I first came across Giovanni Dettori’s music through Roger Ebert’s Twitter feed. The renowned film critic wrote something like, “Lady Gaga as classical music,” and he included a link to this video. I was stunned. Rarely does one come across music that is so clever and so relevant. Dettori’s “Lady Gaga Fugue” is both, but it’s also exceptionally well put together. The piece was performed at the BBC Proms by Dejan Lazic. Hal Leonard came across the video and offered Dettori a publishing deal. And YouTube itself is brimming with countless adaptations of the fugue for organs, string quartets and wind ensembles. I soon discovered that Dettori had an entire YouTube channel dedicated to teaching counterpoint. I watched all the videos, and they’re great. They make a splendid crash course for the uninitiated, and a nice refresher for those of us who have trouble making sense of or recalling in totality Fux’s very many rules of counterpoint. Dettori produced two other pop adaptations after his success with the Lady Gaga Fugue. But the fourth piece, a reworking of Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never,” was so hauntingly and simplistically beautiful that we decided to extend an invitation for an interview with Reichel Recommends. The interview was conducted via email.
RR: What was your entrance into music, generally? Were you initially interested in classical music, or did you start with popular music?
GD: Music has always had a magical power on me. It really has a strong influence on my mood, on my body, on my perception, so strong that I consider it magical.
My first instrument was a keyboard for kids (two octaves) when I was eight. Later I figured out that I could hear and easily follow the bass line in songs, while my sister couldn’t. So for my 11th birthday I managed to convince my parents to buy me an electric bass, and that’s when everything really started – taking lessons, learning all my favorite songs and playing with my friend Vincenzo Culotta (the pianist of the “Lady Gaga Fugue” video on YouTube). One year later I got a guitar.
I definitely started with popular music (nobody in my family was particularly interested in music)…. Vincenzo had been brought up just with classical music so he immediately introduced me into it (the first piece we played together was an arrangement of Bach for piano and electric bass).
During high school I went on studying the guitar (both classical and electric/jazz oriented) and I had a progressive-rock band. Vincenzo and I were writing all the songs (mainly instrumental music).
After high school I studied musicology at college: this is when I gave a solid theoretical background to what I had always enjoyed doing freely.
RR: What got you interested in composition?
GD: Since I was a kid I enjoyed making up songs on my keyboard (combining three or four triads on white keys and singing basic melodies on them). With the high school band we really believed in it and enjoyed playing very long instrumental songs (one was more than 20 minutes long) full of tempo changes, strange meters and dissonant harmonies. When I was writing such long stuff I was already using pentagram and pencil to remember ideas and develop them. So in some way I have always been interested in composition.
I got interested in composition in a more traditional sense a bit before going to college. I was listening to all kinds of music (mainly classical) and wanted to figure out how all those magic passages where built: I wanted to have them in my pieces, too!
At the same time I figured out that I wasn’t so talented as a guitarist (everybody out there was so technical) so for some years I dedicated (myself) completely to composition and music theory (this was during college).
RR: I’ve personally benefited from your lessons on counterpoint on YouTube. What prompted those videos? What kind of response have you gotten from them?
GD: (There) was a period I enjoyed watching YouTube a lot. I had found a lot of interesting stuff about the guitar and that really helped me get new ideas and tricks to enrich my playing (at that time, among other things, I was performing with a “smooth jazz” band in clubs, at weddings, parties, etc.). So I said: since this helped me so much I should try to see if I can help others. After some research I saw there was something about harmony, but nothing at all about counterpoint. So I just started recording the lessons. Everything was done in two or three days. I’ve never taught counterpoint and I don’t consider myself an expert so I didn’t want to make anything “official,” I just tried to help people who were interested in approaching counterpoint. Counterpoint is usually considered very elitist and often scares musicians – one immediately thinks to immensely complex musical architectures or 200 page theory books written with ancient clefs. While I believe that if you overcome initial difficulties, counterpoint can be really fun, interesting and useful for crafting music. My aim was to help interested musicians to overcome initial difficulties.
The response I got was great. There weren’t many people, but all were very interested in the topic. For a year I was receiving messages about counterpoint problems every now and then and I would always answer. After uploading the “Lady Gaga Fugue” I started receiving messages on a daily basis and I couldn’t answer all of them anymore.
RR: What are some of the most inspiring pieces of counterpoint for you in the repertoire?
GD: There are so many! And my taste slowly but constantly changes. So I’ll just tell you about a few non-mainstream pieces that were very important to my development.
During college the most shocking musical discover for me was the music from the Notre Dame School, and in particular the music of Perotinus. He and his master Leoninus are the oldest composers who left a group of written polyphonic compositions whose manuscripts have survived until our time. One morning the old professor of “Medieval Music History” talked about the Notre Dame School and really intrigued me, so the same day I went to the university library, got the score and the CD and listened to Perotinus’ “Alleluja, Nativitas Gloriose Virginis Marie” while following it in the score. It was a revelation. I felt like I always could see the trees, now I was holding the seed.
Other pieces that changed my way of looking at old music were Guillaume Dufay’s isorhythmic motets, like “Ecclesiae militantis” and “Nuper Rosarum Flores,” with their complex superimposition of different texts and meters. It was a great discovery for a former progressive rock fan to know that medieval polyphony had some sort of polymetric tradition!
Another motet that I studied deeply was Josquin Des Prez’s “Inviolata integra et casta;” in my opinion Josquin’s music is pure beauty. The descending scales in the beginning (recalled at the end) give me sublime joy, as does the beginning of the third part. I remember very well when, as a teenager, my friend Vincenzo introduced me to Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigal “Sì ch’io vorrei morire,” with its explicit erotic text and all its sensual chromaticism and progressions that describe those words so clearly. I was so happy I had found Frank Zappa’s predecessor (Zappa has always been one of my favorite musicians).
RR: When you first wrote the “Lady Gaga Fugue,” did you think anything would come of it? Did you anticipate a publishing deal?
GD: No, I didn’t. I just wanted to give a fun example of what I had tried to explain in my lessons and was hoping the people following the channel would have enjoyed it. It was written mainly for “educational” purposes (and to have fun with my friend Vincenzo); I was trying to be the music theory teacher I would have liked to have been (one day I’d love to become a real one). The publisher contacted me after I had posted the video on YouTube.
RR: I’m not a pianist, so the only piece from your pop music adaptations that I’ve played is “Never Say Never.” It’s certainly a beautiful setting, but how much (if any of it) is a joke? While all the pieces you’ve posted are well crafted, there seems to be an element of humor in them.
GD: I think the humor derives from the basic idea: taking something out of its context and putting it in a completely different context (it’s pretty much the principle of irony and it’s what I’ve always loved to do). But once I start composing I take the composition very seriously (even if I have to admit it’s a lot of fun). Again, medieval and renaissance composers helped me: there are plenty of masses written on pop tunes of the time. The first fugue I ever wrote was a three voice setting for piano on the “L’Homme Armé” tune.
RR: Do you really like the music of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Eminem and Justin Bieber, or did you just select themes from their work because of its popularity?
GD: I’m not a fan of their music in general, but I respect them all and in particular I like how those songs are produced – I’m sure they sound great on the dance floor. I chose those songs because the themes’ fragments I used were inspiring for what I was trying to do and because they were very popular (if you don’t know the original context the irony is lost).
RR: What are some of your favorite pop style artists?
GD: There are many. The first that come to mind are the Beatles, James Brown and funk music in general. And Quincy Jones’ pop stuff is always so smart.
RR: When you’re not doing these arrangements, what kind of music are you writing?
GD: I really do a little bit of everything. Some of the last things I wrote are a piece for classical guitar, a piece for piano, a canon for string quartet, a lot of electronic music for audiobooks and some “muzak” songs for supermarkets. Unfortunately there is a lot of music that I have written that I have never been able to hear because I have not found musicians who would play it. That’s why I’m mainly writing for solo instruments or small ensembles.
The only orchestra pieces I’ve written that I’ve heard performed have been a few commissioned arrangements. I’m not trying to write for big groups of instruments anymore (except sampled/synth-orchestra) because I’m a bit traumatized by working for months on pieces that I can’t hear performed. And in my opinion music becomes alive only when air, eardrum, body and ambient sounds start to vibrate.
RR: What’s one composition that you’re really jealous of—that you wish you’d written yourself?
GD: I can be jealous of other musicians’ work/performance opportunities, or even other musicians’ earnings (nowadays in Italy it’s very hard to make a living out of music), but I’m never jealous of other people’s music. I’m always happy when I discover interesting music and my reaction is that I immediately want to understand how it was done to enrich my compositional vocabulary and my understanding of music. I really feel we – musicians and music lovers – are all part of a big world “community.”
RR: Where do you see the future of classical music headed?
GD: In my opinion, in the 20th century, classical composers (European, in particular) often gave too much importance to mind, technique, words and not enough to body, soul, spontaneity, the pleasure of music perception and the joy of making music together. Anyway, I’m conscious that the two world wars were probably a big part of these composers’ “desperate cry” (of course, there are wonderful exceptions, in particular among American and Asian composers). Also, musicologists were part of this distortion; they put too much importance on complexity and repudiated simplicity. I’m a fan of both tendencies and I can feel they are slowly rebalancing. I hope that the password of our century won’t be “new” anymore, but “free.”