Small is beautiful

"There is enough music in the world. Most composers write far too much, so I try to keep to writing little and well," says Antonio Bibalo. In his 77th year, the Norwegian-Italian composer is still highly active and has just submitted his new composition Fem stykker for orkester (Five pieces for orchestra) to the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. Each piece is, naturally, only three minutes long.

Antonio Bibalo

Overlooking the sea outside the south Norwegian town of Larvik, Antonio Bibalo sits with his sorrowful, silent-movie moustache and his clear, brown eyes composing music. He has been here since he came to Norway in 1956 and built a small cabin on a rocky hillock. The cabin has gradually expanded into a house containing, among other things, a separate room for his computer and state-of-the-art technology, whilst Bibalo has become one of Norway’s most prominent contemporary composers. A new production of his opera on the theme of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie, originally written for the Dortmund Opera in 1994, played to full houses in Oslo and Bergen in autumn 1998. The ballet Pinocchio, with Bibalo’s tender, dramatic music has been re-
choreographed and performed at the Norwegian National Opera. Another of his musical dramas, the chamber opera Frøken Julie (Miss Julie) based on Strindberg’s play, is regularly performed in Germany – in fact it has been staged at least 165 times since the première in 1975.

Loves the theatre:
“I have really always been more interested in writing musical drama than symphonic music. This is primarily because I like to concentrate on dramatic effects and additional elements in my compositions, such as normal speech, Sprechgesang, etc., but also because I love the theatre. Just imagine, I can walk around the theatre without anyone bothering about me. A hundred people are working night and day to produce my opera in the best possible way. It’s fascinating,” says Antonio Bibalo, known as Nino to his friends.

A critic wrote of the Oslo production of The Glass Menagerie, a co-production between the Norwegian National Opera, Opera West, Black Box and the BIT 20 Ensemble: “Bibalo gives the essence of The Glass Menagerie a new dimension. This is partly due to the jazz-inspired music which provides links to the American background of the play. But Bibalo’s concentrated, precise expression also adds intensity and tension to the action, which he adapted himself when writing the libretto.”

Starts from the end:
“How do you start work on an opera?”

“I always start at the end, with the two final scenes. That is where I find the inspiration for what is to come before. For some reason, I have the length of the opera in my head when I begin to write. I know exactly how long it will be. An opera should not be too long or too short. One-and-three-quarter hours or one hour fifty minutes is good, or two hours if absolutely necessary. An opera should not last for more than two hours. People get bored.

Nor do I use a leitmotif, I don’t like leitmotifs. I study the play and write the libretto. In the case of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, I tried to give the play my own dimension. It is his most poetic play and I soon discovered that the twelve-tone technique was unsuitable. I had to return to the music of the thirties, the feeling of the South and the language of jazz. After that, it was a matter of finding the right conversation between the characters in the play and the orchestra, the counterpoint between songs and orchestra, so that the music partly accompanies and partly becomes an independent interpreter of the dramatic elements. I can only manage to concentrate on writing one opera at a time. I spent twenty months on The Glass Menagerie, two years on Gjengangere (Ghosts) and Macbeth, ten months on Frøken Julie and more than four years on my first composition, Smilet ved stigens fot (The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder). But in that case so many other things came in between.

Adventurous life:
What came in between was a turbulent life. If anyone has really had an eventful life, it is Antonio Bibalo.

Born into a simple working-class family in Trieste, northern Italy, he was made to take piano lessons as a boy. A seventeen-year-old pianist at the outbreak of war, he was enrolled in Mussolini’s army, managed to escape, and after being captured was sentenced to seven years in a military prison. Following a prison riot, he managed to escape once more, but ran straight into the arms of a German military patrol and was promptly enrolled in Hitler’s army. Then he was captured by the Americans and spent two years in a US prison camp.

The prisoners were subsequently sent to a camp in France, whence Bibalo managed to escape yet again. Tired and hungry, he joined what he thought was a food queue, only to discover that he was in fact waiting to enrol in the French Foreign Legion. He was sent to Algeria with French and Spanish Jews, and when the army discovered he could play the piano he ended up in the music company with 160 others – as an entertainment pianist.

Bar pianist:
“We came from different backgrounds. I played with a kind, friendly trumpeter who subsequently turned out to be a bank robber from Milan.”

After that, Bibalo was bar pianist on a cruise ship before ending up in London, where he returned to the interest of his youth and studied music and composition for three years. Only after eleven years in Norway did he become a Norwegian citizen. Since then, he has not only written himself into Norwegian music history but has also won a variety of honours: Festival Composer in Bergen in 1989, Knight of the First Order of St. Olav and Honorary Citizen of Larvik in 1997, and all this perhaps primarily because he has always gone his own musical way.

Bibalo has a diversified musical background; in addition to his piano and composition studies, he has worked with jazz and twelve-tone techniques. According to the critics, in his first works he had already developed a clear, personal style with dense instrumentation, twelve-note rows and characteristic sound quality. He bases his music on free tonality, is excellent at instrumentation and surprises his audiences with unconventional combinations of instruments. Bibalo has written music in many genres: chamber music, solo works, operas, concertos and symphonies. The piano is still close to his heart, however, and in 1996 all his piano works were released on CD, performed by Anders Brunsvik.

Small formats:
“Today I am mainly in favour of the small formats. The composition I have been working on this autumn, Five pieces for orchestra for the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, consists of five symphonic fragments or micro-symphonies. Each piece is three minutes long. You might call them five virginal ideas with different movement and character. This means that I allow the musical ideas to be born at one point and die at another – without manipulating the idea up to an anti-climax. The short format is the best.”

“Which opera composers do you listen to yourself?”

“Of those who have written musical drama, I enjoy include Krzysztof Penderecki – his The Devils of Loudun is magnificent – and Györgi Ligeti and Hans Werner Henze. I have had a great deal of pleasure from the latter’s Der Prinz von Homburg. Stravinsky has also written some fantastic chamber operas.”

No folklore:
“You haven’t been tempted to incorporate Norwegian music traditions in your own music after forty-three years in Norway?”

“I respect folklore and folk music; Norway has rich traditions in this field. But if I were to mix it into my music it would be false. Why in all the world should I intervene and ruin wonderful Norwegian folk music? However, I think I can say that after so many years in this country there is a Norwegian atmosphere in my music”

“How would you describe your own musical development?”

“I’ll leave that to the critics and the music theorists. But if I were to offer a hint, I would say that in the 1960s I was strongly influenced by my studies of twelve-tone techniques and I suppose I composed things that might be called avant-garde. Today, I want my music to tell a story. In musical drama, the music must follow the subject of the play. I regard that as essential. The music must also be faithful to what you might call the sentiment of the drama. In the case of The Glass Menagerie, that means being faithful to the modernist romanticism of the thirties. I also believe you could describe me as a fairly spontaneous composer.”

“You once said that being an artist is hell. Is that still the case?”

“Saying that it’s hell might be slightly exaggerated, but it’s not far from the truth. You certainly have to be careful that your art doesn’t kill you. Working on major compositions can quickly lead to stress. You should try to remain at a certain distance from your art so you don’t collapse under the strain.”

“How long do you intend to go on?”

“I’m getting old, so I have to look after my health. But I shall go on for as long as I can. This is my life, you know. Perhaps I will soon start work on a new opera. Who knows? I’m not going to give up yet.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.7 - 1999 No. 1
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