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Pierre Boulez was recently asked why American minimalist music, popular in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, had had little influence in France, Germany, and Italy. “If I wanted to be nasty,” he grinned slyly, “I could say it’s because we have culture.”

Perhaps Boulez’s colleagues are less cultured than he’d like to believe. New musical winds are sweeping across Europe, though in recent years the Atlantic has proved such a formidable cultural barrier that we in the colonies are lucky to register a breeze here and there. All the more exciting, then, to receive a visit from Giancarlo Cardini, the Italian pianist/composer whose unconventional methods have outraged, amused, and delighted audiences on three continents. Cardini, who teaches at the Cherubini Conservatory of Florence, has not only made a tremendous splash with his own brand of pianistic theatricalism, but has brought a new and intriguing school of Italian composers to international attention.

As a pianist, Cardini is something of a succes de scandale, though the virtuosity he exhibits in more conventional repertoire lends credibility to his off-keyboard exploits. He’s recorded Erik Satie’s six-hour piano oeuvre in its entirety, and his concerts often include little-known piano works of 19th-century Italian composers, such as Rossini’s Sins of My Old Age. His reputation as an iconoclast is based on conceptual and theatrical pieces; for instance, Novelletta by Sylvano Bussotti, the score of which is spray-painted on a piece of manuscript paper. Cardini’s realization involves not only frenetic fingerwork all over the keyboard at once, but face slapping, body sounds, and the violent dispersion of handfuls of leaves. He plays Bussotti’s Brillante with his forearms and palms, while one of Cardini’s own offerings, Falling Object, uses a ticking clock as an ostinato to the sounds of falling books and magazines.

What is more amazing is that Cardini has brought such music not only to New York and San Francisco, but to Japan, Nepal, and Delhi, India. Not surprisingly, “the audiences there are quite astonished by the use of so many objects along with the piano,” Cardini muses via his interpreter/wife. “But their reaction is very warm. There’s no great difference there from European audiences. Today people listen to music in a more pacific way than 20 years ago. It’s a positive thing, but also negative. Instead of a real reaction to musical differences, there’s a passive acceptance of everything.”

But Falling Object is the exception in Cardini’s output. Most of his music is calmly meditative, grouping him with other Italian composers–Luca Lombardi, Primo Oliva–who have returned to tonality, though without the driving momentum and simple triads that distinguish the minimalist music of Americans Philip Glass and Steve Reich. “Not many younger composers in Italy subscribe to serialism anymore, only a few who are out of date. Many have turned to neo-tonality; it’s a phenomenon that has come about all over Europe: Germany, Great Britain, Poland. I’m very interested in the work of La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, and Terry Riley. But I’m less interested in the harmonic aspect; I don’t like the oversimplification of the new tonality. It refuses the enrichment that new music’s complexity can bring.”

Cardini’s music makes the point succinctly. Sustained, repetitive, and riddled with bittersweet dissonance, it conjures up an atmosphere for which “Neo-Impressionist” seems the most fitting label. Even his titles have an evocative quality Debussy would have admired. Slow Change of Color From Green to Red in a Bough of Autumn Leaves, for example, dating from 1983, attempts to portray the “apparent stillness of certain phenomena of nature.” Pairs of somber-colored chords alternate calmly, moving from one tonal realm to another so slowly that each small change takes the listener by surprise. A Winter’s Night moves among thick, parallel harmonies to create a dark, introverted mood.

Many of the composers Cardini champions (Lombardi and Luigi Nono, for example) write music of explicit political content. But after hearing Cardini’s sonata, 20 minutes of dreamy arabesques, one is not surprised to hear him state, “I’m not interested in a political message; I believe in art pour l’art.” Mysticism, however, is a strong interest; and one of Cardini’s aims is to sharpen appreciation of natural phenomena. Another is the extension of minimalism into the piano repertoire. “There are only a few compositions for piano: the Keyboard Studies by Terry Riley, the works of Charlemagne Palestine, and Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano. Aside from that, there are almost no minimalist pieces one could play as a soloist.”

Giancarlo Cardini’s first Chicago performance will include two of his own works, Slow Change of Color and the Sonata no. 1 of 1983-4, plus some of the works he’s best known for: Bussotti’s Novelletta, Lombardi’s Wiederkehr (a virtuoso showpiece from 1971), and the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera by Luigi Dallapiccola, Italy’s major 20th-century musical figure. The concert will take place Saturday, December 12, at 7:30 in Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan at Adams (Michigan Avenue entrance), cosponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in cooperation with the InterArts Ministry. Admission is free, and information is available at 822-9545.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roberto Masotti.