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Gianmaria Testa: sotto voce

I want to talk about the music of Gianmaria Testa, an Italian singer and songwriter whose work I am fond of, and don’t know how to describe it. True, I find it very difficult to talk about music, which is essentially a sensual experience.

The trouble with genres of music is that they are rarely introduced by musicians. Great for folk who have to sort CDs into bins at a music shop, not much good for actually describing music. Music comes from multiple roots and musicians are usually influenced by one another: they grow up wanting to sound like a particular musician. Only the mediocre succeed. The others evolve their own style.

Fats Waller and Billie Holiday performed pop music but are jazz musicians; Nina Simone was a classically trained pianist who performed protest songs and show tunes, and can’t be fitted into any one category. Look at blues, you find traces of ragtime; at rock, you’ll see country roots. As has been said before, the only sure division is into good music, and bad music.

For an English speaker listening to mainly American based music this cross fertilisation is confusing enough. But listening to music of other countries can be really disorienting. We think pop music from Brazil sounds like jazz; we don’t know what to make of traditions such as chanson; we don’t take music such as tango or rebetika seriously.

So I’m going to describe the music of Gianmaria Testa in terms of other music, and hope I make sense. No Italian songwriter and performer can fail to be influenced by Paolo Conte, whose humorous, world weary lyrics and virtuoso piano technique have been attracting attention since the 1970s. There’s not a little of Fats Waller’s tragic clown in Conte’s performances, mixed with the exasperation Italians reserve for their own foibles. Testa has the voice – both Conte and Testa, one imagines, have smoked a lot of cigarettes between them – but lyrically they are miles apart. Conte can be surreal, nostalgic, exaggerated, but Testa is gentle, romantic, and that suspect word, poetic. Sure you can describe these as ‘singer-songwriters’, like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Bob Segar, but you are not being very precise by doing so.

Testa has a real melodic gift, comparable at times to the composer Simon Jeffes, of Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Some of his tracks sound like a modern string quartet performing something by Ravel, others like bebop jazz, until suddenly a clarinet turns it into sweet pop music or an unforgettable tune like one by Nino Rota. And lurking in the background of Testa’s work is the sung poetry of Léo Ferré, a chansonist who has performed poems by Apollinaire and Rimbaud and to whom Testa has paid homage in a CD release.

Gianmaria Testa comes from Cuneo in Piedmont near the French border of NW Italy (Conte comes from Asti in that province, so what does this say of the Piedmontese?). Although playing guitar and writing songs since he was a teenager, Testa’s career only took off in 1995, when he was 37. His first CD, Montgolfières, was released in Paris that year, and the following year he mounted a show at Paris’ New Morning club, with a combo that included sax, trombone, clarinet and accordion. All through his career Testa has shown great skill and discrimination in choosing musicians to back him, and the arrangements that they worked out together are one of the features of Testa’s music that raises it above the ordinary. In 1997 Testa had a concert at the Olympia which bought him, belatedly, general recognition. The concert was followed by a tour of Europe and Canada in 1998. In 2000 his CD Il valzer di un giorno was a bestseller, a surprising hit for an album of voice, with the simple accompaniment of Pier Mario Giovannone’s guitar. It is a masterpiece, and a highlight of his career. The year 2002 saw two homages, Guarda che luna! with Enrico Rava, Banda Osiris, Stefano Bollani, dedicated to Fred Buscaglione, a hilarious revue displaying real virtuosity, and Omaggio a Léo Ferré, with Roberto Cipelli and Paolo Fresu. These developed over several performances and were released on CD 2004 and 2008 respectively. Other acclaimed performances were at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2005 and 2007. A strong element of theatre has entered Testa’s work, including the ‘concept’ CD Da questa parte del mare, which explores the experience of migration, and is probably his best work so far. In 2009 Testa gave a solo concert of 21 of his compositions accompanied only by his guitar which was released later that year as Solo Dal Vivo, a remarkable performance which attracted enthusiastic audience response, another career highlight. As time passes Testa has developed as a perceptive, tender chronicler of states of the heart, with a melodic gift that now makes many of his songs unforgettable (and a voice that is getting noticeably hoarser).

Di tutti i sogni che ho,
dei miei miraggi sei tu,
la più improbabile,
isola persa nel blu,
e riscoperta però,
irraggiungibile….

Among all the dreams that I have,
among all the mirages that stare before me,
you are the most improbable.
You are like an island lost in the blue
that I re-discovered,
but you are unreachable…
(Come un’America from Extra Muros)

(reminds me of something simpler I wrote long ago:
through a mist
I heard your song, always fading,
always beautiful…
putting to sea
leaving your island, enchantress
and hoping to find you,
circe,
again).

Most CDs by Testa are available through Amazon.com. I’d recommend the live recordings first: Testa does very well in concert. The studio CDs all have their highlights and can be enjoyed just as much for the splendid musicianship and arrangements as for the lyrics.

YouTube
Come le onde del mare. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFP_GrzWylg
Come di pioggia. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FIE8ryCTOo
Ritals. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaIrRC_4zaw
Il viaggio. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCnRFSJLr6c
Come al cielo gli aeroplani. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxTDxEtPFS4
Gli amanti di Roma. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoA6aQoz52M
Piccoli fiumi. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12yNoC_6dnQ
Un aeroplano a vela. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q88X1hZsKoY

The songs
(translations adapted from those of G Attardo ©2010)
An airplane with sails (from Montgolfieres 1995):

An ocean liner made of paper I’ll give to you
When you begin
And a captain who will man the sails
Across the seas
An ocean liner made of paper I’ll give to you
And an airplane with sails
And a pilot wearing glasses at the controls
Flying to another sky
A canary in a cage will sing for you
When days get dark
When the sea and sky hold up the journey
And you can not move.

A flag without a symbol I’ll give to you
Before you start
And strong winds blowing from the east
And you’ll see
A flag without a symbol I’ll give to you
And an hourglass made of gold
When the desert sands are still
Then you will rest.

A canary in a cage will sing for you
When days get dark
The winds, the time against you
When you can not move.

Un Aeroplano A Vela :
Un transatlantico di carta ti regalerò
quando dovrai partire
e un capitano con le mani lo navigherà
da questo a un altro mare
un transatlantico di carta ti regalerò
e un aeroplano a vela
ed un pilota con gli occhiali lo piloterà
da questo a un altro cielo
e un canarino canterino addomesticherò
per le giornate scure
di quando il mare e il cielo dicono di no
e non si può viaggiare

una bandiera senza segni ti regalerò
quando dovrai partire
e il vento forte di levante la sventolerà
che si potrà vedere
una bandiera senza segni ti regalerò
e una clessidra d’oro
quando la sabbia del deserto la trascorrerà
ti potrai riposare

e un canarino canterino addomesticherò
per le giornate scure
di quando il vento e il tempo dicono di no
e non si può tornare

Little Rivers (from Il valzer di un giorno 2000):

Ah, certain little rivers in the lowlands
which run straight into the sea,
do they notice lands they flow through
or do they simply just arrive?
They look an awful lot like sadness
which comes without a warning,
and then it floods the heart’s lakes,
and with their water is mixed another
that takes us by surprise.

When we met you felt abandoned
there was nothing much to say,
even the shadow of a half smile
was absent from your eyes that day,
while you had watched me watch you.
No matter how much time has passed
we have left still two marks
upon our hearts which,
no matter what our sadness
will still remain.

And I’m back here just
to contradict you
this silence won’t keep me quiet,
or the distance of a buttoned jacket.
I’m back here to meet again,
do not deter me.
Even the silence
that grips us and makes us wonder.
I’m back here because …
certain little rivers in the lowlands
which run straight into the sea
they do not notice lands they flow through
they simply just arrive.

Piccoli Fiumi :
Ah certi piccoli fiumi di bassa pianura
che arrivano dritti nel mare
e chissà se si accorgon di niente
o si lasciano semplicemente arrivare
assomigliano a certe tristezze
che senza preavviso
allagano i laghi del cuore
e alla solita acqua ci mischiano un’acqua
che arriva da non si sa dove

E ti ho incontrata sperduta
che non c’era più niente da dire
neanche l’ombra di un mezzo saluto
in quegli occhi che pure
mi avevan guardato guardare
non importa quanto tempo è passato
ce ne siamo lasciate noi due
di tracce sul cuore
che nessuna tristezza dovrebbe da sola
dovrebbe poter cancellare

E son ritornato qui
in verità,
per contraddirti
e non mi allontanerà questo silenzio
e la distanza di una giacca abbottonata
sono tornato qui
perché si fa di rincontrarsi
e non mi scoraggerà
nemmeno il vuoto
che ci piglia e che non ci fa più meraviglia
sono tornato qui perché…
certi piccoli fiumi di bassa pianura
che arrivano dritti nel mare
io lo so, non si accorgon di niente
ma si lasciano semplicemente
arrivare

Like the rain (from Altre Latitudini 2003):

Another moment, and you will be
like the rain
that washes the pavements
and slides down our faces.
Only a moment, and you will be
like the rain.
For a love made of sand
you will be.

You will be wet earth,
after the rain,
steam from the tar and then
warm embraces.
You will be wet ground,
a blossoming flower.
On a love made of sand
you will be.

You will be like the moon in winter
that lights up for us,
the whole sky that turns around us.

Another moment, and you will be
like the rain
that washes the pavements
and slides down our faces.
Only a moment, and you will be
like the rain.
For a love made of sand
you will be.

You will be like the moon in winter
that lights up for us,
the whole sky that turns around us.
You will be the breath of the day.

Come Di Pioggia :
Ancora un attimo e sarai
come di pioggia
che lava i marciapiedi e a noi
scivola in faccia
soltanto un attimo e sarai
come la pioggia
per un amore di sabbia
sarai

Di terra umida sarai
dopo la pioggia
vapore dal catrame e poi
caldo che abbraccia
di terra umida sarai
fiore che sboccia
sopra un amore di sabbia
sarai

Sarai come una luna d’inverno
che accende per noi
tutto il cielo che gira qui intorno di noi

Ancora un attimo e sarai
come di pioggia
che lava i marciapiedi e a noi
scivola in faccia
soltanto un attimo e sarai
come la pioggia
per un amore di sabbia
sarai

Sarai come una luna d’inverno
che accende per noi
tutto il cielo che gira qui intorno
sarai
sarai il respiro del giorno

Ritals (from Da questa parte del mare 2006):

Yet we also knew
the smell deep within the ships.
The bitterness of leaving
that too, we also knew.
And a language to forget
and another one to learn
even before riding a bike.
We knew, as well,
our breath on shop windows
and the bread that wasn’t fresh
and the shame of rejection.
Yet we also knew
how to watch in silence.
And we knew the patience
of those who can not stop.
And holy charity
gifts given in charity.
Yet we also knew
the color of the offense
and a poorer and poorer living
that never becomes a home.
Our breath on shop windows
and bread that wasn’t fresh
and the shame of rejection.
Yet we also knew
how to watch in silence.

Ritals :
Eppure lo sapevamo anche noi
l’odore delle stive
l’amaro del partire
Lo sapevamo anche noi
e una lingua da disimparare
e un’altra da imparare in fretta
prima della bicicletta
Lo sapevamo anche noi
e la nebbia di fiato alla vetrine
e il tiepido del pane
e l’onta del rifiuto
lo sapevamo anche noi
questo guardare muto
E sapevamo la pazienza
di chi non si può fermare
e la santa carità
del santo regalare
lo sapevamo anche noi
il colore dell’offesa
e un abitare magro e magro
che non diventa casa
e la nebbia di fiato alla vetrine
e il tiepido del pane
e l’onta del riufito
lo sapevamo anche noi
questo guardare muto

Discography

 

 

 

 

• 2009 – SOLO DAL VIVO ****

Le Chant du Monde / Harmonia Mundi France

• Ladies and gentlemen
• La nave
•Dentro la tasca di un qualunque mattino
• Il valzer di un giorno
• Un aeroplano a vela
• Piccoli fiumi
• Comete
• Seminatori di grano
• Forse qualcuno domani
• Una barca scura
• Polvere di gesso
• Il passo e l’incanto
• 4/3/2009
• Al mercato di Porta Palazzo
• Ritals
• La nostra città
• Sei la conchiglia
• Avrei voluto baciarti
• Gli amanti di Roma
• Biancaluna
• Come al cielo gli aeroplani

 

 

 

 

2008 – F A LEO

Bonsai Music

• Avec Le Temps (Intro)
• Les Forains
• A Saint Germain Des Pres
• Lettura Da L’art Poetique Di P. Verlaine
• Vingt Ans
• Lettura Da L’art Poetique Di P. Verlaine
• Les Poetes
• F.
• Lettura Da L’art Poetique Di P. Verlaine
• Free Poetique
• Monsieur William
• Lettura Da L’art Poetique Di P. Verlaine
• L’adieu
• Lontano Lontano
• Lettura Da L’art Poetique Di P. Verlaine
• Colloque Sentimental
• Col Tempo/Avec Le Temps

 

 

 

 

• 2006 – DA QUESTA PARTE DEL MARE ****

Le Chant du Monde / Harmonia Mundi France

• Seminatori Di Grano
• Rock
• Forse Qualcuno Domani
• Una Barca Scura
• Tela Di Ragno
• Il Passo E L’incanto
• 3/4
• Al Mercato Di Porta Palazzo
• Ritals ****
• Miniera
• La Nostra Città

 

 

 

 

 

 

• 2004 – GUARDA CHE LUNA (live) ****

Gianmaria Testa; Stefano Bollani; Enrico Rava; Banda Osiris

 

 

 

 

• 2003 – ALTRE LATITUDINI ****

Le Chant du Monde / Harmonia Mundi France

• Preferisco Così
• Il Meglio Di Te
• Dentro Al Cinema
• Solo Per Dirti Di No
• Tuareg
• Come Di Pioggia ****
• Veduta Aerea
• Voce Da Combattimento
• Nient’ Altro Che Fiori ****
• Sei La Conchiglia
• Una Lucciola D’ Agosto
• Potrai
• ‘Na Stella
• Altre Latitudini
• Preferisco Così

 

 

 

 

• 2000 – Il VALZER DI UN GIORNO *****

Le Chant du Monde / Harmonia Mundi France

• Il Viaggio
• Sono Belle Le Cose
• Dentro La Tasca Di Un Qualunque Mattino
• Un Aeroplano A Vela
• Le Traiettorie Delle Mongolfiere
• Sappi Che Tutte Le Strade
• Come Le Onde Del Mare
• Lampo
• Città Lunga
• Avrei Voluto Baciarti
• Gli Amanti Di Roma
• L’automobile
• Le Donne Nelle Stazioni
• Piccoli Fiumi ****
• Mi Sento Solo
• Polvere Di Gesso
• Il Valzer Di Un Giorno
• Plage Du Prophäte

 

 

 

 

• 1999 – LAMPO ***

Warner France

• La Tua Voce
• Polvere Di Gesso
• Petite Reine
• Lucia Di Notte
• L’albero Del Pane
• Biancaluna
• Lampo
• Gli Amanti Di Roma
• Comete
• Quello Che Vale
• Canzone Del Tempo Che Passa

 

 

 

 

• 1996 – EXTRA MUROS ***

Warner

• Per Accompagnarti
• Un Po’ Di Là Del Mare
• Come Un’ America
• Cavalli Di Frisia ****
• Il Mio Gallo
• Joking Lady
• Il Viaggio****
• Via Da Quest’avventura
• La Casa Sulla Collina ****
• Un’altra Città
• Extra-muros
• Canto (Segrete Stanze)

 

 

 

 

• 1995 – MONTGOLFIERE ****

Label Bleu

• Città Lunga
• Le Traiettorie Delle Mongolfiere
• Habanera
• La Donna Del Bar
• Dentro La Tasca Di Un Qualunque Mattino
• Un Aeroplano A Vela****
• Come Le Onde Del Mare
• L’automobile
• Senza Titolo
• Le Donne Nelle Stazioni
• Maria
• Manacore
• La Terra Delle Colline****

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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4 comments on “Gianmaria Testa: sotto voce

  1. Pingback: Bia – singer, composer, interpreter | BestQuest

  2. phillipkay
    Saturday, 31 December, 2011

    I don’t know any answers to this. It sounds personal, doesn’t it, like many songs on Montgolfiere? Yet who it is shouldn’t matter. The situation is either one we know or not. Someone we love has gone away even while present and in our company: for when we realise this, it is too late to remedy, even if we knew what to do. I love how the melody becomes dominant and leaves the words behind, a melancholy tune reminiscent of a film by Fellini, then mutates into a samba like rhythm before returning to melancholy again. A memory in musical form, while Testa has another drink, and yet another cigarette.

  3. Giannina Cazzaro
    Saturday, 31 December, 2011

    Per chi è statto scritto La Donna del Bar? Che storia c’è di dietro questo poema?

    Grazie mille !

    Giannina

  4. Pingback: Bia – singer, composer, interpreter « BestQuest

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This entry was posted on Sunday, 24 October, 2010 by in music and tagged , , .
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