At the beginning of month, I attended a retrospective concert of music by the composer Sylvano Bussotti, performed by members of sfSoundGroup at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Bussotti is an Italian avant-garde composer whose body of work transcends into visual media and film as well. His music itself is very visual, and his graphical scores are works of art that combine standard music notation with graphical symbols, spatial positioning on the page and text instructions that inform the musicians on how to interpret and perform the piece. They are also known for being difficult to play, but sfSoundGroup is up to the challenge.
The performance took place in the museum’s expansive atrium, which was bathed in red light, with the musicians in the center and the audience orbiting around them. The space was bounded by two pianos, mysteriously set apart.
In the few minutes before the concert began, I was able to check out a couple of the scores up close.
[Score for “Phrase a trois” by Sylvano Bussotti.]
This score is for the piece Phrase a trois for string trio (violin, viola and cello). I also was able to view the score for Geographie Francaise alongside the percussion setup:
[Score for “Geographie Francaise”, by Sylvano Bussotti, with percussion instruments. (Click image to enlarge.)]
Unlike many graphical scores, which often allow for wide interpretation of visual elements and improvisation, these seemed more designed to describe precise instructions to the performer.
Bussotti himself performed in two of the pieces. For Geographie Francaise, he played piano and incanted stark vocal lines in French, alongside featured soloist Laura Bohn and percussionist Kjell Nordeson. I quite liked this piece for its starkness, conceptual simplicity (i.e., centering around the title itself) and the disparate texture of the instrumentation: voice, piano and percussion. One does not really hear traditional rhythms or melodies, even of the early-twentieth century “atonal” sense, but rather directly on the various sound, musical and narrative concepts, more like an abstract theater piece.
[Laura Bohn and Kjell Nordeson performing “Geographie Francaise” by Sylvano Bussotti. (Click images to enlarge.)]
Bussotti also performed in In Memoriam Cathy Berberian. Here, his voice was more central to the piece, and he spoke in Italian in more expressive tones. This is not surprising, given the subject of the piece was Cathy Berberian, his longtime “friend and muse”.
[Sylvano Bussotti performance with members of sfSoundGroup. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]
Different personel from sfSoundGroup were featured in different pieces, ranging from the full nine-member cohort in Autotono to a solo performance by Matt Ingalls on clarinet in one of Bussotti’s more recent pieces, Variazione Berio composed in honor of Luciano Berio who died in 2007. In the performance, Ingalls takes advantage of the portability of his instrument to move freely about the space. In doing so, he was able to employ spatial effects on the timbre of the clarinet within the music, which was filled with lots of empty space punctuated with occasional loud tones.
[Matt Ingalls performs “Variazione Berio” by Sylvano Bussotti. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]
The sparseness of the music and performer’s motion did in fact remind me a bit of Berio’s Sequenzas, and also made me think of the parallels between the theatricality of Berio’s music as compared to Bussotti’s. They were contemporaries in Italian avant-garde music – and as another link, Cathy Berberian was Berio’s wife in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The concert concluded with a performance of Tableaux vivants avant La Passion selon Sade (1964) for two prepared pianos. This was probably my favorite of the evening (along with Geographie Francaise). The pianos that were separated up to now were joined together in the center of the space. The two pianists (Christopher Jones and Ann Yi) playing cooperatively on a single piano, operating both the keyboard and elements within the instrument’s body. Their bodies often crossed paths and intertwined as they attempted to perform their respective parts – the motion seemed both chaotic and intimate at the same time. As the piece progressed, they spread out to both pianos – and in the final movement, they close their scores and attempt to play from memory. Throughout, the music was filled with intense, and sometimes violent energy especially when playing the interior of the piano. I contrast this to they very calm and contemplative nature of John Cage’s better known prepared-piano pieces. It fun to watch, and provided for a dramatic finish to the concert.
The concert was preceded by a screening of Bussotti’s 1967 silent Rara that included live piano accompaniment by Bussotti himself. The music, which was based on live interpretation of a graphical score in which he moved about at will, did not strictly follow the events and actions on the screen, but rather provided more of a backdrop and a counterpoint to images that would have otherwise been rather jarring to watch to watch in silence. [However, the music as performed did have a narrative structure of it’s own, moving between very abstract discrete tones and more idiomatic and even tonal sections.] The film itself consisted mostly of “film portraits” of figures from the Italian avant-garde – mostly images of men (though Cathy Berberian is also featured) in a variety of sexual and emotionally uncomfortable poses, including countless shots of tear-streaked male faces. As such, the film did not really hold my attention, although I did like the abstract imagery and close-ups of the musical score, as well as the play on the letters of the title R-A-R-A itself, that were used alongside the more homoerotic portraits. And certainly it was was interesting to see the composer and filmmaker respond musically to his own work after so many years.
Additional credit goes to Luciano Chessa, who organized the evening’s events. We had previously encountered him last year when he organized the event Metal Machine Manifesto, Music for 16 Intonarumori.