'uno spirito sottile'

A preview of the Sligo New Music Festival 2003.

Contemporary music has been a regular if minor feature in Sligo for a long time, normally in the context of an annual festival. With the increase in concert-goers and in the experience of new music in Sligo over the past two or three years thanks to the Vogler residency and the music society Con Brio, I felt that this was the time to widen the vision of the Festival to encompass international figures and trends. In taking this approach, the Festival is acknowledging both the opportunity and the responsibility of presenting music that is essentially new to the island – as recent Festivals in Dublin have shown, there is much written in the last fifty years (and further back) that has not yet been heard here.

I wanted to focus on a major European figure whose work is not well known in Ireland, and while there are a number who fall into this category, the music that has been fascinating me most for some time now is that of Salvatore Sciarrino. When I first heard Sciarrino’s work I was struck by the strength of its character and the confidence of its individuality. Unlike a number of well-known composers, Sciarrino does not keep to one well-tried and tested ‘style’, but rather applies his personal aesthetic across a broad range of environments that nevertheless appear full of integrity and authenticity. I was particularly impressed with his opera Luci mie traditrici (‘Mine deceiving sight’) and how he dealt with the normally inherent problems of diction and line clarity, and in his ritual work La Perfezione di uno spirito sottile (‘The perfection of a subtle spirit’) he manages to create and sustain a magical atmosphere with the barest means. I am convinced that his reputation as one of the most distinctive and important artists working today is fully justified.

Italy’s foremost living composer after Berio has an extensive catalogue of works in all genres that is characterised by invention of the highest order and a most refined taste. This year’s Festival is entitled ‘…uno spirito sottile’, a phrase that encapsulates both Sciarrino’s approach to his work and the work itself. In music theatre works such as Lohengrin, as well as in much of his chamber music, the sound world has an intimate relationship with silence, the flutterings and whisperings of the instruments providing the most delicate of foundations for the voices in a way that is completely antithetical to the more obvious clichés of the modernist tendency that Sciarrino is nevertheless a part of; Enzo Restagno describes it as ‘an X-ray of music’. In chamber works such as the piano sonatas the brilliance of the music’s surface shows a thorough familiarity with the works of past masters, not least Ravel, and at the same time complete confidence in the composer’s own aesthetic that enables the echoes of another age to be organically absorbed into a modern world view. His works for solo flute particularly show the results of a most exhaustive investigation into the possibility for an instrument to be transformed completely according to a composer’s singular vision.

The ‘anti-opera’ Vanitas is a remarkable piece – it opened the 1981 opera season at Piccola Scala, Milan, and is one of the Festival’s central works – that essentially transposes the elements of a lied onto a scale more reminiscent of opera and is certainly full of the resonance of that genre. Mezzo-soprano, cellist and pianist – the only performers – occupy the stage but there is no staging. It is as if one song has been stretched far beyond its normal parameters, altering the listener’s perception of passing time, yet the dramaturgy of the work is crystal-clear and totally convincing.

Of course, in order to fully realise the works of a composer as unique as Sciarrino, it is helpful to have performers familiar with his work. We are fortunate to have a group of his most exciting and experienced interpreters resident for this year’s Festival, Alter Ego from Rome, accompanied by one of Sciarrino’s most favoured singers, Sonia Turchetta. Another guest of the Festival will be Enzo Restagno who will, in association with Critical Voices, talk about Sciarrino’s music both in detail and in context. Restagno is a close associate of Sciarrino as well as being director of Settembre Musica, Italy’s foremost music festival.

The 2003 Sligo New Music Festival will take place throughout a single day, Saturday March 29th. While the reasons for this are mostly practical, I rather like the fact that so much music and information (three concerts and a number of talks) is being presented in a space of just over ten hours. It means that, while hardly threatening to saturate patrons of the Festival, they will certainly be able to immerse themselves in Sciarrino’s world for a while and come away both enlightened and enlivened.

Published on 1 March 2003

Ian Wilson is a composer

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