Mogol, CET, and folk culture. An interview
by Paolo Mattei
“I could live anywhere: all I need are a pencil and a piece of paper…” That is how Giulio Rapetti, alias Mogol, starts telling us about his adventure with CET. CET stands for Centro Europeo Toscolano, and is the university for pop music where Mogol is director, after founding the institution in Umbria almost twenty-five years ago.
In the early 1990s, this most famous of Italian songwriters sat in front of one of the pieces of paper he mentions; after over fifty years of uninterrupted activity and one thousand and five hundred songs published, for once he was not about to write down new lyrics.
Everyone in Italy knows Mogol was Lucio Battisti’s (1943-1998) artistic partner for fifteen years. Between 1965 and 1980, his creative collaboration with the great composer and singer-songwriter produced an impressive number of masterpieces. Not many people, however, can imagine him taking notes about an idea he had come up with walking around Milan, and which he would soon turn into reality in Toscolano, Terni.
“Since I could live anywhere,” he goes on, “I decided to leave my hometown to come live in the forests of this wonderful part of Umbria. This is where CET started, also thanks to funding received from the EU. Now we are an important team of highly-experienced teachers, with a significant background in pop music.”
In the one hundred and twenty hectares of this beautiful estate full of pianos and recording studios, Mogol and his collaborators work to “showcase and establish new pop music professionals, people who are sensitive to the importance of folk culture and to the ethical needs of communication.”
Since 1992, CET – which the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism has recognized as a “Center of Public Interest” – has provided education for some 2,500 authors, composers, and musicians.
We met with Mogol in Toscolano, and had the opportunity of talking with him for a while.
“Folk culture” is something you obviously care about a lot.
I think it’s very important. A nation’s level of civilization depends on its folk culture: that’s how it’s always been. You cannot have history and evolution without folk culture.
What is your definition of folk culture?
I can explain that with a simple example: a good book is considered a hit if it sells over 100,000 copies. But a good song, one considered to be a hit, is learned by heart and sang by many millions of people.
So pop music is part of folk culture?
Without a doubt. As much as Dante Alighieri’s works. Dante in fact wrote a book called “De vulgari eloquentia” precisely to explain to the cultural elites of his time how people’s vernacular – their mother tongue – was more precious than Latin, which was an artificial language for them. Pop music was part of Mozart’s culture: his works were performed at the Volkstheater, literally the “people’s theater” in Vienna. Academies have considered folk culture like “dirty laundry” for a long time. That is still the widespread attitude in Italy, but not so much abroad.
Where, for example?
I can tell you about one recent episode: some of us from CET went to Kazakhstan to meet the famous violinist Aiman Mussakhajayeva, and give lectures about pop music at the National Music Academy where she is Chair. We worked with students and professors, with very exciting results. Mussakhajayeva has great insight, and didn’t look down on pop music with negative prejudices despite her “highbrow” musical education. It is a difficult mechanism to explain – a mechanism that needs to be explained in words too…
What do you mean?
It is extremely hard to convey the idea that anyone who writes lyrics is a real “author”, not just someone who spits out words. It is a very banal notion, but it clashes with the laziness of so many journalists. This communication difficulty is also a symptom of a widespread misconception, according to which folk culture is not worthy of being taught in academies, as closed up as they are in their tetragonal elitism. The Italian technical word “paroliere” [used for artists who write the words to a song, not the music] actually refers to people who make crosswords. It is very different from “author”, someone who creates poetry…
If I may, this is a minefield, maestro… the debate over the comparison between songs and poetry is age-old and tormented…
There is no debate for me. I am firmly convinced that poetry has expressed itself through songs for a long time now. A poetry book that sells one thousands copies is considered a smashing hit. A successful song will be known by millions of people, who can easily sing it by heart. That is true folk culture.
Yet many maintain those are two very different things: poetry does not need music to support it, because it has a “music” in it, echoing in the words itself.
I completely disagree: you cannot set poetry and songs apart just depending on the presence or absence of music. The difference is all in the poetic value of words and verses. With a number of songs, if you try to read aloud the lyrics you can tell there is a poetic consistency in them that emerges with or without singing. They have lyrical depth independently of music, which if anything further enhances them and makes them more powerful. It’s a synergy. Which, by the way, is what we teach here at CET.
What do you mean?
Music suggests words. We just have to learn to understand its meaning, to grasp its mysterious directions.
Is Italian music still one of our country’s ambassadors of beauty in the world?
It certainly was in the recent past, as I witnessed directly in my career. For example, I remember when Battisti was offered a contract with The Beatles’ producer. Paul McCartney was his fan, but Lucio decided not to sign, perhaps following some bad advice. It would have been a very profitable contract, assigning him 75% of income… but he was firmly convinced against it. This is all just to say that for some time, our songs – and of course I am referring to the high quality ones, because today the “made in Italy” brand is simply not enough – were loved all over the world. Today, however, the difficult crisis we are living is undeniable.
What do you think the crisis is due to?
To a number of factors, but first of all to an education issue and, as I said, to the low consideration people have of folk culture. Luckily, today some conservative people are opening up to pop songs. CET has been invited to present projects for the pop music departments in six very important Italian conservatories.
The Santa Cecilia in Rome, as well as the conservatories in Salerno, Pescara, Brescia, Matera, and Ferrara. All of these institutions are in fact constantly short on students, because the education they offer does not guarantee finding a job. Pop music is like a spark of life for these schools: it’s great music and should stop getting second-class treatment. CET is an international-level professional training school that offers the highest level of education thanks to innovative methods, and is finally starting to get some recognition. Even a few universities are beginning to pay attention to our work.
Can you give us some examples?
We have an agreement with the University of Tuscia, under which we teach a few classes that guarantee a good number of credits to attending students.
What professional profiles do you focus on?
Authors, composers, and musicians. In twenty-five years of activity, we have trained 2,500 people at CET.
Are there any foreign students?
Just a few so far, mostly from Russia. The Director of the Kremlin Theater has recently paid us a visit because he is interested in exporting our concept there. In Russian culture, pop music is thought of as highly as grand opera. China is also sending positive signals…
In what way?
In June, I held a few lessons at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, where I explained the content and meaning of the lyrics of some of my songs. There were fifty Chinese students in my class, as well as about twenty university professors from Italy, Europe, and the United States. The Chinese were very curious and asked to visit CET… However, I have to say I don’t fret about publicizing our work too much…
Because I know how important our school is. I know we are unique in the world, and that our passion has given and continues to give very important results. I am convinced that if the cultural climate in our country changes, these results will multiply. We just have to continue to do our job and give it our all.
Photos of CET are by ©E.Zanini