Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be

Alice Fiering & Giovanni Bietti

Sturgeon: Have you been to Australia before?

Alice Feiring: First time.

Giovanni Bietti: First time.

S: Australia is defined by its antipodean nature, an ‘upside-down’, ‘on the bottom’ kind of place. In contemporary art this is articulated and, arguably, defined through appropriation. Over our two hundred and thirty years of colonial history, artists have looked to what is happening in Europe and more recently in America, and interpreted that through an Australian context. Have you noticed any such similarities or references in the wines and the culture here?

Illustrated by Patrick Pound with images from
the ongoing series ‘Listen to the Music’ 2011–

AF: This is a difficult question for me. Putting it in a wine context — I’m not sure I’ll address exactly what you are saying — I haven’t come to Australia before because there was very little reason for me to come from a wine point of view. The first time I really knew something was happening was when a young Australian winemaker came to my apartment. He brought his wines to me and I was like “Whoa! This is possible!” It was the seeds of a revolution.

S: How long ago was that?

AF: I think it was about five years ago. What is very interesting to me — and I don’t know if this is antipodean or not— natural wine in Australia happened very quickly. I hope that by the time I finish my journey here I’ll find out why. I imagine at some stage you’ll drink some wines by Augusto Cappellano, and it was his father who said to me “the more there’s fake, the more there’s need for real.” I think that’s exactly what’s happening right now.

“the more there’s fake, the more there’s need for real.”

GB: I think frankly I’ve been in Australia for too little a time to answer fully. There is something that strikes me here, but I don’t know if I’m able to define this. I feel there is a different relationship aesthetically with nature. I’ve seen just a little of the bush, I’m looking forward to seeing more. There is in some way this idea that the bush is your ‘Gothic cathedral’. There is an aesthetic relationship with it and of course the Indigenous Australians have a connection with it. I totally fell in love with the Botanic Gardens on the Harbour. You have of course the iconic Opera House and the Bridge and so on, but the aesthetic sense of nature is very strong. Very strong. I think in Europe we lost this years and years ago.

AF: There are things about controlling nature here that have been a real drawback to the current state of Australian wine: controlling the land; planting grapes where they don’t belong; relying on irrigation and the focus on the fruit as opposed to finding a place to express something. That is the new adventure for Australian wine, and I’ll be really curious to see who is working that way as I go through the country. I would like to see less of a dichotomy between controlling the vine and the embrace of nature.

S: Giovanni, you’re doing a performance for a natural wine festival while you are in Sydney which is to be like a musical tour through vineyards. It reminds me of a performance I saw in Venice one year for the Biennale — a musical interpretation of the works of Joseph Beuys. It was in the Arsenal and you sat where the video was playing. The music became a sculpture, if you like, filling the space. What sort of perspective do you come from in terms of the musical relationship to other forms?

GB: The original idea was to have a tasting after the concert, but we don’t have the opportunity to have that synesthetic experience for the audience. I’m going to make it a short historical European tour from the sixteenth century up to the twentieth century with many references to Eastern, Spanish, Italian, French, German wines. What can I say about the relationship since I’m a composer as well? As a musician, I find that there are a lot of things in common between the artist and winemaker. One of these is of course the fact that the winemaker is making something that disappears as you consume it. The musician is exactly the same. There is this strange and fascinating relationship with time, with memory. There is something more. Culture is a word that comes from cultivation. The idea of culture is that you take a natural thing, a natural product and you transform it. Culture is the presence of a human spirit through ‘things’. Culture is planting a seed and having it grow. I learnt a lot about this topic from viticulture and artisan winemakers. I try to do the same with music. We tend to think of art and music as something that you simply enjoy, but I think the action is as important. You have to do things; culture and art, aesthetic things, they don’t simply come to us.

S: Are you talking about the act of making?

GB: Exactly. Today we tend to have a passive approach. We sit there, we see things and maybe we react. I don’t think this is all, otherwise the work of an artist is worthless. There is no real exchange. There should be a continuous feedback loop. This is what I really learnt from winemakers.

AF: Are you saying that the audience is passive? That the audience taking in the music is passive?

GB: Very often, yes.

AF: Or does it just look like that? I mean they just look passive. Often the effect is basically just applause, but we don’t see the journey that the audience is going through. When people ask me what it is I like about natural wine, it’s that it provokes a reaction. It’s like in theatre when it breaks the ‘fourth wall’, with somebody coming down from the stage who reaches out, it really does provoke a reaction. You rarely ever get that ‘fourth wall’ being broken with conventional wine.

I can’t listen to music when I write, not at all. It’s just too all encompassing. It’s definitely not a passive reaction. It’s really depressing to think of it as a passive reaction when talking about someone listening to music. I guess that’s what muzak is about: passive listening.

GB: Music has undergone a stage of ‘industrialisation’ in recent years. In some ways the contemporary reproduction of music goes quite against what I believe, yet it is the crystallisation of the object. You have something that you can reply to and replicate. I see a very strong similitude with industrial winemaking. You are looking for a product that has just the same specific characteristics every year, regardless of the vintage or the climate or the grape quality. The product you find induces a passive attitude.

"Culture is the presence of a human spirit through ‘things’. Culture is planting a seed and having it grow."

S: If our contemporary interest in classical music is about memory, and some would say about the past, do you think that natural wine making techniques are becoming popular today for that same reason?

GB: I think that memory is very important. In my case for example, I started being interested in these wines in the mid-1990s, because in some of these wines I found the perfumes, the smells and the sensations that I had when years ago my father took me and my brother to buy wine from a small producer of artisan wine, bottled himself. My brother and I went through his very dirty cellar, tasting the wine from all the barrels. Some of these sensations, which are particularly odorous, are very strong in my memory. I found some of these sensations in natural wines. Memory is very important, but I don’t think it is a question of nostalgia for times past. We should always search — that’s the active part of listening, the active part of living in some way — to understand what things made years ago, centuries ago, have to say to us today.

AF: So you are saying that has to do with memory, but not with nostalgia? I’m having a hard time deciding on the difference. It’s like saying that a real tomato has something to do with my memory and that’s why I like it, as opposed to the taste. I think that wine, like with music or any art, has the ability to transport into the future, the past, the present, to another dimension; you have in one bottle all that passion, feeling, agriculture and history. For me it’s about the search for authenticity. Yes, I think it is more about authenticity than it is about memory.

S: I often struggle with authenticity because it often becomes just a marketing strategy. Do you think that authenticity is fabricated for marketing purposes?

GB: That’s a crucial point.

S: I also think that nostalgia plays a large part in the fabrication of authenticity. Peter de Vries, Simon Signoret and Sam Phillips, among others, have capitalised on the irony in the phrase: “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” How do we reconcile contemporary ideas of ‘authenticity’ and nostalgia?

AF: In this particular world of natural wine, I don’t think it is marketed the way other things are marketed. ‘Authentic’ used to be a really good word. Maybe it’s now overexposed, but I haven’t really figured out anything else to use. As far as nostalgia goes, I definitely have ‘nostalgic’ wines. All of us have wines that bring us back to a certain place. I still drink them for nostalgic reasons even though they have outlived their usefulness or have changed for some reason, or wines that no longer exist and you have one last bottle and the winemaker is dead. But the whole marketing thing is a wave to come and I dread it. I’ll figure out what to do about it when it gets here.

GB: The concepts of ‘vintage’ and ‘authenticity’ are popular in the music world in the use of instruments and performing styles and so on, but it’s tricky. We have for example the ‘early music’ movement, where people try to reconstruct exactly the performing conditions of say the eighteenth century, which of course is quite impossible. This is a search for authenticity which is maybe based a bit on an archaeological concept of reconstruction. I think it is quite impossible, yet quite fascinating. What is more important for me is trying to reconstruct not the gestures or the techniques, but the context: the way in which music was listened to or enjoyed. So in some way authenticity lies also in the courage, or the freedom to change a text.

The concept of natural wines in Italy started with a group called ‘Vini Veri’ (true wines). In wine we have Jules Chauvet — maybe you know him, he is one of the fathers of biodynamics in France — he used to say, as a provocation of course, that “before being good, a wine should be true.” True to what? To the terroir, to the grape, to the vintage, to all of these things.


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