The life and times of Demetrio Stratos
Demetrio Stratos’ life is surrounded by an aura of legend. He was born in 1945 in Egypt by Greek parents, studied in Cyprus, moved to Italy, founded Area, one of the most daring bands in Italian history. In the late seventies, he left the band to focus on vocal research and trained his voice to produce sounds that few people have ever been able to produce. And, as all heroes destined to obsess us forever, he died young and unexpectedly just as his remarkable and unique talent was gaining recognition.
I rediscovered Demetrio Stratos, in one of my iTune Italian music immersions. I stumbled in the 1979 recording of the concert that his former band (he had left Area just a few months earlier) held for him on June 14 1979.
In April 1979, Demetrio Stratos had been diagnosed with a severe case of aplastic anemia. He was 34 years old. His conditions deteriorated rapidly and he was transferred to New York City Memorial Hospital for treatment. Back in Italy, his friends organized a concert to pay for his medical expenses. Many musicians accepted the invitation to perform, and the concert was planned for June 14 1979. It was to become Demetrio Stratos’ memorial concert: he died in New York City on June 13, 1979, while waiting for a bone marrow transplant.
The 70s in Italy were all about experimentation. The smoke was still clearing from the revolutionary explosion of 1968, where universities and factories were occupied, student and worker’s demonstrations filled the streets, and people believed that radical social change was at the door.
If 1968 was about dreams and ideology, the ’70s were about practicing alternatives: creating social and political utopias, fighting the revolution (often with violent means), breaking all safe conventions in relationships, and experimenting with our bodies. Such radical experimentation was exciting and dangerous like jumping from a plane without parachute; it required absolute commitment, discipline, and a good dose of recklessness. People learned a great deal, failed, gave up, hurt themselves and others, and sometimes died.
Demetrio Stratos’ life perfectly incarnates the spirit of the ’70s. Recently, director Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo, I’m not scared) announced his intention to produce a movie exploring music and politics in Italy during those years through the life of the charismatic singer.
Demetrio Stratos was obsessed with the expressive potential of human voice. He was a vocal virtuoso. Using various overtone singing techniques he was able produce two, three, and even four different sounds simultaneously and to vocalize tones up to 7000 Hz. (In 1977, his vocal abilities were explored and documented by Professor Franco Ferrero at the University of Padova).
Vocal gimmicks aside, Stratos’ mission was to free vocal expression from the slavery of language and pretty melodies. From the observation of his daughter Anastassia, he concluded that humans have enormous expressive potentials that are progressive reduced during verbal development to just a few socially appropriate functions such as language and harmonic singing.
For Demetrio Stratos, the exploration of vocal potentials was a tool of psychological and political liberation: he literally wanted individuals and social groups to find their own voice.
At the time of his death, rumors circulated that his illness was caused by his secret and dangerous vocal practices. People wanted to believe that Demetrio Stratos had died for daring too much and wandering outside the limits of human possibilities: a modern Icarus, punished for flying too close to the Sun.
Maurizio Nannucci at Ubuweb has posted samples of Demetrio Stratos recording from his 1978 album Cantare la voce (To sing the voice). These recordings are not beautiful. They are the opposite of “bel canto,” but demonstrate Stratos’ daring and fascinating exploration of the expressive potentials of the human voice.
More about Demetrio Stratos
- Demetrio Stratos’ official site and the Italian Wikipedia entry.
- Tribute to Demetrio Stratos on MySpace
- Video version of Cometa Rossa on YouTube
- Demetrio Stratos talks about his vocal productions in Voce Vox (in Italian; but watch the last 1 minute to see him perform)
- On iTunes - Albums by Area: Arbeit Macht Frei - Il lavoro rende liberi; 1979 - Il concerto per Demetrio Stratos. Albums by Demetrio Stratos: Cantare la voce; Recitarcantando.
- The Wikipedia entry for Area
- Mike Borella’s article on Area
- Larry Looney’s recent and exhaustive post on Area