Silvano Bussotti, known as Sylvano, is an Italian eccentric, some say genius, and the word ‘flamboyant’ appears in many articles about this modern Renaissance man. He is a composer, poet, set and costume designer, painter, journalist, actor, singer, theatre and film director and sometime bad boy of the arts. Internationally he is more known as a composer, and the Oxford Grove Music Encyclopaedia describes his music thus:
His music at once exults in and criticizes the decadence of modernism: his notation is often flamboyantly virtuoso in its graphic style and fiercely demanding to perform; his works tend to abound in cross-references, to each other and to his personal life, which would seem colourful; he mixes a sensuousness amounting to eroticism with an extreme artificiality.
However it is Sylvano Bussotti’s theatre work (as a 3-in-1 package: director, set and costume designer) that concerns Vittoria Crespi Morbio’s new monograph for the Amici della Scala.
Sylvano Bussotti was born 1 October 1931 in Florence, and as a child became a prodigy on the violin. He went on to study at the city’s Conservatory from 1941 to 1948. At the same time he studied painting and applied the principles of aleatory (or “chance”) music, championed by John Cage and others, to the page he designed on as well as that he composed on.
His music and painting are intertwined: as he needed a freer way to express his musical ideas on the stave he devised his own notation – often without clefs or notes or anything that resembles conventional music – and the result can look more like a graphic design than a composition. The Gale Encyclopedia of Biography says,
In his Five Pieces for David Tudor (1959) the score looks like Rorschach ink-blots; the performer is asked to approximate the shapes in sound. Naturally, no two performances, even by the same pianist, will ever be the same. In these pieces Bussotti extends normal piano technique in requiring that the fingernails be rattled against the keys and that the strings be plucked, hit by table-tennis balls, and rubbed.
Except for music, Bussotti was self-taught, having left school when he was 9-years-old:
At 13 I was reading Rimbaud and Verlaine.
His uncle Tono Zancanaro and his older brother, the painter Renzo Bussotti strongly influenced his style in painting, and being that his father worked at the Florence Town Hall he was able to visit the Uffizzi Galleries whenever he liked.
This freedom of study maybe forged his freedom as an artist and Bussotti was attracted by the theatre of the absurd where the traditional sense of plot and characterization are abandoned. His boldness and courage in his approach led him to express his sexuality in his music as early as 1958, and he was openly gay in an age where this was not only rare, but also dangerous. His partner in life, Rocco Quaglia, was also his muse, dancer and choreographer for many projects.
Teatro alla Scala staged his operas Nottetempo in 1976 and Le Racine in 1980, for which he also directed and designed the sets and costumes. His ballet Ripetente was presented in 1975, Oggetto Amato in 1976, and Cristallo di Rocca in 1983, where once again he also directed and designed.
Bussotti directed Mussorgsky’s opera The Fair at Sorochyntsi for La Scala in 1981, and the 1983 production of Puccini’s Il Trittico, which was televised, for which he also designed the one-act Gianni Schicchi.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.