Italian Magicians

I’m not done with the formless (which is to say, I’ll never be done with the formless). However, here’s an interjection: the wonderful Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino was in Toronto last week, a joint endeavour by (at least) the University of Toronto, New Music Concerts, and Roger D. Moore (thank-you all so much!). I expected the music to be astounding – Sciarrino’s compositions have been very important to me for a long time – and despite expectation and familiarity, the music did indeed astound (stun and confound) me. These concerts, together with brilliant performances of some of Giacinto Scelsi’s music by Arraymusic pianist Stephen Clarke in early January, brought to mind a piece of writing I did for Quatuor Bozzini to accompany their concert Magie Italienne, the Italian magicians performed being Aldo Clementi, Scelsi and Sciarrino. Here it is:

Aldo Clementi, Giacinto Scelsi and Salvatore Sciarrino (let’s discuss them as if all three were still as alive as their music): three Italian magicians; practitioners of Magia Naturalis—Natural Magic. They are musical alchemists. And like alchemists, running their experiments in a world without scientific laws, all three explore and mobilize sound and time in a way that, while profoundly in contact with a rich variety of musical practices and histories, is at the same time radically apart from and other to the conventions and criteria that have traditionally governed those practices and histories. Musical alchemists, all three offer the listener uncanny transmutations of materials (sonic and temporal); transmutations that give rise to heard worlds, unstable and ephemeral, whose experiential complexities are far in excess of their components and structures.

Aldo Clementi writes canons; in the traditional musical sense—building up musical texture by overlapping similar materials in time or having them unfold at different speeds—but also in a more literal sense. “Canon” comes from the Greek word for “rule” and Clementi’s music is constructed from layers of rules: prescriptive systems often bloody-mindedly processing appropriated, pre-existing music. However, Clementi’s magic resides in the degree to which these machinations remain opaque and mysterious, never coherently determining the musical experience. This marvelous disjuncture between compositional methodology and resulting listening possibilities brings to mind an actual transmutation from the history of alchemy: not the ideal change from lead to gold, but rather, distilled urine transmuted to glowing phosphorus (check out the discovery of phosphorus in 1669 by German alchemist Hennig Brand).

Giacinto Scelsi’s music is radically sensual. I never hear it as an expression of a pre-existing idea, never merely a physical manifestation of a sounding situation that has already happened virtually in Scelsi’s imagination. Rather, I get the sense that Scelsi starts with a desire for an experience that can only occur through listening, through deeply feeling (in every sense of the word) a profound, complex, variable contact with sounds arranged in time. Fortunately, he requires other musicians to make this event happen, allowing other listeners the opportunity to feel this music along with him. All three composers here are concerned with extreme detail and with Scelsi the focus is on the shifting affects of sensation engendered by small sonic differences; he asks us to share with him what some have called an “Inward listening”. He composes a peculiar organum in which a non-functional harmony, free of progression, is created by adding thin strands of pitch (manifold frequencies, microtones) and noise to a monody sometimes made up of only a single note. His music is sensual but in no way superficial; Scelsi’s magic resides in the intense focusing of immanent wonder.

Clementi and Scelsi compose music. Clementi constructs sounding machines that function to produce insidiously marvelous works; Scelsi notates schematics that allow musicians to produce events that will in some way fulfill his desire for an experience that can only happen through listening to—feeling—those organized sounds. Obviously, Salvatore Sciarrino composes music as well; and yet, to me, Sciarrino’s music sounds more like something he discovered than made. It’s a music that seems to be a quietly dynamic collection of discrete organisms and/or strange mechanical artefacts (maybe wind-up toys that dance) inadvertently interacting; that are already there (somewhere), doing what they’re doing, before our ears and imaginations come upon them. It’s a music that brings together shards of musical phrases (maybe shavings left over from Clementi carving out his musical structures) and flashes of subtle, transient noise (maybe a thin strand that has escaped, taken a line of flight, from Scelsi’s organum) that situate themselves in temporal proximities that suggest (more than create) an uncanny lyricism.

I feel that with all three composers’ work I am not merely receiving some musical message they are expressing and delivering. Rather, for all their differences, their musics seem to unknowably appear and disappear, without any narrative devices like beginnings, middles and endings to regulate and give closure to their drifts through time. And I feel as if I am with each of them, together, sharing the experience of the music that each has caused to happen. With Clementi, I am encountering with him the unpredictable possibilities that arise from his intertwining structural processes. With Scelsi, I am immersed with him in his sensual sonic flow—both of us penetrated and amazed. With Sciarrino, I am with him on dérive, wandering through a weird sonic psychogeography, both of us dream-archeologists/naturalists finding and exploring the strange arrays of fragments and gestures we encounter. Aldo Clementi, Giacinto Scelsi and Salvatore Sciarrino: three Italian magicians, whose work is brought together in the hopes of eliciting more unknowable magic.


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