Nonhuman Political Voices

The political dimension of my artistic practice has slowly expanded in the past few years, so that if it only encompassed a one-way relationship in the beginning, it now consists of an interweaving, two-way flow of influences that moves from socio-political situations to my compositional process, and vice versa.

Not far from Luigi Nono’s treatment of the choir’s part for the words »é stato un assassinio tutti morti« [1] in Diario Italiano, the pitch organization in La Nube e Issione, [2] my composition for four female voices and one male voice, is entirely based on the metaphor I built between the multiplicity of electors and Nefele, the cloud, who wants Issione’s fate to be settled because he represents “the first man to commit a treacherous crime against civil society” (Rosani, 2013:75). [3] In Omertà I, for voice and live electronics, I shaped the formal structure and made some choices in terms of singing technique so that it would mirror a mafia repentant’s effort to confess, and the consequences of this gesture. The composition is an homage to Roberto Saviano’s work Gomorra, which, along with Fabrizio Gatti’s Bilal, I read with increasing astonishment. [4] From this moment on, my work started to be informed not only by political issues, but also heavily by immigration and its consequences. Traces of this process can be found in INTEgRAZIONI, a piece for large ensemble, and Marija all’alba, for voice and flute. In the former, the dramaturgy of the instruments’ lines follows a process of interaction that culminates in a section in which resonances among instruments represent integration. The latter entails scenic action and describes the sleepless night of a young female refugee who has to provide for her children while fearing deportation to her native country.

Versteinerte Flüge– premiere at Taschenopernfestival 2011 – ÖENM – ARGEkultur in Salzburg

When I was commissioned to compose a chamber opera for the Taschenopernfestival 2001, the festival organizers requested that it revolve around the theme of the Annunciation, as the title of that edition would be Der Engel des Herrn. I therefore drew a connection between the moment when the Virgin Mary learns not only that she will bear God’s child, but also that he will be sacrificed, and the instant when Andromache is told that her child will be thrown off a mountain so that he will not avenge his father’s death once he grows up. Through the parallel with Euripides’s The Trojan Women, my opera focused on violence, uprooting, and loss experienced by women in wartime. [5]

All the works illustrated above had been written before I started my PhD in music at Goldsmiths, University of London, but only when I started it did I become aware of how they were already addressing the intersecting systems of oppression and discrimination the way my future work would. An attempt was made to reach a different kind of audience – those who never have set foot into a gallery or a concert hall – through my collaboration with painter Endri Kosturi. In 2012, I developed a sound installation for one of his exhibitions, organized at Le Torri d’Europa shopping center in Trieste. It was great to see how people entered the exhibition space with shopping bags, surprised to stumble into art in such an environment and even stopping for a few minutes to immerse themselves into the sound while observing Endri’s works.

T-O, premiere at ECLAT Festival 2014 – Neue Vocalsolisten – Theaterhaus (Stuttgart, 2014)

In 2013, I was offered the chance to spend a five-month residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude, thanks to an agreement between this institute and Music der Jahrhunderte, to create a composition for the superb Neue Vocalsolisten to be premiered at ECLAT Festival 2014. This period as a Solitude fellow was extremely fruitful for me because for the first time in my life, I was able to focus exclusively on composing. Moreover, while in residence, I met inspiring artists and thinkers with whom I later collaborated. Among them, I remember giving voice to the production process of creating the sand objects shaped by Kai Franz ‘s machine, working with Phil Baber from The Last Books during the publication of two of my scores, and the ongoing collaboration with sound poet Kinga Tóth, about which I will write further in the present work. T-O, the piece for five voices on which I worked during the first months of my residency in Stuttgart, is part of a huge project called Mediterranean Voices, which involved the Neue Vocalsolisten, twelve composers whose countries of origin are on the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a filmmaker and an architect.[^](For more information about the project and links to recordings and interviews with artists, see The core of the project entailed producing twelve compositions, one per composer; video installations developed from the footage shot by the videomaker in Stuttgart, and with the singers and composers in their native countries on the Mediterranean; and a set of podiums designed and realized by the architect specifically for the 12 different layouts of the pieces into a performance space. The composers were asked to draw on the relationship they have with their native countries and how these relate to the Mediterranean area, especially when taking into account the context of the refugee flow toward Europe and the economic crisis. In my case, this was a perfect opportunity to address the theme of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to forced migration and how the refugees influence public opinion when extremely violent events take place as a consequence of negligence toward them.

"T-O für 5 Stimmen a cappella" from ECLAT 2014 - 9.2. Mediterranean Voices by Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. Released: 2013. Track 2 of 12. Genre: Neue Musik.

I was fascinated by Agamben’s interpretation of the Other, in whose reflection we need to recognize ourselves to be human. Moreover, the inclusion of nonhuman animals also suited the idea illustrated by Predrag Matvejevic in his work Mediterranean: a Cultural Landscape, in which he points out how Christianity made up stories about horrifying monsters to discourage navigation in the Mediterranean Sea. [6] I only had to connect this to one symptoms of PTSD – delusions. T-O is a composition with the structure of an installation. It starts in a large space, like at sea, where echoes travel long distances, and ends in the space of the mind affected by PTSD, in which thoughts overlap and bounce around obsessively. It is, however, the echo that starts first, and this is why the piece could just as well start over and over again. In the video of the premiere, it is possible to see that the ensemble is divided into two groups of three and two singers. The former, representing the monsters depicted by Christianity, barely communicates verbally – only vowels or simple phonemes at the beginning – but gradually transforms into pathological delusions by developing a comprehensible language step by step. The latter represents Helle and Phrixus, mythological migrants, crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and in Helle’s case, dying in it. This image has become associated with rising death tolls from the interruption of Operation Mare Nostrum. [7]

Controller – rehearsing in December 2014 – Silvia Rosani and Kinga Tóth – Balassi Cultural Institute

As I anticipated above, my residency at Solitude gave me the opportunity to get into contact with other artists and to start working with them. Kinga and I recorded her voice in my studio, while she performed some of the poems in her collection, Allmaschine. Subsequently, I used this material to build the electronic sounds in Controller, a piece for voice and live electronics that we performed at the Balassi Institut in a collaboration with Akademie Schloss Solitude at Kinga’s book launch of the German edition of Allmaschine in December 2014. Artist Andreas Bolm – a Solitude fellow as well – shot a video of our general rehearsal and, once I adapted the four channels and the recording from the microphone positioned in the center of the performance space into a stereo audio track, we combined the two into an audio-video installation. The fixed-media Controller was recently displayed in the Peter Scott Gallery at the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts as part of WISWOS ’16, a conference on women in sound art, and at Chouftouhonna 2016, an International Feminist Art Festival in Tunis. Kinga’s text explores the power dynamics in traditional Hungarian families, and the fact that we are two women performing the piece advances the investigation into nontraditional families and therefore delves into gender issues.

While in residence, I almost always attended the countless events organized by Akademie Schloss Solitude, in collaboration with venues and organizations based in Stuttgart. This is how I happened to meet the singer Natasha López, one of the founders of TRIO vis-á-vis, which ended up being involved in Kinga’s book launch as well. From the sound analysis of one of the recording sessions with Kinga, I retrieved the data necessary to instrumentally resynthesize, via the instruments and the voices of the trio, the sound of singing and whistling carried on simultaneously, thus giving life to the voice of Elbe, a woman who has pipes in her throat and, because of this, cannot speak without producing whistling sounds too. Die Elbe, therefore, is a composition on disabilities. Whether they are physical, mental, or environment-driven is left to the audience to decide.

Li Rin is a work I wrote for duo ILLEGAL, a Stuttgart-based ensemble, founded by pianist Marija Skender and soprano Alessia Hyunkyung Park. They are the promoters of a project that commissioned composers for works that address issues related to cultural differences and the treatment of women, and led to two performances set for June 30 and July 1 at Theaterhaus in Stuttgart. In particular, my work for them can be regarded as a provocation to the audience in terms of cultural biases. Because Alessia is Korean, I decided to build an image from a fake and unlikely Far Eastern tradition. The sound material in the piece was designed to evoke Japanese traditional music used in Kabuki theater, and the first poem from Chinesisch-Deutsche Jahres-und Tageszeiten by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was fragmented in a way so that the phonemes would resemble Chinese words. Only at the very end of the composition does the text get reassembled enough so that one can realize that it is in German and maybe even recognize the quote from Goethe’s work. This is also the moment when the singer is no longer kneeling on a washing board, but instead stands closer to the pianist and plays inside the instrument along with her. The provocation relies on the Western vision of the Far East, which is still quite generic and stereotypical, and aims to question Eurocentrism. The idea that Europe is the cradle of democracy and can provide a fair environment for women, who struggle to achieve their goals in traditional communities, is not necessarily true. By accepting these premises, one risks overlooking or even denying huge inequalities that still strongly affect women’s lives in Europe.

As I specified at the beginning of the present work, it always has been clear to me that my work was informed by sociopolitical issues. Nevertheless, it has been a while since I started to feel bothered by the fact that this relationship was quite unidirectional. Although the use of text, context, and formal structure sometimes suggests the core of the matter to the audience, I have been thinking about how it is possible to more clearly address the subject or even to more actively involve the audience in a performance or installation by designing interactive systems.

From this investigation and another fortunate collaboration while in residence at Solitude, a project with cellist Esther Saladin has started. The performance we are collaborating on will use live electronics and resonating masks, which will remain in place as an interactive installation after the performance. The idea at the core of the project, besides audience participation, is loss and how to rebuild the communities people have to leave behind when forced to migrate. The masks will resonate with fragments of the performance, the contributions of the audience, and texts from Frantz Fanon, Hans-Peter Dürr, Hilde Domin, and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Prerecorded voices extracted from archives such as the British Library Sound Archive or the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton (London) are embedded in the musical tissue of some of the pieces, which are going to be included in the cycle. This project is open to collaboration with poets, schools, local communities, and refugees. One of the compositions embedded in the project aims at transforming the sound of the cello into that of a mbira, an African traditional instrument used frequently in Zimbabwe, thus showing that we will not force a traditional instrument into a European context, but instead project an instrument from the Western musical tradition into the context of Kua storytelling and improvisation, where everybody takes part in the performance. [8]

What am I planning for the future? Maybe a work for two individuals, with live electronics and a video installation, in which one of the two speaks standard English, while the other speaks English with a heavy local or foreign accent. The video would suggest the text the two performers need to read or interpret, while the live electronics would project in the performance space the difference in the pronunciations of the two individuals. The only concern is that this could be used to assess whether someone has the right to get a passport or the right to cross a border, get a job, access a prestigious school, or attend a classical music concert.

Silvia Rosani and Kinga Tóth during a rehearsal in the Guibalsaal.
Silvia Rosani and Esther Saladin at the Electronic Music Studio (EMS) at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Audio-visual installation by Kai Franz and Silvia Rosani in Römerstraβe for Die Lange Nacht der Museen 2014.
Elevation of love, sound installation for Goldsmiths Graduate Festival 2013.
Vocal Arts Stuttgart ensemble premieres La Nube e Issione (first prize of the Vocal Arts composition competition) during Salzburg Biennale 2009.
TRIO vis-á-vis and Esther Saladin. Soundfiles/capture texts:
Li Rin, performed by Duo ILLEGAL at Der Sommer in Stuttgart 2016.
Versteinerte Flüge
Neue Vocalsolisten while performing T-O at Theaterhaus (premiere, ECLAT Festival 2014).
  1. Jump Up »It was a murder everybody dead;« my translation.
  2. Jump Up Performed in 2009 by Vocal Arts Stuttgart at Biennale Salzburg, La Nube e Issione won first prize at the Vocal Arts Composition Competition.
  3. Jump Up Silvia Rosani: »Resistance Music Finds New Shapes,« in: Political Perspectives 7[2], London 2013, pp. 61–84. A more extensive description of the politics in my works up to 2012 can be found in the online version of the article at
  4. Jump Up Fabrizio Gatti: Bilal. Milan 2008; Roberto Saviano: Gomorra: viaggio nell’impero economico e nel sogno di dominio della camorra. Milan 2006.
  5. Jump Up Versteinerte Flüge was commissioned by Klang21 and performed by the österreichisches ensemble für neue musik [oenm] at ARGEkultur Theater in Salzburg between July and August 2011.
  6. Jump Up Predrag Matvejevic: Mediterranean: a cultural landscape. Berkeley 1999.
  7. Jump Up See data collected by Amnesty International at
  8. Jump Up Kuela Kiema: Tears for My Land: a social history of the Kua of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve Tc’amnqoo. Gaborone 2010.