Bittersweet Storytellers Originating Art for the Cause of Art
The first rays of sunshine are seen peaking through the clouds on the distant horizon as an ancient ship comes ashore on the Mediterranean. From its domain, come forth a band of travelers, dressed in medieval garb, singing, dancing… suddenly a profound sensation of peace and timeless happiness penetrates my mind as I begin to absorb their music. I sense that very little matters now. I let my pain aside. I let away my cold thoughts. For the enchanted world of Ataraxia I had found. This autumn I had the fortune to have a discussion with the charming Francesca Nicoli before the release of their next ambitious album, Suenos. Follow me as I learn more of the secrets of these storytellers…
How have the members of Ataraxia met? What sort of relationship do the current participants have with each other today?
Francesca: “I met Vittorio (guitars) many years ago in a country house where the actual Ataraxia was born. He was there with two other guys and he had just begun playing guitar. I felt very impressed. Now I know how important it has been to meet such a valuable person. Our actor-dancer, Lorenzo, met Giovanni (keys and piano) in London in a youth hostel. Luckily, he lived just seventy kilometres far from us in Italy and we were looking for a keyboard player. This acquaintance has meant ten years of fulfilling friendship and musical development. After so many years of music, meetings, voyages, common experiences, we have learnt to tolerate defects, moods, bizarre behaviour and tastes of each of us and we have learnt a lot from the others. We have enlarged our interests, we have opened our horizons but especially we have become a bit less misogynistic than before.”
Does anyone in the band have any classical training, a formal understanding of theory? The rich level of melody and tone in the music seems to signify this. What are some of the backgrounds, musically, of the musicians in Ataraxia? Has each one of you always played such species of classically influenced music?
Francesca: “Giovanni has studied piano for about eight years and played organ in churches for quite a long time. Then he became fed up with that music, people, atmospheres, environment, and finally became himself. He broke with the past keeping always in mind his musical roots: deconstruction and construction.
“Vittorio is a very solitary guy. When he was a child he was ashamed of listening to music. He just heard thousand of times Beethoven and Mozart but he hasn’t a classical training. He is a self-taught classic guitarist and this is surprising knowing the skill he owns and the quality of his compositions.
“I’m a self-taught singer, too. When I was a child I spent a year in a music school to learn violin and three years of organ but I was very young and I forgot everything. I didn’t like impositions, the cold and aseptic atmospheres of my piano lessons, the fact that theory and technique were the only fundamental things while the exploitation and encouraging of creativity was banned. When I was 16, I began singing in an electronic wave band and I had the chance to overcome my fears, limitations and frustrations. I began singing…”
The band has been featured on a diverse range of labels; some that specialise in metal music, others that specialise in ambient/noise, and others that feature gothic music primarily… Do you feel any kinship to these other styles of music? Why do you think you have chosen the style of music you play over any others?
Francesca: “We are three persons with different musical backgrounds. Vittorio has always loved ambient experimental music (Tangerine Dream, Oldfield, the first Pink Floyd, Vangelis), I come from the dark wave world even if I have always loved ethnic music and especially medieval music, Giovanni has always listened to pop and wave music of the 80s. Labels came by chance, I mean, we haven’t chosen that particular label for its genre, more often they have chosen Ataraxia apart from Cold Meat Industry contacted by us some years ago because we appreciated their way of working. The style of our music? A patchwork of our cultural roots (Celtic, Latin, Greek), interests, the studies we did (historical, classical anthropological), the way we have grown and how nature has decided to utilize us to express its own language. We simply play driven by instinct.”
What does a usual Ataraxia live performance consist of? What have been some of your most favoured performances over the years? What would the ideal Ataraxia performance, from the milieu to the audience receptivity itself, be like, if you may imagine?
Francesca: “Ancient stones and the water of the sea speak to us. For this reason our best performances or experiences are held in ancient buildings or near the sea in order to hear their silent voices… A concert is a sort of theatrical drama. In places where ancient stones and architectures give us great inspiration we can finally express ourselves without any boundaries. We wish for the calmness of a monastery, the perfumes of a garden, the solitude and nobleness of a manor, the charm and nostalgia of an old theatre. The magic created by concerts is the great exchange of energy among us and the listeners; the currents inside human beings and under the earth start flowing so that we can explore and travel with our listeners in primeval kingdoms… If the sound of the instruments is natural, acoustic, unplugged, this faerie world is even more glistening. We had many favoured performances all over the years - in the ancient Roman theatre of Segobriga - Spain, in many castles all over Italy, in a Renaissance ‘villa’ near Florence, in Volkerschlacktdenkmal in Leipzig…”
I understand several films have been recorded, live concerts and such. Are you satisfied with the outcome?
Francesca: “Of course, even if these videos (self produced and filmed) + live (box set video + CD recorded in Lisbon and released by the Portuguese label Symbiose) have been released in limited editions. Two of us feel a great passion and are capable of utilizing cameras and editing videos. These videos have been filmed in particularly interesting architectural spots. We are really keen on this activity. Our songs are deeply married to images.”
In light of the band’s interest in history, what are some problems that you deduce in modern society as contrasted with earlier civilisations? Conversely, what are some problems of earlier civilisation that you feel has been rectified in the present? Do the members of Ataraxia feel a certain yearning for the past and regret for its loss, or do you prefer to, as they say, ‘live in the present’?
Francesca: “We are persons, musicians, spending our lives in the last years of the second millennium when great scientific and technologic discoveries have been done and when communication and exchange of news is becoming faster and faster; but at the same time we are in touch with history, ancient things, houses, customs, traditions. We are walking along a path that has been found many centuries ago. While walking we look straight ahead of us. We never forget our origins and with this awareness we afford the future. Our aim is not to lose anything the past gave us as a gift, to remember who we were, what we are, who we will be. Ancient spirits are still speaking. The ‘relationship’ with our time is based on the voyage; we are not so different from the many voyagers of ancient times like Marco Polo or Vasco da Gama. The time-space co-ordinates have changed, speed and superficiality have shortened the stages. Of course, we have been forced by our times to be more superficial of our ancestors, now the knowledge of ourselves through the sensible world costs great fatigue and self-denial.
“As it was in the past, we feel to be a land of meeting and struggle, people who bring the signs of cheering discoveries and hard battles.”
Do you think that all of the world’s cultures one day may be unified into one diverse whole, that mankind will eventually rub away the borders of culture, under the banner of a collective Humanity? This is surely happening already, to some degree, with increased communication, international space programs, the United Nations, the birth of the Internet, etc. What is your view on such a transition, homogenised or not?
Francesca: “If only I could I would like to get in touch with any single European idiom and then with other languages far from our roots. In every language is hidden a treasure, a secret, a revelation. Trying to understand a country, to portray it means also to submit to the fascination of its language and this can be done also on simple basis of its musicality, the flowing of the sound.
“Art may be global and international but it’s absolutely necessary to let emerge the differences between each land, culture, history, and tradition. Only the differences permit us be free to choose, interpret, be surprised, appreciate. Just differences create culture, love for art, inspiration. We are pilgrims of the ‘world of sounds’ because we love to visit other places in order to find what is not possible to find here and to bring over there a piece of our culture.”
Croce, the Italian idealist philosopher, had once said that “Unless a capacity for thinking be accompanied by a capacity for action, a superior mind exists in torture.” May one suppose that the art of Ataraxia, from the perspective of the artist, is a way of evading such a torture?
Francesca: “As we usually say, “we are exploring the garden of Psyche and Desire.” We have experimented with what you call ‘torture’ in the past and from time to time we’re still experimenting with it. Anyway, music is our way to enjoy life. Creation is the way to express the divine part of the human being. We are a sort of channel that can vibrate expressing, translating the energy around us.”
As we are on topic, Benedetto Croce also argued that music is the manifestation of a pure intuition. His aesthetic theory was based on the belief that art, as a form of creativity, is a more revealing criterion than the sciences and that beauty in art depends on the successful translation of a fundamental perception in the mind of the artist. Can such a method be applied towards your own endeavour, your own way of writing music?
Francesca: “We are simply bittersweet storytellers who originate art for the cause of art.”
Does anyone in Ataraxia paint or write outside of musical composition? What visual artists hold your interest? What extraordinary writers have shaped or broadened your perspectives?
Francesca: “Of course, our actor/dancer is a painter, too. Some of us are really keen on photography and some years ago I was used to writing short stories and collections of thoughts. The questions you did would need a very long answer with a longer list of names and we don’t like to sum-up the opera of an artist in such a short space and in a sort of encyclopaedic way. In all our releases are perceivable the figurative and literary influences that have distinguished all the stages of our life; the Italian Renaissance painters like Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Arcimboldo, the Pre-Raphaelitism English current with artists like Dante Gabriele Rossetti, Morris, Waterhouse. We love poets like Sappho, Anacreaonte, Alceo, Ibico, and also the contemporary Odisseo Elkis. We appreciate a lot the French maudits and the Italian Ungaretti and Mara Paltrinieri. Many currents of writers, but especially the ones who go far from a current inventing something new, courageously and intelligently. For this reason I want to remember Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, U. Eco, Conrad, Ungaretti, Neruda…”
Looking back now upon the previous releases of the band, what would you argue were your most favoured moments? What experiences would you change - strictly musically speaking - if you had the power today?
Francesca: “Our artistic work has been a progressive self-confidence and knowledge of ourselves. Pindaric flights and our limits have come to surface. The fact of having better or worst moments was not perceivable ‘from the inside’. Every step, every new live performance, every concept or new album was a personal growth. I can’t say I would change something of our past - musically speaking. Everything has been useful to get here, to be here after so many years of struggle, passion and difficulties. Anyway, a very good moment in which we had at last the opportunity to pick up the fruits of our work has been the live tour of 1999. We visited in Spain, Greece, England, Germany, Holland, France and of course Italy. A great collection of remembrances. Something of an inestimable value that has enriched us.
“On a discographical side we have been working in studio from three months to release our new album that’s written, recorded, engineered and mastered by us. A really hard work, endless efforts, sleepless nights, bitter struggles in order to obtain a precious piece of humanity and art that we hope will be renown, felt and loved.”
What is the next step now in the history of this ever-active group? If we assent that the present is shaped by the future, what possibilities may this glorious present contain?
Francesca: “For the very first time an Ataraxia album won’t be based on a concept or theme, its aim is letting listeners free to wonder and voyage with our minds wherever they wish. The word ‘Suenos’ has a special onomatopoeic sound: it reminds of the freedom and lunatic essence of the dream, the premonition, the flight and the return. ‘Suenos’ reminds also of the idea of ‘sound’ and ‘sign’. Suenos is an album that can’t be described through words because its words are its notes. It will be sung in the Spanish language but also in contemporary and ancient French, Provencal, English and Italian. It will be divided up into three parts of four songs each: Sandy dunes (The Orient and the Mediterranean: marches, solemn airs and a gothic flamenco); Ego Promitto Domino (far coming Middle Ages: songs of the crusades, farewell and merry-making); L‘ame d’eau (underwater flowing of the soul: notes of water, nostalgia and silence).
“Many new instruments have been played such as chitarra battente (a medieval guitar), clarinet, traverse flute, percussion, tamburo a spicchi (medieval drum), together with our usual classic and acoustic guitars, keyboards and flutes. Six of the twelve songs will be sung by many vocalists - all the band members, especially the Medieval and symphonic pieces of music. The third part, more intimate and watery, will be completely dedicated to the female voice.
“We hope to complete it for the end of October (2000) in order to have it released at the beginning of the next year.
“Ataraxia graciously thanks all the patient readers.”
With our chat come to an abrupt end, I bid farewell to Francesca, as the dancers convene again towards the inside of the ancient ship. Ropes are untied and with a start, it slowly takes sail once more and advances on its voyage back along the cold waters of the Mediterranean depths. Smaller and smaller, as it is engulfed in the mists of morning, the crew progresses across the waves. And then, there is nothing visible but a speck along the sharp edge of the horizon. Soon enough, this, too, finally disappears. And all we are left with is a memory… a memory, and a promise of wonderful things to come…