Interview to Maestro Federico Gardella

From his training with great composers to his perspective on contemporary composition within the current music landscape, we had the pleasure of interviewing Maestro Federico Gardella, who this year will accompany composition students in creating pieces inspired by Francesco Petrarca, to be performed in the concert program of the 14th edition of the Livorno Music Festival.

You honed your craft with masters such as Azio Corghi, Alessandro Solbiati, and many others. How, if at all, have these personalities influenced your compositional style?

It’s a very, very beautiful and complex question. On one hand, it’s clear that when embarking on a journey as a young composer and choosing mentors, you pick them because you somehow see in them, let’s say, a path to follow, a trajectory that somehow feels familiar, congenial, that speaks closely to us. So, the masters you mentioned, along with many others – who have been significant figures in my professional, human, and artistic growth, I think for example of Toshio Hosokawa – have been central figures; firstly, for what they’ve taught me and then naturally for their music, which is a primary example for me. But also for a certain teaching in terms of freedom. This, in my opinion, for someone teaching composition and for a young composer, perhaps is the greatest gift a master can give. The gift of freedom and critical independence in some way, regarding music in general and more specifically regarding oneself. So, to answer your question, I can tell you that, indeed, these figures you mentioned have been great masters for me. I’d say Masters with a capital “M.” But they’ve also been companions, friends, and people who have aided my formation, helping me become myself through writing.

The Livorno Music Festival students this year are required to compose a piece inspired by a work of Francesco Petrarca. What could be the challenges in composing music inspired by literary or poetic themes?

Well, first of all, each year at the Livorno Music Festival, within the composition masterclass, we aim to have slightly different instrumental ensembles. We’ve had the flute, the violin, the double bass, percussion, vocals, and this year we have a very unique ensemble: two cellos, clarinet (which also means bass clarinet), and piano.

I’ve wondered why and what exactly it means to dedicate a concert – which will be the concluding concert of this masterclass at the Livorno Music Festival – to a poetic voice, the voice of Francesco Petrarca, without having a singing voice, moreover. What could be the relationship of these somewhat abstract sounds to an extra-musical suggestion?

My hope is that each participant develops their own idea, their own approach. I’d say, for example, in my compositional practice, I often start from an idea, not necessarily “extra-musical,” but an idea of a place, a place where I feel my music should, in a sense, resonate. Sometimes it’s a physical place, I don’t know, a cliff, a coast, a stretch of sea. Sometimes it’s a poetic place: the words of a poet, a certain part of a painting, another piece of music, for example. So the fact that there isn’t a singing voice, in my opinion, could paradoxically be further stimulus to creation, precisely in the direction of finding in a word, in a text, in a vision of Francesco Petrarca, a starting point, a perspective from which to imagine a new compositional horizon.

Earlier you mentioned freedom, what advice can be given to young composers trying to bring out their own voice in the contemporary compositional landscape?

I’d say not to think too much about the theme of originality, in my opinion. We are, in some way, surrounded by a musical landscape, I would say in quotes “contemporary” (a word I don’t particularly like “contemporary,” but well, of our time) that asks us to be original every time, asks us to invent something new every time, and this is certainly a powerful stimulus for research. But it’s also, let’s say, a slightly dangerous spiral. I’m a bit suspicious of this originality.

When we talk, for example, we use words that have been spoken by many others before us. When a great poet uses a word, they don’t invent it. If a poet invented words every time, they wouldn’t be able to communicate, communication happens because I use words that you’ve already heard many times and maybe I can use them in a context, in a way, with a new vision, but naturally those are the words. So, the theme of originality is a fragile, insidious theme, let’s say. I prefer to think that a young composer or a less young one (well, all of us who approach writing creatively) should have an authentic approach (even more than original) to writing. Or perhaps original in the sense of being originating. Yes, that’s the word I like more. But well, seeking an authentic way to express ourselves, without excessively worrying about inventing words, but rather discovering, digging inside ourselves, maybe finding something interesting to say.

Sure, also telling the reality that surrounds us, in the end, that’s what the composer does.

The composer does, of course, many different things. A part of our writing is obviously reacting to what surrounds us. We are, first of all, surrounded by a thousand different things, but also surrounded by many different sounds. We are continually “bombarded” by a weather of sounds that come from cultural horizons, from very different stimuli.

The interesting question to ask is: among all these auditory stimuli, what do we give the status of Music, what is Music for us?

Luciano Berio had made some beautiful television broadcasts, titled “There is music and music,” and the theme, let’s say, a bit underlying, is what is music? And Berio, in those years, always with his lucid and fantastic vision at the same time, said that “music is everything we listen to with the intent of listening to music.” So if we even listen to the ebb and flow of the sea believing that it is music, well, that is music.

When you intervene in your students’ scores, what are the main aspects you try to improve or modify, and how do you ensure that these changes still respect your student’s original vision?

This is a very difficult question because naturally, anyone who writes tries to put a true part of themselves into their music. So in some way, criticizing a piece of music means criticizing the person who wrote it, we can’t pretend otherwise. This is naturally a very big responsibility: it requires a certain delicacy to do so. I always try to imagine what the student really wanted to express and to do so, I try to do two things, essentially.

First: I try to intervene on a technical level to try to give as refined tools as possible to be able to write the thought. Because writing the thought is an extremely complicated thing: we can think wonderful things, extraordinarily powerful in terms of expression, but then we have to put black and white dots on the staff and this, let’s say, is a technical issue. How do we file down, make this gap (which will always be there) as small as possible, between thought and writing? Writing is somehow always a “betrayal,” we have to admit it, but it’s a powerful betrayal and sometimes it’s structurally important.

This is a first part that concerns the more technical issue, but then there is also a perhaps slightly more philosophical aspect. Why do we like certain things? Why do certain ideas come to mind? Because once the ideas come to mind, we can only do our best to realize them. But where do ideas come from in a composer? And so the thing I like is trying to work also on this initial phase. How does taste develop in us, the desire to write a certain sound, to build a certain formal arc? This is why at the Livorno Music Festival we tried to articulate the course, let’s say, in two phases. There is a first phase that takes place online, it consists of two lessons, one with me and one with the instrumentalists, who will then be the resident musicians. Why do we have these first two meetings? Well, we have them because once we are all together in person, all together in Livorno (from August 7th to 13th), then we will need to work hard and we have seven days of very intense work. But I always like to have a meeting before, to discuss with these composers, with these female composers their sound world, what they really intend to write and what the best way is to realize it. So, this first meeting is a very important meeting for me because, first of all, it’s about getting to know each other, but then it’s also about, in some way, giving an idea of where we want to go, what we want to do at the concert on August 13th. At the same time, there will be a meeting with the instrumentalists, because often composers ask those who play very complex things, let’s tell the truth: the music of our time is demanding, it’s demanding for those who write it, it’s demanding for those who play it and it’s very demanding for those who listen to it (and we need to know this). But naturally, there is always a relationship between what we think, hope, desire and what can really be done, what can really be played. So, this meeting with the interpreters in residence at the composition masterclass, is an online meeting, but it’s very important because it starts to delimit an “alpha” and an “omega” within which these new works will move.

Then, when we get to Livorno, we’ll have a week available: the course is aimed at preparing for this concert. So it’s organized like this. In the mornings there are lessons: lessons that are individual but group lessons, in the sense that I give frontal lessons, comment, discuss the scores one by one (but, of course, all the other participants are invited to attend, of course, but also to participate, to comment, to express their point of view because I’m convinced that in a complex and multifaceted subject like composition, like musical writing, dialogue and sharing are perhaps the most important aspect).

In the afternoons, however, every day (so from the beginning) we have scheduled rehearsal sessions with the resident musicians. This allows us from the beginning of the course to have the musicians playing and rehearsing and working on the pieces of the students of the composition masterclass, in a dialogue that, I think (can I say that in recent years it has been so?) very fertile between the practice of writing and the practice of playing, of interpreting. So even this aspect, namely this dialectic between the fact that we write and then there is someone (music alone doesn’t sound, but it’s a “mediated” art, in the sense that it needs a medium and that medium is the interpreter, who is indeed called interpreter because he interprets) is a very important moment of sharing and growth for all of us, for me first.

Do you ever deal with students who are afraid of not being understood, so they write, but their poetic either doesn’t come across or, for fear of not coming across, they try to imitate compositional styles that don’t belong to them?

Well, then: in my fifteen-year experience as a composition teacher (in Conservatory and elsewhere), the composition student is generally a complex type of person, otherwise, they wouldn’t dedicate themselves to composition (which is a good thing). However, it certainly requires some extra attention, let’s put it that way.

Yes, often those who write, especially today, especially in a musical world that continuously demands us to challenge ourselves in terms of research, experimentation, often those who write think that their music may not be understood. And naturally, the theme of “So I strengthen myself and therefore rely on the language of the masters or those composers that I consider fundamental in my path,” well, this is something that happens quite frequently (and I don’t even think it’s an attitude to demonize). It almost always happens in an initial phase of writing.

I think of many great composers who at the beginning were indebted to their masters. Well, Beethoven comes to mind in relation to Haydn, for example: it went rather well, then, in that case! So, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that it wasn’t a good idea. Certainly, then there must be a phase of independence from the lesson of the master (or masters), and perhaps this is the most difficult part, because it’s a moment when, by taking distance, one also realizes where they are. They are in open sea, in that case. So, in my opinion, one strength of the courses we offer in Livorno, at the Livorno Music Festival, is that ultimately the students who come to study with me, who will attend the composition masterclass, are not my composition students during the year, at the Conservatory. So, I can also play the “uncle from America,” a bit rude, the one who teaches the “bad words,” in a way. In my opinion, this is a very powerful educational function because since there is no final exam at the end, no judgment (but a concert), I am also in a position to say things in somewhat “rude” terms. That is, to try to evoke in them that real, true, profound part, which perhaps if we were, let’s say, within the walls of a Conservatory and then had to get to a final exam, I might struggle more to express.

What is your approach in providing feedback to students? Do you have any particular strategies to encourage students to reflect on their work, without however discouraging them?

Obviously, it’s hard to say in general. That is, it depends on each student’s personality. There are those who are so self-assured that they don’t need to be encouraged. However, I must say that something that often happens to me, both in the Conservatory and at the Livorno Music Festival, is that then the class builds itself as a sort of “microworld,” I would say, that is, we support each other a bit. A nice thing, I must say, from my experience both as a student and then as a composition teacher is that rarely in composition classes do real great antagonisms arise, it’s more likely that some form of collaboration arises (after all, we’re all in the same boat, no one knows exactly where this music is going and so we try to do our best to steer this boat). So, the fact that, for example, within the final concert there is always a piece by the teacher as well, in my opinion, is a very healthy and very, very right thing. It’s a bit in the “mission” of the Livorno Music Festival, that is, to have the students play with the masters, but also to make sure, in our case (since we don’t play), that the concert is a concert where my music is also present. In the sense that it’s a piece among the other pieces, and therefore it’s a way to show that all of us have our weaknesses, our weaknesses. There are more successful pieces, less successful pieces. But anyway, in my opinion, the real sense of all this is to put the best of ourselves every time we take the pen and start to write.

Well, then we invite all composers who have not yet enrolled in the composition masterclass of the Livorno Music Festival to go to our website and submitt everything that it’s needed, Let’s remind what students need to submit to apply.

The selection by me will be made on the scores, possibly with a recording (but, if there is no recording, it doesn’t matter). You need to send two scores and a compositional project. It’s always difficult to make these projects, I realize that. It’s very difficult to talk about a piece of music before the piece of music has been started to be written, in some way.

What is important, for me, will be to try to understand the relationship of these projects with the theme we have chosen (that is, Francesco Petrarca) and to indicate three possibilities of instrumentation because, as I mentioned before, we have available two cellos, clarinet (and also bass clarinet), and piano. The pieces can be for solo instrument, duo, or trio. So, I ask you to list these ensembles in order of preference, so a trio, a duo, and a piece for solo instrument. This request also depends on the fact that, since we have to arrive at a concert, it’s important that the concert is as varied as possible in terms of instrumentation. So, let me give you an example: if everyone wants to write a cello duo, it’s a problem. In the sense that we would have a one-hour concert of two cellos (which is beautiful, but maybe it could be more interesting and stimulating to have as many different instrumental possibilities and interweavings as possible).

Perfect, then we thank you and see you at the Livorno Music Festival from August 7th to 13th

We remind you that the composition masterclass students will have the opportunity to participate in the Peter Maxwell Davies Prize for a piece to be premiered by ContempoArtEnsemble (www.contempoartensemble.com) in 2025 and in the selection to have direct access to the final round in the Veretti Competition 2025 of the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole. Every student that wants to take part need to specify it in the application form.  Prizes and Competitions


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