I Bassifondi’s Rococo n Roll: Alfabeto Falso

Genre is not just a point of contact in music; it is an unwritten contract that states a listener will get what is advertised in the byline. If you say something is folk-rock, then it will be a little bit folk, and a little bit rock, like Joan Baez’ version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” for example. But the presence of genre descriptions also implies certain conditions, and a very basic one is that if something is considered classical, then it does not have a groove. That’s a common complaint about classical; what good is music if you can’t wag your butt to it? Indeed, the convention is that your butt is firmly placed in a seat in a concert hall, or in a church pew if you choose to partake of the classics.

However, some music did groove in the days of old, which is readily apparent in folklore traditions and in the music of indigenous cultures. Moreover, a lot of music once clearly meant as ‘popular’ has been redesignated to the realm of classics just by virtue of being especially old. In 1865, a formal recital of art song would’ve been the last place one would’ve heard a tune written by Stephen Foster; today, it is likely the only place one would hear it.

Naive’s Santiago de Murcia Codex, with its queasy, ‘pink blob’ front cover

Back in 2005, I was working as an in-house editor at the All Music Guide when lute/guitarist Rolf Lislevand’s album Santiago de Murcia Codex came across the transom. The disc proved immediately so controversial around the office – given its groovy rhythms, and surf guitar-like sound — that our editor, Gerald Brennan, did something he never did again; he assigned the CD to both James Manheim and myself to review and would pick the one that he thought best. My review was more charitable in tone, with some reservations, whereas James’ was harsher. In the end, his review got the nod.

There’s not a word in the allmusic review that’s not true; the liner notes and packaging of the Naïve disc were abysmal, and neither of us knew that it was a hasty repackaging of an earlier Astrée release that somehow never made it to these shores. But I also couldn’t help feeling that we were missing out on the opportunity of getting the word out about something new and exciting.

Rolf Lislevand’s debut, released in 1996.

I had first felt this excitement upon hearing Lislevand’s debut, Johannes Hieronymus Kapsberger: Libro Quarto d’Intavolatura di Chitarone (Roma 1640). Kapsberger was an oddball; a creator of enigmatic, quirky, improvisatory and asymmetrical pieces, some of which were so rockin’ in sound that it was almost as though he’d gone down to the beach with his seventeenth-century surfboard to shoot the curl.

While listening to Kapsberger’s music bathed me in a ‘green room’ of satisfaction musically, I couldn’t tell where his invention ended and that of Lislevand began; whether this was a sort of classical analog to guitar-centered rock instrumentals or simply reflective of Lislevand’s own preferences.

My mind returns to these decade-old considerations as I am listening to Alfabeto Falso, the new Arcana disc from the group I Bassifondi led by Simone Vallerotonda, who once studied with Lislevand. Alfabeto Falso extends Lislevand’s approach to a wider range of Baroque lute and guitar literature; along with the expected Kapsberger and de Murcia one encounters a bouquet of obscure Italian composers with tongue-twisting names: Foscarini, Valdambrini, Carbonchi and the like. Names not easily readable at once often proves an impediment to listeners usually willing to try something new, and it shouldn’t be in this case, as Alfabeto Falso is one of the most approachable and appealing classical releases I’ve heard all year. It further elucidates what Lislevand wrought two decades ago; that the rhythms common to popular music, much as we know it now, existed then, and were exploited by lute and guitar composers whose work was either published or traded in manuscript form. Such works were not considered appropriate for church or

It further elucidates what Lislevand wrought two decades ago; that the rhythms common to popular music, much as we know it now, existed then, and were exploited by lute and guitar composers whose work was either published or traded in manuscript form. Such works were not considered appropriate for church or court, and did not flow into the mainstream classical literature.

A typical page of lute tablature by Kapsberger, complete with cartoon dog and bunny rabbit

Even with some very open-minded listeners, credulity may be strained here and there in Alfabeto Falso. With Carbonchi’s “Scaramanzie,” for example, one might imagine someone saying “1234!!” before it starts, as it is like a punk rave-up, bringing to mind the spectacle of Sofia Coppola’s court of Louis XVI jamming to ‘eighties hits in her film Marie Antoinette.

On the other hand the version on Alfabeto Falso of “Kapsberger” – the mysterious composition that Kapsberger named after himself – is almost identical to the one Lislevand recorded two decades ago except that it is played a little slower. This makes explicit that Kapsberger’s groove is as much in the music as written as it is in the fingers of the players.

I’m not sure that all will share my enthusiasm for it, but I feel that Alfabeto Falso will find accord with a wide range of listeners that don’t normally turn to classical. The playing is certainly top drawer, and I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb when I say that this is still early music and that it desperately needs to be heard outside the realm of the usual suspect head scratchers and fuddy-duddies typical among classical music experts – present company included.

Alfabeto Falso
I Bassifondi & Simone Vallerotonda
Arcana Records


David “Uncle Dave” Lewis is the co-host of WTJU’s “The Early Music Show” which airs on Mondays between 7-9 PM. He will present a selection of music from this album on the upcoming episode of The Early Music Show to air September 18, 2017.

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