Be a pioneer

Interview with Corrado Rojac, Strumenti&musica, 2022 June

Concert player, teacher, composer (graduated in Composition at the “Giuseppe Verdi” Conservatory in Milan with Alessandro Solbiati), music historian, Corrado Rojac studied accordion in Trieste, his hometown, with Eliana Zajec, specializing with Mogens Ellegaard, Friedrich Lips , Joseph Macerollo, Hugo Noth and Vladimir Zubitsky. As his website reminds us, he was the first Italian to graduate in accordion at a State Conservatory and was also one of the first teachers of the instrument at State Institutions, first at the “Giovanni Battista Pergolesi” Conservatory in Fermo, following the “Lucio Campiani” in Mantua and, currently, at the “Giuseppe Tartini” in Trieste. In the recent interview he gave me for “Strumenti & Musica”, Vito Palumbo recalled that it was Corrado Rojac, with the “complicity” of Paolo Rotili, who sparked his interest in the accordion. Rotili had invited Rojac to the conservatory as part of a series of seminars and Palumbo listened with great attention to his words, which he would treasure for his future scores for our instrument. So, for the conversation with M° Rojac, I would like to start from there, from that phase …


Maestro, Vito Palumbo defined you as “a pioneer of contemporary accordion music”. What years were they and what memory do you have of that experience? And, above all, what difficulties did a “pioneer” like you face then?


Let’s start from a turning point: at the end of the eighties, thanks to the particular political situation of that time, it was possible to learn more about the accordion literature of the Eastern countries. And, together with it, also about the bajan, a model of concert accordion at the time used mainly in Russia. It amazed by its extension and its deep sonority, especially in the left manual. In those years (it was 1981) I played a piano accordion which had in the left manual the “in fifths” free bass system. I decided, after a few years (it was 1985), to undertake the study of the bajan, parallel to the concert career that I had already started with the described accordion. Being a “pioneer”, at the time, therefore meant just starting to get to know the different concert accordion models; knowing its literature, therefore, would not have been the first, but the second step. Those were the years in which I met Giampaolo Coral, my first composition teacher, and the so-called “contemporary music”. If the bajan made me discover Sofija Gubajdulina’s De profundis, Coral led me to pieces such as Anatomic safari, by Per Nørgård, for example, and therefore I began to extend well beyond Italian literature for accordion – literature which at that time represented a large part of what was known about the concert repertoire for accordion in Italy. However, it remained close to my way of understanding the “concert accordion” instrument. In the Fifties, in fact, authors such as Ferrari Trecate or Franco Alfano gave our accordion world masterpieces such as  Pantomima umoristica or Nenia; authors that I continued to play in my concerts.

In summary, being a “pioneer”, having explored the different concert accordion models, it meant exploring concert accordion literature and offering it to an audience to whom it all seemed new. In two words, it meant creating an audience. It meant arousing the attention of the musical environment (of the conservatories, for example, but also of the music critic, which was very fierce at the time) towards the concert accordion. I remember my first concerts for the Musical Youth of Italy, in which the audience was surprised and amazed; at that time, I insisted on concert programs that featured both “contemporary music” (authors such as Georg Katzer, for example) and traditional repertoire (alongside Luigi Ferrari Trecate I would mention at least Felice Fugazza). At the time, showing up with the accordion at the most important festivals (I remember a Zagreb Biennial in 1993 in which I played the aforementioned De profundis) still aroused much curiosity. Then I remember the entry of the accordion into the conservatory, my first years of teaching (it was 1994), in which colleagues were amazed by the potential of the instrument, and the concerts at which I brought the concert accordion to international attention, such as the performance at the Accademia Chigiana in 2003 (thanks to Azio Corghi’s Contemporary Music Laboratory), where I presented Vincenzo Gualtieri’s Item for the first time, or the project dedicated to new literature for accordion at Harvard University in Boston in 2011, with the first performance of pieces by Trevor Bača, Edgar Barroso and Gabriele Vanoni. Being a pioneer, as mentioned, also meant understanding the different instrument models, exploring both the “piano” accordion and the “button” accordion, of which the bajan represented an extremely interesting arrival point. Understanding and then deciding which instrument to play? In my case I was able to carry on both instruments, and to perform with both, both with the “piano” accordion, and with the “button” accordion, and to savor the different sound and artistic concepts, as well as the different literatures. This also helped me from a didactic point of view. The advice I gave to the students came from strict instrumental practice.

Corrado Rojac with the composer Sofia Gubaidulina and the cellist Eva Zahn, “Neri” Auditorium, Bologna

If I’m not mistaken, your first composition for accordion is Kafkiana, from 1992. How has the composer Corrado Rojac and his approach to the accordion changed in these thirty years?


Kafkiana represented a milestone for me: I performed it in a memorable concert that I did together with the pianist Bruno Canino for the Mittelfest in Cividale, in 1992. It was the piece that, as soon as he saw it, made Coral say: “Now I can leave you continue alone. ” I went to his class again, but I felt that he let me free to write following my own path. Kafkiana was a Coralian piece, if I may express myself this way, because it owes a lot to the aesthetics I learned in his class (I had been attending his lessons for some years, more precisely since 1987). It was a writing that, having laid the foundations relating to verticality (sound agglomerations to be used) and horizontality (type of narrative line), let emotion free itself. However, I wanted to know the composition from a historical point of view. It was Coral himself who pushed me to Milan and I decided to enroll in the Conservatory of that city. An experimental composition course was practiced there. For example, the fugue was studied directly from the Bachian originals, the Lieder from the Schumannian autographs. I still remember the counterpoint lessons by Davide Anzaghi, illustrious composer, who was also an accordionist in his youth, and from time to time he talked to me about it. After five years I landed in Alessandro Solbiati’s class (it was 2001).

In the meantime, I had continued to write and the meeting with Solbiati (I attended the higher course with him, which lasted four years) meant a severe search for discipline, of which I recall the first results in Clichés (2003), for wind quintet (there were passages in which I decided exactly, bar by bar, their proportions, before even starting to write them). Something of that discipline has remained in my more recent compositions. What has changed is the attitude towards sound: if in Solo (2011, for five instruments), a piece written after the death of Giampaolo Coral, the sound has a great sonic impact, devastating, very strong, in recent years I hear the need to express myself whispering, with great intimacy, evoking fragile and contained sounds. In my compositional process, Nel riflesso del verso (2018, for wind quintet and piano) is, in the sense of my new conception of sound on the edge of silence, another milestone. In this piece, echoes of tradition (fragments from De Cabezón) and experimental sounds (agglomerations of multiphonics) coexist, in which an extreme rarefaction of sound meets short bands of bursting sonority. It is a composition that has just been released on CD together with works by some composer friends of mine; you can listen it here


The results of this renewed interest in silence are expressed even more radically in Ante intra (2019, for piano and accordion), in which I am inspired by the essentiality of Sonia Costantini’s painting (the piece is inspired by one of her paintings, Foresta sonora, and was set up as a sound background for the Sonografie exhibition held at Palazzo Te in Mantua). Ante intra can be heard here x


Scrolling through his catalog, one immediately notices that, in addition to the numerous pieces for solo accordion, there are as many for accordion and truly multiform ensemble: from the Hommage to Nino Rota for sax and accordion (1998), to La cascata sommersa, with string orchestra (1999), from the scores for voice, guitar and accordion (2006) to those for accordion, violin and piano (2008); and, then, again, the compositions for accordion, oboe and percussion (Di paglia e fango, 2015), those for two accordions and symphonic orchestra (Polja VI, 2016-2017) and so on. How were these associations between instruments born – and why? What research is behind it?


Each instrument carries within itself its own history, its own literature, as some Sequenze by Luciano Berio teach. In the Omaggio a Nino Rota, the first of the three pieces that make up the triptych is inspired by the nightclubs that characterized the “music of use” of these two instruments (the saxophone and the accordion). In the Canti dalla tradizione armena, pieces in which the guitar and accordion are accompanied by the voice, the two instruments accompany the voice in a subtle game that touches some of their typically folkloristic articulatory attitudes; the voice presents the Armenian melodies in their original version, an almost unique case in my production, so I would define this collection, in my compositional process, as a brief parenthesis dedicated to a kind of refined entertainment sui generis, close to folklore. Having said that, composing means working with sound and the crossing of different timbres – that is, different instruments – representing an opportunity to explore the intimacy of the sound itself, its vibration, its colour. La cascata sommersa wanted to be a piece in which the sounds of the concert accordion approached that of the strings, especially in the central part, where our instrument dialogues with the cello. Liturgia for violin, accordion and piano was born with the intention of joining two instruments as different as the violin and the piano by means of the accordion, which is both a keyboard instrument such as the piano (and can imitate the aspects of contrapuntal writing, for example) , but it is also an instrument that can hold and shape the sound in progress, like the violin, and comes very close to it, when used with the appropriate recording and, above all, in the appropriate register.

Di paglia e fango was born from the idea of ​​creating an alchemy of sounds between the multiphonics of the oboe and the superimposition of changing chordal agglomerations entrusted to the accordion, all accompanied by a rhythmicity of the congas of a decadently postmodern taste (the piece can be listen here

 Polja VI sees performing alongside the concert accordion also an accordion used in Slovenian folklore (I use the term accordion in a generic sense, given the fact that it is a bitonic instrument), both used precisely for the different instrumental colour, in which the so-called “tremolo” of the folklore instrument represents a viscerality from which the concert instrument instead invites us to escape, all in a dreamlike atmosphere due to the soundscape created by the orchestra, now bright, now dramatic and dark.

In dialogue with other instruments, do you always entrust the accordion with the same role?

As described, the role can be dictated by different factors and is defined by the type of relationship I want to establish both between the instruments, and between me and the score, and between the score and the instruments and so on. Let me explain better, with some examples. In the aforementioned Omaggio and in the Canti it develops within a concept that I would define as extramusical, which has to do with the use of instruments in a specific social context; in Liturgia it is the very physicality of the instrument that is brought into play; in Di paglia e fango the roles are bent to a purely sound idea (oboe and accordion), but which can be diverted towards a contextual choice (congas); in Polja VI the role takes on unconscious values, if we want to attribute a regressive role to the folkloric instrument – I refer to the childhood of each one and to the visceral encounter with popular song, be it the lullaby heard in the first weeks of life or the experience lived as a child during the first singing practices in kindergarten.


Do you believe that there are instruments that, in ensemble with the accordion, enhance its capacity and expressive potential more?


I would decline his “more” to “otherwise”. Each instrument creates, if placed side by side with the accordion, its own alchemy with it. I believe that the sound suggestion then develops an emotional suggestion.


When composing for accordion, do you always and only think of yourself as the recipient of the interpretation?


Yes, I imagine how I would sound what I am writing. I often embrace the instrument, while writing, I play and listen to the sounds I am creating.


A question that I have already asked – and will ask – to other composers: do you think that the fact that you are also a concert accordionist is an added value for a composer who is dedicated to that instrument?


I think every composer can, when writing for a particular instrument, refer to a virtuoso of the same. And ask him for advice. So I would say that in my case, when I write for accordion, I don’t need to ask an accordionist for advice. But, sometimes, writing for your instrument is like handling a double-edged sword. In fact, I could also say that knowing an instrument well can limit our imagination. Often embracing the accordion as a “non-accordionist”, in a “wrong” way, and trying to play it without knowing its techniques can lead to new instrumental discoveries …


A really interesting point of view, Maestro. But let’s go back to his catalogue. I believe that the chapter dedicated to the encounter between the accordion – or accordions – and electronics, amplification and magnetic tape deserves a separate discussion. The latter reminds me of the extraordinary experiments of Pauline Oliveros starting from the early 1960s …


My investigation into electronic sounds applied to the accordion began in 1997 thanks to the composition of Drammatico III, a piece performed at the Mittelfest in Cividale in the cave of San Giovanni in Antro, a truly suggestive location for such an experiment. For the drafting of this piece I made use of the collaboration of Studio Agon in Milan, a leading reality in the field of electronic music, to which Carlo De Incontrera, composer and artistic director of important musical realities, approached me. In Drammatico III I faced the infinite possibilities of electronic music simply by starting from the sound of the accordion (I recorded some fragments by playing them myself) and manipulating it in the studio. The result was a composition that alternated live acoustic sounds and electronic manipulations in a rhapsody of suggestions which, given the extremely engaging setting with loudspeakers scattered throughout the cave, captivated the audience in an all-encompassing experience. I wanted to repeat the experience following the same line of thought: not synthetic sounds, but acoustic sounds, on which the computer intervened at a later time. This stemmed from the writing discipline to which Solbiati had subjected me, which I already sensed during the composition of Drammatico III, when I did not yet know him. Nel verso del tempo (2004) and Kafkiana III (2006) developed this idea by relating it to time: the computer did nothing but repeat what I was playing live with different delays, creating rhapsodic temporal reverberations; the idea was further developed in one of my last pieces, Monocromo (2021), in which I applied a sort of “orchestration” to the reverberations, making the repeated fragments appear at different moments in the piece, making the listener not sure that what was following was actually a reverberation. I find exciting the development possibilities that electronics can give to the sound of the accordion: a manipulation that makes us move away from the “traditional” sound of the instrument to make it seem something completely different, for example, can represent an effective narrative direction.


Corrado Rojac, Harvard University, Boston

Are there any accordion composers – or composers tout court – who have had a particular influence on your formation?


Alongside the composers mentioned – and I could also mention Azio Corghi, Giuseppe Giuliano, Luca Francesconi, Ivan Fedele, with whom I studied in courses and seminars – the composers I have listened to most have influenced me (and here I could further mention Franco Donatoni , Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Pierre Boulez, Wolfgang Rihm…). I think that listening helps to create an unconscious sound world that surfaces during your writing unintentionally, without our knowledge.


And, apart from any influences on his music, what does Corrado Rojac like to listen to? I’m curious…


I listen carefully to “classical music” (Frescobaldi, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, to explain what I mean) and “contemporary music” (the names I have already mentioned, for example); the rest pass me by, I think, without leaving traces. As long as it is not accordion literature: despite the music that is written for concert accordion is not always a research music (I am thinking of authors such as Anatolij Kusjakov, for example), some pieces of this accordion literature fascinate me a lot, first of all from the point of view of instrumental technique, but also… because these are not research music! I think there are “fashion” strands in our repertoire that should be proposed in concert, because they belong to the history of the accordion (I could also quote Wolfgang Jacobi, for example) and because it is not certain that the “progressive” trend should monopolize all our attention.


To conclude, a ritual question, but no less interesting for this. Indeed … The projects you are working on…


During the interviews I gave in the past I have described several times projects that then did not come to fruition (the world of contemporary music is a difficult world), so I learned to be superstitious and I prefer not to talk about it (he smiles).