Fulbright Years and Franco Donatoni

Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) is one of the leading and most influential Italian composers of the last third of the twentieth century. I was fortunate to have known him, studied with him, and become his friend over the course of more than twenty years. He had a tremendous influence on my life. This is a recounting of our relationship and some of our shared experiences as I remember them.

Chapter One, First encounter

“Lay-VEEN-ay, sei arrivato!”
“uh, uh, uh,…co-me?(huh?)”
“Lay-VEEN-ay!, benvenuto!! Viene! Mangiamo insieme! Quando vuoi?”
“uh, uh, um,um…….”
“Aspetti, aspetti, mia moglie e irlandese (Irish), aspetti (wait)”
“Jeffrey, Franco’s very excited you have arrived and he would like to take you out to dinner. when can you come over?

Thus my long and close relationship with Franco Donatoni began.

I had arrived in Milan in the beginning of October on a Fulbright scholarship. The scholarship was to study composition with Donatoni. After a two week ocean voyage,(1968 was the last year that Fulbright fellows were transported to Europe by boat) and a week in Rome for “orientation,” I moved to Milan, found a suitable apartment, and had called. My Italian was hardly passable despite attending (admittedly sporadically) a night course in the language, and my knowledge of Italian customs, as conveyed to us by the Fulbright commissioners in Italy, was about to be tested.

Several days later, on a very hot early October evening, I took the half-hour tram ride from the center of the city, where I lived, to his apartment closer to the outskirts. After he welcomed me, he warmly held my arm and escorted me to a local restaurant. The meal lasted no less than three hours. Having been told that the Italian custom was to have many courses in the meal, and not wanting to offend him at our first encounter, the evening went like this:(translated from the Italian)

“Would you like some wine?’
“Si, grazie (Yes, Thank you)”
“Would you like some antipasto?”
“Si, grazie”
next course:
“Would you like some zuppa (soup)?”
“Si, molto grazie”
I was beginning to sweat, not just from the food and the heat (no air-conditioning) but, from the attentive effort I was making to understand what he was saying to me. Franco talked continuously about the art of musical composition, about music itself, about the state of music in Italy, about his philosophy in relation to other philosophies, and about how to write music in the last four decades of the twentieth century. My limited Italian allowed me to understand a word or two every now and then, but by the time my mind had figured out what was meant, he was on to the next thought. Nonetheless, what little I could fathom in this intense delivery of his provocative ideas was startling and stimulating.
“Would you like some pasta?”
“Si, grazie” (not wanting to offend)
next course:
“Would you like some meat, some vegetables, potato, perhaps”
(The sweat was now pouring off me)
“Si, si, molto gentile (very kind of you to offer)”
(By the way, he ate a small plate of pasta and a salad, no wine)
“More wine?”
“Si, grazie”
“Grazie, si, un po’ (just a little)”
“Well, then, let’s have some dessert”
“Si, grazie”
Soaked in sweat, and more than a little addled by trying to understand what he was saying, and stuffed to the gills with this very delicious Italian meal, finally it was time for coffee. As I separated my clothes from the chair they were sticking to, he looked at me and said, “Jeffrey, (by this time I told him he could use my first name if he wished) did you understand what I was talking about?”
“Um. um, well,, uh, sort of…, um…”
He laughed heartily and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll just be going over the same concepts in the lessons.” Then, once again holding me by the arm, he walked me to a nearby coffee bar for some espresso and, of course, some chocolate. It was a great introduction to a relationship that was to last for a good twenty years and transform itself, until we lost touch with each other, from that of teacher/student to friend and confidant!

Chapter 2. Lessons

Every week thereafter, until the break for the Christmas holidays, I took the tram out to Franco’s apartment after dinner, and for three hours, almost until midnight the lesson would continue. First he would look at the work I had done, comment on it, and then continue to talk about his philosophy and his approach to music as it had evolved in the post-Schoenberg and post-Cage world of contemporary music. The lessons would involve an initial visit by his two sons, Roberto and Renato, both quite young, one of them on a tricycle, pedaling and toddling into his studio to say hello to this exotic American, their father’s first foreign student. After they were introduced, or reintroduced, and told to go to bed, we would talk about the “material” of music and the composer’s need to identify it and transform it, to explore it, and, at last, to allow the material to form itself into a musical composition. Except when I would ask about his own scores, he rarely talked about his own techniques of transformation, explaining that I had to develop my own technical methods and offering that he did not want his own music to be an exact model for mine. He was always very generous with his ideas and his time, and even when I had little to show (composing has always been a struggle for me), the lessons still lasted three hours. His ideas, which I had begun to more fully understand, and our dialogue, to which I began to be able to contribute, were, as always, intense. As the weeks wore on, what had seemed unclear and imperceivable, had become more and more apparent to me. Since we always ended late, after the last tram had departed, continuing our conversation, he would drive me back the half-hour it took to reach my apartment on Corso Porto Ticinese, not far from the Piazza del Duomo, the center of Milan.

Chapter 3. Impressions

My impression of him was complicated. He seemed to be a man totally absorbed in his intellect. Everything in life could not merely be experienced, it had to be conceptualized and understood in words. He seemed to deny any sensual or hedonistic relationship to music or art, but he could listen or observe very closely. (I remember walking with him through the museum in Siena, and being struck by his fascination with the Italian Renaissance religious paintings, which he would approach closely and study for a long time. He was looking for symbols in the background patterns and searching for mystical meanings. I recall that he remarked, with ingenuous astonishment, that so many paintings could be about the same few subjects.) For him, the enjoyment of art and, indeed, all things that life held, doubtlessly did seem to reside in his ability to explain and to conceptualize in words.

I know that he had traveled a very sinuous path to arrive at his own personal way of conceiving and writing music. His early music resembled Bartok’s (throughout his life, he used symmetries in his works, a composerly conceit undoubtedly derived from his fascination with Bartok’s music) and he had adopted some of the methods of “total control of the musical elements” one could find in some of the music of the 12-tone composers, especially Webern. He had a period of writing aleatoric music, derived from a fascination with John Cage, too. Finally, after disappointments in performances, and, after years of seriously considering what, to him, the composer should and could be doing, he arrived at the idea that a composer can create music by manipulating the pitches and rhythms on the page, and expanding small fragments into larger works whose ultimate outcome would be unknown at the beginning but which would take shape as the work itself evolved. It was a radical and unique idea that, by applying transformational techniques to fragments of music, a completed piece would eventually emerge.

For me, it was a leap of faith. My own relationship to music is one in which music gives me a visceral emotional experience, or at least excites me in some way. During the period of my studies with Franco, and for years afterward, I actually had to make an effort (not always successful) to try to keep my own experience of music somewhat suppressed and guarded. Especially as a composer/performer, where expression and feeling are sought after (Donatoni never had the experience of being a performer), I thought I could never become “original” unless I abandoned the concepts I had acquired as I was learning to become a musician. I felt that I could learn from him as long as I continued to work with him. As time went by, however, I began to feel that the ultimate result of Donatoni’s own writing, i.e. the composition when it was performed and heard, was mainly an aural texture that, while fascinating and engrossing at first, was ultimately unsatisfying. Strangely, Donatoni himself did not like hearing performances of his own works. Again, it is as though they only existed in reality on the page and not in the actual sound the written musical code represented. As we began to lose touch with each other, in order to express the person who was myself, I knew I had to return to my original impulses and develop my own musical personality, free of his intellectual influences. Yet, I will never regret those studies, and I will always treasure the warmth, generosity, kindness, encouragement, and caring that this very complicated artist showed to me.

Chapter 4. Rome, Bari, and Siena

I digressed. At the time of the December holidays, I traveled to attend the Contemporary Music Festival in Palermo, Sicily. There I met and befriended a large contingent of American musicians who were living in Rome and who were involved in avant-garde music improvisation. I knew then that I had to leave Milan, where I was lonely and unhappy, and move to Rome. With Donatoni’s permission (a requirement of the Fulbright office), I did relocate there. With his recommendation, I was accepted into Goffredo Petrassi’s class at the Academmia of Santa Cecilia, a course for post-graduate composers. After the attention I had received from Donatoni, and the multiplicity and potency of the ideas that were brought up, the class with Petrassi was a dismal experience; his only thought on one of my compositions, that I should be careful with glissandos, seemed disheartening and inadequate. So, I did what many other Americans living in Rome did at the time…I enjoyed life. (Actually, my teacher at Yale, the wonderful composer, musician, and human being, Mel Powell had already advised me before I left for Europe, “You’ve earned the Fulbright, now go out there and have a good time!” ) I joined “Musica Eletronica Viva”, an improvisatory group with Frederic Rweski, Alvin Curran and Richard Teitlebaum (among others, including for a while the great jazz saxophonist, Steve Lacy). I lived in a hotel for months (the first two floors had rooms rented to furtive couples,… by the hour), hung with friends in the beautiful ancient piazzas, traveled as far as Sweden, to Greece and Turkey, to Paris (where I was a soloist in a week of music by Karlheinz Stockhausen) (another story), and spent a few hours each morning, when I could, slowly writing music in my hotel room.

Donatoni and I were still in contact, but I rarely saw him. Once, he came to Rome for a performance, and invited another composer and myself to have dinner with him and with Luciano Berio, who I had known in New York having performed some of his works. (It was Berio who had originally advised me to study with Donatoni.) The conversation went on deep into the night, and finally, around 2 AM, we left the restaurant to find some coffee. Even though we were on the street, the conversation never flagged. On a corner in Trastevere, the dialogue between Donatoni and Berio became very animated and loud, and within a few minutes, we were drenched by a huge potful of water from a fourth floor window. “We are trying to sleep up here, BE QUIET!!” Thus two of the mainstays of Italian music in the twentieth century, wet and bedraggled finally wished each other “Buona notte” and parted company…a soggy end to a stimulating evening, nonetheless.

After a summer of travel, I was able to extend the Fulbright grant for a few months, and then, when the money ran out, Donatoni helped me find a job as principal bass in the Orchestra Sinfonica di Bari (see other reminiscence). At the end of the season, it was June, 1970, I received a telegram from him informing me that he would be teaching at the Academmia Chigiana in Siena that summer, and that he would be happy if I could be part of his class. I could also be in Francesco Petracchi’s class (the great Italian contrabass virtuoso) and Donatoni would help me get a fellowship to attend. He told me afterwards that he wanted to have his best students in the class and that I would be one of them. The other “shining light” of the summer was Giuseppi Sinopoli, who went on to become a very eminent conductor. He and I, as the two older, more experienced students became good friends that summer, but we constantly argued about music, about composing, about meaning in art, and about what was important in music. Donatoni virtually sat back and let us go at it, more like a moderator than an instructor. It was very provocative and one of the most intellectually inspiring and stimulating periods I had ever had in my life. Moreover, under the aegis of Donatoni, the piece I wrote that summer, “Form” for two pianos, became my first piece published by Edizioni Suvini-Zerboni, also Donatoni’s publisher at the time.

Chapter 5. Life goes on

I returned to Siena and the Academmia two more times a few years later. After that first summer, though, in October, 1970, after some concerts as soloist and composer at the Autumno Musicale festival in Como, I was ready to return to the states and get on with my life. Donatoni and I stayed in touch by mail; keeping up with the events of our lives, with our accomplishments and disappointments, our progressive work, and with news about our new compositions. In our correspondence, he was always encouraging, happy to hear about my new compositions, and happy to know about the course of my life. In 1972, my son was born (Franco was pleased to be named his Godfather), and I moved to Berkeley, California, to teach at the university there.

Several years later, I returned to Siena to be Donatoni’s assistant for his course at the Academmia. I was responsible for helping the students with the more mundane aspects of their compositions, and for organizing the final concert of the works they had written there. In Italy, “organization” is a concept that is practically non-existent. It was difficult putting on a concert, to say the least, but in the end, we had a successful summer, and everything went as well as it could. It was a period of deja-vu, too, in that many of the same concepts we had discussed in previous years were still being propounded. I certainly enjoyed working closely with Franco again. Our relationship had now transformed itself to one of Maestro and his assistant. During the course, I did notice that some students were tending to copy Donatoni’s style and use his technical methods in their works, and both he and I had our concerns. He would have preferred that they develop their own technical methods and styles, and my concern was that, because of the intellectual strength and depth of Donatoni’s ideas, he was forming an academy of his own, based on his philosophy. It was beginning to seem like the 12-tone school, which spawned more than two generations of influential academic composers, but most of which music sounds imitative and is hardly heard any more.

The second time I returned, it was to be part of a pet project Franco had wanted to do for many years. He formed a group of composers, including himself, which was to be in residency at the Chigiana and was named, “Gruppo Sperimentale Chigiana.” Besides Franco, there were ten younger composers. Coming up with a collaborative effort, we each would take a page of music, which itself was based on music written previously by one of us, and add to it, examining and using the material on the page given to us, adding a new page and then sending it on to yet another composer. We would meet twice a week in a nearly translucent smoke-filled room to discuss our own work, each other’s work, and our compositional techniques and ideas. In the end, we had a composition uniquely interwoven and blended by eleven composers. It was an initiative, an experiment that was eventually completed, but, essentially failed. We were unable to get the piece performed – there were among us composers who had other commitments and could not keep up with the work; there were those who joined in so reluctantly that their contribution was minimal – and, in the end, just a few of us saw the project to its end. However, Donatoni’s ability to realize and effectuate his ideas about composers working together, about them being able to transform any material presented, about learning from each other, and about the improvisational aspects of composing, ideas which were the nourishment and sustenance of this experimental gathering, were admirable in their exploratory, innovative, and progressive character.

Chapter 6. Donatoni in California

In the fall semester of 1979, Donatoni was asked to be a guest lecturer in music at the University of California at Berkeley. I lived in North Oakland about a mile and a half from the campus, and, as I had a big house, I insisted that he stay with me. He was provided a very large bedroom with a windowed alcove in which he set up a desk for composing. Over the course of the three months our relationship as teacher and student again changed – this time to one of good friends and warm companions. Even though he was fifteen years my senior, it was, in many ways, like having an innocent foreign child in my household. Every new thing was a marvelous adventure for him. For despite his intellect and sophisticated knowledge of art and music, I don’t think Franco ever had experienced the freedom and possibilities that living in a new country can bring – and California, especially Berkeley at the end of the seventies, was the ideal place for him to have that freedom.

A. Five Lanes and a Powerful Automobile

Coming across the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, after I had picked him up at the airport, Franco suddenly became very quiet. When I asked him if something was wrong, he said, “No, it’s just… a bridge with five lanes in one direction! amazing!” I knew then that he would have many more revelations in the weeks to come.

In my red Ford Mustang, he exclaimed, obviously very excited, “Questa macchina e potente!” (This is a powerful car!) And then he asked me to let him drive. Knowing how different driving in California was from driving in Italy, I demurred. Eventually, though, after a few weeks, I loaned him the car, but with a good deal of trepidation. In Italy, the rear view mirror is a minor inconvenience blocking the windshield that no one really pays much attention to. Also, in two years of living in Italy, unlike the states, I never saw a policeman or patrolman hand out a speeding ticket. At first, it was a bit hair-raising to watch him drive, but eventually he was able to obey at least most of the traffic laws we have in the states. Still, he was like a child being given a huge piece of chocolate every time he sat behind the wheel.

B. Speaking of Chocolate

In Berkeley, on the south side of the campus, there was a chocolate shop with the most delicious chocolate truffles that I have ever tasted. As we passed the shop one day, his eyes got wide, and it wasn’t hard for him to coerce me to go inside with him. The truffles caught his eye immediately. They came in various flavors and were quite a bit larger than the ones you normally expect to find. We both had one – then he had another. We walked out of the shop – then he insisted that we return for just one more, “We have to try another flavor!”. Again we left and again he insisted, despite my warning that they were very rich and he might get sick, that we return for, really, just one more. This fourth one Franco ingested somewhat slower than the others. As we finally turned away from the store, his face began to take on a shade of pale green. “I don’t feel so well” he complained. “No kidding,” I thought. We rushed back to the house for him to retreat to his room until much later that evening. Franco’s lack of self-control and his uninhibited appetite for boundless gratification – in this case in the form of chocolate – especially because it appeared in a man I had thought of as a sort of intellectual ascetic, living, it seemed to me, entirely in his thoughts and ideas, was actually a wonderful side of him for me to discover. As I think about it, it was, in fact, a complementary side of his unique character. Just as he could spend long hours sitting at his desk, writing tiny neat notes, stems, and rests in his meticulous handwriting on musical staffs, so he could balance that activity with fifteen minutes of pure indulgence in a chocolate shop.

C. Mornings

When Franco arrived in California, his English vocabulary was very sparse. Like most people learning a new language, he often found it more difficult to understand what was being spoken aloud. For anyone, it would be even more difficult when the person speaking has an accent that makes the words sound very different than what one had been taught to expect.

A Japanese student, Toshi, who had come to the states to study the art of glass-blowing, lived in a few rooms in the basement of my house. His English was virtually non-existent, and although he was always very polite and an easy-going young person who tried to speak English when he could, it was still very difficult to understand him. The mornings in the kitchen were always a scene that held great amusement for me:
Donatoni, greeting Toshi, “Ah-h-h, Buon Giorno! uh…”(2 minute wait while he looks up the translation in his book) “Ah-h-h, Good-a morning” (roll the “r”) (three minute wait while Toshi looks up “good morning.”)
Toshi, (silently thinking) ” Ah-h-h, Ohayo Gozayamas” (three minute wait while he looks up a response), “Ah-h-h, Good-a morning to you!” (Five minute wait while Donatoni looks up some words)
Donatoni, “Would you like-a some-a coffee?” (Subsequent five minute wait while Toshi looks up what Donatoni had said)
Toshi, “Yes, Thank you”

Watching the two of them, one a European with polite manners, the other, Asian with very polite manners, trying to converse while holding and constantly referring to their well-worn English-Italian or English-Japanese dictionaries, was an unforgettable daily ritual that should have been captured on film. I can’t help thinking that if they had gotten into any deeper conversation such as, say, “Did you sleep well,” we would have been in the kitchen until dinner. At any rate, after coffee and something to eat, Franco would retreat to his room/study and, except for days when he had obligations or appointments, he would spend the day at his desk composing. Many days, he would interrupt his work to have lunch with me and talk about music, composing, and other cultural subjects. After a few weeks had passed, the conversation would often turn to the subject of life in California, and I began to realize that Donatoni was becoming eager to explore what that state had to offer.

D. A Twin

Born on June 9th, Franco was a Gemini. This meant a lot to him. His interest in symbols, in numerology, in alchemy, in all things arcane, was a genuine determinant of his belief system and his world view. His compositions often had numerological bases, and he used numbers (size of intervals, rhythmic lengths, length of pauses) as part of his method of writing. He told me that he admired the alchemists for their dedication to their ideals and tasks, and, I felt that he was implying that he, too, thought of himself as a composer/alchemist. Writing notes and rhythms together on the page, but not preplanning or foreseeing where it might take the composition, yet having faith in an eventual emergence of form and directed content, might be exactly what an alchemist/composer might do.
Franco had come to a few performances of the San Francisco Ballet (I was principal bass in the orchestra) and had noticed a violinist sitting in the first violin section. “Would you like to meet her?” I asked. He was absolutely certain he would. Jeanne M. was a woman in her forties, born in Uruguay, and had been a protege of Galamian at Juilliard in New York. She was a very good violinist and an attractive person. More important than anything else, however, was the fact that, though younger, she shared the same birthday as Franco. After their first date he told me that he was thoroughly and completely infatuated and in love with her. He felt that finally he had found his twin. According to Franco, all Geminis have an inborn need to find their twin. Their destiny is that search. Once they have found him (or her) it is as if the alchemist has found the transmuted substance, the essence of spirituality, the elixir of life. That they fell madly for each other would be an understatement. As far as alchemy and destiny – as always, Franco needed to put his feelings into a context he could manage and understand.
They decided to take a vacation in the desert, Death Valley. Again, the desert wilderness and the symbolism it represented held great import for him. He had always wanted to experience what it was like to be there. After he returned, he told me that he had had a fantastic time with Jeanne and that their exploration of the beauty of the desert was an unforgettable adventure. He was aglow with his deep feelings, mainly for Jeanne, but also from the realization of a life-long objective. It was a giddy, happy, and positively uplifting period in his life – a life that, unfortunately, had too many periods that swung gravely in the other direction. At any rate, after he returned he began work on one of his most beautiful and successful pieces, a string quartet, “The Heart’s Eye.”

E. Bones, an interjection

After his return to Italy, the early years of the 1980’s were very difficult for Franco. He had gone through a few very severe periods of depression and psychological breakdowns. Eventually, with the help of an excellent psychoanalyst, he was able to get through those dark periods and vigorously resume his career.
The last time I saw Franco in the states, I was living Vermont. He had come to New York for an important premiere. We got in touch, and I and my thirteen-year-old son Ben,( his Godson), drove down to the city to spend the day with him. As we were driving on Columbus Avenue, he suddenly asked me to stop the car, he needed to go to a certain store he had just seen. The store sold skeletons and other natural artifacts mostly of dead animals. I told Ben to go with him, to help with translating and to see what he was up to. A few minutes later, Ben came running back to the car, “Dad! He’s buying a skull!!” Sure enough, ten minutes later Franco returned to the car with a skull wrapped in a plain brown paper package. “I’ve wanted one for many years,” he explained. “I even tried bribing the undertaker in the cemetery in Siena to dig one up for me!” he added, “but he never came through.” When I asked him what he would do with a skull, he said, “I will put it on my desk so that every time I look up I will be reminded that life is a gift that I must never take for granted. It will remind me to live life fully through my work and the things that give me pleasure. It will be a constant reminder that some day I will die and that, until then, I must make every day the best day of my life.”

F. Taking leave

In early December the semester was over and it was time for Franco to move back to Italy. He was in good shape and had had a very productive and adventurous three months in California. The lithium he had been taking for his bi-polar psychological disorder had kept him on an even keel, and had helped make the three months residency pass with no depressive or difficult episodes. I was sad to see him go; he had been a great housemate and we had had fun together. When he talked about returning to Milan, he told me he was planning to have some needed and extensive dental work, work which I had tried to convince him to have done in the states. (The dentist in Italy had him go off the lithium triggering those traumatic relapses with his depression and bi-polar problems.) At any rate, he spent several days saying goodbye to Jeanne and to some other people he had befriended that autumn. The day he was to leave, we were sitting in the kitchen, waiting to drive to the airport, when he suddenly looked at me and said, “Jeffrey, do you remember that first night we met…we went out for dinner that hot night in Milano?”, I answered, “How could I forget that! I could hardly understand you, and you never stopped talking.” “Yes,” he said, “I was excited to meet you and I did talk a lot about my music. But there is one thing I must tell you. Jeffrey, I never in my entire life saw anyone eat so much!” I don’t think we stopped laughing about it until I saw him off at the gate.

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