When Boston University’s Center for New Music was founded in 2012, one of its aims was to provide a cooperative focal point for the city’s abundant but disparate new-music happenings. Another goal, though, was to offer a venue for trends that are happening elsewhere — especially Europe — that would otherwise go unnoticed here.
That’s the thinking behind the Italian-born composer Pierluigi Billone’s upcoming residency. Billone, who lives in Vienna, is a student of Salvatore Sciarrino, who was in residence at BU during the center’s inaugural season. Like Sciarrino, as well as the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, Billone emphasizes unusual timbres and textures, and focuses on how instruments can be played in unusual ways — advancing what Joshua Fineberg, the Center’s director, called “the sound toolkit of music.”
Billone, though, brings this process to an extreme. His music is born from a complete immersion into the instruments for which he composes, and from a fierce imaginative freedom at what they can produce. The results are wildly strange, an extension even of what are called “extended techniques” into a new, and very personal, realm of sound creation.
“He essentially learns the instrument to be able to reinvent the instrumental technique and make this entirely personal version of a bassoon, or a viola,” Fineberg explained. “And he writes this music that, honestly, when you hear it, you can’t quite believe it.”
Everything about Billone’s compositions is personal, especially his scores, which are written in a gorgeous notation that can seem like an obscure hieroglyph to the uninitiated. To get a sense of how sound and script go together, check out the recording of “Legno.Edre II.Edre” by the bassoonist Chris Watford (who will do master classes and forums during the BU residency) and look at the opening of the score on Billone’s website (www.pierluigibillone.com). The union of the eerily beautiful sounds and the ornate calligraphy makes the piece seem like a message from an alien world. The music seems not so much composed as dragged from deep in the composer’s subconscious.
And that’s what makes it so extraordinary, Fineberg explained. It isn’t just the riotously new sounds, but also the emotional charge they can produce.
“I think the reason Billone’s music is special is that he has this really wonderful sense of ritual and pacing and timing,” he said. “His pieces tend to be fairly long, and very dramatic, laid out in a way that creates a sort of intense dramatic situation. And so for me there’s really something of an exotic religious ritual to it — this crazy religion that’s never existed with these slowly changing drones, and these unfamiliar sounds and strange locations of things.”
Fineberg credits New York-based Talea Ensemble with sparking his interest in Billone’s music. “His music is really part of his body,” said percussionist Alex Lipowski, Talea’s executive director. “It’s so central to his being. His whole life revolves around creating this heavy experimental music.”
After hearing Billone’s “Mani.De Leonardis” for automobile springs and glass at Darmstadt in 2008, Lipowski wrote to the composer, asking to play it. He didn’t hear back for about two weeks, and wondered if he’d done something wrong.
“He’s so careful about who receives his music,” Lipowski said. “He doesn’t just send scores out because if he’s not there to work with people, if he doesn’t have his hands in how the music is created, it just doesn’t work.” Once a musician knows what Billone wants, viewing his scores is like “looking at sound under a microscope.”
Talea has since brought Billone to the United States and played a number of his works, including some American premieres. At first, Lipowski said, the experience was intimidating. “He stands over you with this sort of stiff, cold face,” he said. “He’s very serious. Once he opens up, he’s actually a really beautiful person — warm and generous and emotional. But he has this hard soul, because his music doesn’t survive when it’s played not necessarily badly, but just incorrectly.”
That kind of intensive commitment on both sides of the performer-composer relationship has so far restricted the spread of Billone’s works to a small group of initiates. Lipowski mentioned the Viennese new-music group Klangforum Wien as his biggest champions. “We really admire what they’ve done.”
That’s why the BU residency is both necessary for the spread of his work and a slightly risky experiment. “Basically, his whole career, he’s worked with this handful of players who have invested in his music and believe in it and spend months and years,” said Fineberg, who also noted that when he discussed the residency with Billone, the composer asked him to “bring in this player and this player.”
“And I said that for me, the whole point of this is, we take people who don’t play your music, and we help them get started. And by the end, maybe they still won’t be doing it great, but 10 years from now they’ll have this experience and if they want to dive into it, they won’t be starting at zero.”