Imaginary Europe

NEXT Bassoonist Edoardo Casali reflects on music-making and collaboration during a pandemic

It should first go without saying that, unfortunately, art and music had to come second during the first days of a world pandemic, something that would have been otherwise unthinkable to us. In a twist of fate, my country, Italy, had to face all of this before many of our European neighbours, shortly following far Eastern countries like China, Japan and South Korea. I feel personally very grateful that nobody in my family or my friendship circle has been infected or lost their life. Now that measures have generally been relaxed, I suppose it is about time to start wrapping up some of our experiences of these events. The most pressing need that I felt during lockdown, beside playing with other people, was the need to travel and perform. The reality of the situation, however, didn’t allow me to leave my hometown and I felt frustration and tension growing constantly. In times like this one doesn’t have any other means to travel than his or her own imagination. For this reason, I have been arranging a few imaginary trips to some of my favourite destinations ever. Many of these were in relation to my friends on the NEXT course, in order to foster our own personal growth, and, hopefully, to share something precious with our beloved, distant audiences.

 An Imaginary England

 “People say my music is English. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's not me writing English music, but that English music is becoming more like me.”

― Harrison Birtwistle

One can only try to imagine how many performances have been delayed and cancelled, not only in Birmingham and the UK, but all over the world since February 2020. When I came to the UK in 2016 it was to learn specifically about (bassoon) performance at the RNCM, and subsequently joined NEXT in 2019 for the same reason. It was then when I met with many fellow musicians who were, just like I was, trying to push their performance skills to the highest level possible. Some of them I already had met earlier on in Aldeburgh - a place now so sacred in British contemporary music culture - during the Britten Pears Young Artist Programme 2019. Others I had never met before, but regardless, I quickly knew that each one of us was wholly dedicated to this art form.

During lockdown, each one of us has individually found our own way to push things forward as much as possible, be it producing educational content for young people or filming online recitals filled with both “classical” pieces of repertoire and world premières. A fantastic showcase has been for us the “NEXT at Home” online recital series.



In particular, during this period I have been in touch a lot with fellow NEXT musicians Raymond Brien (Clarinet) and Gavin Stewart (Flute), who have been both working extremely hard during lockdown in order to bring forward The Thinking Minds Project

 “The Thinking Minds Project was officially launched in February 2020 as part of an artist residency with Royal Holloway University in London. My vision for the organisation has always been, and continues to be, a space of facilitation for visual art and music to meld, collide and cohabitate through improvisation, installation art and new-music commissions.

The core team is dedicated to outreach and interdisciplinary collaboration and since lockdown we have been extremely busy with international collaborations with musicians in the USA, Vienna and across the UK. We have also curated a series of online improvisation recordings using the internet which can all be found on our YouTube channel. We also have curated this week a series of online seminars encouraging outreach, collaboration and networking for musicians and artists across the globe.

Our mission remains to connect and involve their audience as part of their work. Consequently there has been a call for art for an improvisation marathon recording at the end of September and we are creating an online platform for audiences to get involved with TMP, connect and share art and music together.“

-Raymond Brien, Artistic Director of The Thinking Minds Project

 I’ve been involved with them in recording a piece of music which we had been planning to perform for a long time, before scheduling a performance in Birmingham in March 2020, as part of a live electronics concert with prof. Lamberto Coccioli, Associate Principal at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. That performance, for reasons we all know, didn’t happen, but we just couldn’t bear to let our work be wasted, so we decided that the least we could do was to record the piece to the best of our capabilities.


When will performance in the UK come back in full force? We can’t tell, but for the time being it’s imperative that us, the musicians, keep adding fuel and love to our passion and our work. The pandemic, and consequently the quarantine, has never been about a quick-start, a fast sprint - it always has looked like a long, exhausting marathon for all of us. A time long enough, at least for me, to ask myself an overwhelming question: what is it, the work that we do? Is our work just a collection of divertissements, of fancy projects and cool social media posts? Is it just a job like any other? Is it sitting in an orchestra and watching somebody wave their hands? Is it teaching some weird sounding instrument to some young people who would be rather playing outside? Is it all of that together? 

Or perhaps it is something more?

 Working with Raymond and Gavin, and reflecting at the same time about my time spent in England I came to the conclusion that we should always strive for some sort of perpetual growth, both within ourselves and outside, with others: being curious, always searching for the new,  expanding what we know and can do as musicians, coming out of our comfort zones as much as possible and, most importantly, doing our best to involve audiences and young people so that nobody feels alienated from what we do. It’s a very hard job, and often feels more like a mission, but I realised during lockdown that it’s totally worth it. 

An Imaginary France 

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”

― Simone Weil

 Every person feels, to some extent and from time to time, some kind of recurring thought, periodically and constantly coming back to haunt our relatively ordinary lives which are dominated by daily routine. A personal project, a friend we miss and would like to pay a visit to, a book we always wanted to read, starting a new hobby, writing our memoirs or living the vacation of our dreams…we often live with what would be, most times, only wishful thinking and fantasies that, for some reason, we never seem able to achieve.

Despite that, there have been some people in history who fought for all their (often shortened by  events) lives in order to achieve that. Simone Weil is one of those people. Former Marxist, Jewish by heritage, Christian, activist, soldier, philosopher, teacher, mystic and then eventually a Saint, she embodied up to the point of death what it means to dedicate life to Truth and eventually put Truth to action. I never dared to look up for such ambitions, but I thought that if I could ever put some of her work to music, I would be eventually more content with my life as a musician. Luckily for me, Raymond asked me to write a piece for him, which then showed up in the programme for his final recital at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

 The idea of bringing Simone Weil’s literary work (enormous in size despite she dying in 1943 at only 34) to music had been in my head for more than five years, but an adequate sound had been somehow unreachable. Just like it is unreachable for any person living in the 21st century – a time of relative peace and prosperity – to experience life in 1940s Paris, in a nation living under Hitler’s boot.

The lockdown, and Raymond’s kind offer, offered me the chance of trying something that I thought otherwise to be an impossible task. It is still far from being fulfilled in its entirety, but every step we take is bringing us closer to the final goal of our lives as artists and communicators.

The text chosen for the occasion was her essay “L’Iliade, ou le poème de la force” (The Iliad, or the Poem of Force), written during WWII, in 1939. A work that can be at the same time so unapologetic, severe, truthful, emotional, raw and profoundly human deserves to be heard as much as possible, especially in turbulent times such as these.

I feel her story, combined with her older brother Andre’s (one of the most brilliant and important Mathematicians of the last century) should be known more and I hope to contribute in spreading this wonderful gem of French history as much as possible.

 An Imaginary Italy

 “I was a painter, perhaps, but I am no longer a painter. I didn’t paint for many, many years - but at least two or three decades. "

― Arnold Schönberg

 It’s an unreasonably cold and foggy evening in Milan, and I’m just about to meet Caroline outside of a cosy roman Trattoria directly facing the canal, famously known to the people as “I Navigli di Milano”. Some of her paintings have just been exhibited in my home city of Bologna, and, after a short conversation about her first impressions and touring the main Italian cities, she informs me that she’s currently visiting the main art galleries in Milan and we decide to meet up for dinner. 

We had met some years ago, while we were still both master’s students at the RNCM. She quickly distinguished herself from other composers by virtue of an organic approach that both her musical compositions and her paintings enjoy, while slowly (but surely) approaching an enhanced state of artistic symbiosis between the two different mediums. Being a person who always been very appreciative of Schönberg and Kandinsky I find rather hard not to be fascinated by this sort of work. She has also started exploring the process of live painting while listening to her own music, something I have personally found rather interesting and unique.

While having dinner, much of our conversation revolved around her experience of being a Canadian with an Italian heritage (Bordignon is a common surname in Veneto) and the eventuality of reconnecting with the latter, since the Canadian rooting has already occurred for generations in her family.

Italy has always been not only a country of saints, poets and navigators, but one of musicians and artists as well. So much has happened in the Italian arts over the last 500 years, and Caroline tells me that she will be trying to exploit every occasion available to come here to learn, live and experience this newfound beauty.

Being still an outrageously frosty night we both head back to our respective accommodations as soon as we put feet outside of the restaurant - still completely clueless of what’s going to happen in the world soon - without much pomp and circumstance. Fast forward to the end of June, I asked Caroline if she wanted to put her desire to reconnect with her lost heritage into music, by imagining some of the most famous Mosaics of the city of Ravenna, the likes of which she had never seen in person. I would then be responsible for recording the results. The following step would then be for her to react to her own music, painting out her impressions of ancient artworks that keep feeling ever more distant, yet, somehow so close.

“Edoardo kindly asked me to compose a set of new pieces for him this spring, a very exciting venture given the current circumstances and world-wide lockdown.  Having several projects postponed or cancelled completely was something I never would have foreseen and I was very keen to continue creating new music despite this. I was especially interested in learning about the beautiful town of Ravenna where he lives and found the historical elements that dominate it fascinating.  One of the most interesting of these is the amazing company of mosaics, iconic to the basilicas found in the city. 

Initially I had thought it would be important to compose music that has a connection to the land in some way as the bassoon can express this like no other instrument. This evolved into an idea to choose five unique landmarks/elements of the city as inspiration for five miniature pieces.  I decided to choose the mosaics and two historical buildings introduced to me by Edoardo.  The first piece, ‘Beneath the Waters,’ is based on the flooded crypt of the of the Basilica of St. Francis.  I was struck with the stunning beauty that exists in the structure despite it being a crypt and furthermore flooded.  Personally, I thought it to be even more beautiful due to this.  The second piece, ‘Three Ships,’ is based on the mosaic, ‘The Ancient Port of Classe,’ in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.  I chose this work to be second, in continuation of the water theme, and as an introduction to the idea of movement.  I felt the third piece, ‘Two Doves at the Water,’ expresses similar ideas evolving into something that is more upward moving and representational of life.  It is based on the mosaic, ‘Doves Drinking from a Bowl,’ in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.  The fourth piece, ‘Stars in the Night Sky,’ is inspired by the mosaic, ‘Starry Sky,’ also in the Mausoleum.  A representation of movement from beneath the earth to the heavens above.  Lastly, ‘The Baptistry,’ is inspired by the ‘Battistero degli Ariani.’  I chose this work to be last, to fulfill the overarching narrative that moves symbolically from death to new life.  Each painting was completed while listening to recordings of the compositions.  My approach was to capture the colours and feleings I can ‘see’ in the pieces.  I feel the idea of capturing the process of the painting is actually more important than the completed works themselves and creates a stronger connection between the visual and musical. “

 -Caroline Bordignon, Composer

Experiencing for the first time in our lives the constraint of not being able to travel to any other place in the world had somehow forced us to use our own imagination not only for the creation of the musical object, but for an audience, a venue, the tension and the thrill, just to then suddenly realise that despite our own best efforts, it will never possible to recreate the full musical experience from the comfort and safety of our own homes. Our only hope is for the magic of live music to come back in full force as soon as possible.

Edoardo Casali

Florence, August 27th 2020