Filippo Santoro is an Italian composer who studied with composers Luciano Pelosi, Boris Porena and Stephen Dembski and draws inspiration from the teaching of Franco Donatoni. His music has been described as “otherworldly, intellectual, gentle, yet never genteel” (The American Prize) and takes inspiration from nature and the way biological forms grow and develop. Filippo’s works have been performed internationally and across the United States. Honors include third prize in chamber music-professional division- at the American Prize 2015, UW-Madison Concerto Competition with the work Arioso Mistico for soprano and orchestra, and residencies at Kimmel Nelson Center for the Arts, Brush Creek Foundation for the arts, Ucross Foundation for the Arts. He was a composer fellow for the Composers Conference, Valencia International Performance Academy, ISCM New Music Miami, Nief-Norf Summer Festival 2016. Filippo has recently created works exploring form and modularity through collaborations with ensembles such as Talea, Nomos Group, Nodus Ensemble, Transient Canvas, UW-Contemporary Ensemble, Clocks in Motion, I flauti di Toscanini, Second Movement Ensemble, Wingra Wind Quintet and solo virtuosos such as Marc Vallon, Dough Lindsey, Kostas Tiliakos, Mili Chang, and Adrian Morejon. His long term projects include among others “Duplum,” a cycle of works for two same instruments in the tradition of Berio’s sequenzas and “Remote,” a series of solo and chamber works that explores performer and audience interaction through the aid of new technologies. Filippo has also presented numerous university lectures on the concepts of Figura in the music of Franco Donatoni, and the idea of modularity in music. Santoro was born in Rome and received a Master’s Degree in composition as well as diplomas in piano performance and chamber music from the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome. He graduated from University of Bologna with a Master’s Degree in music and semiotics and from State University of New York, Binghamton with a Master’s Degree in composition. He holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts in composition at the University of Wisconsin where he was the recipient of the UW-Madison University Fellowship.
After receiving my DMA at UW-Madison, I took part in this interview for the school of music’s blog. Click here to read the post, in which I talk about my dissertation and work as a composer.
Duplum Interview with Clocks in Motion – 2013
In this interview for the Clocks in Motion percussion ensemble, I describe how I wrote Duplum for two percussionists, my role models, and how I use technology for composing.
(Full transcript below)
Interview with Filippo Santoro
Sean Kleve: Could you please explain for us the title of your piece, Duplum?
Filippo Santoro: Duplum as you know means adding a voice to a pre-existing voice, but it also means several other things that can explain what I was doing. Duplum also contains another word, “duplicum” from the latin word which means to duplicate somehow. When choosing the word duet… it seems that Duplum is a better choice because it gives an idea of multiplicity of interaction of two elements that are actually pretty much the same. This is what I wanted to explain with the title. The connection with the past but at the same time a new way of interpreting by adding new connotations.
SK: What elements are you duplicating in this piece?
FS: You duplicate the material. A single player becomes two players. A single vibraphone becomes two vibraphones. Xylophone, 2 xylophones. A set that’s exactly the same. And then you have to think about how to make them work together. From a certain meaning, duplum means polyphony… Mixing things together but at the same time making things independent and gaining a singular path and at the same time respecting each other in the way they work. For me it’s very interesting. I don’t know why, but every time we write for two instruments there is always a necessity to not write difficult music for both instruments. In the history we think about any composer who wrote for two instruments called duet, there’s always this idea to not write music that is virtuosic because being together is something that will create problems in the performance. I wanted to exaggerate that by writing something for a virtuoso single player and then duplicating that situation.
SK: In our early discussions about Duplum you said that you’re unhappy with the idea of melody and accompaniment where one performer is dominant over the other performer. If you’re not using this structure, what structure are you using in its place?
FS: If you don’t use a system where one side is dominant then you need to have a situation where there is a balance. You need to figure out geometrically how things will work which means that sometimes both performers will play exactly the same thing exactly the same way. Other times they will begin to go out of phase and create the idea of polyphony. A polyphonic way of writing music which in the end is actually geometrically seeing things out of phase, not exactly in the same moment. There is also the numerical combination of the three instruments: vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel. The idea is that the performer can actually play multiple combinations of the set, and always duplicate what the other one was doing. There’s always an idea of “mirroring” one another because I believe in the gesture and I think that visually it’s very interesting. It’s like playing in a mirror if you have another performer doing exactly what you are doing. I think that aesthetically this is an idea that I like to explore and I already did explore in a piece for two cellos by the same title. It’s the beginning of a larger project … I don’t know where it’s going to go, but for sure I want to explore this idea of using [pairs of] the same instruments. For example, instruments that can have different ranges, such as a piece for two clarinets that would end up using the bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet. Playing with these possibilities with another player and playing around with rotation of who’s going to do what in playing each instrument. I think it’s interesting.
SK: What are your feelings about writing difficult music? Why do you write difficult music?
FS: I don’t write difficult music because I want to give a hard time to the performer. There is not an intention to hurt the performer and make them do things that are impossible. This is not the way to write music. I think there are many ways to look at the question, “what is difficult?” You can explain what is difficult from a composer’s point of view, a performer’s point of view, and from a reception point of view. If I think about something difficult it’s when our mental image is pretty much in paradox between experience and practice. I would like to make an example: Say you are a pianist who can play all the Chopin Etudes very well and I ask you if Chopin’s music is difficult. You would say that it is, of course, difficult, but not in a way that will prevent you from playing it because the experience and the practice not on a single piece but the plurality of all of Chopin’s work makes that practice and experience a similar process. The more you practice, the more you experience Chopin so the idea of what is difficult doesn’t exist anymore. You solved the paradox. But if I asked you to play a piece by Stockhausen and you had never seen a piece by Stockhausen? You probably think having never played Stockhausen but having played Chopin would allow you to deal with the score because you have the technique to play anything. But the problem is that there is a point in Stockhausen’s music that is not covered by the technique of playing Chopin. You are coming from the experience of a certain practice and you have a new experience to deal with. You don’t have the practice of that experience… Even though you are a strong performer, every time you are faced with new problems, the phrase “this is difficult” is going to waste a lot of time. It has nothing to do with technical capabilities.
When we think about the word virtuoso, it comes from the word “virtue” which means a man who has “moral” virtues which is moral qualities. Translated into music, it is a person who is capable of understanding everything about the instrument, even the limits of the instrument. When Luciano Berio was writing his Sequenzas he was actually thinking about performers who could poke the instrument in such a way that was actually going beyond the possibilities. An instrument won’t ever change. What changes is our perception of the instrument and our way of manipulating our physicality towards the instrument. The instrument is an object and cannot be changed unless we want to change it. From my perspective as a composer there are some ideas before becoming music that are naturally complex and cannot be simplified. What I want to see in a performer and in a performance is the ability of clarifying the complexity by having understood the problematic elements before playing the piece. Simplification does not work. When an idea is complex it needs clarification and an explanation but doesn’t need a simplification because that doesn’t actually explain the complexity. That is what I think.
SK: Who are your compositional role models? Do you feel connected to your roots as an Italian composer?
FS: When I came here in 2007, I had already finished my career as a student of composition. I graduated from S. Cecilia Conservatory and the University of Bologna so I was a formed musician with good training in piano and chamber music. There are two realities: the way we study composition in Italy and the way we do it here. There is a quality in the Italian system that is reassuring: If you decide to be a composer and enter the conservatory you will deal with programs that are the same everywhere in the country. Not just everywhere in the past 10 years, but everywhere in the last 60 or 70 years. This means that you are taking exams that Berio and Donatoni took. All composers must follow the same path which is three years of strict counterpoint and crazy exams. They lock you in a room and make you write a fugue in 18 hours. It’s crazy but I think it’s a good model. You know that you’re going to do something that EVERYBODY has done before you regardless of difference of talents, concepts and the role that music will have in your life. But if you want to be a composer, there’s only one way to do it, and that’s this training. Then you decide what you’re going to do. Here, in America, there’s much more freedom and that’s beautiful from my perspective. I think it’s nice that I’ve done both and I feel much more open about how we should teach composition and what a composer should do. There are still things in Italy that are mandatory such as being trained in piano and organ. This is mandatory for every composer and why? There are reasons there, because being a Catholic country, a composer being able to play organ and piano can sustain himself by accompanying in the church.
I have many composer models that I am artistically in love with. For instance Henze, I have studied at least 50 of his scores, which is nothing compared to how much he wrote. Also, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Sciarrino, but it’s interesting that I began studying these scores after I came [to America] because there’s always this idea of the “exotic.” You don’t ever spend time learning your own people, because you think they will be available to you all the time. So I spent my time studying American and German composers because what’s happening outside is always more interesting. And of course I love the music of Franco Donatoni. It’s a beautiful example for me to follow. I think we seek models. It’s not just a means of copying someone, it’s a means of mirroring yourself out and saying “I can understand myself now” because that person is thinking about music the same way I’m thinking about music. That makes the process much easier to understand… I think we end up with the same understanding of music, of course with an incredible difference of productivity and talent, but I think that’s what I seek when I find a composer that I like.
SK: When writing Duplum for percussion, were you specifically considering your performers? What influence do the performers have on your compositional process?
FS: I think that this one was the best situation possible for everybody. Having a piece that must be written and for performers who are completely committed in helping to understand the functionality of the instrument. I could not find scores written for this combination of instruments, so I had to figure this out with you [by] taking pictures of the instruments to figure out how to play all these instruments at the same time. Of course this is a piece written for you, and it’s a virtuosic piece based on trust that you’re going to do the job. It’s a piece tailored to your technical capabilities and it’s the best situation because you’re sure that what you’re writing will not be wasted.
SK: How much research went into writing Duplum? Is this amount of research standard when you’re writing a new piece?
FS: Something I used to say to my composition students is that writing a piece is like being an architect and being asked to design a building. You don’t just start designing the building. You visit the site and look around to see what’s going on around you. There will be other buildings with certain style. You need to know how much space your building will take up. There’s no way to write a piece without awareness of what has already been done in that same instrument or medium. You have no awareness [in this case]. You may think what you are doing is interesting and it’s actually not interesting at all because it’s been over-done. If you want to do something new, you have to be willing to do some research. Go to the library and check out 80 scores and discover what is common practice, what is a dangerous passage, and there is a statistic of elements that will come up from there. Then you must make a synthesis. You have to have an idea that precedes this searching for others’ ideas. Ideas are only ideas because they are in relationship with other ideas. This is a circular process. My ideas can only be reinforced by other ideas. Other ideas cannot become my ideas, but they can reinforce my ideas by this physical contact. It’s just like building a building and knowing that you can only take up so much space because there’s another building [in the way]. In this case, what I wanted to do was NOT use the vibraphone in the same way over and over again, or the xylophone in any idiomatic way. Idiomatic writing is sometimes a trap. Idiomatic [writing] is common practice.
SK: How was your first experience writing solely for percussion?
FS: I think historically, percussionists are open to new music because of the lack of repertoire for that kind of medium. If you look at the viola repertoire in the 19th century and the viola repertoire in the 20th century you see an incredible development of viola technique. You find the same development in percussion. It’s different because you find people that have a better experience with the practice of new music rather than a 19th century playing technique.
SK: What is your opinion of the current state of affairs in contemporary music locally in Madison and how you and Clocks in Motion fit into this community?
FS: I think we need to think about what is contemporary music. It’s me when I wake up in the morning and write a piece. It’s you when you make a choice to play Stockhausen rather than a much easier to play or easier to understand composer. It’s everything that we do to foster this type of musical thought. It takes courage and patience because we encounter resistance from others. I think it’s a mission. We need to make the listener understand the experience and practice the same way we do. Think about a string quartet that has played contemporary music for 30 years such as the Arditti String Quartet. They can play that music. They’ve internalized it and digested the philosophy that for them it’s like playing Haydn. It’s not difficult, it’s just a new language. They’ve learned the language. When you learn a language, how difficult is it at first? Then, after time, you become fluent. We need to help people become fluent in new music. I think that’s your mission and purpose as a group to be a contemporary ensemble. Contemporary is a beautiful word because it’s around us and it can be changed and it must be understood. I really think that contemporary music is always more interesting than classical music because it represents who I am. It’s the only way to reflect myself and see who I am now. There’s no way that I can tell who I was 100 years ago because I was not there. I think you guys are doing a great job. You guys are the initiators in this region. We want more groups! Contemporary music is fun to do! There’s nothing serious about contemporary music. I don’t know why there’s this idea that contemporary music is fuzzy, unclear and depressing. This reality is a complex reality and music will therefore be complex as well.