Reviewed: Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto by Beppe Grillo

Anyone for cricket?

Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto
Beppe Grillo, Dario Fo and Gianroberto Casaleggio
Chiarelettere, 208pp, €13.90

Italy has been a land of political vanguardism. It was in the 15th and 16th centuries, as republican city states achieved a precarious but briefly vigorous existence. One of these, Florence, produced the founding genius of political science, Niccolò Machiavelli, who sought to make rulers realise that the state was not their possession but a public trust.

It was again in the vanguard in the 20th century: Benito Mussolini spun fascism out of radical socialism in the early 1920s. At about the same time, Christian democracy was first essayed in the form of the Italian People’s Party, founded in 1919 with the reluctant blessing of the Vatican by the anti-fascist priest Don Luigi Sturzo; after the war, Alcide De Gasperi revived it in the form of the Christian Democratic Party. In the 1960s, the Italian Communist Party evolved a socialdemocratic- tending “Euro-communism” that strongly influenced Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union.

Today, Beppe Grillo has established a movement that is the first web-based political grouping to make a breakthrough in serious electoral politics. Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) – the Five Star Movement – won the highest number of votes in Italy for a single party in the February elections (coalitions of the right and left blocs produced higher tallies when counted together).

Grillo sees the internet as the medium through which the world is changing: “Thanks to the net, we have at our disposal a vast quantity of ideas and we can bring thousands of intellects to bear on one particular issue.” To which the playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo replies: “What is grander than a revolution?”

The exchange is part of a conversation, which also includes Grillo’s close associate and web genius Gianroberto Casaleggio, recently published in Italy as Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto (“The cricket always sings at dusk” – the title is a pun on Grillo’s name, which means “cricket” in Italian). One of a sudden splurge of books on Grillo, Il Grillo canta reveals most about a politics that has passed from the web to the streets and finally to parliament and that now holds Italian politics to a kind of ransom. To understand the Grillo phenomenon is – for all its many “onlyin- Italy” features – to get some sort of handle on where politics everywhere in the developed world is going.

Grillo, who is 64, has been one of Italy’s most popular comics for more than 30 years. From the early 1980s, he developed a line in satire that was increasingly critical of the Church, celebrities and, most of all, politicians. With the help of Casaleggio, a long-time web entrepreneur, he has melded together a stage act, a political critique, a blog and citizens’ activism into a movement that presents itself as the direction in which politics must go. There’s something in this of Marx’s idealistic view that, under communism, the state would wither away and citizens would govern themselves. This isn’t necessarily a preserve of the left: in the UK, the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has written: “The web . . . makes collective action and intelligence, free from any directing authority, possible on a size and scale that was previously impossible.”

Grillo, Casaleggio and Fo are explicit: remove governments, parties and, above all, leaders and the web will allow for self-government. “For the M5S,” Casaleggio claims, “‘leader’ is a word of the past, dirty, devious: ‘leader’ of what?” “In cities,” Grillo says, “we’re used to police and traffic lights, while there’s another way of moving about, which is not to have rules.” Grillo mentions New Delhi and Bombay, where, he says, traffic rules are worked out in the absence – or in the ignoring – of controls. Casaleggio invokes Periclean Athens, where: “Democracy was founded on the idea of community, common thought and shared values . . . Maybe the web can help to rediscover that inspiration which allows equality among intelligent beings. And for that, you don’t need a leader, a charismatic boss to whom you must turn.”

Yet, as many Italian commentators have noted, Grillo often acts like a boss. Fo encouraged his superstar status (and ego) by lauding the swim he made from the mainland to Sicily across the Strait of Messina (a little over three kilometres) in October last year to publicise the movement’s campaign in Sicily, saying that it showed “courage and determination . . . a new way of presenting yourself to people”. Grillo presents the new in old-fashioned celebrity clothes, trading on his fame and on that of those the media promote: when the movement recently chose who it wanted as its presidential candidate to replace Giorgio Napolitano, it voted for Milena Gabanelli, an investigative journalist who presents a sharp-edged programme on the state broadcaster Rai’s third channel.

As the M5S climbed in the opinion polls last year, Grillo issued stern prohibitions to its election candidates not to talk to the news media and in particular not to appear on the political talk shows that proliferate on Italian TV. Grillo writes: “We don’t want [the representatives of M5S] to appear on talk shows . . . We want talk shows to be abolished. Since I put out that fatwa, many people have begun to agree with us. The talk show is dead . . .”

Everything in politics must change or be destroyed – the personnel, the parties, even the language. Casaleggio mentions a talk he had with Romano Prodi, twice head of a centre- left governing coalition, who told him, referring to Grillo, “Comedy is comedy and politics is politics.” No, replied Casaleggio: people don’t see politics that way – they mix it all together and increasingly see politicians through the lens of satire and ridicule.

For the past two months, Grillo and Casaleggio have, through the exertion of strong control over their elected deputies and senators, all newcomers to national politics, refused to make a deal with the left coalition that narrowly won the plurality of votes. Its former leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, who announced his resignation on 20 April, sought desperately to get some sort of agreement that would have allowed him the necessary dominance of upper and lower houses. Grillo’s refusal to negotiate has often been couched in the most contemptuous terms: Bersani, buffeted by critics and competition in his party, was made to look weak. Grillo’s obstructionism has now forced the left to form a “grand coalition” with the right bloc, which includes Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party. This will allow the M5S leader to argue that the old parties have closed ranks against the future.

Grillo is a ranter, a tyrannical leader who denies leadership, one who lumps the good, the bad and the utterly corrupt in Italian public life into one nightmarish mass that must be abolished – as if societies were morality plays in which victory over the devil issues in the Kingdom of God. Yet he works a thick seam of disenchantment. There is disenchantment across Europe now. Soon, crickets will be singing everywhere.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor of the Financial Times

Beppe Grillo in Rome in April. Credit: Eyevine/Contrasto.
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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser