Watching TV on a late afternoon, in a suburban town in Central Italy. A young man with furtive black eyes and a haunted air, wearing a green caped mac and sporting a dishevelled mohawk, moves restlessly on the stage. A young woman appears, dressed up enigmatic in a white tunic and holding a staff. Her style, a nightmarish Art Nouveau: not the sleek lines of Aubrey Beardsley’s Salomé but the slow, leaden posture of Theda Bara circa Cleopatra. In her aspect grace becomes nemesis. The man in the green mac starts to sing – no, it is rather a solemn invocation, vaguely out of tune yet self-assured, just like in a mass choir. The woman stands still. There is an adventurous absolute quality in this setup, it hovers between the imposing and the deranged. It peeks through the man’s eyes, that look like two leather buttons. It explodes in every word he sings.
The song is The Captain’s Testament. Exactly the same song from World War I, sung by an Alpine choir, featured in an old vinyl in my dad’s collection. Not exactly that one, so off-centred it sounds. How dare he? He dares. In the delivery of the song the man in the mac carries an awkward air of solemnity, a firm intent. And then the song slowly morphs into a manic, hammering rhythm.
Of course I did not know the term post punk at the time. To my teenager ears it was just a manic, hammering rhythm, the skeleton supporting those words: Curami curami curami, Prendimi in cura da te, Prendimi in cura da te, Cure me Cure me Cure me, Let me be cured by you, Let me be cured by you. Was it the captain of the soldiers asking to be cured of his wound? Was it the man in a mac pleading to be cured of his malaise? Was it an entire generation of Italian teenagers asking to be cured of Italy? That voice scratched and unmasked my teenager dreams. I suddenly felt alive, awake. It was March 1988, I’d just turned fourteen. A familiar melody had been distorted, and I’d just seen a band called CCCP on TV. Those were not easy years.
Especially today the words of CCCP sound prophetic. They sang of Italy, province of the empire. There were rumours, there were lies, there were noises. Buzzes. The sound of those years is a monotonous hum. Rewind, further backwards. Milan, 2 December 1977. The people attending John Cage’s performance at Teatro Lirico listened for over three hours to his meticulous and monotonous dissection of Thoreau’s diaries that began by omitting phrases, then words, then syllables until there was nothing but sounds. The atmosphere arose into an explosion of voices and dissent. There was Cage, his words weighing as much as the explosion of noises around. The audience started laughing, shouting, mocking, whistling and booing till it all turned into a carnival of infuriating chaos. Cage? He kept reading, responding with poised rhythm to the tension around, making it resonate even stronger. He called his performance Empty Words. The urgency of a situation broke into a cliché; the explosion of voices from a hidden past clashed with the present tense. It’s no longer just empty words, it’s the voicing of disquiet that matters. The aural matter is the sound of that disquiet.
Five months later Aldo Moro was murdered by the Red Brigades. I recall the astonishment of our neighbours outside and the deadly silence of my parents when the news broke, followed by all those phone calls as if the sound of daily chatter buzzing itself to oblivion could keep that deathly silence away. Then again there were rumours, there were lies, there were noises, buzzes. Since then, the whole history of my country has been like a prolonged line of rumours, lies, noises, buzzes.
Do I need any more than this? Do I need silence now?