Music theater, after Jack Kerouac. Stage production by M. Criminali, Venice, May 1982. Winner of the 1982 Ubu Award for best musical score for a theatrical work.
by Giovanni Agosti
FOR YEARS AND YEARS On The Road was the play that no one wanted to talk about. Presented in 1982, between the epoch-making, in their way, results achieved by Nervous Breakdown, 1980, and Genet in Tangiers, 1984, it was a cumbersome, very ambitious piece of work, not something one particularly liked to remember, except, when joking and at the same time quoting a little bit of history, to bring back to mind how much it cost: 300 million lire, "of those days".
It is difficult to reconstruct today for those who did not witness it how amazed so many of us were at finding ourselves, after the dialogue pared down almost to nothing between the neon and the Venetian blinds, in front of such a flood of visual, and above all, verbal romanticism. There were telephone calls from Francesca Alinovi in which she swore that she could understand nothing... In the beautiful Diary of a Lady by Marion d'Amburgo could be read: "This will be a ferociously sentimental piece, we have to finally find the courage to say 'I love you'".
Somewhere between Einstein, Wilson and Balanchine from a design point of view, the epic melodrama that Federico Tiezzi was planning sought to be, or perhaps risked becoming, the musical of a generation. And yet, to look at it once again, there are astounding coincidences which, however much license is allowed when discussing the theatre, cause one to reconsider, if not to completely change, the critical opinion of the time. The feelings shouted out under the changing colours of tropical skies, the last great love affairs with elopements and betrayals and even an Aztec temple in papier maché, which filled the set of the play's second act, are strictly parallel to Querelle by Fassbinder, in production at that precise time in a bogus Brest perenially soaked in orange. And we are talking about something truly parallel—not a derivation like any amateur historian, brandishing chronology, could demonstrate and then ascribe to the spirit of the time. After all even in the most difficult moments the conviction has never been lost that "we have a sense of time".
That On The Road should be "entirely musical" was one the hooks right from the very beginning. Existing tracks by favourite artists of the time, from David Byrne to Brian Eno, from Robert Fripp to Brion Gysin were not enough, not even reorganised "by Magazzini Criminali". Even though these were the years of the seventies and the eighties, of records and concerts, when Federico in Via Sabotino in Rome, in Last Concert Polaroid, was shouting into a microphone that he wanted to be a rock singer, a feeling for the need of a sense of reality set off a search for a real musician with whom the work for the show could be organised, like many years later when poets were asked to collaborate on an adaptation of the Divina Commedia. And then the name of Jon Hassell—whose music had been used in the sound hybrids Nervous Breakdown and Ebdomero 2—came up. His idea of sacred music was fascinating: where the surface exoticism, somewhere between Pygmies and Malaya was still aware of the serialism of the twentieth century. After all, if you listen to him, the Aka of Central Africa ought to assert that music lacking periodicity does not exist for them... The tapes of endless pieces of music, which progressed with minute permutations for blocks of minutes at a time, refusing to give any form of acoustic gratification, were accompanied by the movements of the bodies within the scene—creating a real and proper metrics.
Every now and then the music lets space open up with croaking frogs and swooping seagulls—there is something of this in this record too—while the geometry of the movements broke into the childish jumping on the trampoline in the background. The music, the text, the atmosphere were imbued with a wild desire for heat: in all of this novel of Kerouac, 1957, remained the sense of the journey towards the South, which was no longer just Mexico, but the whole of the South of the world. And to think that now the heat gets more and more on our nerves...
The lines of the play were full of repetitions, not very different in this from the ones the music resorted to: the sentimental tone of the words headed in another direction, made up of quotations from the novel, film titles, fragments of life, with neither plot nor narration. And, for example, in one of the unforgettable romantic duets between Sal Paradiso and Venezuela, in the middle of the rather obsessive patterns of the percussion, the question "Where are the microfilms? Where have you hidden them?" could be alluding to smugglers' dark affairs on the New Mexico border but also bring to mind the studio materials that Sandro tombardi was ordering at that time from the Bibliothèque Nationale to study lean Fouquet's crystal clear miniatures. And between From Here to Eternity and My Body Will Warm You or Tender Is the Night there could also be a "we are like carnations trembling in the sultry weather", removed by sheer force from Carlo Braccesco by Roberto Longhi.
All around, before the plague and when we were young, there was laughter and desperation and esotericism and licentiousness, some trace of which perhaps and the rhythm of them at least can be found by whoever so desires in the beautiful Risveglio dei Faraoni by Mario Mieli, written in 1982 but only published in 1994; and suffice to recall, among a thousand other jokes, the fake masseur, Tom Como, escaped from a Tom of Finland drawing and added to the playbill of On The Road. But here a little psychological restoration would be in order... After the ethnic and electronic melopoeias commissioned from Jon Hassell, after the fruitful encounter with Giancarlo Cardini, will come, and fortunately are still here with us, the soundtracks chosen by Sandro Lombardi, beautiful and intelligent like those of Stanley Kubrick's films; after the epic and generational melodrama of On The Road, for Federico Tiezzi will come Norma, La Traviata, Carmen... •