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Blog 75 - The Maltese Composer Charles Camilleri: His Life and Musical Style – Part 3 by Dr. Philip Ciantar

In this third blog about the iconic Maltese Charles Camilleri, Dr. Philip Ciantar talks about the origins of Camilleri’s stylistic integrity.

Ciantar, Philip. 2014. 'Charles Camilleri: His Life and Musical Style', in Henry Frendo (ed.), Towards Independence and Beyond, The Central Bank of Malta Symposium 2014 (Malta: Gutenberg Press), pp. 57-63.

Of course, Camilleri was not the first in the musical world to employ his country's folk music in his compositions, Bela Bartok, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and other composers having already done so. What makes him a great composer is not this, nor his ability to fuse Western and non-Western musical elements. His great achievement lies in his ability in establishing his own personal musical style that leads one instantly to identify it as belonging to Charles Camilleri. Several aspects of this style are interesting. Some of them are purely technical, whilst others are more conceptual or philosophical.

An aspect that in my opinion contributes to Camilleri's stylistic integrity lies in his frequent reliance on the technique of intertextuality, in this sense understood as the composer's ability to intelligibly borrow, re-use, and at the same time transform material used previously in his own works into new compositions. Camilleri employs this technique very cleverly through a persisting compositional approach that values the context of where the new is being embedded as much as what is being implanted. Camilleri was a master in transforming the archaic, the known and the familiar into a fashionable new. The same motif or theme, even within the same work, is re-worked several times, given different colors each time it reappears in a mode that can be described as intra-textual. The sense of economy implied in Camilleri's works is to be acclaimed as it brings forth a feature employed by skillful composers in the history of Western music. His sense of transformation in all the aspects of his music gives evidence of his conviction that the familiar is more reassuring than the unfamiliar, and that one can build on it further and reach out more effectively, as he asserts in one of his interviews: "The test of the artist is to organise his music or painting into a structure that is itself a springboard to other structures" (Aquilina and Saliba 1988). At this stage, one must remember that Charles Camilleri was a product of his own times, a person who had experienced the terror, hardships and scarcity of the Second World War. Since music is very much linked to what happens in life, techniques such as that mentioned above coincided with a very receptive state in the composer's consciousness and in his persuasion that creativity is a hard process, at the same time very time consuming and, by extension, economically valuable.

Camilleri's in-depth understanding of the syntax of Maltese folk music, something he attained through his long immersion in the process of musical translation, is another factor that helped him enhance his stylistic personality. From the restricted repertoire of Maltese folk tunes Camilleri managed to create a kind of generative grammar for himself, that is, a set of musical rules (expressed in particular melodic movements) that correctly predict which combinations of notes will form a sound that in the native listener's ear will echo as Maltese. An issue that regularly crops up from Camilleri's works questions the authenticity and the pseudo-authenticity of the local folk tunes he employed. Whatever the case, his works give evidenceof his skill not only to translate the authentic but also to create new, though nevertheless familiar, melodic moves rooted in the general syntax of Maltese folk tunes.

In the fourth and final blog about the Maltese composer Charles Camilleri, Dr. Philip Ciantar talks about how Prof. Camilleri managed to make Maltese music sound ‘global’.

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