Forces of Nature and Windows to the Past

The German premiere of „Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo“ on 7 July will be part of the Festival INFEKTION!, which is dedicated to new music and contemporary musical theatre. Dramaturge Benjamin Wäntig talked with conductor Maxime Pascale about Salvatore Sciarrino’s composition, why there is always sound in silence and how comtemporary compositions by Alessandro Stradella acutally sound.

Maxime, how did you first come into contact with the music of Salvatore Sciarrino?

The first Sciarrino opera I ever heard was “Luci mie traditrici” in Lyon. Ten years ago, when I founded the Paris ensemble “Le Balcon” with friends and colleagues, we placed a piece by Sciarrino, “Introduzione all’oscuro”, on the program for our very first concert, a piece that I had heard at one of my first concert visits in Paris and accompanied me ever since. This success encouraged us to continue engaging with the composer’s music. In 2015, we played “Lohengrin” at “Le Balcon”. So his music has accompanied me for quite some time now.

What is your fascination for Sciarrino’s music?

Despite its relative minimalism, it develops an enormous evocative power; it summons nature and the forces of nature like wind and water in a very concrete fashion. Listening for the very first time, I always had the sense of being inside a living being. In “Introduzione all’oscuro”, there is a bassoon solo that consists solely of the taps of the keys. It sounds like a dull pulse, like a heartbeat: that was a truly immersive experience while listening.

And all the same, Sciarrino doesn’t necessarily make things easier for the performer. What are the main difficulties in performing “Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo”?

The most difficult thing about this piece, and many of Sciarrino’s works in general, is the approach to silence and space. All sounds emerge from silence and then again disappear in silence, like rising and falling curves. All performers, singers and instrumentalists alike, have to find the point of transition from which silence becomes sound and vice versa. This can only take place in space, and Sciarrino composed this space around the silence and the sounds that emerge in his pieces. You need to learn to hear this space and this silence, just as Sciarrino does. We’re often not used to this, because in our everyday life we have music constantly around us. Especially as musicians: we often play more than we can listen to. In Sciarrino, the orchestra musicians play very little, but have to listen a great deal: when they do play, then it’s more about their ears than their instruments.

Traditionally, sound and silence are mutually exclusive opposites. Either I play a tone and its there, or it isn’t.

Precisely, and Sciarrino’s music is always on the threshold between the two, not belonging to one or the other category. It is important to seek out this realm first of all and to find it. But it also has to be said that there is no such thing as absolute silence. If we were to stop speaking right now, we would still hear sounds from outside or, say on an opera stage, the sounds of the spotlights. Even if all of that weren’t there, we would hear the sounds of our body, like our heartbeat. Silence and sound do not exist as absolutes, this is why it is so interesting for our perception to plumb the liminal zone between the two in Sciarrino’s music.

The encounter between the past and the present is characteristic for “Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo”, even more than in most of Sciarrino’s early operas, in a musical sense as well. Through “windows” to the past, as Sciarrino put it, Stradella’s music shines through repeatedly.

The passages in which Sciarrino has arranged Stradella’s music in new ways are fascinating indeed. Here, different musical styles are contrasted with one another, but ultimately Sciarrino’s contemporary style and Stradella’s Baroque style combine to form one music—in the singular, not the plural. Behind this, there is the notion that Stradella passed his artistic results like a ball over to the next generation, which then also passed it on, and Sciarrino finds himself at the end of this long series. Thus, not only Stradella sounds through in the “Ti vedo” score, but many other composers as well. Even in Stradella’s original music, older music like that of Monteverdi or Gabrieli can also be heard. All composers have basically been working on the one and same object. This becomes especially clear by watching Sciarrino work: art is not created in isolation by just one single person. The Stradella passages in “Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo” are “windows” to a past that is part of Sciarrino’s own universe. Although I’ve had some experience in the realm of the Venetian repertoire from the Renaissance and early Baroque, you don’t really need to be an expert baroque conductor to do justice to these parts of the opera.

Stradella is no longer one of the well-known Baroque composers. What makes his music so special?

There’s an interesting technique in his music, for example, for which I don’t have a name: he uses ostinato lines that do not remain identical, but are transposed several times over following no recognizable pattern to several new keys, then returning to the original key. This results in a large cyclical form in music, or more precisely a cycle in which many small wheels are turning. Stradella composed at a time when harmony was not yet subject to strict rules and seen like an architecture that was fixed for all time. This makes it so interesting to observe, because many of the musical transitions sound so modern in retrospect. So there’s a lot to discover in Stradella’s music!

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