwart of the cultural scene for decades, and someone who has enjoyed considerable success across Europe), Gabriele Pezzoli (a jazz composer and pianist who has pursued a distinctly personal and varied creative path), Carlo Piccardi (a musicologist, director of Rete Due for many years, and one of the most devoted connoisseurs and defenders of Ticino’s musical heritage) and the writer Zeno Gabaglio.

It was an eclectic group – like the proverbial box of chocolates – and their mixed backgrounds alone suggested a range of ideas on music. This wealth of opinions emerged rapidly thanks to the moderation – and encouragement – of Maurizio Chiaruttini, a journalist and former producer at RSI.

Search for an own musical identity

‘Contamination seems to have become almost an imperative in every field of artistic expression: contamination between different genres, contamination between languages – cultural and popular, academic and commercial, acoustic and technological – contamination between cultural idioms of disparate origins. In a context such as this, what does it mean to search for your own musical identity, your own style, your own authentic means of expression?’

This was our starting point and, going against every dramatic rule there is, I can tell you right now that there was no arrival point – or at least, there wasn’t just one. Opinions diverged even on the meaning of the term ‘contamination’: some underlined the essentially negative connotations of the word (which, Vassena reminded us, shares the same root as ‘contagion’), while others agreed its distinctness from concepts such as ‘purity’ and ‘identity’. ‘Contaminated’ musicians, of course, cannot be pure; they inevitably lose a small part of their identity to take on something new.

Keeping the focus on terminology, Gabriele Pezzoli suggested a synonym – ‘hybridisation’ – which is less negatively connoted and more open to the variety of stimuli the modern world offers up, and with which Pezzoli identifies.

Masterpieces are often the result of a process

Carlo Piccardi then started off by reminding us that contamination is a broad historical phenomenon that dates back well before the present day. Major historical works – undisputed masterpieces that are universally recognised as uniform creations – were often the result of a process. But the processes required to create a work are hardly ever reported, and even more rarely remembered. It is in precisely these processes that, during the last two thousand years of European music, contamination has played a decisive role.

As mentioned earlier, we didn’t reach any one conclusion, but this discussion on the apparently simple and narrow theme of “contamination in music” led us to secondary themes and observations that – in an era when you might expect the opposite to be true – reaffirmed our desire to talk about music, to discuss ideas as well as sounds, and to try to understand one another better and more profoundly.

Guest author Zeno Gabaglio is a musician/composer and a SUISA Board member.

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