Last night at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard, the Randolph Hall clock was inching towards 9:15 by the time the lights went down, and due to a wave of late arrivals, a bit of grumbling about punctuality could be heard. Once the Italian duo Musica Nuda took the stage and started playing, however, all was quickly forgiven; they didn't just hold the attention of the audience, they commanded it.
Vocalist Petra Magoni and upright bass player Ferruccio Spinetti specialize in deconstructing and radically rearranging music from across a wide spectrum of genres, languages, and time periods. While their name (which loosely translates to "naked music") would imply a stripped-down approach, Musica Nuda's works are foundationally mutated versions of other songs. In the wrong hands, the approach might seem gimmicky, but in the hands of the virtuosic pair, the result is thrilling. If these versions are naked, Musica Nuda are, at a minimum, making ample use of a tattoo gun.
The material spanned several centuries, and their idiosyncratic approach allows for selections from Claudio Monteverdi (an Italian composer whose work bridged the Renaissance and Baroque periods) to nestle seamlessly in a set populated with jazz standards like "Nature Boy," late 20th century rock and R&B, and at least one of Spinetti's own originals. Occasional introductions or explanations were provided, mostly by Magoni, which were appreciated, as some of the material was unfamiliar to many of the American ears. She and Spinetti, who did pipe up occasionally, projected a charming humor during the consistent intensity of the performance.
While most of Musica Nuda's selections were drawn from the last half-century, and fall somewhere in or around what would fit most people's definition of "popular music," the simple point the duo seemed to be making, albeit in a virtuosic fashion, is that a good song is always a good song. One particular standout was their reading of "Amazing Grace," in which the same verse was repeated multiple times, each repetition seeming to expand out from, and build upon, the new ground staked out by the previous one. Magoni made ample use of effects on the song, looping her voice and timing nonverbal sounds to lay create a swirling vocal constellation above Spinetti's increasingly elastic investigations of the song's melody. A few of the more familiar selections, like the Beatles' "Come Together" and Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," trod more closely to novelty, but were presented with enough spirit and restlessness that they stayed well clear of any pitfalls. If anything, the duo could have leaned a bit less heavily on the 20th century, as part of what makes the show such an engaging experience is the contrast between the singularity of their musical vision and the breadth of source material.
While Magoni, whose physical presence and vocal dynamism clearly commanded the majority of the audience's attention, Spinetti's bass is just as integral to the sound. His style provided both a foundation for Magoni's vocal explorations and a consistency of approach that exposed the underlying seams that unified the disparate source material and prevented the set from becoming erratic. Far from simply holding down the bottom, on many selections he provided the bridge between the source material and Magoni's vocal departures, providing room for her to search out new territory without leaving the map entirely.