Music / Notes & Observations / Notes from the choir

5. From East to West: Astra leaves Camino for Treviso and Venice

By Nicholas M Tolhurst

Via Pasolini

Via Pasolini, Camino

Before leaving Camino I need to reflect on the curious status in the Friuli region of the Italian poet and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini, in the Friuli region. On my walk to my swish digs at the Villa Mainardi I came upon a street sign that read ‘P P Pasolini’. In Camino it seemed as improbable a sign as one reading ‘Marquis de Sade’. According to our music host, Francesco Zorzini, Pasolini is somewhat revered in the region as a champion of the Friulan tongue, having written influentially in the regional language in the 1950s and 1960s.

My own acquaintance with Pasolini is through his films, which are a determined assault on bourgeois taste, concomitant with Pasolini’s own, slightly idiosyncratic radical political stance that saw him taking early aim at creeping internationalism and at the ‘daddy’s boys’ who were playing politics as members of Italy’s radical left in the 1960s. Zorzini himself made reference to Pasolini in one of his speeches preceding a concert (the Italians do like these speeches). My Italian was insufficient to the task of understanding the reference, but I was chuffed to hear that Pasolini seems a living presence in the arts in Camino. I guess it helps explain why the Zorzini/Vaglini-directed festival in Camino is called Contro Corrente (Counter Current) and why Astra was there.

I have no idea what the good burghers of Camino think of Pasolini, but I did notice the parcels of housing land for sale in Via PP Pasolini looked to have been on the market for some time.

You have to hand it to John McCaughey to forge the sorts of artistic relationships that bring a skilled amateur choir across the world to a small town in northern Italy for a festival of contemporary performance, so counter-cultural it breathed new life into the historical avant garde (the Fluxus happenings)—no, not a waking of the dead exactly, but Nam June Paik’s Dragging Piece

Nam June Paik, Dragging Piece

Nam June Paik, Dragging Piece, Camino

through the streets of Camino did have an uncanny aspect to it (viz Robert Franzke’s Zombies in Camino theory).

I spent a lot of time walking in and out of and around Camino, The weather was perfect with cloudless skies, no wind and the temperature around 18C every day. I got barked at the by same dogs every day and listened to the bells call to other from tower to tower across the rich farmlands and vineyards of the region.

The dogs of Camino

The dogs of Camino

But we had to return to Venice. A week in Venice already had me tuckered out before we got to Camino. Camino was a lovely respite. Returning to Venice on the full moon proved to be even more exhausting than our first week there. We got back to rain and the beginning of the aqua alta, the rising tides that flood the city. If that sounds like fun, it’s not. On the morning after returning to our apartment we discovered the courtyard flooded to wading pool height at about 9 am the next morning. It subsided an hour or so later and we were able to leave. I bought a set of the temporary waterproof leggings and stomped along in them for about 15 minutes until I saw gumboots for sale. Seasoned Venetians were wearing gumboots and my leggings felt very temporary, so I bought a pair of gumboots and sold my leggings at a generous discount to a fellow choir member when I got to my destination that morning—the church of San Stae on the Grand Canal, where Astra was to perform a major choral concert.

Venice is disgusting under water. It sloshes around, smells of poo and it totally disoriented me at night (two tides a day remember). After a magnificent dinner one night I got hopelessly lost (lost in Venice? No, really?) and spent 40 minutes going around in circles at 11 pm, wanting either to lean on a bridge and cry, or check into the first hotel I saw. Fortunately I had my gumboots, especially as the posh restaurant I was dining in started to flood a little as we dined. All the staff wore gumboots: it’s what you do. Not having worn them since I was a child, I found them incredibly uncomfortable and they did excruciating things to my calf muscles. Hint, if you have to buy gumboots, I suggest you get a size bigger and wear thick socks for cushioning.

Next day we stomped into rehearsals at San Stae, a great pile of baroquery with its own vaporetto stop (a lot of the vaporetto services stop during the aqua alta as they can’t get under the bridges, which means more gum booting). The echo in the church had about a four-second delay, so McCaughey had to rethink his conducting of us, so we didn’t just sound like a big mush.

The Astra Improvising Choir came into its own here. We performed our Australian rain forest set and it made magic in the cavernous and scruffy interior of the church. We got an audience, small but scattered convincingly throughout.

Wet in Venice. Our intrepid correspondent not taking risks. A hood as well as a brolly!

Wet in Venice. Our intrepid correspondent not taking any risks, a hood as well as a brolly!

Of course it was raining, this being Wet Hell Week in Venice. We ended the concert with our Pastores Loquebantur exit, but although the redoubtable McCaughey led his shepherds out into the world, the rain on the square outside drove many of the flock back into the church, whereupon the applause redoubled and mass theological confusion ensued between audience, choir members and McCaughey, who insisted that shepherds doubling back to Bethlehem made a mockery of Clemens non Papa’s music, if not the central tenets of Christianity itself. Half the choir got wet. Reports from the audience were extremely positive about all the whole concert. We were a success!

That did it for Venice for us. Our next gig was Treviso, just up the train line a half an hour out. We were to perform at the Santa Caterina Museum a beautiful and simple 14C brick building with a great acoustic, frescoes by Tomaso da Modena and set up for concert performances with a new organ tuned for different temperaments. No time to dig up an explanation here, check out Filippo Perocco (our Treviso host and long-standing composer/collaborator) playing some Ligeti. It took our genius of an accompanist Kim Bastin quite some time to sort out the right registrations and to get his fingers around the wacky split black keys. Usually he covers these contingencies in seconds.

Treviso is a thoroughly genteel town and I liked it so much I booked myself to stay there for two nights and fled Venice. Apart from a strong music culture, Treviso also hosts street events like Bikies Against Child Abuse—intimidating from a distance, like seeing a host of Hell’s Angels in the Toorak Road shops, but then you read their jackets. Utter delight. Treviso also has the huge, huge church of San Nicolò, which has a painting of Saint Christopher that must be three storeys high. Saint Christopher is big in all ways in Treviso, appearing in a number of churches. Maybe it’s because the area has lots of waterways.

Our concert at Santa Caterina went very well. We improvisers opened with the rainforest bird calls in the large cloister outside the church and the audience (we had an audience!) was so spellbound they wouldn’t go in and let the concert begin. It began to get cold after 20 minutes of this, so after one more round of kookaburra calls led by Susannah Provan (a mean currajong as well) we subsided to crickets and frogs and Perocco ushered the last of the audience inside. The church has an amazing well of a side chapel, which bounces sound around in a heady fashion and the improvisers worked on some extraordinary changes on a chord used by Dan Dediu to open his Stabat Mater. Overall, a knockout concert in Treviso, a place I’d happily return to, especially to avoid staying in Venice.

Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Treviso

Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Treviso

One last gig in Mestre, at Riccardo Vaglini’s home-cum-art gallery, which he has just established. We stopped by to sing at the gallery opening, performing three Eisler revolutionary songs, 1. Solidaritätslied; 2. Resolution of the Communards;  3. Report of 1st May: Thoughts on the red flag (song is 3 minutes in). These were heartily sung, rousing songs, led by McCaughey himself, in his heart, still at the barricades. Mestre is a working town, just on the mainland across from Venice, perhaps appropriate to stop at after performing in Pasolini’s heartland (albeit as dead-set daddy’s boys and some mummy’s too no doubt).

When we explained to our apartment landlady in Venice we were also performing in Mestre she said: ‘Nooo, no, no, no, Venetians do not go to Mestre. I am sorry’. We got a lot of the nay saying and wagging of the finger in Venice. Vaglini says Venetians won’t even cross more than two bridges to move out of their zone of comfort and that those in the north of Venice think poorly of those in the north. La Serenissima indeed.

You can have Venice, it is as absurd now as is Dubai. The food is conceptual at best and it is expensive. OK it has amazing art and I do like the Peggy Guggenheim. There I found an extraordinary temporary exhibition of the post-war AZIMUT/H movement in Italy, which included Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg having a gay old time. AZIMUT/H was the avant garde when it still meant something and there was a bourgeoisie to startle. It also produced highly accessible works. Now that we have all been leveled by our consumerist culture, all aspiring to the same western, internationalist-branded lifestyle, we are immune to shock and, quite possibly, there is no place for the avant garde to take a stand today. In that, I was glad Vaglini and his acolytes were rekindling the Fluxus flame.



One thought on “5. From East to West: Astra leaves Camino for Treviso and Venice

  1. Well done, Nicholas! Your skillful writing brings to life the sights, sounds and heart of the Italy you experienced. Venice at high tide is to be avoided! And gum boots do require the protection of heavy socks! J. F.

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