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Polyphony of Ceriana is one of the latest additions to Hugo Zemp’s wonderful collection of ethnographic films. Having already been treated to a hot-off-the-press screening during the Fifth International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony at Tbilisi State Conservatory in 2010, I was delighted to revisit the film for the purposes of this review.
The film documents the musical life of the Compagnia Sacco, one of five vocal ensembles—referred to in the film as choirs—active in the Ligurian village of Ceriana (population 1300). Founded in 1926, the all-male ensemble is named after the bags in which its founders carried their lunch when they went to work in the fields, where they would sing during their midday break. The compagnia’s current members cherish the memory of a visit (in 1954) from Alan Lomax, who recognized the choir’s style and repertoire as “the real thing,” and of their later invitation (in 1975) to travel to the United States for the month-long tour that launched their international profile. They continue to dedicate much time and energy to the preservation of a three-part polyphonic style featuring two soloists over a choral drone (a style that, when he first encountered it, reminded Zemp of the polyphonic table songs of Eastern Georgia). Ballads form the staple of their secular repertoire alongside shorter, non-narrative songs. Some of the singers also belong to one or other of the village’s four lay brotherhoods, whose repertoires consist of polyphonic arrangements of Latin hymns, again handed down via the oral tradition.
The film certainly bears ample witness to the opening sentence from its catalogue description: “In Ceriana, a village in West Liguria on the southern slopes of the Italian Alps descending to the Mediterranean coast, people love to sing” (http://www.der.org/films/polyphony-of-ceriana.html). Over a period of several months, Zemp follows the Compagnia Sacco as it goes about its business animating the life of the local community. We see the singers in action in a variety of settings: during the Good Friday procession, at a party held in the compagnia’s house during Holy Week, at a midsummer picnic in the countryside on the Feast of St. John, on a small stage in front of the church during the annual village concert, in the main village square during the October Chestnut Festival, at a singing supper in a country house outside the village, and around the table on the terrace of Zemp’s own house in Nice. Scenes from several of these events are threaded together for the film’s ten-minute opening sequence, which shows stanzas from a single song, “Donna Lombarda”, being performed on different occasions and in different locations (see clip 1). Interestingly, this ingenious filmic device accommodates to the practice of the singers themselves, who, when singing informally with friends, rarely perform entire songs but rather a handful of stanzas, with the interest focused more on the harmonic interplay of the voices than on the textual narrative. Performing all ten of the song’s extant stanzas, Zemp tells us, does indeed take almost ten minutes, and in a concert setting, too, this is often considered excessive. As an introduction to the film as a whole, this opening sequence is effective in allowing time for the ear to acclimatize to the sound while establishing a sense of place and giving an insight into the kinds of social relations of which the singing is a part.
Clip 1. Extract from the film’s opening sequence, featuring part of the song “Donna Lombarda.”
The film benefits from a detailed Study Guide, available to download from http://www.der.org/films/filmmakers/hugo-zemp.html. Here, Zemp underlines the two-sided nature of Compagnia Sacco’s activity that was to become the central focus of the film and that points to the subtle interaction between local and global that so often contributes to the vitality and sustainability of traditional practices in the modern world: “The Compagnia Sacco drew its repertoire from the local tradition and still presents it to international audiences, and in return the members of the choir continue to nurture and keep alive the village singing of today.” The singers themselves have a strong sense of their mission to “keep the tradition alive”. Their performance of the “old” songs is no mere folkloric reconstruction, however. Rather, the act of singing appears as an integral part of contemporary life: the overriding impression is of the centrality of singing and its attendant sociability in these men’s lives.
The first spoken words occur ten minutes into the film as five of the singers, seated around a table, compare the experience of singing informally with friends and singing on stage for an audience. “When we sing on stage, there is always emotion,” says Giovanni Martini (who most often takes the lead voice). “I am in ecstasy.” “When you sing,” continues one of his fellow singers, “you transmit something, you are in tune with the public.” “You are with body and soul,” Martini interjects. But “when you are around a table and singing with friends,” adds another, “you feel relaxed, and perhaps you sing even better!” Through the songs, then, men of different generations are brought together in moments of heightened emotion and intense interaction: in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s terms, they are “in flow” (see e.g. Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi 1988). The ever-present wine bottles underline the association of singing with general conviviality and celebration. In one scene, a young woman sings along with Giovanni Martini, who offers her this piece of avuncular advice as he taps the plastic cup he has just drained: “To sing you must wet your throat, and off you go like a turbo!”
The significance of body language comes across strongly throughout the film. Many aspects of the stance adopted by individual singers and the manner in which they relate to one another physically are reminiscent of polyphonic singing traditions elsewhere in the Mediterranean region: the solo or lead singer with eyes closed and head thrown back, the hand cupping the ear, eye contact between the singers in a chorus, arms slung around the shoulders of one’s fellow singers, subtle inflections of the head or upper body, and more pronounced gesticulations that orchestrate the sharing of parts between singers. Other details, such as the flexing of the knees when singing standing up, appear more localised. Zemp’s comment in the Study Guide that “body postures and movements are orally transmitted just like the polyphonic singing style” is enchantingly illustrated by the image of a small boy in his father’s arms, his hand held to his ear as he does his best to join in the singing (see clip 2). The way in which such gestures and nuances are captured in the film is especially revealing and an excellent example of how much more one can glean about the meaning of singing from close observation of body language. At the same time, the viewer also comes to understand something of the personalities and dispositions of individual singers through their characteristic gestures.
Clip 2. Singing in the Compagnia’s house: the small son of one of the singers joins in.
In all of this, the film offers a powerful image of the kind of male bonding and negotiation of social obligations through singing that has been remarked upon by other ethnographers. It complements well, for example, Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s writings about the confraternities of Castelsardo in the north of Sardinia, so evocatively illustrated in Canti di Passione and Chants de Passion. It also resonates in many ways with my own fieldwork experiences in Corsica—a resonance that reaches beyond the singing. The village itself with its red-roofed houses piled on a hill, accessed via narrow alleyways and flights of stone steps and topped by a pointed tower and Baroque-fronted church, could easily be in Corsica. Coincidentally, the film’s extra features include a clip of the men singing “Violetta”, a song that is perennially popular in Corsica and is presented here (much as it is in Corsica) as an interpretation in the style of Corsican polyphony of an Italian song.
Drawing up a short-list of the film’s most memorable moments is no easy task but my favourite has to be the scene where, seated around an outdoor picnic table, the ever-expansive Giovanni Martini is engaged in a heated dispute with an older singer, Attilio Lupi, about the text of a song they had just started singing (described by Giovanni as “the most beautiful song in the world”). Attilio argues about the sequence of events as narrated in the song as if it were a matter of establishing historical truth. “She is going to the mill,” sings Giovanni. “No! No!” shouts the increasingly exasperated elder, shaking his head and stabbing the air with his finger. “She is already at the mill! … She is coming from the mill!” And so it goes on (see clip 3). Coincidentally, Zemp tells us that it was this scene and the shorter sequence of the young child singing with his hand to his ear (as mentioned above) that were especially appreciated by the singers themselves when Zemp invited them to his house to view the first cut of the rushes.
Clip 3. Giovanni Martini and Attilio Lupi in debate over the narrative of “the most beautiful song in the world."
In the Study Guide, Zemp goes into some detail about when, where and what he filmed. Of particular value for an aspiring filmmaker are the insights he offers into the process of selecting the material that would find its way into the final cut, as well as descriptions of how he set about the filming itself. Influenced by the work of Jean Rouch, Zemp’s preference is for long shots using a single handheld camera and with minimal use of the zoom. Occasionally, he used two cameras set side-by-side on tripods, one (as in the concert scene in clip 1, for example) covering the whole scene and the second used for closer shots and panning. Zemp is not a great fan of voice-over narration or semi-formal interviews to camera, preferring instead to allow context and detail to emerge in a more naturalistic way from the shots themselves. In this film occasional short items of text appear on the screen in the style of subtitles without, as it were, interrupting the filming. Zemp did, however, take the initiative of organising—specifically for the purposes of the film—two gatherings at a country house, for which he planned a discussion between choir members that touched on Compagnia Sacco’s history as well as addressing matters relating to the singing experience and the process of transmitting the repertoire to the younger generation. The viewer then learns more about the choir and its traditions via the extracts from this discussion that punctuate the film. With respect to the choir’s future, there is talk about how the young people prefer to sing easy songs to start with and how those who show sufficient aptitude then have to be initiated into the more ornamented style that is the hallmark of Compagnia Sacco. These “easy” songs, of which we hear some examples in the final minutes of the film, also turn out to be surprisingly ribald! Perhaps equally surprisingly, it is the girls who sing them with the greatest enthusiasm—before going on to acquit themselves respectably enough in performing some of the older songs together with the men. In narrative terms, this seems a fitting note on which to end. If the traditions the film portrays would seem, in general, to reinforce Mediterranean stereotypes with women remaining in the background while the men take centre stage, this final scene not only acknowledges that times have changed but also reminds us that change can bring opportunities as well as threats.
Some viewers may, at times, feel that a scene continues for longer than necessary as Zemp adheres to his commitment to present songs, whenever possible, in their entirety. Others may have wished for more factual information but this can be found in the Study Guide and other materials that are free to download from the website. In part because of the lack of unnecessary distraction in the film itself, the viewer is left with a series of vivid and lasting images and a sense of having been granted privileged access into the lives of the singers. The film and Study Guide combined offer a valuable teaching resource with respect both to oral traditions of folk polyphony and to techniques of filmmaking—one that I recommend without reservation. At a less academic level, it is heartening to have this window onto a place where the art of conviviality is still alive and well.
I end on another personal note. As I sat down to write this review, I received a phone call from an old friend in Germany. She enthused about a recent concert that I would have loved. It was the Compagnia Sacco.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi (eds.). Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Lortat-Jacob, Bernard. Canti di Passione. Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 1996.
———. Chants de Passion: Au Coeur d’une Confrérie de Sardaigne. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1998.
Caroline Bithell is Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the University of Manchester, UK. Her publications on Corsican polyphony have more recently been supplemented by new work on Georgian polyphony.