His compositions seem to emerge from below the auditory threshold to captivate with suggestions of lush sensuality. The Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, an aesthete born of a world of evanescent sounds, silences, and evocations, is one of the leaders of the European avant-garde. In addition to a large body of instrumental music, he has written extensively for the voice. Not since Wagner has a composer programmatically stated his intention to reform musical theater, but at 63, and with seven operas to his name, Sciarrino is doing precisely that.
Sciarrino’s new chamber opera, La porta della legge, based on Kafka’s “Before the Law,” had its North America premiere at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. Produced by the Wuppertal Opera and conducted by Hilary Griffiths, the piece featured a baritone, counter-tenor, and bass. Kafka’s circular literary form is mirrored in the musical adaptation, notably in the emblematic scene of a man who is waiting at the gates of the House of Justice and dies before his case is heard. Sciarrino repeats this scene three times: First it is sung by the baritone, then by the counter-tenor, and finally by the two singers together. Though the scenes parallel one another, there are crucial differences in tonal transformation and texture, and the suggestion of an endless loop.
Alessandro Cassin (Rail): You bring a new opera to Lincoln Center after Luci mie traditrici (2001) and Macbeth (2003).
Salvatore Sciarrino: The reception here has been warm and open. In many ways it has been a pleasure being here, not least on a biographical level. My grandfather moved here in the 1800s, with his 10 kids, and started an orange-import business. My mother was born in New York. When the business failed, the family returned to Sicily.
Rail: An operatic version of “Before the Law” from an Italian composer inevitably suggests references to Berlusconi’s Italy strangled by bureaucracy.
Sciarrino: Italy today re-enacts, in the full light of day, Kafka’s world. How can one pretend not to see what is happening? Kafka’s theme is something we live with every day.
Rail: The law in Kafka is something incomprehensible, obscure.
Sciarrino: What Kafka is criticizing is the rigidity in applying the law, not the law itself. The law and its violation complement each other; they live together like a couple. I don’t believe in absolute truths, and I don’t think Kafka did either.
Rail: What attracted you to Kafka’s story dramaturgically?
Sciarrino: The potential of the text rather than the text as it reads. By being repeated it becomes something else. More than an adaptation, I was aiming at an enhancement.
Kafka offered very rich material, out of which I tried to construct a more complex mechanism. One may read Kafka’s story as the misadventure of one individual. I wanted to show that it could happen to any and all of us.
Rail: In your Quaderno di strada you put to music the Talmudic saying “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not you, who?” What is its significance to you?
Sciarrino: I read the phrase as graffiti on a wall; I believe only the first part is from the Talmud. “If not now, when?” is a fundamental question relating to the birth of consciousness, which is the beginning of all human experiences.
Rail: What are the challenges of composing for the human voice?
Sciarrino: It forces you to confront deep ambiguities within. It is impossible to hear a human voice and remain indifferent. Using the voice means employing simultaneously two forces: words and music. Singing without words is nonsense, like making a car without wheels.
Rail: Your vocal style, from Aspern Suites to your 12 Madrigali to this new work, covers a wide spectrum.
Sciarrino: Finding a style is not so much being immediately recognizable, as much as using fully all channels of communication. Making music must encompass everything that draws us in.
Rail: How do you explain the frequency with which one hears “I don’t understand contemporary music” from people who would never say they don’t understand contemporary painting or fiction?
Sciarrino: Music is an emotional thing; it touches you intimately. Not everyone enjoys intimate contact. We live in a time of great diffidence, frigidity, and lack of joie de vivre, so music can become embarrassing. It embarrasses because it touches you, and being touched is erotic. It is music’s most beautiful trait; it is its eroticism that many people cannot handle.
Rail: You are self-taught, but today the notion of a self-taught composer is rather astonishing.
Sciarrino: People find it hard to believe, but the first time I walked into a conservatory it was to teach. I am an archaic kind of composer!
Rail: What sparked your interest in music?
Sciarrino: Our house was filled with music. I had an older brother with a musical passion who brought home the first LPs. Among them there were a few recordings of contemporary music that turned out to be fundamental for me: the collected works of Webern, Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte, and Nono’s Incontri.
Rail: Those were your formative musical experiences at age 12?
Sciarrino: I encountered some of the masterworks of the modernist tradition at the same time I discovered Beethoven’s last sonatas and quartets. All of this had belonged to my brother. He had warned me against listening to it before moving to the U.S. to attend university. Naturally as a child I gravitated toward what was forbidden.
Rail: Do you feel part of an Italian musical tradition?
Sciarrino: I would say a European tradition. I see no clear-cut [difference] between modern or contemporary music and what preceded it. Rather, I believe there is an uninterrupted tradition from Monteverdi to Stockhausen.
Rail: What was the musical life of Palermo as you were growing up?
Scarrino: Our contemporary music festivals were second to none: I saw Stravinsky conduct; Boulez was a regular, and same for Stockhausen, who composed a lot in Sicily. I skinned my hands clapping at his premieres.
Rail: How did you approach and teach Serialism yourself?
Sciarrino: I organized my whole life by what can be considered serial processes, yet applied the serial technique not to the single note but to the perceivable figures. I consider this a more organic way of using Serialism; of course it’s a heretical, unorthodox approach.
Rail: You conceive of music in radically new terms.
Sciarrino: Most people believe that music is a combination of notes. I don’t. Further, I do not identify psychologically with the mentality of the “professional composer.” Professional perspectives never interest me: They are not artistic.
Rail: What does the musical artist do?
Sciarrino: The artist is seeking something that does not yet exist. It’s like hunting. To be an artist is to experiment rather than apply rules. If Mozart had applied other composers’ rules he would not have come up with anything personal. If we follow rules we are doomed to be anonymous.
Rail: Critics have called your work an ecology of sound.
Sciarrino: What I am interested in above all is the perceptual world. My music is a space in which something occurs. The space we share with all living things can be called an environment. In this environment I create a tension between sonic elements, an intentional relation between elements where in reality there is none. It is not reality but a representation of reality. Clearly sonic elements have something to do with musical notes, but there are other parameters, which I consider more important, such as the color and the timbre of a sound.
Rail: You often speak of the intensity of a sound.
Sciarrino: Intensity, which is considered a very marginal parameter by the musical tradition, signals for me the relative closeness of the sonic object. Pianissimo is something far away, forte something close. The special relationship between a sonic object and us is determined by its intensity. To understand the importance of this feature, we can look at the psychophysical reactions of listeners: When a sound is very loud (it could be a passage in a symphony or an approaching truck) the body of the person reacts as if it senses danger. This is how we are wired. For centuries peoples in all cultures have associated a loud, close sound with danger and a soft, distant one with tranquility.
Rail: How did you come to compose through diagrams?
Sciarrino: I began using diagrams in 1962 and used them since for the organization and the physiognomy of my music. I have used symbolic, numeric, geometric, or visual diagrams as the case may be. Composing with diagrams is now widely accepted, but once I was seen as an eccentric.
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.