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Franco Battiato

Longtime Italian superstar Franco Battiato developed from a prog-psych singer/songwriter in the early '70s to one of the biggest pop stars in Europe, even as he pursued his recording interests in a variety of genres including but not limited to pop electronic, and opera in which rock and classical music connect. In addition, he was a visual artist and filmmaker who worked under the pseudonym Süphan Barzani to keep his film work separate from his musical persona. Born in 1945 in the village of Ionia in Sicily and moving first to Rome, and then Milan in 1964, Battiato's initial stabs into musical work in the '60s amounted to the single "La Torre," which he performed on TV. He did better at radio with the romantic follow-up "È L'amore." But after more covers of pop songs went nowhere, he met the experimental musician Juri Camisasca in 1970 and collaborated with Osage Tribe, an Italian psychedelic-progressive rock band. As a solo artist, he released the science-fiction single "La Convenzione" (The Convention), one of the finest Italian prog rock songs of the '70s. He began recording a series of albums for the underground label Bla Bla. Starting with Fetus in 1971 (named one of the most important records of the decade by Julian Cope) and concluding with L'Egitto Prima Delle Sabbie (Egypt Before the Sands) in 1978, he staked out his own claim in the high-fermented world of Italian prog rock. Musically accomplished if sometimes poorly recorded, and unafraid to indulge in more than a little whimsy, these records ran the gamut from extreme experimentalism to more song-focused efforts; the two most notable were 1972's Pollution and 1973's Sulle Corde Di Aries (On the Ropes of Aries). Compared to other bands like Area and PFM, however, Battiato and his band were cult figures loved more abroad than at home. They opened for Brian Eno and Nico in France and Germany and were welcomed by audiences. Battiato's often extravagant appearance at this time made him something of an Italian Peter Gabriel, while his lyrics eschewed then-fashionable Maoist/terrorist posing in favor of a deep but humorous combination of Asian philosophies and literary reflection. Switching labels to EMI's Italian branch, his fortunes in the Italian improved (also in an uncanny parallel with Gabriel) in the '80s, specifically with 1981's La Voce del Padrone (The Voice of the Master). Embracing a more direct, synth-pop style -- not too surprising given that keyboards were always his primary musical instrument -- Battiato found himself rewarded with an Italian smash, enabling his star to rise both at home and elsewhere in Europe. Since then, while he has not specifically revisited that style in full, but has continued to explore any number of musical directions and approaches in the present day. His first opera, Genisi, was released in 1987. A number of collaborations with orchestras and multimedia touring followed -- notably a visit with Virtuosi Italiani in 1993 to Baghdad to collaborate with Iraq's national orchestra -- as well as works commissioned by his native Sicily to celebrate that island's rich history. His second opera, Gilgamesh, appeared in 1992, followed almost immediately by Messa Arcaica. In 1994, Battiato began collaborating with Sicilian philosopher Manlio Sgalambro, who would eventually write almost all the lyrics on his following albums. After the tentative L'ombrello e la Macchina da Cucire of 1995, the duo published what is considered their masterpiece, L'imboscata, in 1996, containing the romantic hit "La Cura" (The Care), which was chosen as best Italian song of the year. 1998's Gommalacca shocked fans with its reliance on hard rock and even metal. It was followed by the softer, more focused Fleurs, a chart-topping smash. At the turn of the millennium, Battiato issued Ferro Battuto (2000) and the opera Campi Magnetici, followed by the rock album Dieci Stratagemmi in 2004. All three of these recordings used conventional pop and rock forms as jumping-off points for sometimes radical experimentation. In 2003, Battiato released his first feature film, Perduto Amor, under the Süphan Barzani moniker. Battiato (under his own name) also composed the soundtrack. The movie won the Silver Ribbon for best new director. His second cinematic effort, Musikanten, a rather experimental work about Beethoven's last four years of life, didn't fare as well with critics. In fact, it was panned as much as for casting Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky in the lead role as the strange pace of the narrative. His next two films, Niente è Come Sembra (2007) and the controversial Auguri Don Gesualdo (2010), both received critical acclaim and did well at art house box offices. Between the two, Battiato released Fleurs 2 in 2008; the sequel attained triple-platinum status in Italy. The following year, Inneres Auge: Il Tutto è Più Della Somma Delle Sue Parti, another experimental pop album, topped the charts and achieved platinum sales status. In 2011, Battiato issued another opera, Telesio, inspired by the work of the Cosenza philosopher Bernardino Telesio, one of Italy's greatest naturalists from the 16th century. It was commissioned by the city of Cosenza on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the birth of the opera's namesake and was performed at the Teatro Rendano of Cosenza on May 6, 7, and 8, 2011, and released at the end of the year. In November of 2012, Battiato accepted an offer from newly elected Sicilian regional president Rosario Crocetta to become the new Regional Minister for Tourism and Culture, and announced he would not take a salary. Unfortunately, he was dismissed from the position soon after for controversial comments about Parliament. Telesis Sesamo was released during his government tenure. The following year, Battiato collaborated with Antony Hegarty (now Anohni) on Del Suo Veloce Volo. In 2014, another collaboration was released, this one with Italian sound engineer Pinaxa (Pino Pischetola) and titled Joe Patti's Experimental Group. In 2016, he cut a live album with singer/songwriter Alice (Carla Bissi, a longtime friend, contemporary, and occasional collaborator since the '80s) and Tuscany's Ensemble Symphony Orchestra for Universal. In his later years, Battiato oversaw a comprehensive remastering and reissue program of his catalog. In 2019, after releasing Torneremo ancora with the Royal Philharmonic, he announced that he would be retiring from music for health reasons. Battiato died on May 18, 2021 at his home in Milo, Catania. He was 76-years-old.
© Ned Raggett /TiVo
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