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Virtuosity

The organization and presentation of musical sound is one of the ways through which shared meanings are articulated. Values are not only represented and expressed through the social practice of musical performance but also through musical sounds themselves. This applies to and unites ideas and practices of all fields of musical expression, from traditional and folk music to art music. It is within the communication of values and meaning, in the presentation of musical sound, that the modern musician articulates his ‘virtuosity of knowledge’. The composer Luciano Berio used this extended concept of virtuosity to summarise his view on musician and instrument. Central to this concept, is the expansion of the scope, not only of technical possibilities, but also of the register of musical expression, through a kind of intellectual virtuosity that constantly reflects and challenges the idiom of the individual instruments, their technical capacity, and the historical roots of that idiom. Berio claimed that he never ‘abused’ the instrument in the manner of the more experimental styles of his contemporaries, and similar statements are given by Scodanibbio when he says that his music is “an expression of the desire to help the instrument finally find its own voice, after having known only the stammering of voices inappropriate to it or the sadistic violations of the so-called avant-garde”.16 They “never tried to alter the nature of the instrument, nor to use it “against’ its own nature”.17 With a similar respect for tradition, Salvatore Sciarrino, too, employs conventional instruments and puts them to unconventional use, and proceeds in having instruments pushed to their expressive limits.

Our modern-day understanding of the virtuoso performer is of a musician with analytical and technical insight; one who articulates the structure of the piece and sets the work in a historical perspective. Furthermore, he proposes emendations to a score by personal interpretations and co-composing practices – I strongly believe that the freedom of interpretation and of ‘reinvention’ must be emphasised in future collaborations between composer and performer – through critical reflection and active participating in the interpretative process and, not least, through the communication of the music. This understanding harks back to the very old usages of the meaning of ‘virtuoso’ from the 16th and 17th centuries, when its meaning signified not only a highly accomplished musician but was also an honorific term reserved for a person distinguished in any intellectual or artistic field.18 Today, the musician should neither be a mere intermediary of the artistic idea, nor should he be just a flamboyant entertainer with a perfect technique. Performers like Grillo and Scodanibbio, Bertram Turetzky and others, myself included, belong to a centuries-old tradition of composer-instrumentalists whose works have revitalised the literature for their instrument. And perhaps our task for the future is now founded on the reflection and communication of instrumental development through extended techniques, and to establish concomitant relations with new ways of investigating musical sound.

As far as Berio was concerned “the composer can only contribute to the transformation of musical instruments by using them, and trying to understand post factum the complex nature of the transformations”.19 How can we hence define the musicians view on the transformation of musical instruments through composing? Does the process differ from that of the composers? The answer, I believe, is yes. Where the composer usually observes the transformations as a result of the compositional process – where he has worked with form and structure, but also with instrument and playing techniques – the performer follows the opposite path. For him the transformations begin with physical explorations of the instrument – progressively, by acquiring knowledge of its fundamental techniques and by gradually transcending them with new ways of using the instrument –, which initiates the creation of new musical expression. And, as seen throughout the history of virtuosity, improvements in the construction of an instrument inspire performers to push their technique to the limits. For the musician who works on developing novel playing techniques, the process of transformation is not complete until he is satisfied with his ability to use those techniques in his own or others’ music. Études, transcriptions, improvisations, new arrangements and original compositions constitute the performer’s documentation of his instrumental endeavours. His collaborations with composers can develop aesthetical references and define entire movements, and sometimes the performer and the composer, and the technique and the music, all fuse together in works of art that transcend history.

It is rare to find a rewriting and reinterpretation of a piece that so much epitomises the ‘virtuosity of knowledge’ that Berio was talking about, as Scodanibbio’s double bass version of Berio's Sequenza XIV for cello. In his program notes to the new version, Scodanibbio writes: “Since 2000/2001 Berio was talking about a Double Sequenza for cello and contrabass. His first idea was to have them performed one after the other. But eventually he wrote the cello Sequenza (XIV), which, in its final version, was performed by Rohan de Saram in 2003. He sent me the score in April of the same year asking me to ‘reinvent’ (that is the word he used) it for double bass. He didn't want a transcription - this was very clear. He expressly asked me to make a version for double bass using the new techniques he heard in my pieces.” The cello Sequenza combines western and non-western elements, in homage to Rohan de Saram’s Sri Lankan descent and diverse musical background. De Saram grew up playing the Kandyan drum, one of the most significant instruments in Sri Lanka, and he provided Berio with tapes and transcriptions of Kandyan drumming. The percussive sections, with which Berio enriched his work by featuring a twelve-beat Kandyan drum rhythm often expanded or reduced by one beat, are in Scodanibbio’s version often reinvented using his special technique of playing flageolets with both hands, thus enabling quicker passages, a higher degree of virtuosity and adding more tonal material to the percussive sounds. Scodanibbio has himself often pointed out the sounding similarities between his flageolet techniques and the tabla drumming in Indian music. This is particularly clear when listening to his duo with Terry Riley, where they imitate the shape of sound of Indian ragas. As in all of Scodanibbio’s compositions, the interchanging of harmonics and ordinary tones shapes the identity of the ‘new’ Sequenza. The extremely diversified melodic passages, regarding pitch, rhythm, dynamics and timbre, reach into an even further dimension when they travel in and out of harmonics and ordinary tones. Overtones are used mostly as ‘resonators’, in creating chords from the sounding overtones. Contrary to the many arrangements of Berio’s Sequenzas, for example the arrangements of Sequenza IX for clarinet into versions for saxophone and bass clarinet, the double bass Sequenza contains a higher degree of original material in the new version. Scodanibbio supplemented his version with several brief, personal commentaries or reflections on Berio’s music, as optional inserts similar to those used by Berio in, for example, Sequenza VII for viola.

Between 1991 and 1994, Scodanibbio composed a cycle of six duos for all combinations of what he refers to as the ‘real string quartet’ – violin, viola, cello and double bass. Enzo Restagno writes: “Six Duos resembles from time to time pages of a diary, conjuring up suggestions of remote music and distant countries, real or imagined”.20 The contemplations in this musical diary lets us follow crucial moments of development and expression of musical, instrumental and philosophical character, and lets us see how these elements also colour each other. As in an experiment similar to that of investigating Scodanibbio’s line of compositions, the listener can appreciate the unfolding of technique and aesthetics by following the chronological timeline in which my own works are presented on the CD Light. From time to time the music resembles pages from my own diary, exposing memories of movies I have seen, stories I have heard, music I have played…

There are many common inspirations that ground my own and Scodanibbio’s music. We find impulses through our travels, in the local music and culture that we meet. In Sequenza XIVb, Scodanibbio wrote a cadenza drawing on guitar techniques from flamenco music. In Shared moments (2009), I use a simple rhythmical frame that imitates a folk rhythm from a Norwegian fiddle tune. Improvisation as process and performance grew out of our experimentation with sound and timbre, and the new techniques in turn inspired spontaneous endeavours within new musical expression, as in Scodanibbio’s duo with Terry Riley, and my own duo with Norwegian folk singer Unni Løvlid. Our common concept of virtuosity and instrumental idiom springs out of our upbringing in and positioning within the western classical tradition, though also out of our active participation in the popular music of our time. The latter is demonstrated in the variation piece & Roll (2007), in which Scodanibbio makes a virtuosic play on Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady, yet in its original version as a theatre act the piece is also closely linked to Berio’s interpretation of theatre and humour in compositions such as Sequenza V (1966) and Melodrama (1970) and to Mauricio Kagel’s instrumental theatre pieces. My own references to popular music are best seen through my work with POING, a trio with saxophone, accordion and double bass, where we constantly improvise on popular material and feel equally at home there as in more ‘serious’ music.

Finally, by approaching Scodanibbio’s line of composition, or by comparing my own and Scodanibbio’s works as two composers using the same playing techniques, it is possible to draw conclusions on usability, idiomaticity and timbre. Virtuosity is a concept that embraces all these techniques. But technical brilliance is first and foremost portrayed in the linear, arabesque-like gestures that constantly shift between fundamental and overtone spectra, creating dazzling narratives as seen in On turning from Sei Studi or in Due pezzi brillanti (1985), or in the rhythmic cascades of flageolet pizzicato heard in Voyage that never ends and in Farewell, the last movement of Sei Studi. Programmatic ideas, as well as expressiveness and rhetoric of sonorities, are widely investigated in compositions such as Alisei (1986), Ecco - 21 cartoline per Edoardo Sanguineti (1997) and throughout Six Duos. The sound world of timbral exploration and transformation that meets us in Oltracuidansa, a piece for double bass and 8-channel tape based entirely on sound material generated by the double bass, has grown out of philosophical reflections sparked by the discovery of a text by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben – La fine del pensiero (The End of Thought) – “a text that leads to the recognition that thought cannot find an adequate language, at least not a verbal one”.21 Scodanibbio contemplates much on questions related to the language of the double bass and how he can give a voice to the thought. He never answers his philosophical reflections in clear words, but a number of compositions arose from the creative exploration of ‘language’ and ‘voice’, as in Marche bancale and La fine del pensiero, both composed in 1998 in collaboration with French dancer and choreographer Hervé Diasnas using music for double bass and tape. Together with rhythmic and percussive possibilities explored in Geografia amorosa, these pieces found the sounding entities leading up to the sonorities heard in Oltracuidansa. As the overtones strengthen the link to the fundamentals of all sound, Oltracuidansa also reveals the atavistic and, in the double sense, dark tones of the instrument. The work articulates the culmination of Scodanibbio’s technical, aesthetical and philosophical thought. As expressed in the post-structuralist vocabulary of Gilles Deleuze: “Oltracuidansa is strongly archaic, stretching over vast distances under the spell of its sensory-acoustic texture, not so much aimed at the experience of interesting effects, but more rampant on the rhizomatic proliferation of sounds”,22 as opposed to the aborescent conceptions that prevail in most of Scodanibbio’s other compositions. Interestingly, it can also be perceived retrospectively in its sounding similarities to Fernando Grillo’s experimental compositions from the 1970s.

Timbre and texture can, just as rhythm and melody, find their inspiration in all of our cultures and histories, in the traditions of the past, in the instant creation of the present, and in future research. After all, it is the instrument in our hands that gives us the sounds with which we create our music. Through the virtuosic combination of normal sounds of certain tones and the (virtual) sounds of the corresponding overtone spectrum, which are created using special bowing and pizzicato techniques – we achieve our “completely new, not unnatural but nevertheless exciting vision of the instrument”23 –, and, a new music emerges, which I call a folk music for the double bass.