Graded on a Curve:
Tiziano Popoli,
Burn the Night / Bruciare la Notte: Original Recordings, 1983–1989

There has been a recent upswing of attention paid to late 20th century global pop, particularly from Japan, and its varying intersections with the art music impulse. Folks swayed by these motions should make an appointment with Burn the Night / Bruciare la Notte: Original Recordings, 1983–1989, which anthologizes selections from the scores, soundtracks and commissions of Italian composer Tiziano Popoli. With liner notes by Bradford Bailey, it’s out now on 2LP, CD and digital from RVNG Intl.’s subsidiary Freedom to Spend. On behalf of Popoli, a portion of the release’s proceeds will benefit Greenpeace.

It’s additionally of note that Freedom to Spend is offering their double vinyl in a limited bundle with a 7-inch featuring two unreleased archival tracks, cuts this writer has not heard. Copies of this bundle are still available, but the opportunity to grab a PDF of an original Tiziano Popoli DX7 patch bank, which contained instructions on how to download and then use the custom sounds that shaped the music on Burn the Night / Bruciare la Notte, has unfortunately passed, as it was available only through physical preorders.

As stated up top, in combining the pop and avant-garde aesthetics of the 1980s, composer Tiziano Popoli was far from alone, but he undertook the endeavor with such sincerity that his music has withstood the test of time remarkably well while being thoroughly of its time. Specifically, Popoli utilized the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which emerged in 1983, as he created patterns on a Roland TR-909 drum machine and ran them through the DX7 via MIDI protocol.

Hence the enticement of that preorder patch bank. But the meat of the matter is the pieces collected on Burn the Night / Bruciare la Notte, 14 tracks (not including that 7-inch) which are consistently rewarding, partly due to his embracement of ’80s tech sidestepping ill-advised maneuvers and bypassing elements that have subsequently become overplayed (a nice way of saying Popoli avoided the clichéd).

To elaborate, as these compositions unwind, it becomes clear that the intent was above and beyond merely crafting art-tinged pop songs, and immediately so in the wiggling, stuttering repetition of the set’s brief opener “Twist.” While Popoli can be fairly assessed as an instrumental composer, the integration of sampled and looped speech, as in “Twist” and its following piece “Svelf,” productively complicates the designation.

The three tracks that document Popoli recruiting actual singers stymies a tidy summary of his work even further, as “Iunu-Wenimo,” the first of two tracks featuring noted Italian falsetto Marco “Cigaro” Cigarini, travels into territory one could describe as techno-pop, though the whole is too wonderfully strange to have lucked into any ’80s chart action.

But it’s Burn the Night / Bruciare la Notte’s finale, “Night Flight—Prozession,” also with Cigarini, that eventually (after an opening passage of almost collage-like verité) morphs into a sort of emotionally chilly art-wave, near to something heard circa ’84 in some Euro basement speakeasy. “Blues Padani” also engages with pop structure, but the singing of Donatella Bartolomei gets assimilated into the weave in a manner that’s unusual (it’s mentioned that the vocals here are sampled), but not abrasive.

The track also has organ tones that are reminiscent of Terry Riley, an element that’s also prevalent, along with the aura of ’70s NYC Minimalism in general, in “Minimal Dance N. 1,” though it’s really in the album’s 15-minute centerpiece “Mimetico Erettile” that Popoli’s affinity for the music of Reich, Glass, and Riley is most fully apparent, and is such while underscoring his individualism as a composer.

“Mimetico Erettile” progresses in a manner that highlights Popoli’s work on soundtracks, as it’s easy to imagine the sounds accompanying extended stretches of wordless activity. And it’s surely no accident that Burn the Night / Bruciare la Notte’s longest track is followed by its shortest, the 42-second slice of brittle pop-classical pomp “Canzone Canina.”

While the impact of the Downtown NY scene is audible throughout Burn the Night / Bruciare la Notte, in the strings at the start of “Bruciare La Notte” (for one example) and also in the mallet rhythm patterns of “A Simple Drawing” (for another), the flavor of Minimalism is never overwhelming, as Freedom to Spend has highlighted how Popoli was part of a vanguard of Italian composers that included Franco Battiato, Lino Capra Vaccina, and Giusto Pio.

Again, sampled sounds are frequent, heard in “Bruciare La Notte” and “A Simple Drawing” and hitting their apex in “L’amour Fou,” while instrumentally, “Se Son Rose Fioriranno” oozes mild similarities to the Neue Deutsche Welle. Meanwhile, “A Simple Drawing” and “Il Fantasma” exude retrofuturist vibes as “Una Libbra Di Cielo” conjures up a Ralph Records atmosphere.

In anthologizing the unreleased work of Tiziano Popoli, the tracks shaping Burn the Night / Bruciare la Notte: Original Recordings, 1983–1989 really flow as a coherent album statement. This is no small achievement. Listeners attuned to Light in the Attic’s Japan Archival Series, the work of Craig Leon and Freedom to Spend and RVNG Intl.’s prior releases should fine much to enjoy here.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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