Live Reviews: Sligo New Music Festival 2003

Model Arts and Niland Gallery, 29 March 2003This year’s Sligo New Music Festival, under the artistic direction of Ian Wilson, was a one day event devoted to Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, whose works, though well known on the continent, have been...

Model Arts and Niland Gallery,
29 March 2003

This year’s Sligo New Music Festival, under the artistic direction of Ian Wilson, was a one day event devoted to Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, whose works, though well known on the continent, have been almost completely neglected in this country until now.

Performers on the day were the mezzo Sonia Turchetta and Alter Ego, an Italian new music group and Sciarrino’s ensemble of preference: it’s not difficult to see why, as every piece was played with almost supernatural skill and dedication.

Concert 1
Messiaen – Neumes rhythmiques (1949)
Sciarrino – Due studi (1974), Lettera degli antipoda portato dal vento (2000), 3rd sonata (1987)
Harvey – Curve with plateaux (1982)
Sciarrino – Come vengona prodotti gli incantesimi (1985)
Concert 2
Sciarrino – Immagine fenicia (2000), Vanitas (1981)
Concert 3
Sciarrino – La perfezione di uno spirito sottile (1985)

The lunchtime concert worked as a good introduction to his style with a mix of short solo pieces and works by Messiaen and Jonathan Harvey. Neumes Rhythmiques exemplifies that style of Messiaen described by Boulez as ‘not composition but juxtaposition’: blocks of music are alternated like a mosaic and variation is more on the level of sequencing of the segments than within them. Pianist Oscar Pizzo played with great energy and imparted a jazz-like fluidity to the phrasing without sacrificing the careful rhythmic differentiation between neumes.

To those unfamiliar with Sciarrino’s work, the Due studi for cello must have been quite shocking as the most immediate element of his soundworld is the almost total absence of ‘straight’ pitches. The ghostly sound of tremolando harmonics dominates – played mainly as groups of grace note arpeggios – with occasional glissandi and sounds of high noise content: a whispering child in the audience blended in perfectly for a few seconds. The construction of these pieces is hard to pin down as most of it is too fleeting to get a grip on; the identities of musical events and objects become blurred as the level of variation becomes more and more subtle. In a way, this music happens more in our mind than on the stage: where a lot of contemporary music antagonises the memory by proffering a constant stream of novelty, Sciarrino’s music teases the memory with objects so similar that we become participants and not mere observers. His concept of variation is organically different from the notational-numerical and functions on the level of language and gesture, but he keeps the vocabulary simple even if the sounds are not.

The form of the first study was almost improvisational, but the second was more immediate, a form shared with the two flute pieces, Lettera degli antipoda portato dal vento and Come vengona prodotti gli incantesimi. The dialectic of these pieces is made clearer by using several objects with greater differentiation, almost as different characters. Lettera… alternates phrases of pitched breath sounds sforzando and near inaudible whistle-tones that soon became a gesture-for-gesture exchange. This informs the whole piece with alternations between fixed and changing objects, glissandi of breath and harmonics, chromatic fragments against single pitches, the constant variation of a single idea that allows for both a wide variety of sound and clarity of form.

Come vengona… begins as a metronomic stream of barely pitched embouchure pops and tongue slaps, occasionally interrupted by whooshing harmonics. These punctuations gradually increase in incidence and after a couple of minutes they take over and become tumbling arpeggios of harmonics and pitched breath sounds until this too is interpolated with and superseded by a new section of fluttering trills and tremoland that slow and fade to nothing. Immagine fenicia also uses the device of a steady stream of pops, mut maintained it throughout and was more concerned with decorations of line and processes of gradual colour shifting.

The 3rd Sonata for piano is less concerned with non-classical technique and focuses more on extending the tradition of virtuoso pianism. A quiet filigree of pointillism across the register played with almost impossible speed and agility soon became entangled and exploded with clusters and glissandi that flashed across the seething texture. This was edge-of-the-seat stuff and played with piano-shaking power, although as with the cello study it was difficult to get a sense of structure beyond the surface, but there was plenty to explore.

Jonathan Harvey’s Curve with plateaux for cello brought us back to more familiar territory, the title describing the registral arc traversed by the instrument from low to high and back. The form is mainly chant-like with phrases repeated, decorated and extended before moving on to the next. Microtones gave a nice edge to the melodic lines although the higher passages recalled Tavener’s protecting veil a little to closely.

Enzo Restango – professor of musicology at Turin – gave a short lecture on the music of Sciarrino that for all its brevity gave great insights into the composer’s interests, relating particularly to the ‘revolution of language’ in Joyce and Beckett and his use of ‘mythical perspective’.

Most of the lecture was about the anti-opera Vanitas that took place later. Pianist and cellist were joined by Sonia Turchetta in a 40 minute work described by the composer as anamorphosis (visual art: stretching or distorting an image) of the lied; he writes that ‘it contains the stylisations and movements: yet the proportions, as in dreams, are not the same’. This is spacious music: the techniques of variation seen in the earlier pieces are expanded so that a three-chord sequence becomes fifteen minutes of music, then shifting on its axis to present an opposing view. Where Webern made the world in a grain of sand, Sciarrino takes an Esher-like delight in making the world into many grains, each reflecting differently the same image. Various aspects and textures of the lied style are explored and the harmony of the stylised piano part is often closer to 30s jazz than Schubert, but this is framed by the otherworldly vocal and the cello, which adopts a role of echoing and distorting the voice; both are ‘dramatic ghosts’.

The final piece of the day was La perfezione di uno spirito sottile for mezzo and flute; described as ‘a musical ritual, to be performed in the open…or on a boundless plateau’, ‘a lament that would echo across the deserted plains’. A work almost glacial in its seeming paucity of surface features, but as ever with Sciarrino, the listener is drawn into a fractal dimension where at times the voice and flute are one sound before they disentangle and follow again on their own trails. Similar in scale to Vanitas, this piece closed a festival to be remembered in suitably epic fashion.

Published on 1 May 2003

Scott McLaughlin is an Irish composer.

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