Friday, 8 May 2009

Salvatore Sciarrino - cool dude

This smooth dude is Italian – of course, look at the natty shirt and watch! You bet he has nice pointy shoes. Salvatore Sciarrino (b 1947) is one of the biggest names in new music. On Sunday 10th May there’ll be a free concert of his music at the South Bank London. We’ll hear one of his Caprices for solo violin, and …da un divertimento for 10 esecutori (performers).

The photo is specially apt as it shows the composer enjoying an espresso in the ancient town of Città di Castello in the Umbrian foothills, where he lives. The ambience of the town inspired his Quaderno di strada (2003), 12 canti e un proverba per baritone e strumenti. The CD notes are poetry. “Umbrian light…that spawns gentle, ephemeral shadows and is engulfed by the intangibly secret web of voices filling the mysterious night”. Sciarrino’s music is magic, elusive as if it adopts “the mobility of air, captured its nocturnal buzzing sounds with a net veil and transformed them into fluctuating sonorities, roaring and murmuring”.

There are texts to these songs, aphoristic snatches from Roman classics to Rilke. They are fragments that suggest moods the music elaborates. The voice plays with the words of a strange phrase seen on a wall in Perugia. Se non ora, quando? se non qui, dove? se non tu, chi?(if not now, when? if not here, where? if not you, who?” Long sweeping phrases are taken up by trumpet and oboe, later by violin, scratching along like something tossed in the wind. Simple, yet very expressive. 

Sciarrino doesn’t use easy signposts but wavers in ambiguities. Everything floats, shimmers, turns sudden corners. It’s not, though, like impressionist painting made up of dots, pretty on the surface but devoid of depth. On the contrary, meaning is central to Sciarrino’s music, though its precise content depends on how the listener puts together the clues in sound. This is profoundly emotional music, though it doesn’t crudely pull the heartstrings. It’s enigmatic, tantalizingly elusive, best approached perhaps through listening inwardly.
It’s also technically astute. Sciarrino knows baroque technique, adapting sillabazione scivolata (slipping syllables) for extra vocal flexibility. “A supporting note is held”, he explains, “crescendo decrescendo – and then breaks off suddenly in a very rapid sequence of small intervals whose pitches are almost indeterminable, often falling, - stepwise glissandi, so to speak”. 

Structurally, the cycle is elegant. Each miniature is distint yet leads into the next while the last part stands apart like pithy summation. Here the instruments (hard to distinguish for they’re used in unusual ways) do a syllabic cakewalk, short jerky rhythms, yet expanded by miniature glissandi within notes. The words deconstruct, too, into jaunty particles, like a merry dance. Put together they say Du cose al mondo non si ponno avere d’essere belli e di saper cantare. Someone please translate ? 

There is a recording, on Kairos, Otto Katzameier and Klangforum Wien, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling. Sciarrino is published by Ricordi, and there are many other recordings. His work for solo piano is particularly beautiful – the Nocturnes are a good introduction. 

A few years ago I heard Nicolas Hodges play Perduto in una città d’acque.(Lost in a city of water). This came to Sciarrino as he sat with Luigi Nono as Nono lay slowly dying. They hardly spoke, but communication doesn’t depend on words. “The words in a sentence were often punctuated by strands of sleep”, said Sciarrino, “and the meaning wandered, towards dreams, towards that nucleus of warmth”. What may seem to be long moments of silence in this piece seem more like moments of intense, intuitive listening. Structurally, it is based on a series of two note chords, but it is the reverberations between the notes that is fascinating. The sounds linger across the silence, the vibrations continuing after a note is struck. The occasional flurries of harmony highlight the profound dignity of the stillness. One set of chords is deliberately flat and hollow, like the mechanical ticking of a metronome – the passing of time, dripping water drops, a frail heartbeat.

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