Interview with harpist Vincenzo Zitello

Feb. 7, 2009

Vincenzo, you are a pioneer and the first to have made the Celtic harp popular in Italy, besides being an international concert performer. How did your career start?

Vincenzo Zitello taken at the first meeting of the review, La Musica nell'uovo, Feltrinelli Books and Music Shop, Monza, Jan. 11, 2009.

© Photo by Gloria Chiappani Rodichevski

The harp is the instrument I had always wanted to play as a child, but it was considered a girlish instrument, and so my father made me study the violin. When I was about 14-15 years of age I started making the first experiments. Subsequently, I met Franco Battiato who made me savor the joy of research, and invited me to join – as a violinist – the "Telaio Magnetico" group.

Besides Battiato you also worked with other artists.

I worked for a long time with Ivano Fossati, Fabrizio De Andrè and many others. However, we were not only partners since these were people who gave me a lot of support in some of the difficult moments.

And going back to your story…

In 1974, I listened to Renaissance de la harpe celtique, an album of Alan Stivell which impressed me deeply. Moreover, it had to do with something I had always wanted to be: a male harpist. This was 1974 and I immediately started searching for a Celtic harp, and found one in 1976, that is, when Professor Luciana Chierici of Civica Music School of Milan had twenty Irish harps imported from Waltons, Dublin. I contacted Mara Galassi (who achieved a diploma in modern harps, and later dedicated herself to historical harps) since I wanted to study with her, but this was not possible. So I started to frequent the Breton culture and music sessions held at "Ti Kendalc'h" by Dominig Bouchaud and Mariannig Larc’hantec. In 1978 I formed the harp and oboe duo with Roberto Mazza.

And when did you achieve your specialization courses with Alan Stivell?

I specialized in Bard harps and Celtic songs in 1980.

And what were the stages of your artistic path?

Vincenzo Zitello at the harp and Vittorio Sorrentino, sound technician. First meeting of the review, La Musica nell'uovo, Feltrinelli Books and Music Shop, Monza, Jan. 11, 2009.

© Photo byGloria Chiappani Rodichevski

I continued with forming the "Asciara" duo together with Saro Cosentino in 1985 and with the registration of a 45 rpm record produced by Franco Battiato for EMI, developing a traditional Irish piece sung in Gaelic. In 1987 I produced my first album Et Vice Versa, entirely dedicated to compositions for Celtic harps with metal strings.

And the first album was followed by the second, third and fourth…

And continued up to the eighth. I am now working on the ninth. Let me see… the second, Kerygma, was in 1988; two years later it was released in the United States, Canada and Australia with Euphonia as the title. In 1994 the third album La Via was released in Europe with the title Serenade. In 1998 came the fifth CD: Aforismi d’arpa. Concerto followed in 2001 and Solo in 2005, entirely played with Celtic and Bard harps. Atlas was released two years later.

We mentioned three types of harps, the modern, historical, and Celtic harps. What kind of emotional impact do they stir in you?

The modern harp is a mental instrument which does not allow for evolutions and this is well evident at historical levels. All in all, very few have taken this path and did so in a very canonical and scarcely creative manner. It is a carpentry instrument, not a violin-making one: the modern harps are made for playing a certain type of music and nothing more. Instead, imagine the violin: it is played everywhere, and in some ways by all (including the Indians, gypsies…) and is continually evolving. The fact that Harpo Marx tuned his harp in a very personal way demonstrates that we are dealing with an old instrument, which has lagged behind in terms of creativity – that is – tied down to its historical aspect. On the contrary, the Celtic harp is highly creative: we can rightly speak of the innovation of sound and the way of linking up with the traditional harp. I am underlining that the modern harp is an instrument which feels the impact of the conservative world it is a part of: it is used only in a philological manner. Even Beethoven thought it was useless! It is true that he wrote Variations of a Swiss tune for harps alone, but it had been commissioned. In short, what I am not interested in is its historical recovery, since I believe this to be a false operation and we do not even know what and how it was really played! Historical frauds have been established and unfortunately, we are full of these would-be truths.

And so, in your view, what is the role of the harpist today?

Poster of Vincenzo Zitello behind one of his harps. The first meeting of the review, La Musica nell'uovo, Feltrinelli Books and music Shop of Monza, Jan. 1, 2009.

©Photo by Gloria Chiappani Rodichevski

That of experimentation, contamination. The harp today is the instrument for creativity, because we feel the need for this. Take for example: jazz applied to the harp which I find interesting (as an idea, not as a language). There are many musicians of the late 20th century who started to take unusual paths and have continued along this trend, guided by their own creative identity. Instead, the New Age as I see it, had some good ideas in store, but were then impoverished and commercialized. If I were to define what the New Age has become, I would have no qualms in saying that we are dealing with a supermarket of hollowness.

We always have to look for new experiences because this stimulates creativity – to say the least – it helps to discover new strong points in life. Along these lines I sustain the importance of learning to listen. In moments when we are so engrossed by others or by ourselves, we find this hard to accomplish, but when you listen, you become fertile as an artist.

Are you placing the accent on listening to your interior self, given that – man comes first – before the artist?

Exactly. The Celtic and Bard harps make the composer grow precisely because they allow him to listen to his own self. The consequence is attention towards things, the flow of sensations, and interior resonance. All these do not occur with the academic harp.

Can we say that academism is a niche?

We certainly can. The Celtic and Bard harps are satisfying a need: that of listening to the world in a different way which makes us perceive the magic of things.

How about an incursion in one of the themes you developed in Atlas, your latest CD: the theme of time?

Kronos you mean?


Vincenzo Zitello during the first meeting of the review, La Musica nell'uovo, Feltrinelli Books and Music Shop of Monza, Jan. 11 2009.

© Photo by Gloria Chiappani Rodichevski

I like this piece very much, because when you listen to it, it seems like you are losing the way, but at a certain point, here you are again: it is like a cell that links you to the infinite. The final theme has a strong nucleus. Some did not hesitate to define Kronos as a masterpiece.

The idea of loss and rediscovery is in a sense, linked to the idea of learning to listen and listening to oneself, as I said earlier. Listen to the time of creativity and that in which creations take root. And it makes you think. Thought is fundamental. You become what you think. All this is true in both music and life.

In the booklet provided with Atlas ‑ commenting on Kronos ‑ you cite Allen Ginsberg: "[…] who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot/for Eternity outside of Time," excerpt from Howl.

In 1995, I wrote music for theater production. The Beat Generation making a CD for the actor Massimo Arrigoni and on the occasion of a tribute to Fernanda Pivano at Conegliano Veneto, I accompanied Ginsberg – a really particular personage ‑ in one of his readings. The excerpt from Howl underlined how, if man binds himself to a particular moment, to the span of time that has concluded, he becomes a prisoner of that moment and will never find the possibility of constantly moving on. The concept I wanted to express in Kronos is that of opening of time in an unceasing becoming, step after step, always moving forward, opening one door after another.

The passage – appearing on the booklet ‑ is dedicated to "to the boys of 1974 in Bottanuco, Pinuccio, Nunzio, Fabrizio, and to the evenings and the time we passed playing in the farmhouse."

The dedication not only aims at the orientation of Kronos towards the three boys, but also at concretizing my concept with an example - Pinuccio, Nunzio and Fabrizio smoked and were drug addicts: their problem was that they were incapable of handling that span of time that had ended, as mentioned earlier.

Bound to the contingent, they were incapable of leaving the prison, to project themselves beyond?

Yes, precisely. In my view, Khronos is the future time, but also (due to this) the personal time available to discover yourself, fulfill yourself. I have a daughter, Anna, who is four and a half years of age. At a certain time I stop studying or doing what I am doing, to play with her and live my time with her.

It seems to me, quality time you would lose, if you did not live it fully in the present. In Atlas you also dedicated the lullaby Ninna Anna to her.

Yes, it is a gentle lullaby – as I said in the booklet – where the low ocarina imitates the cooing of doves that accompanied her first afternoon naps.

You also wrote in the booklet: "When I hold you in my arms I climb the peak of an infinite stairway leading to the stars."

You, therefore, conceive a time from which you cut off all the negative, pejorative things (time that imprisons, enclave, time that leads us to forget…)

Yes, for me time is a positive entity. It is a time in which you “can”: I would not know how to express my viewpoint, otherwise.

No need to do so: it is very clear.

Every day each of us has the right to try. There are many instruments that help relationships, research, and creativity. Just think of the computer. However, with my affirmations I am not identifying an epoch in which it is better or worse to live. I am only underlining that each of us has the right to follow our own feelings and creativity, and thus, produce what we retain right. I am not interested in overturning music only to be talked about (I do not like artists who try to attract attention by doing so): I compose according to a musical concept that corresponds to my feelings and let the others make their judgments. In short, I do what I enjoy doing - that’s all – and probably this comes through. Take for example, the meeting I held at the Feltrinelli Books and Music Shop of Monza, last Jan. 11.

It was the inauguration session of the Review, La Musica nell’uovo (artistic director, Michele Sangineto), which will continue up to July 19.

Michele Sangineto, to the left, and Vincenzo Zitello, to the right, taken at the first meeting of the review, La Musica nell'uovo, Feltrinelli Books and Music Shop of Monza, Jan. 11 2009.

© Photo by Gloria Chiappani Rodichevski

Do you remember how many people attended?

I certainly remember. The small hall where you gave an exhibition with your (Celtic and Bard) harps was crowded.

Those were people who had gone to the store to buy books and then stopped to listen. After the meeting I received a lot of e-mails.

Many were literally enchanted by your music. I think in doing so, you opened an emotional window for them.

Vincenzo Zitello doing a sound check at the first meeting of the review, La Musica nell'uovo, Feltrinelli Books and Music Shop of Monza, Jan. 11 2009.

© Photo by Gloria Chiappani Rodichevski

I agree, on the other hand this is my task. I realize this when I am on stage: I am convinced that is where I belong and am only doing something that is part of me.

Vincenzo, often in your concerts you play with two harps (Celtic and Bard). Why?

During the 1970s minimalist, reiterative music was what attracted me more. To this end, I vividly recall Philip Glass in1973, in an organ concert in Lugano. I was deeply impressed while others thought he was a buffoon  and dismissed him with “He’s making a fool of us, insisting on just one note!” The idea of playing with two harps was inspired by reiterative music (which I admit – is a bit a niche thing): when I perform it is because I have decided to choose an obsessive manner to express something that is so profoundly a part of me. For example, in my piece Gaelik (Raga) there’s a drone that keeps time.

Our conversation started from the idea of becoming, of time that leaves us free to let our own creativity flow and fulfill ourselves as men and artists and we talked about the concept of reiteration, insistence, and obsession, in which we allow ourselves to be hollowed out, before being able to bring something to light. I think that is only an apparent antithesis, because there is a passage, perhaps even a unifying element: vital Energy.

Yes, there are energies that convey thought, leaving it free to pursue its path, to stop (hollow out as you said), and resume. In the end, you find the thread of thought once again…

… when you have harvested, with something to offer the public to enjoy.

Vincenzo Zitello during the first meeting of the review, La Musica nell'uovo, Feltrinelli Books and Music Shop of Monza, Jan. 11 2009.

© Photo by Gloria Chiappani Rodichevski

Yes. Some creations are possible because there are intergalactic wells (if we wish to define them as so) from which we can draw thoughts and Energy. Things, facts, gestures, communicate between themselves and allow a force to come forth and which one reaches. I’d like to give a very concrete example. During some of my concerts you wrote a series of poems which you successively gathered in a compilation.

I remember the first time quite well. Your concert’s opening piece was Serenade. After the first notes, I dug into my bag where I always have pen and paper, and inspired by your music, started writing verses.

Yours are an example of what intuition dictates. Your poetry arose from the frequencies of sound. It’s true that the music was there, but you were right there: the poems you composed are a heritage which belongs to you and you alone. I played and noticed that you ‑ seated in the first row ‑, were writing. The music with the frequencies of its sounds addressed all present and all appreciated and loved it, but only you vibrated in that particular way.

Relations exist between things, complex and at the same time, simple relations that are spontaneously established. It is thought that flows. We can speak of the hand’s intelligence. It is not intelligent in itself, but the brain helps it to move and it seems almost to possess a life of its own. There are wonders that act in such a way to make things search for, and find, and touch one another. These are synergies: one prodding the other…

Of course, it is not only a juxtaposition – I listen to a piece and then, fresh from this, I write a poem which comments on it. It is emotional contact, non-verbal communication, an intuitive link, analysis and the synthesis at the same time (capacities of poetry itself).

This is true synergy. You are always a sort of medium which – on coming in direct contact with the things art stirs up – hooks things to one another and makes them interact. This characteristic of yours is immediately evident, just looking at you.

Vincenzo, thank you for having sustained with words, my research for synergies. The last part of our session solicited a homage to Atlas, which I would like to offer:


Of the drop that colors the clod


psalters with fujaras.



and wind-flute above the hills.

Translation by Yolanda Rillorta