Music / Notes & Observations / Notes from the choir

3. From the East to the West: Astra at Camino’s Contro Corrente music festival


Performance venue: Chiesa di Ognisanti, Camino. Pic: John Terrell

By Nicholas M Tolhurst

11 November

The town of Camino is on the Tagliamento river—broad and sandy in early November and evidently a mighty flow when the snow on the nearby Alps melts in spring. The Alps here are the Dolomites. They are about 160 kilometres away, rising up in great jagged peaks and escarpments, the likes of which strike wonder into the heart of an Australian like me. Camino is aflow with the clearest water I have ever seen in a stream or gully. It gushes out of fountains and what look drinking troughs for animals all over the town, while a pretty little stream runs through the middle, replete with shale, green weed and trout (and No Fishing signs).

The town itself is as neat as a pin and quite modern: there are few old buildings. Everything is neat. The streets are neat; the local builder’s yard is a picture of obsessive tidiness. The farmhouses, a short walk out of town, are beautifully ordered—not even a random rake out of place.

Camino has excellent vineyards. The Ferrin winemakers produce a wonderful Rosato and sparkly rosé. Actually everything we tried of theirs was pretty damned good in a lightish sort of way.

All this we discovered after our arrival on a bus from Venice. Our mission was to contribute to the seventh Camino Contro Corrente festival. The theme was Strade dell’Est with Astra bringing works from the east, or about the concept of orient meets occident.

Camino is small and has few hotels. Most of us were taken to a monastery about 20 minutes walk out of town, where we shared rooms in pleasant, basic accommodation, again of quite new construction. I offered to share my room with Kim Bastin, our accompanist and linguist extraordinaire. Kim is very quiet and I understood he liked to get up quite early in the morning, as I do myself. He certainly is very quiet and I was a little sorry he didn’t talk in his sleep as I was curious to know which of the twelve or more languages he speaks he would murmur in.

Two things caused me to abandon Kim after two nights. Maybe three. On the first two nights the electricity failed in our wing. I don’t blame Kim. The shutters on our windows completely blacked out the room and I had to stumble around by the light of my phone at the foolish hour of 6:30 am while Kim slept soundly on (issue number two, he didn’t wake up early and I think his understandable exhaustion a poor excuse).

The third issue was the ‘young ones’ in our group who formed the sort of anxious mob young people do on tours and who never shut up. If this sounds faintly condescending, I shall try harder next time. I blame Kim for not taking them in hand and reminding the of their obligations as performers blahdey blah, keep your racket down yackety yack and stop being so damn enthusiastic, snarley snarl. On the third night in Camino I moved to the infinitely more genteel Villa Mainardi on the other side of town where some of our more mature choristers were staying. One other thing drove me from the monastery—the bells. There are church bells all over Friuli it seems and they start at 6:30 am, ringing every quarter of an hour.  Charming but incessant.

The Villa Mainardi is an old pile, now a busy horse stabling and riding concern with hordes of dogs living on a broad roof above some of the stables. I had my own room and only had to share my bathroom with one person, instead of six at the monastery. And no bells.

At Camino we were finally able to rehearse our program for the Camino Festival, which was organized by the sweet and hugely energetic Francesco Zorzini.  Francesco’s twin brother Carlo was also on hand, as was their father, who, with his old mate Claudio made sure we were all looked after (Zorzini padre and Claudio even insisting on picking up our pizza tab one lunchtime).

The generosity and interest of the locals was astounding, when we met them. Camino is very, very, very quiet. Not even the rustle of a curtain as you pass by. I’m told it’s also very Austrian in its neatness. At the heart of town is the Associazioni donatori di sangue, which I understand to be the blood donor’s association. Nice idea, but it seems to dominate Camino, with a large, modernistic building and visibility as major sponsors of the arts. It contributed to a really eerie sense I had about Camino. Maybe I need to visit rural Austria more.

My friend Rob and I riffed on the possibility that ultra-neat and flawless Camino was the secret HQ of International Vampire Management, located away from the obvious and much-trampled Transylvania. We conjured images of respectable vampirical business men and women tucked away during the day and emerging at night to bring order to the sanguinary needs of its stakeholders (ahem). Rob does tend to take a silly idea to its craziest limits. We did consider zombies stalking the streets, but that traduces the real and evident gentility of the Camino people.

It was Halloween while we were there and maybe that got us going. The local Friuli newspaper reported that the planned Halloween celebrations (not sure where) were ‘un flop’. No one turns up to Halloween either it seems. Also ‘un flop’ was a plebiscite on independence for the Northern League (the Berlusconi-supporting Friuli-Venezia Giulia).  It seems about 85% of voters want northeast Italy to secede, but only about 6,500 voters turned up. ‘Un flop’ indeed.

Which brings me to our performances in Camino. We participated in several more Fluxus events, which were only attended by the initiates, the Collettivo Rituale and Astra folk. But somehow it seemed this was not ‘un flop’ as we were sending the vibes of ritual performance art out into the ordered town and beyond, like burning an incense.

We also gave a final performance of Riccardo Vaglini’s Inventario. Vaglini (see previous entries of this diary) himself ends this autobiographical happening singing a Greek lullaby he learned from is mother (who is Greek, father from Pisa). It’s a gentle and charming tune and brings the whole shebang to an intimate close.

Vaglini’s parents had come to Camino to see their baby (all of 54, but you should have seen Vaglini senior fuss over him. He would have straightened Vaglini’s tie if he had been also been wearing one, with the implication being that, as father was in a suit, vest and tie, so ought son). At the close of Inventario, Vaglini began his Greek lullaby and someone started singing with him.  The small audience was well known to each other and it took a little time to realise Vaglini’s mother was joining in. It was an incredibly touching, spontaneous moment. Every hitherto unwitnessed performance of Inventario led to this moment. Then Vaglini senior started shushing mother up and family order was restored. Vaglini’s mum got her own huge applause and worked her audience beautifully afterwards.

The Astra choir finally got to perform a full choral concert in the Camino Chiesa di Ognissanti (All Saints’ Church) a large church built in 1909 I believe. It is in a somewhat renaissance style, richly painted inside and not really kitsch, just altogether too fresh. But that’s Camino hey.

We performed our concert Molti verrano da Est e da Ovest (many come from the east to the west) on All Saints day (there was some challenge on the accuracy of this from the several theological disputants in the choir); a lovely coincidence.

McCaughey ended the concert with a performance of Clemens non Papa’s Pastores loquebantur, about the shepherds talking up the birth of Jesus, visiting the babe and then leaving Bethlehem. The end of the piece has a chorus about the shepherds leaving, praising god and singing Noe (Noel) in a repetitive, polyphonic fashion appropriate to 1555, about when Clemens (not the Pope) wrote it. McCaughey’s direction to the choir when we perform it is to be the shepherds and keep repeating the chorus as we walk out in a general, shepherdy straggle singing Noe, Noe, Noe. At Camino we walked out of the church into the street and the very cold air and, for the first time, our audience (yes we had a full house!) ceased their applauding and followed us out to more acclaim and general great feeling. As the shepherds historically had not drawn a crowd with them, it wasn’t quite what McCaughey had planned, but it was a moment typical of the conviviality of the Camino people.


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