This essay will appear in the upcoming issue of Talking Cure: Spring 2010.
I am working on a cover of your 1967 song, "La canzone di Marinella" and having a terrible time combating my own creative demons. Each time I sit down to work on a song, a towering fog of debilitating judgment clouds my state of mind, often in the form of impossible comparisons to other artists whose work I admire. I am finding it hard to let go and have fun with a pop song, which, in my deeply rooted classical training, has been thrown into a dusty shoebox labeled "frivolous." I think that part of my heart lies in that shoebox, and I don't know how to get it out. In our modern culture, we seem to give so little room to singing and sharing our daily lives. A Plasticine wall of highly produced, packaged, and commercialized music products seems to erect itself whenever I try to enter into the quiet space of self-motivated song making. Help! What do your doubts as an artist feel like, and how do you overcome them?
Yours, with ecstatic admiration and deep affection, Theresa.
Minantologia was the first album that revealed to me the immense world of the Italian pop icon Mina (born 1940 as Anna Maria Mazzini). My Venetian and Sicilian roommates introduced me to her music while I was living in Venice and working in design from 2001 to 2003. Their eagerness to educate me on this vital piece of Italian culture proved to be justified; it has been a useful key in connecting with native Italians, as well as with an inner soundworld of my own. The title of this album circumscribes the monumental work of this legendary singer. First, the anthology—she has recorded over 1000 songs and 110 albums, sold over 100 million records, and scored multitudes in Italian and international pop charts—and second, the mythology. One needs only to parse the myriad album covers to marvel at the many bizarre and lush images, including her choice to be depicted as a bearded St. John the Baptist in the album Salomè, or her pony-tailed head atop a ripped male torso on Rane Supreme. With her unique timbre and powerful voice, she has sung not only of the universal joys and woes of love, but also dipped into dicier thematic waters, with songs such as L'importante è finire (The Important Thing is to Finish, 1975), which alludes to sex without love, and Donna Donna Donna (Woman Woman Woman, 1995), about transvestite fragility.
She began her career accidentally in 1958 on summer holiday at the age of 18, while amusing her friends with an improvised performance on stage after a concert at the nightclub La Bussola. She has since collaborated with composers and performers such as Luigi Tenco, Adriano Celentano, Lucio Battisti and Ennio Morricone. She was nicknamed the Queen of Screamers for her fortissimo and syncopated version of
Theresa Wong is a composer and performer whose work encompasses music, theater, and visual art. She is currently working on her first large scale opera, O Sleep, which will premiere at Southern Exposure in May 2010. She believes that Chinese and Italians are irrefutably related through the institutions of mafia, pasta, chaos, and family.
Betty Curtis' swing song, Nessuno (Nobody) and in her first TV appearances, she broke the typical image of a stationary female vocalist with performances as a gyrating, dancing, vocal virtuoso. Adding to her image of a rock n' roll bad girl were her dyed blond hair and shaved eyebrows, as well as her relationship and pregnancy with the married actor Corrado Pani.
All of this liberated rocking and rolling aside—which one can uncover with a skeptical fact-checking eye on Wikipedia and a good couple of days set aside to read—what strikes me about Mina is the dedication, constancy, and generosity of her creative spirit. Not only did she succeed in holding court for decades as a queen on the international pop charts and continually reinvented female diva, she did so while withdrawing from public life and maintaining what must be a deeply grounded inner life. In 1978, for unexplained reasons, Mina gave her last public performance after twenty years in the limelight. This end only marked the beginning of her prolific output, as she released at least one album a year—including various compilations—from 1978-2009 (with the exception of 2008), largely on her own label, PDU (Platten Durcharbeitung Ultraphone), which she co-founded in 1967 with her father. Her website is a testament to the dedication of her vast creative output. All of her recorded songs are catalogued in a database, detailing the year of recording, composer, lyricist, arranger, musicians, and albums which a song appears on, along with a short audio sample. One can even take a virtual tour of GSU, the recording studio in Lugano Switzerland where she does much of her recording.
In addition to this steady musical output, she also writes as a columnist for Italian Vanity Fair and the Turin based liberal newspaper La Stampa, offering advice with heartfelt warmth and a sense of unforgiving justice to fans of all ages. Her astute cultural criticism ranges from such topics as captology at Stanford to the linguistic deterioration of the Italian language. Her words, whether consoling a distressed woman whose name was slandered with homophobic graffiti, or questioning on the anniversary of the U.S. lunar mission how much we have achieved on planet Earth, are always marked with the intelligence and sensitivity of a concerned humanitarian.
The song I have chosen to cover, La canzone di Marinella (The Song of Marinella), is a simple ¾ waltz written by Fabrizio de Andrè, based on a story he read in the newspaper. It tells the story of a prostitute who was found drowned in a river. It is worth noting that de Andrè states with gratitude that if Mina had not decided to interpret his song, he would have become a lawyer rather than a singer-songwriter. The song contains seven verses and no choruses, which makes it challenging to interpret as a musical form with little variation. It never modulates to another key in Mina's version, whereas de Andrè's rendition changes keys four times through the arc of the piece. Augusto Martelli exquisitely arranged Mina's version, performed on the TV show Canzonissima in 1968. Her graceful movements and the use of video feedback create fluidity and visual effervescence that contrast with the text of this tragic ballad.
While working on this song, I developed a deeper appreciation for her vocal capacity. In singing the lyrics myself, I discovered the extreme complexity of the vocal forms and how they fit into the music—I never thought one could squeeze so many syllables into a single melodic phrase—yet the ease of Mina's execution does little to give away this linguistic obstacle course.1 This project definitely pushed me into some challenging areas, which I still have yet to navigate. I initially sought to use only the voice in the arrangement, in order to expand the uses of vocal sounds. However, I found the clarity of the song form to be difficult to escape.2 In contrast to my usual free-formed improvisations, the intricacy of the melody and text posed a challenge to keep precise intonation. But this is a start, one of many, which happened during that sojourn in Italy when I first heard the voice of the muses calling me back to a life in performance and music. One voice took the shape of Mina Mazzini, whom I will always look to as a brilliant creative force, and a diva of quiet magnificence.