Magazine article Gramophone

Salvatore Sciarrino: Philip Clark Celebrates the Italian Composer Whose Music Occupies the Margins between the Most Fragile of Sounds and Silence

Magazine article Gramophone

Salvatore Sciarrino: Philip Clark Celebrates the Italian Composer Whose Music Occupies the Margins between the Most Fragile of Sounds and Silence

Article excerpt

The composer saL!vaT.or()e SciarrrrRRRRRrrrrino's name holds the sounds of his music inside its rolling counterpoint of spongy vowels and oratorical consonants. Invariably, Sciarrino's music is hardly there. Flute harmonics crack at the margins of hearing, notes are pressed down on keyboards with the weight of a kitten chasing a ball of wool, and orchestras in Sciarrino's hands can sound fragile and feathery, as if Anton Bruckner had never happened. And yet, for all its tiptoeing delicacies, his music is prodigiously detailed, packed with event and itchy, restless energy.

In my diagrammatic representation of the composer's name the most significant symbols are those two brackets that outline white space, which if transferred to music would likely invoke silence. Because Sciarrino's rests are the most perfectly formed in new music. Typically a Sciarrino composition sets material in motion and then sets about torpedoing its progress. Tremolartelos and trills sustain sound over time.

His music leans on trills and ornaments as compositional filigree the way Philip Glass relies on the arpeggio, and yet circling these sustaining devices is a capricious network of miscellaneous pops, clicks and raspberries that, like an alert collie dog rounding up sheep, herd and worry the ornamental formality. And this maelstrom of activity often comes to rest around punctuating pockets of silence, short paragraphs that open up the space and give emphasis.

Like this one.

In stark contrast to John Cage's deployment of silence, Sciarrino's silences often feel like the result of cadences, either perfect or imperfect, that couldn't be bothered to turn up. Such obvious musical grammar can be more powerful when it is not explicitly stated and listeners' imaginations are left to hear what isn't there. And unlike Cage, Sciarrino is immersed in Western tradition. Born in Palermo in 1947, he is a generation (or two) younger than first-generation postwar Italian composers such as Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, Franco Donatoni, Luigi Nono, Aldo dementi and Niccolo Castiglioni who collectively defined a bold and convincing Italian enclave of European modernism. The argument is often pressed that those florid melodic instrumental arias that are so intimately part of Donatoni's and dementi's sound worlds relate to Italian operatic tradition, and that Sciarrino's own fluid textures owe much to their example. But Sciarrino has also clearly deduced from late-period Nono (typified by Nono's Post-prae-ludium per Donau and Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima) the purchase that can come with obliging listeners to deal with musical material in ways that might feel at first counterintuitive. The equation tends to be that busy sounds are loud sounds; in Sciarrino, that common understanding is turned against itself.

His breakthrough piece, De la nuit for solo piano, written in 1971, was generated by deconstructing Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. Sciarrino shredded Ravel's original material and placed the fragments into a collage that mulched the syntax of Gaspard's original structure down into a trademark paradox. The music hardly pauses for breath as it surges forwards. For an exhilarating six minutes, Sciarrino keeps his borrowed material locked inside transformational flux. Through incongruity, as narrative discontinuity takes hold, scattering passagework and tumbling scales are transformed. By running together and overlapping his pureed slices of Ravel, Sciarrino trashes the original harmonic narrative--or, more precisely, his collage creates an objectified, atomised perspective on Gaspard which the human brain, left to its own devices, would have been unlikely to stumble across.

As he has explained, during a period when many of his contemporaries were measuring their own development against Webern and Schoenberg, Ravel meant more to him than the composer's assumed status as a mere figure of transition between the classical and modern words. …

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