“That’s what I’m trying to do: to take forgotten, rare things from the past, and bring them to the contemporary world — to see what kind of results they could have had if history went in a different direction.”Riccardo Perugini
Riccardo Perugini is a Tuscan composer whose works blend elements of experimental, pop, and early music. Described as having an “unconventional and un-academic approach” by Heiner Goebbels, Riccardo has studied with composers such as Unsuk Chin, Detlev Glanert, and Peter Eötvös; he has been commissioned in Italy and internationally by institutions such as the Venice Biennale, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Hangzhou Contemporary Music Festival, and most recently Gioventù Musicale d’Italia, who are staging his opera ‘Il pellegrino del nulla’ in Modena in April 2024. In addition, Riccardo has worked with Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini, and soloists of Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Linea, and was recently a Sounds Promising Composer 2022-23 with Salastina, premiering ‘La Ragione di un Prato’ in Los Angeles, California.
Ahead of next year’s staging of ‘Il pellegrino del nulla’, we caught up with Riccardo over Zoom, and talked about his recontextualisation of early music, expressive structure, alternate histories, vaporwave, writing for period instruments, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: I first discovered your work last summer, after taking a trip to Montepulciano to watch Sara Stevanovic’s opera. What’s really struck me is how you’ve blended contemporary elements with your interest in early music. Is there anything in particular that draws you to working with earlier material?
Riccardo Perugini: It’s really one of the focal points of my whole way to live, compositionally. I’m very passionate about ancient music, medieval music, renaissance music. I try to incorporate [it] always in a different way; for example [in] this piece, I try to do the opposite — stylistically, there is not a single reference to ancient music1 at all. In other pieces, you have an element which [has] the Renaissance embellishment, or coloratura texture, but completely recontextualised.
In pieces of mine like the Troubadouritz song cycle, you have the forms of medieval troubadour music, but the actual theme of each song is very contemporary. The Viadeyra, for example, was a lyrical genre in Occitan and Catalan literature, invented by troubadours; it was a song for dancing created to lighten the burden of a long journey, or to enliven it. ‘Viadeyra’ is also the title of the second song from Troubadouritz, but it has been brought up to date — becoming the chant of [an] immigrant who has just arrived in a distant and foreign country. So I always try to incorporate ancient music in a different way.
How have you managed to incorporate elements of ancient music in your compositional process?
Before I write, I tend to plan almost each note of the piece in advance — and I always handwrite these schemes and charts. In fact, I want to show you the notes for my piece for two violas — ‘Astigma’. I never showed [this] to anyone. This was also inspired by ancient music; specifically, by the organa quadrupla.2 I don’t know if you know the piece ‘Viderunt Omnes’ by Perotin? It’s so modern; when I listened to it for the first time, when I was really young, I was [like] “how is it possible that something like that was written in the 12th Century?” I was mindblown; it really sounds like Steve Reich or Philip Glass! I was really inspired by this piece.
In this case, in particular, I tried not to incorporate any stylistic reference, or quotation — but I wanted to learn the compositional principles behind that piece. So I did [a] very deep analysis [to] get to the actual core of the piece, and its mechanics — how it works, how it was built — and I tried to build my piece from the same mechanisms. I took the patterns of Perotino’s pieces, and made this big table with variations of each metrical foot:
The first movement — the one I’m showing the notes of — is called ‘Blooming’. I [wanted] to write this piece which was like flowers, very slowly, opening up — and it is also at the same time like a critique, or mocking, of those composers who slavishly use the Fibonacci or any other mathematical series in their pieces. So I wanted to have this piece which is using the Fibonacci series, but slightly distorted, so that it is not Fibonacci anymore. It makes it more natural, because you never find the extremely precise Fibonacci series in nature; there is always something slightly different which makes it natural.
Basically I created two lines, and the codes — 6Q, 3D, 2K, etc. — are the names of a single “cell” of rhythmic pattern. So you have this big series of 33 quarter-note phrases; inside each phrase, you have these rhythmic patterns that never align with each other. The medium value of the notes becomes smaller, but not in a linear way; you have phrases of 20 quarters, 12 quarters, until you reach 7 quarters where the piece ends abruptly. The flower opens up, very quickly, after this very big development.
This was just to show you a way in which I incorporate ancient music in my actual compositional process. But every time is different. The thing that I don’t like doing is quotation, or “detectable” stylistic references. I want it to be something that flows on a much deeper level.
Have you captured the essence of music through elements of harmony, as well?
With harmonies, I think the best example would be one of the songs from Troubadouritz — specifically the last song, ‘Serena’. That piece [has] a double way of incorporating elements of ancient music into my music. One is by trying to invoke the sound of a forgotten instrument with a modern instrument; in that piece, the cello is playing four strings simultaneously — at the same time.
The harmonies are related to a piece by Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, [who] is one of the first female composers recorded in history. Only one song remains written by her, which is contained in the Chansonnier du Roi — which is the biggest document for troubadouritz music — it’s called ‘A chantar’, it’s a love song, and it’s so beautiful. I harmonised, in a very personal way, the melodic line of ‘A chantar’ with the strange cello technique I mentioned earlier, then I removed De Dia’s melody and replaced it with my own.
This cello technique sounds absolutely fascinating — what effect did it achieve for you, and how did you find workshopping the idea with the performer?
This was, in my mind, a way to achieve a similar sound [to] the hurdy-gurdy. I think that I invented that technique, because I’ve never seen anyone else do that. This is a technique I developed in my mind, and I said “well, that should work” — and we tried it with the cellist and it actually worked! It’s mindblowing, the richness of the sound; it really sounds like a cello quartet.
The performer is really on the edge of the sound. Half a millimetre [off] means that the sound is destroyed completely. -laughs- It’s really, really tense. And the fact that the musician was doing that and singing at the same time, really means [they] have complete control over the instrument, and [the] voice. I think as a composer, it was one of the most intense moments of my career to witness that. It was beautiful.
What was the reason you chose to utilise a singing cellist as the performer, and how does that relate to the concept of the piece?
I randomly saw this video online of a Turkish cellist, composer, and singer called Ayşe Deniz Birdal — and she was singing and playing at the same time — and I was mind-blown! Conceptually, I really needed that since Troubadouritz is about medieval troubadours; and the way troubadours performed is by singing and playing their music at the same time. So it was really necessary for me to have a musician who could sing and play at the same time.
On the subject of singing; tell me about your use of text. When you’re setting text, whereabouts do you tend to find your sources — do you work predominantly with a librettist?
I would say 100% of my song production is with original text. I’ve never written anything from something not specifically written for my music. There are some things about text that I need to have control over, or at least say what my needs are. My fiancé — Leonardo De Santis — is my librettist, and he has been since 2015. I started writing vocal music when I met him; I’d never written anything with voice before [meeting him]. We actually grew together, in that sense — it’s rare to find someone that’s specialised for writing texts for music, and for opera.
We got to a point where I just read what he wrote — there are no corrections to be done, it’s perfect — and I can already hear the music from beginning to end. Once you get used to that, it’s really hard for me to imagine composing something written by someone else. There is no way I’m going to feel as comfortable as I do writing something with Leonardo’s text. So for me, it’s important to have an original text.
You mentioned in your compositional process, you plan every note before writing the piece — is there still an element of intuition involved?
It depends from piece to piece. I would say my songs — my pieces with voice — are more intuitive than my chamber or orchestral music without voice. When I don’t have the voice, I need to have a super strong structure — where almost everything is planned in advance. [But] in every structure that I create, I always leave some parameters to my intuition. I imagine the structure like [a] skeleton, or a grid; it can be as complex as I want, but the actual flesh is up to me. I think it’s really important.
That’s an interesting way of looking at it — so why is structure so important to you?
My utopia is to achieve such a high level of planning that the structure itself is expressive, it’s delivering an emotional value. I think that being completely intuitive is actually the worst thing you can do when you want to evoke a certain feeling, or emotion, in the audience. Because that’s not the way that we work! It’s like dialectica — when Aristotle talks about dialectic, he says that the best way to convey a concept, or to make someone feel what you want [them] to feel, is to plan what you have to say, and give it a certain structure. I think that’s very true for music. It makes it more genuine, from a certain point of view. I try to achieve that — to have this complex, very well-planned structure, which really represents what I have in mind.
I feel very much like an architect when I write music. When I think about myself, I always say that I have no creativity. I don’t have many ideas — to come up with an idea is such a tiring, painful process for me — but when I have one, I want it to be as similar as possible to what I have in mind when I put pen [to] paper. The only way I can do that is by planning it very, very well. If you talk about my vocal music, it’s different, because the text itself is a structure — so it leaves less space for my architecture.
In my head, there always seems to be a push-pull between intuition and planning everything out…
I deviate many times from my structures when I actually write. Sometimes, intuition tells you “well, you should do something different”. But that is a different way of deviating. If you don’t plan anything, you have no freedom to deviate — there is no path that you’re following, so you’re never deviating. It’s impossible to deviate if you didn’t plan. At least for me, it is very important; I know whether I deviate or not, I’m going where I want to go.
Let’s return to the subject of early music. Are there particular aspects or attributes that inspire you especially? What do you feel like inspires you the most?
It’s a really complex question. For example, troubadour music inspires me because it is an example of non-sacred [secular] music from that time. The rules of harmony were conceived by religious figures — people who wrote sacred music — because they wanted to be as far as possible from “popular” folk music. There was no musical reason for [those] kinds of rules; but historically, we associate these rules with ancient music in general. Which is absolutely not true.
The part of ancient music I’m most interested in is the non-sacred one; there, you can find crazy things that you will not see until the twentieth century. The melodies, the way they tend to repeat themselves — this very fast, virtuosic coloratura from Renaissance madrigals. The dissonances you can find in some Renaissance madrigals really inspire me. In these coloraturas, you find many parallels fifths, or octaves, because there is no way you can intertwine very complex melodic lines and avoid harmonic “mistakes” at the same time… -laughs- I actually wrote a piece which is a patchwork of the most dissonant, or “absurd”, chord progressions I’ve ever found in madrigal music. But they’re completely recontextualised. It sounds like film music — you would never say that this is from a madrigal!
I’m really interested in the folk side of ancient music; because there are some rare musical elements that, in the following centuries, didn’t find the right soil to grow and were abandoned. That’s what I’m trying to do: to take forgotten, rare things from the past, and bring them to the contemporary world — to see what kind of results they could have had if history went in a different direction.
Oh my god, I love it. Like an alternate history of music…
Yeah! Absolutely. I think the greatest example of that is my solo cello piece, ‘Nuovo dizionario degli affetti’ — which in English, translates to “new dictionary of affects”. [It] is inspired by the theory of affects, which is this Renaissance theory of specific intervals or musical figures [that] can describe certain emotions; the corresponding musical elements to a specific meaning.
What I tried to do in this multi-movement piece was, I took a sentence from an old madrigal — in this case, “ahi che pur non risponde”, which means something like “why isn’t he or she answering?” — and I tried to find matching contemporary slang to say the same thing. In this [movement], I chose “why are you ghosting me?” -laughs- This idea of not answering to someone — how it was put to music in the 1500s, and how it can be put into music today — starting from the same affects, and correspondence, between a certain musical element and a specific feeling or meaning:
Oh, wow — thank you for showing me this, I absolutely love it.
In this piece, because we have this “ghosting” idea: I tried to recreate this “ghost” in music, by merging so many different elements. There are bits of melody from old movies, from the 50s — Frankenstein, Dracula. There is this certain way of playing the cello as if it was a theremin; you have this continuous melodic line, which is glissing from one note to the other across the strings. The cellist never stops touching the string, from the beginning to the end. We also have the theme of Beethoven’s ‘Ghost Trio’ — so we have some notes from the Ghost trio, plus melodic material from the madrigal, and everything is merged together.
We also have this very strange technique in the beginning, called the wolf tone. There is a specific frequency in the fourth string, which is a tenth above the open string, which in old cellos tends to create battimenti — this natural “wahwahwahwahwah” sound. I used this technique because I wanted to mimic a phone on a flat surface, vibrating and stopping, vibrating and stopping, being completely ignored… and then the ghost appears. -laughs-
I love that — bridging a gap between centuries. What other pieces are involved in this suite, and how have you worked in ideas of affects with them?
The first movement is about “oddly satisfying” videos — which were super popular, and are right now, on the internet. The quotation I paired it with is “ch’un sol dolce pensier l’anima appaga”, which is “very sweet thought fills my soul”… -laughs- The first movement is inspired by Bach. Here I used the harmonies from the madrigal I’m referring to, plus [an] inspiration from the famous Cello Prelude — which I think archetypically, in our minds, is one of those examples of perfection. Sometimes, Baroque music tends to be really idealised; it becomes such an example of perfection in peoples’ minds that it seems like it was not written by humans. So I thought it was very good to describe this oddly satisfying feeling — because those videos are made to be so “perfect” that they’re inhuman.
The third one is [called] “I’m so broken” — “deh spezzati mio core” — which is “oh, my heart, please break”. This was inspired by Billie Eilish; that kind of being sad, almost suicidal, but in a really aesthetic way. -laughs- A very artificial way of expressing sadness, or depression. And the last one is “that was fucking savage” — “aspro core et selvaggio” — which is something like “bitter and savage heart”. It’s very hard to translate ancient Italian… -laughs- The last [movement] is for solo right hand.
I see — so all open strings, or things you can only do with one hand?
When you say to someone that he or she is “savage”, it’s because he or she is doing something which is absurd, almost dangerous. This way of playing the cello, I think, is really savage. It’s almost barbaric, from a certain point of view. -laughs-
There’s something incredibly vaporwave about that approach to me; channeling recontextualisations from different eras.
What you just said made me think of another way to incorporate elements from the past in my music — which is writing for old, forgotten instruments. The two most important pieces I’ve written for ancient instruments are pieces for keyboard: a piece for fortepiano — which is the father of the piano — and another piece for medieval portative organ, which is the tiny organ that you play resting on your knee.
The fortepiano one [‘Ebben’] is quite an old piece. I was really inspired by the fact that the fortepiano had a ton of pedals — more than our piano [today]. Those pedals completely change the timbre of the instrument. You have the bassoon pedal, that introduces a piece of paper between the strings and the mallets, and makes it sounds like a bassoon; you have the moderatore, which makes it sound like an electronic keyboard from the 80s… -laughs- You can also combine those pedals! Historically, I don’t think they used to do that — pressing four pedals at once — but I did that, and so I achieved [some] very strange sounds.
This piece in particular — since it was written for an old, forgotten instrument — is a piece about death. It really puts into music the death of the instrument, and the instrumentalists, at the same time. Here [at 2:15] I use the moderatore for the first time — you can hear how electronic it sounds:
I can absolutely hear what you mean — it’s fascinating how electronic that sounds to our ears…!
I tried to put into music how an instrument is forgotten, and dies. The piece becomes progressively more and more immobile, until it almost “dies” completely.
The other piece for portative organ [‘Studio natatorio’] — I was inspired by the fact that the instrument has a blowhole, just like whales. So I imagined the instrument as a creature [that] is swimming, emerging, going deep into the water, and emerging again. It’s a different way of treating an old instrument; using it in a completely different way [to how] it was supposed to be used.
For example: the portative organ wasn’t meant to play more than two voices at once. One voice was a pedal — played with the thumb — and the melody [was played] with the other four fingers. In my piece, you can find very big chords — twelve, thirteen notes — which almost destroys the sound of the instrument, [and] allows you to produce some incredible whistle tones. [ed. Riccardo subsequently played an excerpt from ‘Studio natatorio’ — listen on the video below at timestamp 3:30.]
Really, really spooky sounds. -laughs- A completely different soundscape from what it was generally meant to be. In this piece in particular, there is one moment where the “true nature” of the instrument is presented — the moment where I imagine the creature jumping out of the water. You can really see it; until it’s [no longer] submerged, it’s like a monster, because you have no idea of the shape of this strange animal. Here is the moment where the instrument finally plays the way it is supposed to [at 6:18]:
These sounds are absolutely incredible — how did you go about creating them? How much of a collaboration was there between yourself and the performer when working with these instruments?
[Me and] Dmitri Betti — we’ve known each other for the longest time, because we live 10 kilometres apart. We went to the same high school, we had the same piano teacher. But we never worked together. We work in two very different fields of music; he is a specialist of medieval music, and [this] was his first time playing contemporary music. He did an incredible job. We met twice, over Zoom, and he showed me how the instrument worked.
I’m not one of those composers who communicates a lot with the performer while [I’m] writing. I tend to imagine techniques in my head, and then I ask; because knowing the possibilities of the instrument in advance gives you less mental freedom to explore how you can play. The cello technique I talked about before — I developed that in my head, just thinking about the instrument, and then I asked “I think that’s possible, can you try that?” -laughs-
I understand how that can be limiting, especially when it comes to the “standard” ideas of extended techniques.
Lately, I completely abandoned extended techniques. My latest pieces are just notes. And that’s the thing I’m most interested in right now; achieving complete, pure, natural sound of the instrument. I think it gives me the possibility to really focus on structure, and form, and other parameters that tend to be polluted by timbre if it’s too present.
I think that extended techniques, and strange timbres, are like theatrical elements. You can use them, if you really need them to tell something. I would never use these sounds of the portative organ, for example, if I didn’t have in mind this idea of the creature — because they don’t have any meaning on their own. And after I’ve used them, it doesn’t matter whether I’m the first one or the hundredth one to use a certain sound; it will always sound the same. So I tend to use strange sounds only if I think they’re useful, or necessary, to tell the story I want to tell — to express the concept I have in mind. They’re never used for timbral purposes.
You’re currently in the stages of writing an opera, ‘Il pellegrino del nulla’, that’s happening in Modena next year. Tell me how you’ve incorporated the conceptual, aesthetic, and structural elements we’ve discussed in an operatic context?
‘Il pellegrino del nulla’ brings to the stage a profound critique of the prevailing capitalist rhetoric based on the concepts of utility and merit. At the same time, [it is] a pure ode to the futility of life — and the act of desertion from any system that treats human existence as a tool. We have chosen a type of narrative (or metanarrative) that transcends any specific aesthetic; the characters in this opera do not represent specific individuals, instead embodying behaviours and social dynamics that are so clear that they do not require a reference to aesthetics, or a specific geographical or historical context. Such a radical choice transforms the absence of scenography into a necessary starting point for potential future stage reinterpretations.
I wanted this narrative neutrality to also be reflected in my compositional choices at the writing level. The score of this opera is the best example of transparency, clarity, and, above all, a style of writing that is difficult to attribute to any specific musical genre.
Is there a thematic reason why you’ve chosen to present the opera in this way?
The opera offers the possibility of being aesthetically reinterpreted in light of any historical event, fantastic scenario, personal, psychological, or naturalistic setting that manifests a dynamic of power, control, or oppression. I want the listeners to be able to relate what they’re seeing on stage to something that’s happened to them or their family, something historical… There is no way to not relate to what you’re seeing as the whole opera is just a matter of power dynamics between two people. In this work, political murder is exposed in all its inefficiency: in the attempt to erase an idea through the death of the opponent, the idea itself is certified as immortal and hereditary. It doesn’t matter who they are; it could be a mother and a son, a soldier and a prisoner, a predator and prey.
I think it’s going to be a very different piece from what I’ve written so far. I think the most similar thing — in terms of mindset — is my piece called ‘La natura delle cose’; an educational piece I wrote for an ensemble of very young musicians. This big limitation about the difficulty level of my writing allowed me to discover this new style free from unusual timbres and complex techniques.
What is it about the way you’ve scored ‘La natura delle cose’ that relates to this opera?
Here, you have the instruments playing the most basic things they can. The strings are [playing] open strings, the winds are blowing into the instruments without pressing any key, the brass [play] just first-position harmonics. It’s absurd how strange the timbre gets — the strings playing open strings — it sounds like a double-reed instrument. I had no idea it would sound like that. But this is one of the ways I try to work with timbre without any extended techniques; this is how I like to achieve strange timbres. By making radical choices about instrumentation.
I think this piece has been a real turning point for my writing. I’ve been influenced a lot by this piece of mine. I think that here, for the first time, I really achieved what I was trying to achieve for a long time: this purity of writing, to write a music so simple that each note is vital. By looking at the score, you cannot really imagine how it sounds: the true sounds, you can only experience by hearing that:
Riccardo Perugini’s opera ‘Il pellegrino del nulla’ premieres on 28th April 2024 in Modena, Italy – you can find out more information at:
Learn more about Riccardo and his practice at:
- Pérotin le Grand – Viderunt Omnes, performed by the Early Music Consort of London
- Comtessa Beatriz de Dia – A chantar, performed by Bella Voce Chicago
- Beethoven – Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70 No. 1 “Ghost” (1809)
- Bach – Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007: Prélude
- Riccardo prefers to use the term “ancient music” to refer to musical styles from pre-Medieval, Medieval, and Renaissance periods.
- organa quadrupla: A kind of four-voice polyphony between the 10th and 13th centuries.