Francesca Verunelli – Le Silence des Sirènes (lit. The Silence of the Sirens)

On March 29th, three days after its French premiere in Lyon with the GRAME, Ensemble C Barré and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart will perform Songs and voices under the baton of Sébastien Boin at the Centre Pompidou, an ambitious piece written by the Italian composer Francesca Verunelli.

Francesca Verunelli © DR

Songs and voices has been in preparation for almost ten years, since its first installment, Five Songs (Kafka’s sirens) was premiered in 2016. How did Kafka’s short story “The Silence of the Sirens” influence your writing?

Kafka’s story tells beautifully how much the absence of something (the silence of the sirens) is infinitely more significant than its presence. I meant to write it as a musical “tomb”, a funerary monument, an attempt to pay a humble homage to my sister who died prematurely in tragic circumstances.

In Ancient Greece, sirens were a symbol of borders and limits: a passage between the known and the unknown, and more specifically between the living and the dead. Faced with the mystery of life and death, it seemed trivial to reference any literary or intellectual work other than Kafka’s.

Has this loss changed you as a woman and a composer?

Of course, our intimate experience of life (giving it) and death, unavoidably changes us deeply. As an artist, it also changes your creative approach. Now, my prospects have changed. I truly believe that art is meaningless if it does not relate to life and death. I dared to go further and gave up everything that seemed futile.

However, in some way, I am still the same person, and I don’t think my compositional preoccupations have really changed. Some have been around for a long time but it is how I look at it now that has profoundly evolved.
My long-term work on these topics is finally coming to fruition.

Songs and voices was commissioned by Ensemble C Barré who performed the French premiere of Five Songs (Kafka's sirens) (commissioned by GMEM for Ensemble C Barré). How did the ensemble drive the composition of this piece? How did the musicians contribute to it?

The instrumental set is always a major constraint as it defines the sound specifics of the universe I create.
I have developed a long-term work relation and musical friendship with the musicians from C Barré, which allows us to undertake extremely extensive research, through constant exchanges.

 L'ensemble C Barré © Pierre Gondard

The major difference between Five Songs, which constitutes the first installment of Songs and voices, and the piece in its entirety, is the introduction of voices. It is only the second time that you compose for voices...

It is just a coincidence! I have other projects for the future that include voices.

How did you approach the vocal writing?

The beginning of Songs and voices revolves around the presence of singing in the absence of a singing voice. It is what drove the research on instrumental sonority, a kind of aporia which, just like Kafka’s paradox, intended to push the boundaries of the instrumental “visuals”.   

That first question naturally led to another which is somehow its opposite:

What is the voice without the singing? What is the voice as a simple presence devoid of its orphic function? What is the voice as an instrumental body, and as a body on its own? The voice as a carnal presence which precedes and surpasses speech. A kind of apotropaic object that anyone could identify but not understand.

Exploring this other side of the question surrounding the voice led me to add a vocal ensemble to the musical journey which unfolds between these two extremes: an absolute absence and an absolute presence, a voice that sings and a voice that is silent.

How did you structure the vocal writing with electronics?

There is no need for any electronic processing to make electronic music. Amplifying is already electronic sound work in itself. So, rather than adding foreign sounds, I mostly worked extensively with the microphone and on a subtle spatialization. My intention was not to make sounds travel but to give a greater depth of field to the sound landscape. These efforts have also been emphasized by Antonello Pocetti’s lighting work which highlights the subset of musicians for the entire duration of the piece.

The libretto of “Songs and voices” includes texts written in rather rare languages. How did you conceive it and where do the texts come from?

I chose two popular texts from the south of Italy and Sardinia. My choice was, like I said before, completely anti-intellectual and anti-literary. There is no poetical “I”, but only collective texts of which there are several versions and no identifiable author. These texts only speak of life, love, and death.

One of them is a song written for voice and guitar in scordatura. It is a love song called A valediction for her sister, in which the whiteness of snow, of paper, and the skin of a young girl also recalls the whiteness of a lifeless body.

Interview conducted by Jérémie Szpirglas