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Stefano Gervasoni

Introduction

“The listener is like the acoustics of a room, allowing the abstract objectivity of the score to be modified. The musical work… is something that is always changing, because it has to be created at a given time and in a given place by a group of different people every time, in certain acoustic, psycho-physical, and emotional conditions. It must also take account of an indefinite entity of listeners, with their own values, their own desires, their own expectations...

I like to consider that the last room in which a piece resonates is one’s own body. And the best acoustic is perhaps that of the body of the person receiving, vibrating with all the people who make up the audience.” —Stefano Gervasoni

           In a creative life that goes back three decades, Stefano Gervasoni has defined a musical world impinging on others—on minimalism in its small patterns and repetition, on post-modern revivalism in its recourse to diatonic scales, arpeggios, and chords, on the normalizing of the abnormal in Lachenmann or Sciarrino—while remaining manifestly unique. His is music of delicacy and strangeness, of reference that may be overt or subliminal, of plainness and misdirection.

           Born in Bergamo, in 1962, he studied at the Milan Conservatory with three notable Italian composers of the preceding generation: Luca Lombardi, Niccolò Castiglioni, and Azio Corghi. There for ten years, from 1980 to 1990, he also attended courses elsewhere led by Ligeti and Ferneyhough, and gained training in computer music at IRCAM. He has himself taught at various conservatories in Italy and was in 2006 appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire.

           He started to gain international attention for his music when he was around thirty; Least Bee, a sequence of Emily Dickinson settings for soprano and five instruments, made a mark at Juilliard’s Focus! festival in 1993. Since then he has been receiving commissions from leading ensembles and radio authorities in Europe, though, despite that early start in New York, his work remains relatively little known in this country.

           His personal website is plentifully supplied with scores and recordings. The best introduction to his work on CD is provided by an æon album that includes a span of works from Least Bee to the remarkable Epicadenza (2004).

 

Sviete tihi for two pianos and two percussion players (2005-06)

           Gervasoni found the title for this piece in a book by the Italian journalist and traveler Paolo Rumiz, who, writing from the Visoki Dečani monastery in Kosovo, evoked the Orthodox hymn Sviete tihi ("Joyful Light"). It is an entirely appropriate designation for this music of light, which, beginning with sparkling cascades from the two pianists, continues through zones in which isolated sounds suggest points and beams of light in their brilliance, radiance and intangibility. Beyond that, the work can be understood as voicing a hope for the region from which, by way of Rumiz’s report, it came. Significant in this respect were the circumstances of the commission, for the Makrokosmos Quartet, comprising two Turkish pianists and two percussionists from Geneva.

           In the slow, almost stationary music that predominates, the union of sonorities is achieved sometimes by simultaneous attacks that blend timbres but more often by restricting the pianos to their highest register and choosing percussion instruments that can resonate up there with them: glockenspiel, crotales, wind chimes, and small triangles, punctuated by log drums. Pizzicato touches on piano strings further confuse the colors, and all four performers are able to produce similar glissando effects, the pianists by running a crotale along a string, the percussionists by striking a crotale placed on a timpano whose pitch is immediately lowered by means of the pedal. Also important to the sound world, but outside this music of glass and stars, is the udu of West Africa, a ceramic vessel played by slapping a hand back and forth on one of its two holes.

           The careering piano flourishes reappear intermittently and eventually slow down to become climbing melodic lines; the ending, after around fourteen minutes, implies that the whole circle of light could continue indefinitely.

 

Six lettres à l'obscurité (und zwei Nachrichten) for string quartet (2005-06)

           "Six Letters to Obscurity (and Two Stories)," which plays for around twenty-six minutes, is the second of the three string quartets Gervasoni has written so far, preceded by Strada non presa ("Path Not Taken," 2001) and followed by Clamour (2014). His own note on the piece indicates his basic thinking:

          "My second quartet is in one movement divided into eight sections: six main ones, each composed on a letter of the alphabet, and two moments of 'lyrical stasis', a pair of 'songs without words' that cut the succession of letter pieces into three couplets. 

           "At once the letters of a name and letters to that name (a name that ambiguously contains its contrary [i.e. the name, meaning ‘clear,’ is rendered obscure by being divided into its component letters and then musically encrypted]), six steps, with two hesitations, towards the principle of light, in its obscurity, my quartet attempts an investigation of 'inexpressiveness' in music. Expressivity is inscribed in the depths, in the folds of the clarity-obscurity of the sound, and the musical text more hides than reveals it. In the secrecy of music is sealed the secrecy of a name." 

           The fluid first section contains a pun, in that middle C is the note on and around which these ostinatos rotate, with highly nuanced colors and textures such as will be the norm all through the work. Sudden jerks in the dynamic level will recur, too.

           "L," in contrast, is a study in sustained and turning harmony, always returning to an extreme pianissimo.

           Then comes the first story, begun by the second violin, viola, and cello in slow recitative. This becomes the support for a different tale told by the first violin, which, at the end, finds itself alone.

           The "A" music rushes, challengingly (for the players) oscillating between presto and prestissimo from one measure to the next, and again punning, notably by how a high A may pipe in repeatedly, on any of the instruments.

           "I" is spelt out largely in harmonics, in a movement that has quite some surprises, and that looks forward a little, as its title "I...R" implies, to how "R" will sound.

           The second story has to find its way through circling arpeggios from the viola, and it is, to begin with, again told in unison. It ends in unmeasured time.

           "R" turns out to be for "ricercare," or for the Recercar chromatico post il Credo, a decidedly weird organ Girolamo Frescobaldi published in his culminating collection Fiori musicali (1635). (The word "ricercare," one may note, can be spelt either way with the letters in "Claire.") Gervasoni’s subtle, distressed arrangement envelops the music in further strangeness.

           The name is completed by a movement started by the viola, dancing against a sustained chord from the others. Activity increases, and leads back towards the first section, though now with E appropriately the focus, furiously disputed at the end.

 

In dir for six voices (2003-04)

           The full background to this sequence of musical apophthegms, lasting altogether for around twenty-three minutes, is conveyed in the composer’s note:

          "It was in 1992 that I started thinking about a compositional project using the couplets that Angelus Silesius, the German mystic of the seventeenth century, poet and thinker, put together in his book Cherubinischer Wandersmann ("The Cherubinic Pilgrim"). Just over a decade later I was able to make this idea a reality, thanks to a proposal from the Neue Vocalsolisten of Stuttgart. 

         "What interested me most in these couplets, and fascinated me, was the union of simplicity and ambiguity that characterizes them, how the sense is continually refacetted within the small form of the couplet (two lines of twelve feet each with a break in the middle and end rhymes), thanks to the poet’s inexhaustible capacity to vary it. From reference to reference, from paradox to paradox, from negation to negation, from wordplay to wordplay,  meaning is made elusive and any unique theological interpretation becomes impossible:  in vain do you seek Silesius the Lutheran or the Papist, the militant Catholic fanatic or the mystic stranger to every confession. God is not defined, or is defined in an entirely negative way, since every definition is a limitation and God is alien to the qualities that man can bestow. This is the second aspect of the mystical poetry of Silesius that fascinated me: the tension of going beyond God, while, as a human being, striving, reaching, to go beyond humanity: “Wo soll ich denn nun hin? / Ich muß noch über Gott in eine Wüste Ziehn” (Where then I will turn? / I must still strive above God in a desert).

           "It is not a nihilistic vision of nothing that this mystic has, he who can compound into one experience the earthly and the heavenly, the everyday and the rarefied, the customary and the unheard-of, the body and the spirit. Mystical suspension, involving an inner emptiness, may not revoke the psychologically determined self that conceives a god who is the projection of that self, and so is just as determined. The task is to eliminate the I as determined subject and God as determined object, humanly conceived: “in dir,” in God and in yourself, above God and above yourself.

           "The musical treatment of the Silesius texts, as well as being influenced by the particular dimension of experience that is mysticism—mysticism beyond its religious content—tries to render, in a different way thirteen times over, not only the poetic content of each couplet but also its particular theological significance or tangle of philosophical and religious connections. What helped here was the further possibility of using symbolic signification offered by serialism, almost conceiving it as a substitute for the tonal system with its linguistic possibilities of autonomous signification intertwined with those, both functional and expressive, proper to verbal language.

           "In dir uses a twelve-tone row symmetrically divided into groups of two (rising minor third), four (falling chromatic scale), four (rising chromatic scale), and two (falling minor third). With its twelve sounds and its symmetry, this row can correspond to the verse structure chosen by Silesius, in ratios of  1: 1 (one row per line), 1: 2 (two rows per line), 1: 3, etc., or 1: 0.5 (just the first part of a row setting a line), and more besides. The row is developed according to the principles of canonical serialism, of post-serialism, and according to personal criteria geared to make tangible within the  musical structure the theological-poetic nucleus of each couplet. The only exception to the principles of serialism (yet incorporated consistently within the compositional system developed for In dir) is the use of major and minor triads obtained by overlapping two rows a major third apart. And this type of musical treatment, too, responds to a very precise expressive and symbolic function: naturally, under the sign of the ambiguity and overthrow of meaning inherent in Silesius’s poetic mysticism, the triad may evoke, depending on its position in the line, the absoluteness of God or the triviality of the human condition—or also God’s earthly humanity or the divinity of mankind."