Sonic Geography: Milan

For MusicWorks Issue #105

A sonic spectre haunts Milan’s music scene. That ghostly presence is Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Italy’s best-known composer of romantic operas, who moved to the city when young, shot to fame with Nabucco in 1842, and whose repertoire has been a staple of Teatro alla Scala ever since. La Scala itself is a surprisingly small and squat nondescript neo-classical building abutting one of the city’s main commercial streets.

Verdi, who died in the Grand Hotel de Milan, did more than pioneer the lingua franca of Milan music. Reminders of his over-riding presence are legion. There’s the Conservatorio di musica Giuseppe Verdi, the Giuseppe Verdi Symphony and Choir and even the Giuseppe Verdi Retirement Home. “The music scene of Milan considers the debt to Verdi paid by all those institutions, orchestras, halls etc. named after him,” notes Musica Jazz’s Alessandro Achilli. Looking for more “outside” sounds, go outside the core.

Capital of Lombardy, with a population of about 1.3 million people, Milan has been Italy’s industrial centre since unification and is synonymous with manufacturing and high fashion. Confirm this by strolling through department store La Rinascente on the Piazza del Duomo or examining the fashion outlets in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a covered passage connected to the square opposite La Scala. With its arching glass and cast iron roof, La Rinascente is a late 19th Century prototype for every subsequent mammoth shopping promenade. Rail hub of northern Italy, Malian’s multi-level Central Station is a shopping as well as a transportation destination. Flanked by massive overhanging concrete balconies, it suggests a perfect setting for populist speeches by Il Duce, another Milanese ghost. Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement was spawned here in 1919.

Without drawing too many parallels, the other spectre haunting Milan is very much alive and tangentially relates to both the city’s earlier main men. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s buffoonish right-wing president began and consolidated his multi-million-dollar Fininvest, empire in Milan. It dominated Italy’s banking, insurance, publishing, TV and film distribution areas before his Forza Italia realigned Italian politics earlier in this century. For many he serves as a symbol of Italy’s second largest city, where love of commerce is so paramount that due to skyrocketing rents, a McDonald’s outlet is the largest restaurant in Piazza del Duomo, the storied square dominated by the 14th Century Gothic Il Duomo cathedral.

Speak to older Milanese musicians and soon you’ll meet someone who can relate another facet of Berlusconi’s past. A few decades back, during his jobbing days, Berlusconi was a cruise ship crooner. Incidentally, il presidente has retained his musical role during the past decade, co-writing albums of Neapolitan songs, Forza Italia’s anthem and even the fight song of football club AC Milan, which he owns

If there’s an overriding sound of Milan however, it’s that of clanking bus and subway transportation as people go off to work; or the buzz of cash registers and the conversation of sales people and customers. “Milano is fashion, business and Fininvest,” notes Alberto Braida, a pianist who helps organize the small Contemporaneamente festival of contemporary music in nearby Lodi. “There’s no money and no spaces for culture, arts and music except for the big institutions like La Scala or the conservatories.”

Still, expensive specialization is a given. On a tree-lined street in one of the city’s most bourgeoisie quarters you’ll find the Black Saint jazz record store. A collectors’ showplace with darkened windows like a high-end jewelry shop, you must ring the bell and be scrutinized before you can enter. The store’s namesake, Black Saint/Soul Note records – which recorded experimental music in the 1970s – has been sold to a Roman distributor. Also MIA are the many experimental rock music labels which flourished at the same time.

Today most musicians make their living by teaching, either privately or in one of the many conservatories. With Milan reduced to a regional broadcasting centre, top studio gigs at state network RAI have migrated to Rome. There is also work backing some of the city’s experimental rockers. But Milan’s main jazz club is part of the opulent Blue Note chain, with a pop-oriented booking policy; while smaller clubs follow suit. “These places don't organize much in the field of improvised or experimental music,” explains Braida. In Milan, unadventurous fare of the jazz, rock or classical variety is what you’ll hear at free lunch-time concerts sponsored by the conservatories or at mainstream festivals.

For more experimental sounds, travel towards the suburbs to spots where “outside” players mix it up with rappers, deejays and turnatablists These locations encompass a mixture of squats, such as Cox 18, recently cleared by the police and then re-occupied, according to Achilli; centri sociali, which are self-managed youth centers with a left-wing attitude; plus general and performance spaces.

There’s the very active Blob, which defiantly exists in Berlusconi’s neighborhood of Arcore; Spazio Scenico, La casa di Alex, Soundmetak and Unza Ciclofficina, where once a week you can sit on dilapidated chairs, sip a beverage and hear experimental music. “Ciclofficina means “bicycle repair”, which is ecologist activism,” explains Achilli. Also on the premises are silk-screen printing facilities, rehearsal rooms plus a tiny space for exhibitions and video projections.

Co-operative organizations such as C-Jam or Takla, which intertwine music and modern dance, organize yearly festivals. On the notated music side is Il segno della musica, a workshop devoted to relations between composition, improvisation and electronics, with electronics manipulator/cellist Walter Prati one of the organizers.

“I wouldn't say that the music scene of Milan is haunted by the commercial success of Verdi or anyone else,” declares Achilli grimly. “I'd say that the city music scene of today doesn't encourage anybody.”


Ken Waxman writes in Toronto about jazz and improvised music for local and international publications. This is the latest in his ongoing series of reports on the sonic geography of selected European cities