Saturday, April 11, 2009

Domenico Sciajno - Sequens (bowindo)

When I received the four new discs on bowindo, I happened to randomly choose this one to hear first. Glancing at the title and sleeve, I assumed it had something to do with the Berio set of Sequenzas though I wasn't very familiar with those at all. I'd heard different pieces over the years, but didn't own a collection of the work; my mental audio image of them was vague. So I was pretty much able, first time through, to listen to Sciajno's work with little in the way of preconceptions. I found it to be surprisingly absorbing and, by it's conclusion, I was entirely entranced and convinced. Surprising because much of the piece's language and phrasing seemed to derive from a kind of mid-60s avant music that I'm normally not so keen on, one with rather extravagant gestures and flourishes, a bravado that generally puts me off. Little did I know.

What I only gleaned via further investigation as well as, eventually, an examination of the score was that Sciajno, in this 1999 piece, had exercised a kind of plunderphonic option. He had taken recordings of the original 14 Sequenzas as recorded on the 1998 Deutsche Grammophon disc by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, added Sequenza VIIb for soprano saxophone from another recording and then included his own composition "Alla Berio..." for solo double bass. I quickly picked up my own set of the Berio, choosing the recent edition on Mode. While enjoying it greatly thus far, I'm nowhere near familiar enough with the pieces therein to easily recognize them (or parts thereof) in the Sciajno in any more than a general way. I will opine that he has a tendency to use sections that aren't so extreme in their extended techniques, arguably even portions that carry more melodic weight than their overall character might suggest.

Sciajno divides his work into four sections: a trio (flute, trombone, accordion), a quartet (trumpet, viola, harp, soprano saxophone), a quintet (voice, clarinet, bassoon, double bass, piano) and another quartet (violin, oboe, alto saxophone, guitar). Part of the genius lies simply in the arrangement of the sections, the way he not only weaves these achronous works together seamlessly enough that I daresay no listener unfamiliar with the Berio could detect that they didn't originate as such but also, erm, sequences the parts to form genuinely dramatic arcs replete with lulls and climaxes that are wonderfully paced. I lost count of the segments where the twining of instruments seem to have been made for each other, but they're legion, though I might guess that some of the bass accompaniment for the voice in Group III was designed. To be sure, someone with an intimate knowledge of these works might be able to say, "Oh, there's IX, here's II and that's a bit of XIV" but barring that, the music sounds absolutely solid and true. As evidenced in the score, there's more going on, a wider system of rules, but it's largely beyond my audible grasp.

All this would be merely technically compelling and fascinating as craft but for the fact that it succeeds so well as vital, lovely music. For myself, this is far more impressive as, roughly speaking, this area, what you might call the gesturally-oriented avant-garde of the 50s and 60s, isn't one that has had enormous appeal for me in the past. Having listened more closely now to work like the Sequenzas (and that of other composers I tended to lump into this basket, fairly or otherwise, like Ligeti, Kagel, Maderna) I'm sure it's been more my lack of understanding and, to that extent, the Sciajno has helped open my ears, for which I'm grateful. He finds a true, steely sort of Romanticism buried here, an exploratory aspect that occasionally takes a well-earned flight skyward. "Sequens" builds subtly throughout its 77-minute length; you're constantly wowed by the combinations he chooses, where he allows for repetition of given elements, the strong but flexible sense of structure conveyed, the sheer imagination in the use of "found" material. It never explodes in any gratuitous manner, but blossoms magically.

Wonderful surprises like this are one of the great things about new music. You never know.


Three other releases featuring Sciajno were issued simultaneously on bowindo. I won't go into them in depth but just mention them in passing. "Diospyros" finds Sciajno treating bass clarinet improvisations by Gene Coleman. Too often, I find the latter's work uncompelling, but sometimes they're nicely massaged here; I'm half and half on it. "Hyaline" is a very fine duo with Kim Cascone, worth much more discussion than I can give it; do check it out. "Doves Day in Palermo" is a collection of duos with Coleman, Cascone, Robin Hayward, Andreas Wagner, Thomas Lehn, Gianni Gebbia and Tez. I found it a mixed bag, but several of the pieces are fine, especially the one with the otherwise unknown to me "Tez".


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