Gianni Ferrio – Interview by Lele Cerri

Interview by Lele Cerri
04.03.2002

Gianni Ferrio aka “the inevitability of making music.” Gianni Ferrio or “Improvvisamente,” “Ora o mai più” and many other wonderful musical games until “Non gioco più” and then again soaring with Mina’s “Dalla terra.” Gianni Ferrio companion of Mina’s long and fruitful musical journey, witnessing her entering, peeking out from behind a juke box, into the lives of Italians that, at least musically, would never be the same as before.
We have just entered the interviewee-interviewer dimension, Maestro Ferrio and I, and we are both looking at each other laughing like crazy; we are not used to talking about Mina, we have always experienced her, often together; much less are we used to telling each other things that we know very well that each of us already knows. But right now I am the pretext for him to tell them to you, almost viva voce, like during a walk among friends, in a group. And I think we laugh because, in the end, maybe we are just happy with this “that” of unusual: to talk about it….

L.C. Gianni, I have some questions for you about Mina.

G.Ferrio – Why, you don’t know anything about it? Are you innocent?…Do you have an alibi?…Were you away at that time?….
Don’t laugh!…

L.C. All right, then, if you want, you “ask” the questions and I “answer” you… And stop laughing!… Here, so I only laugh… Truce. Mmmmhh… don’t get me started again… Here we go. Ready for this our talk in front of our fellow walkers who will be reading.

G.F. All right, we’ll leave, you go ahead.

L.C.So… …Gianni, you can assure us first-hand accounts of Mina’s arrival. How did this happen? Did it come as a distant dot approaching or did it suddenly appear, did it in fact “swoop” down on television-canary Italy?

G.F. I think Mina’s arrival can be described as “lightning fast” at the very least. On “Leave or Double” and the “Musician.” And it seems to me that she was first with us at the Musician. I say “by us” because I was then working with Kramer, we were doing the Musichiere in Rome. Mina came with other singers, “screamers” they called them, and she came and sang “Nobody” in that famous version and with that diction imitated by everyone. I was with Kramer, and even Kramer said “bella ‘sta ragazza,” “beautiful” as a singer, as well as a presence, of course; and as a singer Mina was certainly, among all of them, I would say the only real singer.

L.C. Beyond the fact that she was certainly not technically prepared or vocally honed then?

G.F. Yes, you can feel immediately if one is big. As between pianists, you can hear the one who is more prepared but you quickly realize that the one who is still budding but more talented is already greater, says something exceptional.

L.C. Can I ask you again, for the sake of clarity, from what do you detect this bravura when the talents are not yet honed, when you don’t yet know how to exploit your voice well?

G.F. Giftedness is not acquired, you know. Mina had the gifts. You could tell that she was in tune, square, and above all, that she gave great meaning to words, managed to make even our language; which as much as it “sounds” very musical, is not. In English, singing is much easier for example. If one had to sing Night and day in Italian, think of it, “night and day”… it would have been quite a problem… And Mina was able to solve this problem, she had the ability from the very beginning; and then… an example for all “and I emphasize if…”

L.C. Which by the way is an absolute invention, an innovation of that very great author Giorgio Calabrese who, in my opinion, is the one who really invented, first, the modern language in song lyrics.

G.F. Yes. And I, however, challenge anyone to make them believable, these words, to make the meaning that Calabrese was giving them… because, being very musical, Calabrese understood that after “And if tomorrow…”, at that point, the words that had to go there, in Carlo Alberto Rossi’s musical phrase, in context, could not be better than that “…and I emphasize if”… Well, sung by others, with a less profound musical nature, they became something hostile, an unsurpassable passage. Sung by Mina: perfect.

L.C. Yes, even the rejection of the piece after the first night of Sanremo remains unforgettable. That sung phrase, too new, sounded shocking; it was an assault to which the audience had to be led gently and clearly, with a vocal musical solution. Correct me if I am wrong. If I said right what grade do you give me?

G.F. I give you 9+ because it’s true–this is one of Mina’s qualities, one of the many qualities, like personality, making easy what is difficult, interpreting in a personal way everything, so something that may seem objectionable, is not, because, in a way, it improves. I try to explain: what in Mina, at times, may seem incorrect, is instead an “extra” thing, more su…. higher.

L.C. That is, the first step and the next steps for what will be the best solution?

G.F. Sure, sure.

L.C. Can we also talk in these terms about what has been called “his Americanising,” his distorting vowels, inventing sounds foreign to the spoken Italian language? Can we consider it a search, then, the search for one’s own vocality, one’s own sounds, and then arrive at the purity of pronunciation of today, at the “bel canto” of recent years?

G.F. Sure, another 9+. How Mina sings today is the result of a kind of research, perhaps unconscious, that she did, to render with her voice what she felt inside, to give the words “a sound” and not just a meaning, “a sound.” And then his ability to “hyphenate,” “scan,” absolutely unique. When I review this dvd we made, her singing live after hearing the arrangement and assimilating it right away … it’s enchanting; and then it’s nice to hear her “leaning in” on the things I do, musically, because she senses them, she understands them, and then, without needing me to tell her what she has to do — also because we’ve known each other for so many years and when I write, I write knowing what she’s able to do with it — she “enhances” what I’ve highlighted with the orchestra. Then when we’re done, he looks at me as if to say, “Did you hear that?” “Well, didn’t you?” And if I dare to say brava to her … she says, “Ouch, give me a break!”

L.C. Your stages with Mina? You want to ask me and I’ll answer?

G.F. Let’s see if I remember them as well as you do. So, I met her at the Musichiere in ’59. We were little kids. Then we got a little lost until…

L.C. “The world…has become nothingeee….”

G.F. So. Indeed! I was doing film, music for film, writing songs, “Suddenly” was in his film “It Happened on the Riviera.” I sent the music to the director who entrusted it to her, and I remember that a young lady who worked for her at the time, I think she was her secretary, wrote me a note from her, “Mina will gladly sing this piece, she finds it a little strange but she likes it very much.” The “strange but beautiful” piece was, indeed, “Suddenly.” Many years have passed but it has stayed with me. Mina, of course, after a first listen sang it on the fly. Then there was “Now or Never,” a final, final theme song of a Canzonissima that was then called by another name, “Grand Prix” or I don’t remember how. I had made this song and I played it for him and that too, away the first one. Then more of my own songs and … yes, “Words Words,” Theater 10 of ’72, then onward, the summer of that year, the Compass episode with the whole orchestra.

L.C. Complete with video shooting and “laser disc”! And first, the rehearsals for that “event.” Something about those rehearsal nights with Mina and the orchestra at International Recording in Rome?

G.F. Yes. We were doing Theater 10 and she told me that she would like to do, that summer, the evenings at the Compass with the orchestra. So I threw myself headlong into making the arrangements for her, and we rehearsed for about ten days to put the orchestra in a position to play without a conductor, with Mina in front “pulling” singing. I remember him saying even then, “Look, couldn’t we continue two or three more months with rehearsals and then we don’t do anything? I have so much fun rehearsing….” Even then, even then, singing in public, she was getting anxiety. Instead, there was a live season at the Compass in which one of the world’s greatest singers, this time an Italian, did what only the greatest American singers had done until then, which was those 25 concerts with a lineup like that. An incredible season, with people climbing the Compass walls. Sometimes Alba and I would fly from Rome to Viareggio to hear her sing, because I loved to hear her, she was outstanding, unforgettable.

L.C. Why wasn’t something like that done more often? Was this something that could have entered the programs of other singers as well?

G.F. Well, already 25 evenings of that caliber, under those conditions, is something unrepeatable. For the fact that it could become a custom, something habitual for everybody, then, after Mina had done it…, let’s face it, many others, perhaps, were careful not to do it afterwards.

L.C. Any other memories of those evenings?

G.F. Being comfortable with her, as friends. You may also remember that after the show Alba and I would not leave for Rome immediately, we would stay with her until around five, six o’clock, playing cards, chatting…

L.C. Playing silly games, going to wait for the brioches to come out at the bakery in Viareggio, the hot sandwiches freshly baked with bologna… we looked almost like a school trip, from the contentment, with her…

G.F. – …with her still wearing her stage dress and rafts but with her duffel bag with half the house in it from where she would pull out everything anyone needed. He could dump everything on your table, from a cachet for headaches-other people’s-to three brand-new notebooks, a set of ballpoint pen with every possible tip, a fountain pen with its accompanying ink bottle … everything, to even a smaller bag that had just expired in size outgrown the larger one that contained it.

L.C. Of the caravans, personal-containers, more than anything else.

G.F. Yes, something like that, some kind of “actor’s trunks!”…When he arrived at the studio for Theater 10, at rehearsal or recording, he seemed to arrive some kind of Gondrand; with those duffel bags he could hold his own against a moving company.

L.C. After all, they were proportionate to the heels and “wedges” of the boots she wore at the time. Let’s say that each of his “excesses” seemed to be made on purpose to announce another one shortly thereafter….

G.F. It was his way, which was also a lot of fun for others, to have fun. In “Theater 10,” we had a lot of fun, in fact, with its “surprises” — including fake eyelashes, rafts, hair every which way and on and on. Then at some point, the time of “Milleluci,” when she was skinny, she began to plunder my wardrobe. I remember one time he said “nice those jeans” made of velveteen. And Alba took her to the wardrobe and picked out a pair that she immediately slipped into.

L.C. Yes, why not, she began to wear them with a velvet coat of mine made into a trench coat, which she equally liked.

G.F. I remember her, like that, kind of like John Wayne’s “sister model.” It was an outfit that she adopted for a while, she used to come to us in the rehearsal room…and I remember watching her, next to me, getting taller and taller every day, with higher and higher heels…If the stakes hadn’t ended…

L.C. It was the time, precisely, of “Milleluci” and that proclamation — “I don’t play anymore.” Something you remember, in particular, about his “musical moments,” his “specials” within each episode… Night and day…?

G.F. Yes, Night and day, you stole it out of my mouth. The idea for Night and day was born here at home, in this studio… there was Mina who had something like that in mind and we started talking about pieces, Night and day came up, me messing around a little bit on the piano, her smoking cigarillos like in the theme song and listening, she was constantly putting on lip gloss…. Then we tried to “edit” this piece and to me, hearing her sing, here, I got this idea and … I tell the truth that hearing her sing again, afterwards, every time I saw that clip pass by again on television, well, it’s something that … …There’s a moment, where she would finish singing, resume the orchestra and she would come back in and sing … exciting, yes, exciting. Why? Because she was close to perfection. Without modesty, me as an arranger and Mina as a singer. And as a performer. Because it was the farewell, by the way, of the orchestra, live, all live: the orchestra was playing live hearing Mina singing … and Mina was hearing the orchestra, behind, playing, so … there is little to say …, unique, unforgettable.

L.C. And then “Plural,” “Mina almost Jannacci.” Do you remember “Dream?”

G.F. Yes, how not? One night we had a good time, here at home, doing “Dream” in multiple voices with her, Alba, you, Tonino Amurri, Carletto Zoffoli and–who was there, again? Lelio… Nice. Yes, “Plural” came a little later. Who knows, that night, maybe… When we started with “Plural,” in the summer, in “Basilica,” she was enthusiastic. On the first day we did a quantity of voices for the first piece, don’t ask me what it was. We started off in a sprint with the first voice, second voice … very difficult … by the third one she was already telling me “I hate you!” having the time of her life … “make them difficult for me, mind you, otherwise you know what a bore” she told me.

L.C. What about that “piece of sung theater” that is “Mina almost Jannacci”?

G.F. There I took all the carte blanche that Mina had given me on the project. And in that sense I think I also kind of scared her, in the sense of worried, at one point, with the arrangements that… You know, because of that fixation of hers, then-let alone-about being a commercial singer…with duties of simplicity, very strict…which she feels is a sacrosanct form of respect for the audience.

L.C. Going back a step: 1972. Do you remember an episode that cost you a little bit, in controversy?

G.F. Yes, Puccini! Yes. We, all of us lovers of the great tradition, of the great American musical, know that its authors were all inspired by the great Puccini. I took the liberty of doing the arrangement of “Che gelida manina,” sung by Dorelli and “Mi chiamano Mimì,” sung by Mina. Meaning, “not” to say that Puccini had written light music, but that all the music of the great musicals had been inspired by him. Let’s not forget that for America, which did not have a musical history like we have over here, ‘600, ‘700…, these great musicians, these great composers, Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rogers, etc., were the equivalent of our Italian opera composers; only they were in the 900s and… in a different sphere. But melodically, all of them great children, grandchildren … of the great Puccini. I said this, on television, in two words, before Mina and Dorelli’s performance, and all hell broke loose. Some people, very venomous, even wrote that I had done it to collect royalties-not knowing that the royalties were Puccini’s anyway-and also ignoring the fact that I had not even gotten paid for that arrangement that I wanted to do for my own satisfaction. Someone insulted me so much that I had to sue. And I won it. However, the critic who lost it, the lawsuit, was defined as not punishable because he was in old age and a well-known person.

L.C. And after Puccini, who’s stopping us anymore…here’s “From the Earth.”

G.F. Yes “From the Earth” was another very nice, very nice experience. It came about after Mina and I had lost touch for quite a few years. One morning he called me as if we had last spoken the day before; and after a few more days, he told me about the proposal. We have had extraordinary criticism; she has not changed in anything; in fact, she has improved. Even though she has the same mentality she had as a girl. It is always her.

L.C. So you can’t talk about a difference between the first Mine and the later Mines, the evolved and evolving Mines?

G.F. No, of difference no. You can talk like…- let’s make comparisons while we’re at it…- like when they say “Mozart’s youth opera”…however, still Mozart’s! Even as a young man Mozart was already Mozart. Mina at the age of nineteen, yes, though-Mina. All of her was already in it. I don’t like the word “maturity,” for example, in fact I’m sorry. I am reminded of a passage from a book, by Philip Roth, “In life you are only young once, but you can be immature all your life.” There is nothing worse than becoming an adult. It can be improved, but it is not even about that: it is about bringing out of ourselves what we already have inside. We cannot take it from the outside. It’s not that you mature: it’s that it takes time, it takes opportunity, you can’t write everything in one year. And it is not necessarily that what one writes when one is sixty years old is better … it is different, because years have passed, but not because we have matured: …because experiences, because a continuous search, even unconscious …

L.C. I’m trying to guess what questions our conversation partners who are reading would like to ask you. Maybe this: When you write a piece for Mina: do you write it “smart,” or do you engage her, put her to the press?

G.F. No, no, she herself asks me difficult, challenging things. She then takes care of rendering them, making them her own through various keys of exposure. And I, too, when I write music on a story, on a text, I know that after eight measures there’s an explosion, after sixteen there’s a breakdown, etc… And I know how Mina will be able to interpret it, and then… It’s about intelligence games, figuring out what it takes at that moment to entrust it to an intelligence like Mina’s that will surely solve it the best. Like when they brought me the lyrics of “Words Words.” It was four pages of “what are you what are you what are you … words words words words … words words words words … words only words … candy I don’t want any more …” I knew that I had to give musical meaning to the words before my eyes, connect the meaning of the notes to their own. Here.

L.C. Gianni, I’d like us to talk a bit about the anecdotes of “Milleluci,” the late nights writing with Alba’s ristretto coffees for you and the copyist, of Mina tirelessly, in room B, attending orchestra rehearsals every day. But we would finish the day after tomorrow and write a new encyclopedia. We will do an interview about it in the future, perhaps, a special.

G.F. Whenever you want.

L.C. The relationship with Mina, twofold, musical and human, how is it reconciled in the two aspects, what does it produce, what does it offer, how much does it engage?

G.F. It engages a lot; for what it offers, after all. There is one thing, though. I think Mina knows this, but maybe she doesn’t know it all the way: Mina can count on me as a friend.

L.C. Consider that, fortunately ensuring with this a variety of natures in the world, there may be some who do not like Mina. Could you bridge, by explaining it to us, the gulf between die-hard supporters and some of his detractors? Not for anything else, but, before we leave, let’s scratch this image of perfection a little bit, come on.

G.F. – It is difficult, to say. Detractors… Detractors can say, “I don’t like the way Mina sings,” that’s their thing, it will be their concern to explain why, if they care to know… but they can’t say that she sings badly, that she interprets badly… that it’s not a great musical nature. …And then I would tell them, “to school, everyone!”

© Lele Cerri

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