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'Maestro of the Universe'John Banville interviews Salvatore Sciarrino for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine

Contemporary Music Ireland Public Relations

Note: The following text by writer John Banville, originally appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times Culture Magazine, June 18th 2017.  

Maestro of the Universe  


Salvatore Sciarrino one of the world’s most original and most radical composers, visits Ireland for the first time on Saturday. He will be hosted by the Louth Contemporary Music Society and attend concerts in Dundalk. That he has not a greater reputation in the English-speaking world is among the mysteries of the contemporary music business. Over the past half century he has produced a vast body of work — there are scores of CDs of Sciarrino’s music available — much of it written for the voice. His best-known piece is the opera Luci Mie Traditrici, which was composed in the latter half of the 1990s, and had its premiere, in a German-language version, at the Schwetzingen Festival in 1998.

Sciarrino, whose seventieth birthday fell this year, was born in Palermo in 1947. His interest in music was sparked early on, partly by listening to his older brother’s collection of LPs of the music of ‘experimental’ composers such as Webern, Stockhausen and Luigi Nono. In those pre-teen years he also discovered the late chamber works of Beethoven. Throughout his career he has made his own way, and found his own musical directions. Although he took some lessons in composition, and in Rome in the 1960s attended a course in electronic music, for the most part he is self-taught, a fact in which he takes some pride: as he has said, he was ‘born free’ and not in a music school.

He moved from Sicily to Rome in 1969, and then in the 1970s to Milan, where he taught in the Conservatory for five years. He had by then begun to achieve fame as a composer, not only in Italy but in Germany and other places in Europe, and in the early 1980s he gave up teaching and settled in Città di Castello in Umbria, where he still lives. He has said that moving to a small town was one of the best choices he ever made, and that getting away from the cacophony and strained rhythms of city life changed his music for the better.

That music is like no one else’s. In the work of most composers, even the greatest and most innovative, one can detect wisps of early influence; Sciarrino, however, sounds wholly unique. The plot and atmosphere of Luci Mie Traditrici may put some listeners in mind of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, but any similarity there may be between the two works is superficial. Sciarrino has devised a way of writing for the human voice that is entirely his own. This is singing of a kind not heard before, except perhaps in the ancient world. It is not so much pre-modern, or pre-classical, as, one might almost say, ‘pre-musical’. Schoenberg aimed to compose music ‘from another planet’, but Sciarrino’s work seems to have originated in another universe. The instruments and voices swoop and skitter, rising from intimately unsettling whispers to thrilling shrieks. Remarkably, however, the sounds produced are never less, or more, than human.

Indeed, part of the power of a work such as Luci Mie Traditrici lies in the peculiar level of intimacy that is enforced between performer and listener. Sciarrino has spoken of the quality of erotic immediacy there is in the human voice, especially the voice as it comes to us in the form of music. In his opera, when the duke and his lady, Il Malaspina and La Malaspina — malaspina translates as ‘bad thorn’ — consort together, an almost unbearable tension builds up between them, and the listener feels like an unwilling eavesdropper, locked into the murderous embrace of the emotions of the characters and at the same time wishing to escape from the proximity of their struggle. No one, we feel, should be brought this close to the passionate life of others.

At the close of an interview with the Guardian newspaper some years ago, Sciarrino declared blithely that his aim was nothing less than ‘to change the world’. I was startled by this, since it seems to me that his music is ‘unworldly’ in the best sense of the word: elusive, ambiguous, teasingly mysterious, self-contained. Does he believe art can change the world? I was thinking of W.H. Auden’s assertion that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, and of Kafka’s aphorism that ‘the artist is the one who has nothing to say’. Sciarrino’s sensible response was that, ‘according to present scientific thought, even the fall of a single leaf changes the world,’ and that the artist may have nothing to say, ‘but has much to do.’ And thus were Auden, Kafka, and me put firmly in our places.

‘Surely we have the duty to improve ourselves,’ Sciarrino added. ‘This means, to let emerge what otherwise might remain only virtual in our personalities.’

I mentioned that a friend of ours, the late and sorely missed Max Rabino, who introduced me both to the composer and to his work, described Sciarrino’s music as an attempt to go back to the beginnings of his art, or even further, to an era when music had only begun to shape itself, to transform noise into sound. In replying, Sciarrino chose to disregard the historical aspect of my question in favour of the aesthetic. ‘I bring the listener to the edge of silence,’ he said. ‘When we feel the vacuum, every perception can be renewed. It comes as a moment of surprising awaking, in which we feel our body “for the first time”: our breath, our heart’s beat.’ For Sciarrino, music is a matter of thereness, of the tactile and the palpable — an art form, one might say, of the fleshly and the erotic.

I mentioned the transition that music made over time from the polyphonic to the harmonic. ‘Do you think it’s possible, in our age, to return to the days of Monteverdi and Lassus? Or, indeed, of Gesualdo, whose notorious life and revolutionary music are echoed in Luci Mie Traditrici. I suppose what I’m asking is, can a new music be made out of a return to the old?’

Sciarrino replied: ‘Life is movement, change: that is, creativity. . . . New and old are only perspectives of our mind. New is produced from new ways in using old words. The Renaissance, you know, opened a totally new world, by returning to the classical past. I reinvent the past, but my music is strictly new.’

I recalled to him that he had once said the most beautiful thing about music, for him, was that it expresses, or embodies, emotions that are beyond the reach of words. His reply was heartening, if somewhat gnomic: ‘Everybody wants to analyse emotions through rationality. But emotions pass through a different channel: that of affection. We must discover, understand and respect the human faculties. Modern aesthetics tries to remove and cut emotions from human identity. It means to destroy the most extended and powerful human faculty. But I don’t want to conceive of human beings as mechanics of the spirit.’

In an age in which aesthetics have on one side bowed low before the golden calf of ‘popular culture’, and on the other have retreated into soulless aridity, how refreshing, how exciting, it is to encounter the work of an artist who, while he has no illusions about populism — ‘I don’t know what it may mean to ‘write for the people’ — at the same time is convinced that music is capable of speaking, of singing, directly both to the heart and to the mind. I shall leave the last word to him. His aim, he has written, is ‘a music which is natural (or, if you like, ecological or organic), which anyone can listen to, like when you lie down on the grass and the world opens up its sounds to you and time turns into space and space into time. Of course, you need ears that can hear the world for every small thing to appear a revelation.’

Salvatore Sciarrino visits Ireland for the first time for Louth Contemporary Music Society’s Silenzio Festival Saturday June 24th 2017, Dundalk. For more details

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