Sonic Geography: Bologna, Italy

For MusicWorks Issue #102

Jazz’s most notorious junkie, Chet Baker (1929-1988), had affection for Italy. A frequent visitor, he recorded memorable LPs there and portrayed himself in Urlatori Alla Sbarra, a fictional film about his life.

Thus it’s no surprise to find that Bologna’s best-known jazz club is named after the American trumpeter/vocalist. However Baker might be surprised that the jazz musicians who used to play at the club have mostly been supplanted by pop bands. Innovative music is audible elsewhere throughout the capital city of Emilia-Romagna, however. Bologna’s musical appreciation goes back almost to 1088, when the world’s oldest university was founded, and continued during residencies from composers such as Gioacchino Rossini, Giacomo Puccini and native-born Ottorino Respighi. Farinelli, the 18th century castrati lived there, as did Padre Giovanni Battista Martini. The priest, after whom a local conservatory is named, taught Mozart counterpoint. Mozart subsequently concertized at the Accademia filarmonica, which still showcases chamber music.

Bologna, known as la rossa (the red one), has an extended leftist artistic tradition as well, characterized in one instance by conductor Arturo Toscanini’s refusal to begin a 1931 performance at the Teatro Comunale – still a place for symphonic concerts and operas – with the fascist hymn Giovinezza. Baker probably wouldn’t have cared, but since the Second World War much of the financial support for non-mainstream music in Bologna is directly related to the Socialist governments that held power.

Musically things are a little more conventional these days, in the city of elevated sidewalks protected from the weather by Renaissance-styled marble arcades, and where it’s almost impossible to get a bad meal of any Italian specialty. Musical conservatism isn’t related to Italy’s right-wing national government, but to the retirement or death of older musical radicals. Still with the lure of institutions like DAMS (Dipartimento di Arte, Musica e Spettacolo), founded in the early 1970s to locate contemporary arts developments within an academic context, inventive musicians are still attracted to the city. They provide Bologna, symbolized for most outsiders by Bolognese meat sauce, and the city centre’s distinctive leaning Two Towers – 97 metres and 48 metres tall – with one of Italy’s liveliest music scenes.

“Bologna was designated a UNESCO Creative City of Music in 2006”, explains Fabrizio Puglisi, who wrote his PhD dissertation at DAMS on Cecil Taylor. “At the moment it’s little more than a logo to put on publicity for city-supported musical events. But nobody can deny that concerts and cultural events connected with music are frequent and are often excellent.” Puglisi knows this first hand. Besides teaching at DAMS, he’s part of the 15-year-old, Bassesfere Collective, which gives frequent concerts blending its members’ compositions with collective improvisations, as well as collaborating with visiting players.

“The nice thing about Bologna is that most of the time you have an audience of 80 or more people, which is actually much bigger than the audience you get in cities like Amsterdam or San Francisco,” adds the pianist who often plays elsewhere.

With Bassesfere made up of what Puglisi terms “us old ones” – he’s 38 – there’s an even younger free music association, the collettivo gnù, which follows a similar strategy: concerts, recordings and workshops. One mentor is American cellist Tristan Honsinger, who lives in the countryside near Bologna four months every year. Many Italian musicians revel in a certain theatricism, so the blend of improvised music and surreal humor that Honsinger has developed over the years strikes a sympathetic chord with locals interested in exploring improvised music.

Experimental performances like these don’t take place in major concert halls such as the 18th century Teatro Communale, Accademia Filarmonica or at the conservatories. Instead alternate locations are used: squats, like Crash, Vag, 2bo, the Lazzaretto, and most regularly the auditorium of the scuola popolare di musica ivan illich, in the suburbs near the fair grounds. Illich also offers courses in improvised and other non-conventional musics. Electronic music isn’t neglected either. Its practitioners – who host the yearly Netmage festival, which explores connections between new technologies and art – are more commonly found at the raum, another out-of-the-way rehearsal/performance space, the spelling of which like the music is defiantly lower case. If there’s a notated-music equivalent to Bassesfere, it’s Fontana mix a chamber ensemble conducted by Francesco la Licata, with connections to the university, the Teatro and the annual Angelica Festival.

Dedicated to “the pleasure of listening to music with an intense activity of research of new sounds”, Angelica, like the mainstream Bologna Jazz Festival and various notated music festivals, gets funding from the city and the Emilia-Romagna region. Unlike them, Angelica involves local musicians in premieres of pieces commissioned by composers ranging from Karlheinz Stokhausen to John Zorn, with performers such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and this year, Fred Frith showcased as well. In 2008 the program included music and videos created by, among others, Americans Phill Niblock and La Monte Young.

Although firmly embracing its sense of place and its past, Bologna’s sonic continuously augments because “all scenes are mixed – with musicians coming from Sardinia, Sicily, Puglia, Milano, Verona, Roma, Ferrara… and on and on”, notes Puglisi. “There are never enough jobs for the cats in town,” he admits. “But the musicianship here is at such a level that many musicians play a lot locally and frequently outside Italy.”


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