By Jake Becker
For pianist/composer David Gaita, all music is abstract.
"No music means anything unless you tell it to," said Gaita, who graduated in May after majoring in biology and music in Harpur College.
For Gaita, an opportunity to compose music based on poetry and perform in Barcelona, Spain, allowed him to do just that.
In late 2012, Joe Weil, lecturer in creative writing and also a pianist, introduced his 21-year old student to the work of Mario Moroni, associate professor of Italian in Harpur College and an award-winning poet.
"It was a series of coincidences," Gaita said. "[Mr. Weil] told me about Mario and told Mario about me, and [we] discussed how to collaborate Mario's poetry with my music."
Moroni's work, "Recitari le Ceneri" (Reciting the Ashes), conveys the complex nature of the individual as it pertains to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Devoting years to the project, Moroni accumulated heaps of data from his main source, the obituary section of The New York Times.
"I collected all these [obituaries] and I have lots of information," he said. "Names, real people, what they had said to a girlfriend, what a relative had told them. I [placed] them in a way that evoked the event itself, otherwise I would have just been a reporter; it wouldn't be of any interest."
After submitting "an entire manuscript" of Italian poetry to Gaita, who specified the text he would pair with his music, Moroni needed another musician who would further amplify his poetry.
Filling in the highest musical register, soprano singer and alumna Briana Sakamoto '11 joined the duo at the request of Gaita, with whom she had previously collaborated.
"David had written some songs for me and [faculty pianist] Pej Reitz," said Sakamoto, who earned a bachelor's degree in music from Harpur College. "He said, 'Let me tell you about this thing I'm doing, maybe in Barcelona. . . .' Knowing David I knew there was going to be difficult music, so I said, 'Send me anything you have, whenever you have it.' He would send me pages at a time and I would print it out at home and work on it."
The piece features a dual narration between Moroni, who recites the stories of several victims, and Sakamoto, whose piercing, modulating shrieks depict an egomaniacal terrorist aboard a "phantom airplane." Gaita, as pianist and arranger, integrates the human expressions with deliberate, sweeping movements up and down the keyboard.
"I wanted it to be somewhere between improvisation with reading and a composed piece with just singing," Gaita said. "I didn't want to write it if [Briana] wasn't able to [sing]. This is the first time I've written for poetry, [so] I tried to simply accentuate [it]. When I saw [that it had] two parts, it was perfect."
During the production stage, Moroni was already busy contacting his international colleagues in an attempt to showcase Harpur College's young talent overseas. Sakamoto, who coincidentally spent her last two semesters at Binghamton University taking Italian classes with Moroni, hadn't been aware of her teacher's artistic prowess.
"I didn't even know he was a poet, but apparently he's famous in Europe in this circle of poets," she says.
With the help of Catalan poet and colleague August Bover, Moroni arranged the group to travel to Spain, where the trio appeared on the program of Sons Poètics Transatlàntics, a concert mixing music, poetry and dance that took place on April 6 at the Museo Romántico (Romantic Museum) in Sitges, a small beach town near Barcelona. Joventuts, a Spanish musical organization of which Bover is a member, coordinated the event.
After performing to a mostly Spanish audience of roughly 70 in the ornate halls of the 18th-century Catalan house-turned-museum, the group explored Barcelona's downtown scene where they added an impromptu, albeit smaller performance.
"As it turned out," Sakamoto said, "[Bover] also had contacts at this poetry hangout, a sort of watering hole for cool international avant-gardists in Barcelona next to the modern art museum, and so he set us up with a gig there as well. They were both incredibly cool and so different."
For Moroni, constructing poetry around such a tragic event caused some controversy to the non-American audience.
His attention, however, focuses not on religious fundamentalist movements, but on the psychology of the individual during such an event.
"That's why I didn't call it 'terrorist' specifically," he said. "[It is] the voice of a person on an airplane that's basically realizing his last few hours. The way he reacts is the way I constructed his voice, by quotations and the construction based on a very well-known canonical Italian romantic poem, called 'The Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia' [by 19th-century poet Count Giacomo Leopardi]. I don't make direct references to terrorism or even the attack itself."
"But I put it in the music," Gaita added. "The music brings out the somber theme of the terrorist thinking that what he's doing is righteous."
"It's searching for resolution, as corny or unusual as that sounds," Sakamoto said. "And for me as the interpreter of the terrorist, [that] allowed me to get into that experience which is very exalted. I think one of the primary difficulties is to separate yourself from the grief of this tragedy. When I perform I tend to get very stirred about what it is I'm singing about; I found that it was difficult to sing once I had that baggage in my mind, and at the end I had to put myself in the shoes of this person on a mission and speak those words with absolute clarity."
Gaita's role in adding piano accompaniment, which took at least "40 hours to write and 40 to learn," allowed him to synchronize changes in the poetry with his own musical inventiveness.
"The rhythm of Mario's poetry made a great opportunity for a lot of things," he says. "For example, there's a part where there are four lines and they each start with 'Io' [the Italian word for 'I']. What happens there is Briana sings 'Io,' and Mario speaks the rest of the line. In order to get to the point where [the terrorist] goes, [he] has to be completely blind to the part of the poem [which Mario reads,] 'And then there was Stephanie Lane, mother of two ...' And this is reflective in the music—the terrorist ignores it."
"It's a repetition that provides the idea of terrorist's self-absorption," Moroni said. "You don't have to read about a sociological analysis; the poetry works with [Briana's] repetition of 'Io.' Just one pronoun is enough."
Four days after their weeklong excursion, the trio appeared before a third audience for its debut performance in the United States at the 3rd Binghamton International Literature Festival, "Crossroads," in April. The campus production, presented by the Harpur Dean's Office and the Creative Writing Program, featured other works of poetry and music, and included English subtitles of "Recitare le Ceneri."
"[The poem] is not a prose or narrative description of events or facts," Moroni said. [It is a] non-linear narrative of an event."
"That to me is why it works," Sakamoto answered. "It's very elevated; it removes you from the details that you know, that you already have an opinion of."
Before any words were spoken, Gaita introduced two deep, muddy chords that serve as the musical foundation for the rest of the piece. The musical tension built simultaneously with the poetry, which Gaita identified as the work's overall theme of striving toward a resolution.
"There's almost a physical metaphor for the highest note, rising up little by little," he says. "The entire piece for me is trying to find those last three chords."
Last Updated: 9/9/16