Turning Lead To Air: Music for Cello From Primo Levi
Can narrative prose occasion instrumental music? Though countless compositions have been based on literary texts, the process from words to music can be elusive.
A case in point was the world premiere of Luciano Chessa’s Piombo (Italian for lead)—from Primo Levi’s story of the same title—for solo cello, performed by the exceptional Frances-Marie Uitti on January 21 at Magazzino Italian Art in Cold Spring, New York, and the following week, at the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco. Chessa, now in mid-career, is an inordinately gifted composer, conductor, organist, visual artist, and music historian. His polyhedric talents have given him increasing visibility on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, he has been heard more often as a conductor (leading the premiere of Julius Eastman’s Symphony No. II at Lincoln Center, and of Sylvano Bussotti’s music at Roulette). However, his own compositions undoubtedly deserve wider attention, and Piombo is an excellent introduction to his musical world. It is not so much a work for cello but rather one tailored to Uitti’s two-bows (played simultaneously with the right hand) technique. Over the years, Uitti’s technique has inspired composers such as Giacinto Scelsi, Elliott Sharp, György Kurtág, Luigi Nono, and John Cage to write for her.
A thirty-minute piece, Piombo was written in 2022. Chessa did not attempt to recreate a literary text musically but rather to convey his emotions as a reader. “The quote from Primo Levi I chose as the epigraph,” says Chessa, “conveys what fascinated me most about this text: ‘I can’t say how, but there was the lead; I felt it under my feet, dark, poisonous, and heavy, for two miles along a stream in a wood where, among the lightning-struck trunks, wild bees nest,’ a magical vision expressed in the language of dreams.”
Primo Levi was an Italian-Jewish chemist and writer who survived eleven months at Auschwitz. His imprisonment in what we think of as the paradigm of evil ignited his urge to testify in writing. Today, Levi’s fame is a given; his work has appeared in over forty languages. There is scarcely a discussion on the Shoah, on human endurance, or on the nature of violence in which he is not quoted. His seminal Auschwitz memoir, If This Is a Man, was first published in English in 1959. Still, for widespread critical attention, Levi had to wait until 1984, when the translation of The Periodic Table won him wide critical acclaim.
The Periodic Table is at once a memoir and a collection of twenty-one stories, each named after a chemical element from Dmitri Mendeleev’s table. “Lead,” with “Mercury” and “Carbon,” are the stories where Levi departs furthest from a biographical dimension to explore fantasy literature in the mode of Defoe or Rabelais.
Chessa was pointed to The Periodic Table by Robert Weil, editor-in-chief at W.W. Norton’s Liveright Publishing and the man responsible for the publication of Levi’s Complete Works in 2015. When Chessa first read “Lead,” it conjured memories of his upbringing in Sassari, Sardinia, and his studies in cultural anthropology. The composer was struck by Levi’s departure from his analytic scientific mind into the realm of dreams. Emulating Levi’s sense of adventure, Chessa aspired to write a piece that would spark curiosity and commitment in the listener from the music’s inception to its conclusion. “As a reader,” he says, “I am interested in absorbing the emotion of a text, its emotional content more than narrative structural elements. And this is what I then try to communicate through my mediation in music… I don’t expect the listener to draw direct parallels [between text and music].”
Though not divided into separate movements, the composition is formed by nine distinct sections; one can think of them as chapters, often marked by a longer pause or breath. Collectively, they define an arch that departs from an initial tentative whisper and develops through several sonic events, such as stops and starts, tremolos, crescendos, harmonic clashes, and reiterated tonal fragments, landing in a beautiful, rich chorale. A sense of movement, quest, and exploration propels the composition forward. Themes and harmonic progressions bubble to a boiling point, passing from a liquid to a gaseous state and then returning to a solid one, as in an alchemist’s alembic.
Far from being programmatic or literal, Chessa’s composition evokes the search and exploration one finds in Levi’s story through a dreamlike soundscape. It defines at once a sonic correlative to the literary text and a personal interpretation. Chessa explains: “I was interested in creating a structure where certain patterns reoccur and evolve. Things appear, disappear, and reappear in different forms. Sounds emerge very slowly until they reach a climax, a kind of sound saturation.”
Following these climaxes come new sound environments, like a hill, or an opening along the journey; something different in terms of musical language or of dynamics. Nothing is predictable, and changes in direction come through different compositional devices. At times, a crescendo ends abruptly, then sounds start building up again. Bursts of energy lead to silence, which in turn ushers in tonality as an echo of a different musical era. Other times a tonal section morphs into strident noise until it reappears in modified forms; events manifest sometimes in full light, sometimes as ghostly appearances of what they once were.
Suspense and expectation, mimicking the idea of physical exploration and search, are crucial elements. This is achieved via different strategies; one is the use of an implacable motive made of half steps that recur with different tempos, another is using the timbres that Uitti can produce with her technique as a way to build suspense and thwart expectations. As Uitti points out, “for the audience, the suspense grows and grows; they want to hear even one clean tone, but no, no, we don’t get the cello’s voice for many pages!”
The object/obsession of the protagonist of Primo Levi’s story is lead, which today we often associate with bullets and war (in Italy, the terrorist-ridden 1970s are referred to as “Years of Lead”). On the contrary, Chessa’s Piombo renders a sense of wonder, lightness, and adventure. In Uitti’s words, “What I find so exceptional and unexpected in this piece are the colors, the delicacy, and extreme fragility.” Yet, in the “ombroso” section, there is the gravity and weight of lead, coming through the dissonance of a few chords, all in the lower register of the cello, a turbulence in the sound, everything vibrating. This is lyrical music of flickering lights, alluring spaces, sharp-edged sounds, and utter unpredictability.
Piombo is contemplative and descriptive, creating an intimate complicity with the listener—listening/watching is an arena in which to act out a journey through a musical landscape.
Uitti’s extraordinary aluminum cello and technique is visually compelling; she plays four voice chords, or two and three voice chords on non-adjacent strings, while the left hand is free to define pitches. “I use different timbres and different dynamics between the bows,” she says, “one bow could be using the wood while the other uses the hair, the possibilities are many and complex.”
Chessa and Uitti have known each other and performed together for years. “Luciano had a well-informed idea of my playing, and I think that with his wonderful imagination, we took the possibilities of this technique quite far,” says Uitti. “He has redefined Piombo through opposites. The music is luminous, floating on the edge of the audible, in contrast to the heavy grey lump we associate with lead. It is only during the ‘ombroso’ chorale that we get a subtle suggestion of that weight and understand the nature of lead—illumination by reflection.”
“Lead”’s closing paragraph reads:
In the village I have founded near the brook of the wild bees, and to which I would have liked to give a name in my language, which I am forgetting, Bak der Binnen, meaning ‘Brook of the Bees,’ but the people here have accepted the name only in part, and among themselves, in their language, which by now is mine, they call it “Bacu Abis.”
Levi was convinced that his survival at Auschwitz was largely a consequence of his knowledge of German and was fascinated with languages and linguistics, as becomes clear reading “Lead.” Chessa and Uitti have a similar interest in languages as meeting places, and Piombo can be summed up as a search through unmarked musical territories, even a musical/chemical sublimation, the process of turning a metal into something ethereal.