On a blustery night in October, the followers of Father Antonio Pileggi are lining up underneath the porch of a 15th-century Jesuit church located on San Fedele Square in Milan. However, the focus of tonight’s gathering at the San Fedele Cultural Centre is not preaching, but rather electronic sounds.
The priest, who is 57 years old and part of the Jesuit order, is showcasing a concert featuring music from experimental electronic composers Maryanne Amacher and Tim Hecker. He wears a crucifix around his neck and is tall and thin in appearance. The audience consists of university students, fans of electronic music, and followers of heavy metal. They quietly take their seats in the recently renovated auditorium. In the upcoming month, the priest will also be hosting a performance by Alessandro Cortini, the keyboardist for Nine Inch Nails, who will be playing on a synthesizer he designed himself called the Strega.
According to Pileggi, the individuals we select as musicians are those who are receptive to the spiritual and sacred aspect. Some of the initial ones were caught off guard by encountering a priest at a music festival, but word has since gotten around.
The combination of religion and avant-garde music may seem unlikely. However, in May of this year, a group of far-right Catholic demonstrators protested a drone festival in Carnac, France, holding signs that questioned the involvement of bishops in an “electro concert” in a church. Similarly, in Nantes last year, activists disrupted a church concert by Swedish darkwave artist Anna von Hausswolff. Despite these incidents, on San Fedele square, Bible verses and pulsing beats coexist peacefully.
After the war, the cultural center was established to unite spiritual and cultural aspects. Early visitors included Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, and Marcello Mastroianni, and the church’s crypt now displays contemporary art by Lucio Fontana and Jannis Kounellis. However, it was not until Father Pileggi took over that music became a part of its offerings.
Before his current career, Pileggi was a creator of modern instrumental music. He received education in his hometown of Calabria and later in Paris, where he drew inspiration from Boulez, Stockhausen, and Messiaen. While employed at the Atempo festival in Caracas, Venezuela, he gained experience in organizing concerts.
“At the time, I did not have faith in God and was even opposed to religious authority,” he remembers. “However, while attending a sung mass at a church in Paris on a Saturday evening, I inexplicably began returning every week. I sensed a shift within me.”
In 1998, at the age of 32, he joined the Jesuits, and during the following period of spiritual formation, music took on a different significance. “I witnessed the beautiful psalms sung in the monasteries, I listened to the music of praise to God: I was learning another way of seeing music.”
In 2009, Pileggi relocated from Belgium to Milan and resumed organizing concerts. He curated a diverse range of performances, including ancient music, contemporary compositions, jazz, and live accompaniment to silent films. It was during this time that he first invited Hecker to perform in 2013 and discovered a community of experimental musicians who shared an interest in spirituality, albeit not necessarily through traditional religious practices.
Pileggi states that they have identified a new group of people they would like to connect with. This led to the creation of the Inner Spaces festival, which focuses on showcasing electronic, ambient, and experimental music with ethereal and spiritual qualities. Pileggi emphasizes the importance of listening, stating that it is our most crucial sense. He also references the Bible, where listening is emphasized as one of the most important actions, especially when it comes to hearing the word of God.
I have observed that music has the ability to draw our attention to listening. This is true even if the music is not specifically related to religion. It brings us closer to our inner selves.
At the performance by Hecker and Amacher, the crowd remained seated and fully engaged in the music. During the break, my fellow attendee pulled out a book and began reading.
Pileggi shares that the musicians who visit his cultural hub frequently inquire about his spiritual beliefs. He explains, “Occasionally, individuals reach out to me for guidance on spirituality.” As time passes, their connection evolves and may even develop into a close bond.
Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are seen as personal matters. It is not required to have faith in order to participate in or perform at the concerts. The only religious figure in attendance is Father Pileggi. The church next door is available for any religious matters.