Watch above: Ireland's leading new music ensemble Crash Ensemble perform the mind-altering Professor Bad Trip, by Fausto Romitelli.
Below, conductor Richard Baker tells us why he loves the piece and performing it with Crash.
Who was Professor Bad Trip, and what can he teach us? The virtuosic and kaleidoscopic work in three 'lessons' that bears his name has achieved cult status in recent years, a regular fixture in contemporary music festivals around the world, and beloved of student composers for its gleeful embrace of both drug culture and sounds of pop and rock. Yet its composer, the Italian Fausto Romitelli (1963-2004) is still not widely known, and there is very little published writing about his work. A fascinating, tantalising figure in music of the last forty years, Romitelli died tragically young after a long battle with cancer, leaving behind a small but highly distinctive catalogue of works in addition to this, his breakout festival hit.
Romitelli’s music straddles two compositional schools that are often seen as ideologically opposed: the post-serial playfulness of his teacher Franco Donatoni, and the radical innovations of the French ‘spectralist’ school. It’s a language that can sound monolithic (like that of his colleague Gérard Grisey), but which is surprisingly eclectic, often a kind of bricolage. His mature works are built from repeated cells of material that grow and accumulate matter, transform into chaotic states, and decay or degrade in ways that mimic biological processes. The material often begins very simply before undergoing a process of progressive ornamentation; the decorations becoming more and more elaborate, taking on a life of their own until the original musical idea almost disappears from view. Ghosts and echoes of tonal music exist as objects in a post-apocalyptic landscape (for example, his orchestral work Dead City Radio quotes from Strauss’s Alpine Symphony to disturbing effect). But in Professor Bad Trip, Romitelli was specifically inspired by French author Henri Michaux’s writings made under the influence of mescaline. Stable musical objects begin to move in uncanny ways (augmented through the use of a spatialised electronic part in Lesson 1), and the whole work is infused by the sounds of progressive rock, and the mechanistic looping of Electronic Dance Music.
Crash Ensemble’s performance of the complete cycle, which I had the pleasure to conduct at the 2018 New Music Dublin was one of the most thrilling experiences of my professional life. I’d been a fan of both composer and piece for so long, the invitation from Artistic
Director and cellist Kate Ellis was very welcome. Crash took to this strange, hypnotic idiom as if they’d been playing it all their lives (perhaps not surprising, given that the accommodation between French spectral music and popular idioms is also feature of their founder Donnacha Dennehy’s work). The musicians attacked the technical challenges of the music with incredible commitment and seriousness—including Kate’s wild cello ‘cadenzas’ in Lesson 2, flooded with distortion. There are beautiful, cool riffs for electric bass and guitar, crazy party music, as well as delicate instrumental textures that call for incredible control of extended techniques.
The (entirely natural) high of this concert kept me aloft for weeks, if not months. I hope it does the same for you.
Find out more about Crash Ensemble here.
Film and visuals: Laura Sheeran