Can Jazz Provide a Window into the Mind and Help Us Heal?
Berklee Now's Keyed In series features Berklee experts and community members sounding off on the latest news and trends from the music world and beyond.
Francesca Remigi M.M. ’21 is an undeniable force in the world of modern jazz. A native of Bergamo, Italy, the composer and improviser layers elements of avant-garde jazz with progressive rock and classical music to create a chaotic yet compelling sonic blend of free-wheeling sound. Her talent and vision have delivered her to concert stages across the globe, including this year’s Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival and Panama Jazz Festival, and in January she was named “best new talent of 2021" by Italy's Musica Jazz magazine. In May, Remigi will be touring Europe with Danilo Pérez, founder and artistic director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI).
Remigi’s new album and interdisciplinary project The Human Web, released in March, is ambitious in both style and scope. Combining haunting vocals, percussive riffs, and electronic and acoustic instruments with literature and contemporary dance performance, Remigi attempts to unpack the tangled and troubled landscape of technology and social media, with a particular focus on its influence on our choices and its effect on mental health. The project explores Remigi’s own struggle with eating disorders, the problematic role of the internet, and the power of music and the artistic process to heal and help us recover from trauma.
In recognition of Jazz Appreciation Month and International Jazz Day this Saturday, we spoke with Remigi about The Human Web, her experience as a jazz musician at Berklee, and her perspective on music and its ability to communicate abstract concepts while providing a means to learn about the human mind.
Your most recent project, The Human Web, has a lot going on. Musically, there’s a great deal happening in terms of the instrumentation, the layers of sound, and the improvisational nature of it. Thematically, you’re taking on heavy ideas: technology, mental health, and personal trauma. Why did you choose to examine these concepts through the lens of jazz and contemporary dance, and what are you hoping people take away from this album?
Remigi: The Human Web represents my own healing process as to my experience with eating disorders. I’ve always wanted to use music as a tool to process, heal, and share personal trauma. It took years to find the courage to talk openly about something so private and deep, and I really hope this work will raise awareness about this mental illness, outlining how the internet and social media can distort reality and trigger harmful consequences for physical and mental health.
As this dangerous mental illness often involves a profound physical change, dance seemed to be the performative art that could best describe this process through body movements and facial mimicry. In October 2021, we shot The Human Web at Splendor cultural center in Amsterdam with Italian dancer and co-choreographer Clotilde Cappelletti and Dutch dancers Hannah van den Berg and Mayke van Veldhuizen. They made such a beautiful contemporary dance improvisation on my music that I not only used the footage for my culminating experience at Berklee, but I decided to utilize the video as promotional material for my album release.
A recent study from the scientific journal Nature suggests that higher social media use correlates with lower satisfaction in life, especially in teenagers. We have seen stories about “TikTok brain” and the app’s impact on young people. What role does jazz and music have in your life in terms of helping you reconnect with yourself and the people around you?
Remigi: I consider music to be a meditative process. Practicing music, especially, makes me feel grounded and connected to my inner self. It allows me to enter a state of concentration and observation that isolates me from all outside inputs. I find it very liberating to not be in need of checking my phone or my computer and to just be present in the moment with my instrument. Performing, on the other hand, is a strong bundle of energy that you share with the other people on stage. You dive into an unpredictable journey and come back to reality one hour later. In the meantime, you’ve shared emotions, stories, and life with other performers, creating a profound bond that definitely goes beyond professional relationships.
You studied and performed with many talented individuals during your time in the BGJI and Berklee's Master of Music in global jazz program. How did Berklee reaffirm or challenge your idea of what a jazz musician is and the kind of artist you wanted to be?
Remigi: Especially in moments of crisis, such as the one we are currently experiencing, I think the artist’s responsibility is to offer an alternative interpretation of highly debated current issues, and to provide audiences with a new perspective. I have always been struck by the product of artistic voices that really had something to say, going beyond mere formal representation. That’s why I chose to apply to the Berklee Global Jazz Institute. During my time in the BGJI, I’ve learned to consider musicians as humanitarians, as actors of social change through activism and music education. Working with Danilo Pérez and other institute members has helped me understand how to go beyond music itself and to look at the bigger picture of why we make music and the what we as artists contribute to society. In the end, music is a tool—a language to express culture, traditions, and emotions. Being at the BGJI taught me to enjoy the process of music-making instead of striving for perfection and getting stuck on the technicalities of the music.
With it being Jazz Appreciation Month, what do you appreciate most about the jazz art form, and what makes it unique compared to other forms of music and self-expression?
Remigi: Before we answer this question, we must ask ourselves what the word “jazz” means. In my opinion, the improvised component of jazz leads it to constantly evolve, and its fluid nature and its tendency to morph allows it to embrace many different musical influences. That gives life to an aesthetic that changes according to the socio-cultural conditions of a particular context or geographical area. Detroit jazz is not the same as L.A. jazz, just as Italian jazz will never be played like jazz in Cuba or in Berlin. This does not mean that musicians should not recognize and validate the African American genesis of this style, but the multifaceted aesthetic of jazz and its ability to reflect elements of culture across continents is what makes it unique compared to other music forms.
As an active music educator, do you feel that jazz has become more niche or marginalized in the modern era, or is it as vibrant as it ever was? How do you see your role as an educator and imparter of the spirit of jazz?
Remigi: I think maybe traditional jazz is something that has become a little bit more marginalized, and it’s definitely not so popular within younger generations. But the creative and experimental jazz music scene is in full expansion! I think that’s because there’s no fixed aesthetic for this music genre, and it therefore welcomes influences from electronic music, pop, noise, and other more popular music styles. As a music educator, I feel it's important to help students get comfortable with improvisation and with being present in the moment of playing. Music has to be enjoyed as a process regardless of the final result. We have to emphasize the positive values promoted by this music, such as community, acceptance and compassion.
Watch and listen to the full performance of The Human Web: