Sonic Geography: Genoa

A coastal city with a unique musical history
For MusicWorks Issue #99

BY KEN WAXMAN

Italy’s premier port, the coastal city of Genoa is probably best-known as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, whose pigeon-attracting monument takes up a good portion of Piazza Aquaverde just outside the stazione principale.

Built on a series of hills, and sloping down from major boulevards of rococo ducal castles and museums to near-laneways which twist every which way through the medieval quarter and Porto Antico, Genoa is often called a vertical city. Spectacular in its contrasts, the city’s musical history is mostly confined to its past.

Birthplace of Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), the father of the modern violin, a replica of one of his fiddles is kept in a glass case in a courtyard in city hall. An original, insured for $40 million, is kept under lock-and-key in a nearby vault and brought out only once a year to be played by the winner of the Premio Paganini, an international contest for college students and guest soloists. Centre of this classical tradition is the magnificent, multi-tiered Teatro Carlo Felice, built in 1828 and named for the Sardinian monarch whose kingdom included the present regions of Sardinia, Piedmont and Liguria. Although music of some local and contemporary composers is sometimes performed, the season is mostly confined to works composed no later than the beginning of the 20th Century.

Additionally, Genoa must be the only city which houses a jazz museum in the basement of a palace – the restored Palazzo Ducale. The antique setting is apt however, for affiliated with the local Louisiana Jazz Club, the decidedly mainstream collection is built from the discs and documents willed to the facility by a series of passionate and wealthy amateur collectors.

Recently however, the city’s confluence of land and sea, which for centuries has influenced musicians and poets “to keep their feet on the ground while dreaming of imaginary countries”, as one local saying goes, is beginning to find expression in more modern music. With the streets near the Porto Antico, which resemble a snakes-and-ladders game, now home to many immigrants from North and Central Africa their music is being gradually absorbed into the city’s social fabric. Most notable is La banda di piazza Caricamento, a multi-ethnic ensemble that plays a sort of street World Music.

There are stirrings on the jazz scene as well. Although a few superior players live there, local gigs are hard-to-find and there’s no particular club where major performers can be heard. Nonetheless, starting in 2004, guitarist Marco Tindiglia has tried to rectify the situation.

A magna cum laude graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, who has recorded with Americans such as drummer Jimmy Weinstein and tenor saxophonist Matt Renzi, he’s artistic director of the Gezmataz Festival and Workshop, which takes place during four or five days every July in the Arena del Mare. Besides the concerts, which this year featured among others, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava’s quintet, Swedish pianist Esbjorn Svensson’s EST combo and a trio with American tenor saxophonist George Garzone, professionals such as Tindiglia and Garzone offer workshops for aspiring improvisers.

Another Genovese musician, whose interests encompass improvisation and notated sounds that go beyond jazz and mainstream classical music, is Claudio Lugo, a composer and conductor who also plays the curved soprano saxophone.

Director of the Orchestra Laboratory at the Conservatory in nearby Alessandria, where he teaches saxophone, improvisation and composition, he is also a professor of Theory and Technique of Musical Improvisation in the department of Performing Arts at the University of Genoa. A prize-winning composer, who has written for orchestras and combined music and poetry, not only has he directed and arranged for jazz orchestras backing stylists such as Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg, but he collaborates with Naples’ Ensemble Dissonanzen, which has recorded his electronica-oriented pieces with German trumpeter Markus Stockhausen as soloist.

His newest production, GeonoaSoundCards (Amirani Records AMNR 007), a nine-track CD with an embedded video clip, illustrates sonically and visually the city’s tradition and its promise. A series of improvisations featuring Lugo’s soprano saxophone and American Esther Lamneck, who teaches music at New York University, playing táragató, the disc was recorded live in different locations throughout Genoa. The music, which includes snatches of found urban sounds, echoes off the walls of the ducal palace, the former stock exchange, in a building under reconstruction and on one of the port’s docks. The impressionistic video illustrates the scenery which inspires the music.

“Although there is little money, resources and spaces for experimental innovation in Genoa”, explains Lugo, “there are a lot of quite imaginative people whose mind is always far away. Because of our location, every day we have to deal with the myth of the voyage and the necessity of returning.”

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Ken Waxman (www.jazzword.com) writes in Toronto and internationally about jazz and improvised music. This is the first of his reports on the sonic geography of selected European cities.

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