Francesco Turrisi: In Pursuit of Ecstasy
There are plenty of challenges for Turrisi in L'Arpeggiata besides those presented by collaborating with musicians from diverse genres of music: "Christina [Pluhar] is from Austria but lives in Paris, and literally there weren't two people in L'Arpeggiata from the same place, so the traveling was insane. There were 15 people all living in a different country, so there was also linguistic mayhem. Christina speaks six languages, and while rehearsing she likes to speak to the musician in their own language, so there was linguistic chaos all the time. But that's the beauty of it as well; you have to learn new languages and meet new people. It's very international."
Turrisi is an international citizen himself, and moved to Ireland in 2006. There, he has embraced the challenge of making music in a country with such a small population, and, as he explains, it isn't always easy: "There are pros and cons. The cons are the fact that it's a small scene. There aren't many venues, and there aren't that many people doing things that I'm interested in, which is always the biggest frustration for me. It's very hard to find people who play the theorbo or the early music I like, or Iranian music. I'd love to do something with oud, but there is no oud player in Ireland." More surprisingly perhaps, given Ireland's world-wide renown as a country which produces and exports so much music, there aren't many pianos available, according to Turrisi: "It's one of the main issues with the country. It's very hard to find good venues with pianos."
Nevertheless, Turrisi recognizes that he was fortunate with the timing of his arrival in Dublin: "Because it's a small country and there aren't that many people doing that kind of work, I somehow managed to get a lot of financial support. Si Dolce... was entirely funded by the Arts Council. I also got support from the Italian Cultural Institute, which had money at the time and helped invite a lot of musicians to Dublin to play. There were a lot of opportunities for me." The current financial crisis, however, has left Ireland well and truly screwed. "There's less work for everybody. When I first moved here, there were so many corporate gigs that paid loads of money. There were people literally living on that, but that kind of stuff has basically gone."
Turrisi has managed to hold his head above water, and is grateful for all the support he has received. "Although there's not so much money now with the financial crisis, people know who I am in the funding bodies, and even last year I got different awards for various projects, so I feel like I'm very supported in Ireland, considering that I'm not even Irish. In jazz in general, there isn't really any money to be made, so I do a lot of other types of gigs and I'm teaching quite a bit. I always end up being in some strange projects playing frame drums in some group, but so far I've been lucky, and I can't complain."
One of these so-called strange groups in which Turrisi plays frame drum as well as harmonium and accordionis Tarab, a fascinating quintet which defies easy categorization: "My original concept was to do something like Mediterranean music, even though I hate the termbut something like Arabic music, Turkish music and southern Italian music," explains Turrisi. "When I first moved to Ireland I was trying to find some Arabic musicians, but I couldn't find anybody. I was getting quite frustrated trying different things that didn't work, and then all of a sudden I had a kind of an epiphany in a Joycean way; I was watching this documentary by Bob Quinn called the Atlantean Trilogy, which speculated on the possible connection between North Africa and the west of Ireland, between the traditional singing, and with the Mediterranean between the bodhran [Irish frame drum] and the Arabic frame drum. I thought it sounded plausible," says Turrisi.
"I remember the first time I heard sean-nós [traditional Irish] singing," he expands. "It really reminded me of different ways of singing which you find around the Mediterranean. I thought, why don't I try to do something with this type of music and Irish trad? There are so many conceptual similarities in terms of instrumentation, and it's all about the melodies and the ornamentation," says Turrisi. "I thought I'd experiment with it." However, as Turrisi knew, the Irish trad world can be very closed as to what one can and cannot do, and he knew he'd have to find just the right combination of musicians to make it work.