Music for Music: Valentina Ciardelli
Valentina Ciardelli: Zappa and Beyond
By Dan Ursini ©2022
Valentina Ciardelli’s deep connection with Frank Zappa’s music, and her capacity for understanding it, was auspiciously expressed the first time she heard his work. She was 11 and, as she explains, “My first record was the Grand Wazoo, and I never stopped loving it. I spent most of my adolescence transcribing Frank’s music, all instruments, simply to capture and analyze why I loved his music so much. When I look back at the very first transcription I made of Frank’s music, I smile. You can clearly see an 11-year-old’s heavy hand on every line.”
Though Ciardelli has become an individual of rich and diverse talents, Zappa’s music left a lasting imprint. She remarks, “I think the huge amount of work I did between 11 and 18 years old trained my ears, brain and taste to what I searched for later in my composition and performing attitude. God bless the transcription process!”
Born and raised in Italy, Ciardelli is a classically trained musician, currently living in London. At age 20, she switched from piano to the double bass as her principal instrument—a move few classical musicians make. Her commitment to the double bass is complex, but the underlying reason is that she loves the sheer thrill and pleasure of playing this instrument. Ciardelli is among the very few serious musicians building a career on using the double bass as the lead instrument. Along the way, she has become a brilliant player and leader of a succession of small groups in which the double bass carries the melodies. A unique advantage of Ciardelli’s ensembles is that they play compositions with insightful arrangements that she nimbly creates herself. These decisions, and others, are informed by the historical perspective of a musicologist—an area where she has published serious work—which further sets her apart.
An excellent example of her approach to Zappa is her interpretation of “Blessed Relief.” Ciardelli never overlooks the humor in this music—but she is fearless in conveying additional dimensions. Her arrangement of “Blessed Relief,” from the Grand Wazoo album, articulates the tenderest sort of consolation. As such, she locates an unexpected truth in the composition, and refreshes the song for both player and listener.
On this track and others, she achieves a superb tone: warm, deep, and vital. Indeed, she displays exceptional mastery of her instrument. Ciardelli states, “Double bass is indeed a very difficult instrument just in terms of producing sound—much less playing it with virtuosity.” She is driven by a passion to develop the unexplored sonic possibilities of the double bass. She explains that until the late 19th century, this was hampered by the hit-or-miss workmanship of double bass luthiers. As well, double bass players were forced to play within a narrow musical range that allowed them to easily fit in with other stringed instruments. But to Ciardelli, the most interesting sounds go well beyond those limits: “You can go from very low frequencies and effects up to super high notes and percussive sounds.”
This video of Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia” displays her expressive precision over the broad range of her instrument. Anna Astesano plays harp.
Nearly all of Ciardelli’s bands are duos, and a shared strength among them is a superb sense of pulse. In one of her earliest, The Untouchables, she partnered with Singaporean multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Boo on vibraphone. Then, as now, Ciardelli’s arrangements sound complete because they include all the compositional essentials. That is no small feat in the case of a complex piece like “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.” An early Zappa masterpiece, fifteen musicians were involved in the original recording. Ciardelli’s version has a compressed elegance all its own—along with engaging comic vocals.
While I have concentrated on Ciardelli’s interpretations of Zappa, there is considerable scope to her musical interests. One of the most intriguing is the subject of her newest release, RUUTSU. Ciardelli explains that it “explores the mutual fascination between Japanese and Western arts and culture; a 2.0 japonisme that takes shape with the new sonorities of harp and double bass duo.” Japonisme refers to the influence of Japanese art and design on Western art in the late 19th century.
RUUTSU is a project with harpist Anna Astesano, Ciardelli’s duo collaborator since 2019 under the group name The Girls in the Magnesium Dress. Other collaborators on RUUTSU include composer and orchestrator Yoshihisa Hirano, a composer for such anime series as Death Note and an orchestrator for such video games as the Final Fantasy franchise. The joint work “Elegy” is bold and evocative.
I recommend checking it out, along with the rest of this pioneering album, which includes some intriguing originals by Ciardelli, particularly, Randori Suite: III. Takiyasha The Witch and The Skeletron Spectre:
Considering the contours of growth in Ciardelli’s remarkable range of talents, I think that her early immersion in Zappa’s music enabled her to thrive on all it has to offer. She has since reached out and charted her own future as an innovator in contemporary music. In a world of dreary unintended outcomes in all things human, it’s great to know that Zappa set an ideal example for inspiring truly fresh musical thinkers.
Photographs of Valentina Ciardelli by Barbara Cardini
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication. In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, has had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: email@example.com