On Sciarrino’s Centauro Marino

This week we’re sharing a piece from c)i’s first CD, Group Theory, a disc that featured two long-time members Steve Beck and Sumi Kudo. That’s actually the crew that played my first Piano Quartet on my ‘Some Consequences…’ CD for 2018. I just saw King Crimson at Radio City last month, so I’m very temped to call that c)i III (which would mean we’re at c)i V now (welcome, once again Dan and Caleb!).

But c)i’s relationship to the piece is much older than that. We were playing it within a few years of our formation, and it was one of the pieces that made us commit to the instrumentation of string trio, clarinet, and piano, and some echoes of the piece are definitely present in my Quintet l’homme armé, my first piece for that power quintet. The instrumental colors are, as always with Sciarrino, perfect in all ways;- intricate but also quite simple in many ways, and the feu d’artifice, as showy as they might seem in the moment, are impeccably balanced to amplify the impact of the form. This is always a piece that is a tight 9, but always feels to me to be 20 minutes or more, like I’ve been pulled out of the timeline and put back in not quite in the right place. Quintet l’homme armé plays a similar game of balance, and has a similar utilization of pianissimo- Centauro Marino punctuates its own zero-point matrix with sharp, inelastic collisions, while my quintet finds crosses the skein of pulse and density into a quietistic isorhythm, a reflection on the surpassing enthalpy of certain strategies of music making.

Quietism is the right word for the Sciarrino, despite the (irregular) interruptions. We performed that as the last piece on one of my favorite show from that classic c)i III period. We were in the vast cavernous space of the old Washington Square Church, all dust and must and holy resonance. I remember walking out into the night, some autumn evening in Manhattan, in the subtle brûit of a less tidy, constructed by less rebuilt Manhattan, and thought about how that churn had sanctified our little show, puzzled people, spiders listening at least as much to the vibrations of their was as to the who, and church-mice living their church-mice lives. We walked out into the evening and as we walked down the steps to the sidewalk, Kyle turned to me and said “Quiet. It’s the new loud.”

On Mario Davidovsky’s Quartetto #4

Like many of those who knew him and his work, I have been thinking of Mario Davidovsky often since his passing on August 23. Nothing speaks more powerfully than the music itself, but since counter)induction has been such a strong advocate for his music, and we have a platform on which to explore and share ideas, I wanted to take this opportunity to spend time listening to a c)i performance of one his pieces that I wasn’t previously very familiar with, and discovered their excellent live recording of his Quartetto #4 for clarinet and string trio. 

c)i’s performance of Davidovsky’s Quartetto #4 for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello beautifully captures many of the hallmarks that I listen for when I hear his music. His characteristic electronic music type analogues that he “re-orchestrated” for acoustic instruments are tightly woven and spring to life like sonic Rube Goldberg machines. Some great examples: the composite gesture of a Bartok pizzicato revealing a sustained tone at 0:18, creating a hybrid timbre; at 8:17 the high squeals followed by a skittering downward murmur (one could imagine these sounds trailing away across the stereo field in a spatialized speaker set up); at 11:18 the final burst of bombast, with a fleet clarinet gesture followed by a trill that sounds like tolling bells. c)i’s performance also does a wonderful job of bringing out Davidovsky’s compositional juggling act of contrasting characters, balancing the unfolding rhetorical argument while allowing each motive to evolve and change over the course of the piece.

In Quartetto #4, this motivic journey is heard most clearly through the evolution of the clarinet’s voice, which frequently retreats back to somber material between more active sections. In the introduction, Davidovsky lays out many of the characters that will be developed later in the piece, the whole of the commedia deIl’arte as he liked to say. Melodrama and sudden expressions of extroversion are very much a feature of his music and the players execute these with requisite energy but retain precision. I’ve noticed a consistent pattern in Davidovsky’s music of tempering those outbursts with introverted material directly afterward. We hear this in the contrast between the climactic material from ca. 10:00-10:36 and the tender music that directly follows, or also in the subsequent passionate passage from 10:55 to 11:24 and the eerie calm of the lone clarinet that comes on its heels. This ability to turn on a dime really makes Davidovsky’s music come alive and gives dimension to the multi-layered expressive component in his music. c)i’s performance is a compelling version of a powerfully lyrical piece that is late Davidovsky chamber writing at its best.