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'A Volcano Viewed from Afar': The Music of Salvatore Sciarrino Author(s): Nicolas Hodges Source: Tempo, New

Series, No. 194, Italian Issue, (Oct., 1995), pp. 22-24 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/944607 Accessed: 07/07/2008 06:06
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Nicolas Hodges 'A volcano viewed from afar': the Music of Salvatore Sciarrino
With the exception of a few small-scale pieces programmedby the more adventurouscontemporary music ensembles, the music of Salvatore Sciarrinohas not been performed frequently in this country; BBC Radio 3 has given occasional airtime to larger works, but we have yet to hear much of his most important music in any form. This article should act, I hope, as a pointer to readerswho might wish to explore his output on disc, which currentlyis really the only way to do so in this country. Sciarrino was born in 1947 in Palermo, and started composing at the age of 12. Biographies disagreeover his education:some describehim as an autodidact,while others mention composition studies with Antonino Titone and Turi Belfiore, and later work with Evangelisti on electronic music at the Accademia di S.Cecilia. Sciarrino's precociousness is beyond doubt, though, and is evidenced by the exposure given him by the Palermo InternationalNew Music Week at the tender age of 15. By the age of 22 Sciarrinohad put in place many of the fundamentals of his musical explorations to date, most notably his interest in marginalizedsounds in often denselywrought textures, and his fascination with relatingto past formal models. Moreover, he was already considered the youngest leader of the new music in Italy. Since then his enormous output has had no lack of performances in his native country. Sciarrinoonce describedhis music as 'like the eruption of a volcano viewed from afar'.1This image describes several interrelated aspects of Sciarrino's work. Firstly,the surfaceof the music, though often quiet and highly detailed, is never merely lightweight or pretty: the composer's characterization quoted above is an explicit contradiction of such a view. As well as a preference for low dynamiclevels, Sciarrinoalso has a predilection for a fully integrateduse of the whole continuum between unpitched sound and noticeable pure pitched tones. This is particularly in the musicfor solo instruments,in suchworks as the Sei Caprices (1976) for violin and the solo flute incantesimi? piece Comevengonoprodottigli (1985).2 He shares this predilection with Luigi Nono, in the latter's late works, although their other concerns differ considerably. It may not be a coincidence, however, that they have both worked extensively with a specific circle of Italian new music virtuosi which has the flautist Roberto Fabbricianias its best-known member. What Nono and Sciarrinodo share,though, is an interest in new levels and types of listening as distinct from a purely capricious use of such material. Nono's other concerns are often projected more strongly, but with Sciarrino, if one stops to think, one becomes aware of being consciously drawn into the experience in a way which suggests a hidden agenda. This agenda is Sciarrino's highly developed and idiosyncratic sense of form. Sciarrino's moment to moment progress through a piece often has particularcharacteristics which emphasize his attitude to the resources offered both by solo instrumentsand ensembles. Eachpiece strikesan unstablebalance between continuous states and their disruption. Typicalof the former would be tremolandi,trills and ostinati (such as string-crossingarpeggios in the Caprices), while their disruptionranges from stormsof entirely distinct materialto the subtlest changes of colour. The effect is of someone exploring the sonic resources of an instrument the throughimprovisation.In the Caprices closing gesture - the strumming of the open strings emphasizesthis. In ensemble or keyboardworks Sciarrinooften uses the contrapuntalcapabilities of his medium to provide furtherenergy through saturationof the texture with ostinato. A small motif might be juxtaposed with itself in a myriad different ways in a very small space of time, producinga streamof seething detail which could itself be disrupted as a large scale gesture. In parallel with Sciarrino'sinterest in formal references, alluded to above, his textures often

2 The former is available on Accord 202862, the latter (along 1 Anon: 'Entretien avec Salvatore Sciarrino', in Entretemps with its companion Canzonadi ringraziamento) Koch Europa on no.9. Paris 1991, p.137. 350-229, performed by its dedicatee, Roberto Fabbriciani.

'A volcano Sciarrino 23 viewedfrom afar':the Musicof Salvatore evoke other composers or genres. An obvious example of this is his First Sonata for piano, which consciously evokes Liszt.3The texture as a whole has remarkablesimilarities with passages a fromjeux d'eau la VillaD'Este,while the opening of Feux Follets is quoted almost intact, and extended seamlessly before being transformed into the Jeux d'eau-on-speed texture which dominates the main part of the piece. Claudio Tempo has also suggested that the muted, fragmentaryending of the FirstSonatarefers to a further work of Liszt's, the B minor sonata.4 While this may be true it has to be said that the ending is entirely typical of Sciarrino, particularlybearing in mind its formal function. Another example of this occurs in the musictheatre work Vanitasfor soprano, cello and piano.5 The function of the piano in the texture consciously evokes the German Lied tradition. Similarly, the other textual references in Sciarrino'smusic never deflect the music away from the composer's own identity; rather they provide clues to meaningfulformalreferences.6 Sciarrino'simage of the volcano quoted above brings to mind another aspect of his work which is remarkable. Formally his music has more precision and intention than one might expect from a superficial observation of the incandescent nature of his textures. The breadth and complexity of his palette is necessitated by his functionaluse of texture. Sciarrinohas written in some detail about this with respect to the flute incantesimi? piece Comevengonoprodottigli (1985).7 The piece describes a curve which grows in density and solidity throughout, starting with unblown key taps and becoming denser through, at first, the intensification of movement and widening of harmonic range, and then the intervention of blown notes, becoming more and more prominent in the texture. Sciarrino mentions in connexion with this the tradition of final movements which represent a virtuosic
3 Sciarrino's complete piano music up to 1992 is available in authoritative performances by Massimiliano Damerini on 82. Dynamic CDS Sciarrino has only written one piano work subsequently, a Fifth Piano Sonata for Maurizio Pollini. Following its premiere (Salzburg, 24 August 1994) the work was withdrawn for revision and has not reappeared. 4 In the sleeve note to the above-mentioned CD. S Available on Ricordi CRMCD1015. The same company have also released a recording of Lohengrin CRMCD 1001. on

culmination - a tradition which can be traced through late Haydn and late Beethoven (a preoccupationof Sciarrino's)to Liszt- and many others of his works bear an active, conscious relationship with this tradition. In the present case the piece confounds expectations of a final pyrotechnic display: it completely loses its confidence, and retreats into mournful tremolo warbles. There are a few brief attempts at a repeated intensification- which fail, leaving the piece to end unresolved. This is an explicit formal reference, not for reference's sake, but to make a point about perception. Sciarrinonotes that 'in order to hold the attentionit is necessaryalwaysto escalate;and that is what the piece contradicts'.8A similar point is made by the First Piano Sonata mentioned above. After a profusion of material the music suddenly pauses, and one is forced to listen to nothing but resonance for a full 30 seconds before the piece haltingly continues, never regaining its momentum and repeatedly stalling, leaving only resonance again in the foreground. My principal objection to Claudio Tempo'sconnexion of this ending with that of the Liszt Sonata is that in the latter, the ending is a returnto the materialof the prologue, and is not, like the ending of Sciarrino'sSonata,9a contradiction of the nature of the whole of what
precedes it.

Sciarrino frequently inverts this process in order to place emphasis on an often extremely sudden climax. Perhapsthe most telling example of this is in his huge Un'Immagine for d'Arpocrate piano, chorus and orchestra (1974-79). As the only large-scale work currently available on CD,10 it is perhaps worth giving some background as the long gestation of the work is explained in part by the circumstances of its inception.11 The Italian pianist Dino Ciani, a colleague of Sciarrino's, had asked him for a piano concerto early in 1974. Tragically that proved to be the last year of Ciani's life, and after his death work on the piece ground to a halt.
8 ibid.

9 It is interesting note, howeverthat Liszt'sendingwas to which Sciarrino originallythe same virtuosicculmination in mentions connexion with the flute piece.The processof revision can be seen in the facsimileof the manuscript published Henle Verlag. by
10Accord 202862, performed by Massimiliano Damerini,

extraordinaryAnamorfosi (1980) for piano is made up almost entirely of material by Ravel. The piece opens with 'I'm singing in the rain' as a descant toJeux d'eau(Ravel's this sur time, not Liszt's),while the close is furnished by uneBarque I'ocean from Miroirs! The effect is charming, ironic and entirely Sciarrinian. 7 'Entretiens avec Salvatore Sciarrino', p.136.

6 The

with the choirand orchestra RadioSudwestfunk of Badenand Baden, conductedby ErnestBour. The performance are recording exemplary. II I havebasedthe followingmaterial a smallessayby the on of composerabout the composition the work which was in contained the sleeve notes for the originalLP recording Italia 7088),butomitted fromtheCD booklet. (FonitCetra ITL


'A volcano viewed Sciarrino from afar':the Musicof Salvatore comes, the effect is both of great relief and tragic pain - though clearly a work of this scale and nature needs to be experienced ratherthan read about. Sciarrino uses broadly the same formal principle in other works, although the overall effect is of course completely different. One good example is the Second Piano Trio (1987) which spends much of its time exploring the string players' harmonics, the piano very rarely getting a look in, only to blossom rapidly into a beautifully florid stream of ornamentation.12 One thing which these works and others in Sciarrino's output do have in common is the remarkable integration between the different layers of each piece. While one can easily talk about the great subtlety and intricacy of his textures,and the articulacyof the formal schemes he creates, it is emphatically not possible to describe the total experience brought about by music which is bound together in all dimensions with the mastery that Sciarrino displays in so many of his works. Let's hope that we in Britain can experience more of his music at first hand in the coming years.

Sciarrino had planned three movements (in a 'traditional' fast-slow-fast scheme - which no doubt would have been put to ironic use), and had scored a few pages. When he managed to resume work, however, he found that the piece startedto change.The middle movement (Adagio) became the centre of attention while the outer movements (Allegroappassionato Allegro con and fuoco) became two tiny frames, later to be dropped altogether. Sciarrino thought of the Adagio as 'a kind of timeless zone, veiled by larval apparitions' and found that the idea of 'death strippedof rhetoricand linked to a limbolike more thana nocturnalatmosphere' broadened the dimensions of the piece. The result is strangelymore than the sum of its parts. Most of the piece consists simply of unidentifiable sustained low sound of great complexity (produced without the use of electronics). Essentially there are two outbursts, a short one about 10 minutes in and a longer one just before the end (the piece lasts over 40 minutes). The expectation set up by the first outburst is drawn out for the rest of the piece, intensified by the muted flurries of piano and materialwhich have appeared percussion regularly from the start. When the final climax suddenly

First Trio this Unfortunately neither worknorthepowerful (1975)havebeen recorded.