Franco Battiato

(Jonia, Catania, 1945-)

By Jan Gaggetta (Université de Fribourg)

“I would divide my production so far into three phases.”
Battiato himself, in a recent documentary film (Temporary Road, 2018 [1]), separated his long and prolific musical career into three phases, different in duration and, above all, in the type of music produced. The first period (1967-69) followed the “departure from Sicily”: a very young Battiato decided to leave his native island to move to Milan, where he recorded a 45 record of simple songs—of which he was not always the author—with typical sounds of the sixties. The second period (1971-78) comprised most of the ’70s, when Battiato adopted “a different musical genre,” both electronic and experimental, establishing a clear break with previous recordings. The third period (1979-2020) began at the end of that decade and continues until today, marking his “belonging to the music of communication”: Battiato has established himself as a true singer-songwriter.

Rupture and experimentation (1971-78).
If the latter phase is by far the best known and most appreciated, the second appears to be the most varied and complex, so much so that what Battiato produced in those years seems, at times, unclassifiable and even incomprehensible. Between 1971 and 1978 Battiato produced exactly eight records, nearly one every year: the first four (FetusPollutionSulle corde di Aries [On the Strings of Aries], Clic, 1971-74) can be defined as electronic experimentation, while the following ones (M.elle le “Gladiator”BattiatoJuke boxL’Egitto prima delle sabbie [Egypt before the Sands], 1975-78) are more cultured experimentation: while Battiato in the years up to 1974 experimented to a large extent through the use of the synthesizer—an electronic instrument that can generate musical notes from various instruments, sounds, noises—from 1975 onward the piano had become a fundamental element to produce conceptual music, together with the technique of “collage” (the assembly of heterogeneous musical and sound fragments). But let us proceed in order.

“Electronic” music, the origins of life: Fetus.
Battiato purchased a VCS3 analog synthesizer in 1969. This was a decisive event: as one of the first musicians to own one in Europe (Pink Floyd also had a VCS3), he began research on a sound that would make him a precursor of electronic music in Italy. The first result, which the author himself considered still unripe, is the album Fetus (1971). Battiato in the ’70s made surprising innovations not only in terms of the musical content: the cover of the record caused a scandal because it portrays a human fetus, lying on a sheet of parchment paper. Fetus is dedicated to the English writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World (1932), a dystopian novel on eugenics and psychological manipulation of individuals and society. The music, centered on the VCS3 synthesizer, is an electronic progressive rock, while the futuristic lyrics tell—in a nutshell—the conception and birth of a life in a mechanical and loveless world. Even the language of the lyrics is aimed at experimentation, pushed towards unusual frontiers: Battiato concludes a piece, “Phenomenology”, singing (but really screaming) the two mathematical functions:

x1= a.(sin(ωt))


which, together, express the helical structure of DNA. This is relevant in a record about human birth, but absolutely unusual for the language of the song. This is certainly an extreme case, and yet in Fetus there are also traces of technical and scientific language: the record observes and describes life (also) from a biological and mechanical point of view. The English lyrics of “Energy,” a decidedly well-crafted song, abandons technical language in favor of existential reflection

Ho avuto molte donne in vita mia
e in ogni camera ho lasciato qualche mia energia
quanti figli dell’amore ho sprecato io
racchiusi in quattro mura ormai saranno spazzatura

Se un figlio si accorgesse che per caso
è nato fra migliaia di occasioni
capirebbe tutti i sogni che la vita dà
con gioia ne vivrebbe tutte quante le illusioni.

Quante lacrime ho strappato senza mai piangerci su
quante angosce ho provocato per godere un po’ di più
quante frasi false ho detto quante strane verità
per fare sul mio metro questa personalità.

[I have had many women in my life
and in every room I left some of my energy
how many love children have I squandered
locked within four walls now they are probably garbage.

If a child noticed that by chance
it was born among thousands of other occasions
it would understand all the dreams that life gives
it would live with joy all its illusions.

How many tears have I caused without ever crying over it
how much heartache I have caused for just a little more enjoyment
how many false statements have I made how many strange truths
to construct my personality on my own measure.]

The central stanza expresses the absolute randomness and gratuitousness of life, while the final, bitter stanza denounces the falsity of this human relationship, the pain it caused and the lies which the narrator told to pursue pleasure and construct a personality. Despite the eccentricity, the lyrics of this period are marked by an existential restlessness that will never abandon Battiato and which seems to forebode the spiritual exploration that manifests itself in his songwriting production.

Pollution and organic life.
Battiato’s second LP, Pollution (1972), follows in the musical footsteps of Fetus, continuing the experimentation with electronic progressive rock. The main instrument, both in the execution and in the creation of the songs, remains the VCS3 synthesizer. The lyrics, too, display a continuity with the previous album: Pollution is (also) a reflection on the origin and meaning of life, this time not just human but the entire organic dimension, along with the intrusion of machines, mechanical man-made devices, with their unpleasant and negative consequences: pollution, to be precise. Some residues of technical languages remain, as in the case of “Pollution” which employs terms from thermodynamics:

La portata di un condotto
è il volume liquido
che passa in una sua sezione
nell’unità di tempo:
e si ottiene moltiplicando
la sezione perpendicolare
per la velocità che avrai del liquido.

[The mass flow rate
is the liquid volume
which passes through one of its sections
per unit of time:
and is obtained by multiplying
the cross-section
by the liquid’s speed.]

I believe that these lines invite a twofold interpretation of the album and the song title, Pollution: it certainly indicates the pollution produced by machines, but it could also be a true pollution, as described here: an ejaculation in line with the discourse advanced by Fetus; a physiological act equally and indeed more fraught with consequences, not always happy (think of the “squandered love children who now are probably garbage” of “Energia”).

Battiato quotes, here and there, bits of classical music—as he had done in Fetus—for example, in the beautiful finale of “Beta”, when Battiato recites, over background music from the main theme of the “Moldava” by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (1874), the sentences

Dentro di me vivono la mia identica vita
dei microrganismi che non sanno
di appartenere al mio corpo.
Io a quale corpo appartengo?

[Inside me, microorganisms are living
a life identical to my own
they do not know they belong to my body.
Which body do I belong to?]

The “Moldava” is part of a cycle of symphonic poems by Bedřich Smetana, entitled Ma Vlast (My Homeland), which describes the course of the homonymous river, from the merging of its streams at the source to its impetuous flow in the woods of Bohemia down to its flow through the city of Prague. Battiato quotes the main theme of Smetana’s symphonic poem, and a voice over speaks the lines above: in the first sentence he affirms the existence of lives, namely microorganisms, in his own body; in the second he poses an existential question. The quotation from Smetana’s symphonic poem is relevant, it seems to me, for two reasons: both cases discuss individual elements that merge into a larger entity (and with it a broadening of perspective); and it is nationalist romantic music, which proudly describes a homeland, an entity greater than the individual, in accordance with the sense of ‘belonging’ (a certain irony by Battiato towards nationalism cannot be ruled out: he is interested in higher matters, less contingent, less historically determined).

Childhood and the East: Sulle corde di Aries.
In his third LP, Sulle corde di Aries (1973), Battiato breaks away from the rhythm of his previous production, heavily influenced by progressive rock, and an ethnic beat takes over. The melodies of the song look towards the East, and the tracks on the whole are more airy, free, not anchored to the song-form that characterized (despite their experimentalism) Fetus and Pollution. The electronics of the previous records coexist, in addition to ethnic hints, with jazz. In the themes, as well as in the language of the texts, there is a further shift: the meaning of childhood is revealed and historical-political events appear. However, thanks to the relaxed musical atmosphere, both are treated with a nostalgic and almost timeless gaze. “Sequences and frequencies”, the first track, is a suite over fifteen minutes in length which focuses on childhood, contemplation, and a sense of estrangement:

La maestra in estate ci dava ripetizione nel suo cortile
io stavo sempre seduto sopra un muretto a guardare il mare
ogni tanto passava una nave, ogni tanto passava una nave.
E le sere d’inverno restavo rinchiuso in casa ad ammuffire
fuori il rumore dei tuoni rimpiccioliva la mia candela
al mattino improvviso il sereno mi portava un profumo di terra.

[The teacher in the summer gave us private lessons in her courtyard
I was always seated on a low wall looking at the sea
every now and then a ship passed, every now and then a ship passed.
And on winter evenings I was locked up in the house to gather dust
outside the sound of thunder dwarfed my candle
in the morning the clear sky brought me a scent of earth.]

“Air of revolution,” while telling a collective story—with hints of colonialism and war—maintains a broad, meta-historical gaze, ending, as so often in the Battiato of the early seventies, with a pessimistic consideration:

Passa il tempo, sembra che non cambi niente
questa mia generazione vuole nuovi valori
e ho già sentito aria di rivoluzione
ho già sentito gridare chi andrà alla fucilazione.

[Time passes, it seems that nothing changes
this generation of mine wants new values
and I have already felt an air of revolution
I have already heard the cries of those who are going to be executed.]

However, in these years personal and collective themes, and the adherence to a language more typical for song, clearly emerge: Battiato distances himself from the impersonal reflection on life and the scientific technicalities that characterized his previous records. In his live performances of the following decades, the Sicilian songwriter would, however, still perform “Sequences and Frequencies” and “Air of Revolution”, a sign that he still considered them valid songs.

A Transitional LP
Clic (1974) is a transitional record. The previous musical trends continue: the use of the synthesizer for electronic music (as in “Proprietad prohibida” [“Forbidden Property”], a masterwork of Battiato’s electronic sound), the rarefaction and relaxation of sounds (“I cancelli della memoria” [“The Gates of Memory”] and “Nel cantiere di un’infanzia” [Inside the Construction of a Childhood”]) with disquieting results, and the adoption of Eastern vocal and instrumental melodies (“No U Turn”). At the same time, among the instruments used, emerges the piano (“The market of the Gods”, “Rien ne va plus: andante!”), which will be fundamental in the following years, and above all Battiato begins to try his hand at collage, constructing pieces (again “Il mercato degli Dèi”, “Rien ne va plus: andante!” and “Ethika for Ethica”) in which he juxtaposes short piano bits, sounds, voice-overs, melodic riffs, choirs. “No U Turn” is the only track on the album with (apparently delusional) lyrics; from here on, in the following four discs, Battiato will devote himself exclusively to sound and musical exploration, penning no lyrics until his songwriting phase.

Per conoscere me e le mie verità
io ho combattuto fantasmi di angosce con perdite di io
per distruggere vecchie realtà
ho galleggiato su mari di irrazionalità
ho dormito per non morire
buttando i miei miti di carta su cieli di schizofrenia.

[In order to knows myself and my truths
I have fought ghosts of anguish with losses of myself
to destroy old realities
I have floated on seas of irrationality
I slept not to die
throwing my paper myths on skies of schizophrenia.]

The collage explodes: M.elle le “Gladiator.
As previously mentioned, a new period begins in 1975. Battiato sets aside the experimentations with the VCS3 to focus, on the one hand, on sound collage, and on the other, on minimalist piano performances. M.elle le “Gladiator” (1975) constitutes the most daring use of collage. “Goutez et comparez”, the first track of the record, assembles morse code, spoken word, Eastern songs, metallic noises, vocalizations, microphone tests, declaimed verses, bell sounds, a storm, fragments of pop songs, classical music, engines, operatic voices, screams, the voice of Battiato himself, excerpts from the news, recordings of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s voice, organ music, and more. This disconcerting operation sounds like a mockery or a challenge to the listener (and the critic) who must find rhythm, melody and harmony among the mass of sounds[2]. At this stage, the sound is more important than the music. Battiato has reached his maximum provocation, but, perhaps, we can look at the experiment with perspective toward the future and see a relationship between these diverse sounds and musical collages and the literary technique called “cut-up”, also used in some songs of the 80s.

“Orient effects”, the final track, is an organ improvisation recorded live in the Monreale Cathedral  (Palermo). Here, too, the music borders on sound and noise. One could quote Battiato’s statement from Pollicelli’s documentary mentioned above: “These things were really unacceptable, because I didn’t make any preparations, I only made improvised music; and after improvising for maybe three quarters of an hour I opened my eyes and didn’t even know where I was anymore.” In this case Battiato was referring to his live performances, during festivals and concerts, in the early ’70s: but the statement seems apropos to describe the estrangement of the improvisation in “Orient effects”.

“Cultivated” music
Battiato (1977) and L’Egitto prima delle sabbie (1978) are two similar albums that convey a precise, minimalist compositional and musical idea. “Za,” occupying the A side of Battiato, is composed of a single piano chord, only slightly varied for the twenty minutes of the piece; this chord, played percussively, produces an effect of resonances that overlap and disappear. Battiato stated that this song “requires listening that I would define as meta-analytic, in favor of an a-temporal non-spatiality” [3]; and in fact it induces us to reflect on the meaning of the psychological duration of listening (time seems to expand, take up space). “Caffè table music,” on side B, continues the experiment with collage, here limited to voices (words, vocalizations, poems, conversations, voices speaking in Sicilian dialect), sounds, animal noises, and piano riffs. One has a stronger sense of coherence than in previous attempts. “L’Egitto prima delle sabbie,” the opening track of the eponymous album (1978), consists of a single repeated musical scale, similar to the formula of “Za”; the scale is played at different intervals, with a similar effect of temporal relaxation, and with the resonances that create a different sound each time (variation is produced by the execution of the identical scale). The setting is still minimalist, and one could say that the track is a musical reflection on time and variation.

I consider this period, which includes Egypt before the Sands, the highest in my production. […] In it, I managed to make music that was essential and of a certain purity. These results were due as well to the instrument I used: the piano with its world of resonances. [4]

Conclusion. Battiato’s models and future experiences.
To orient ourselves within Battiato’s complex experimental production of the ’70s, we have implicitly identified three directions which he followed: electronic music, inaugurated by the purchase of the VCS3 synthesizer; collage, based on montaging music and sound material; and minimalist music performed on the piano. In brief, Battiato’s experiments involve models of influence that should at least be mentioned: for electronic music, the contemporary German music scene, and especially his friend Karlheinz Stockhausen; for collage, the work of John Cage; for minimalism, the experiences of the Americans Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. Battiato carefully incorporated innovations coming from abroad, and helped to circulate them in Italy. In Pulcini’s book-length interview, Tecnica mista su tappeto, Battiato speaks openly about his influences and his debt to foreign composers, sometimes highlighting his innovations on their work. As for the use of collage and Cage’s model, he states that “I did not have the ideological attitude that Cage had. The sounds I put together were not philosophical in nature, but simply sonorous. Cage theorizes the disappearance of the composer and lets the world resonate randomly. I was trying to give a musical sense to my records.” His ‘sonorous’ rather than ‘philosophical’ intention and his empirical research are confirmed in the comparison with the minimalists: the Sicilian musician says that “there is a fundamental motive that binds me to Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and other minimalists. We are musicians, not theorists, and we live for sound […] for them, it is the pleasure of sound and its composition that are born first, not theory.” Trying to understand Battiato’s musical and sound experience during the ’70s is fundamental, in perspective, to assessing his later production as a songwriter of the ’80s and beyond. Electronic experimentation would leave a significant mark in the arrangements of records such as La voce del padrone [The Voice of the Boss] (1981); the musical collage technique seems to herald that of the cut-up technique by which Battiato would write some of his most famous lyrics; and the minimalist experience is undoubtedly a trademark of the search for purity that would guide, in a different way, his life and his later work.

[1] Temporary Road. (una) Vita di Franco Battiato, a dialogue with Giuseppe Pollicelli (with DVD), Milan: La nave di Teseo, 2018.

[2]  Juke Box (1977) is, in this way, similar to M.elle le “Gladiator”. The only reference to that record, which I will not analyze in depth, is due to the fact that its songs were originally intended to be the soundtrack of a TV show on Filippo Brunelleschi, but they were rejected and subsequently released in the form of the 1977 album.

[3] The entry for “discografia leggera” on Battiato’s official website provides a short introductory note for each record.

[4]           Franco Battiato, Tecnica mista su tappetoconversazioni autobiografiche with F. Pulcini, EDT, Torino, 1992, p. 28.

Translated songs: