Donatoni’s Strange Chamber Music

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DONATONI: Marches for Harp Solo. Nidi for Piccolo Solo. Clair for Clarinet Solo. Small for Piccolo, Clarinet & Harp. Estratto for Piano Solo. Secondo Estratto for Piano, Harpsichord & Harp. Quarto Estratto for Piccolo, Flute, Violin, Mandolin, Harp, Harpsichord, Piano & Celesta / Ensemble Adapter / Kairos Music 0015021KAI

What other composer do you know who would even think of writing marches for a solo harp? Particularly those you can’t really march to? But that pretty much sums up Franco Donatoni, perhaps the strangest of Italy’s avant-garde composers of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, whose music I have praised in the past. Even his performance instructions were strange, as witness this direction to his harpist:

Staccatissimo, as soft as possible; the white notes are to be played by hitting the fingertip against the corresponding string, without plucking the string.

Pretty strange, huh? But as I say, not as strange as the music itself. He once summed up his aesthetic this way: “A single idea suffices to compose a piece. There’s no need to amass scores of them. Again and again, I observe how ideas are simply wasted, resulting in arbitrariness and complete confusion. In order to avoid this, we should think about codes or sets of guidelines, according to which we can organize, transform and develop single ideas.” But it wasn’t as simple as that. Donatoni often worked with strict mathematical or geometric patterns, the liner notes tell us, “in which chains of pitches are perceivable not as shapes or expressive gestures but rath­er as structured flows of energy.” To put it another way, he went off the deep end but always had SCUBA gear with him to provide oxygen when he needed it.

The two pieces titled Nidi for Piccolo Solo are as abstract as anything you will ever hear, yet the music is fascinating in its own way. Beginning with a single, simple idea, it builds on itself almost like a Bach violin sonata or cello suite, with little notes both high and low sprouting from the main theme to embellish and fill it out. I find it a bit odd that the individual musicians of Ensemble Adapter do not identify themselves anywhere in the booklet or on the CD inlay; they are all fine virtuosi and should be applauded individually for their efforts here. I had to go to their website to find their names: Kristjana Helgadóttir on flute and piccolo; Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson on clarinet; Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir on harp and Matthias Engler on percussion (and, I would assume, piano and harpsichord). The clarinet pieces titled Clair are so virtuosic that even the difficulties of Bartók’s Contrasts fade into the background; this is riotous, almost manic music, particularly the first of them which requires acrobatics from the soloist.

But when you get to Small for piccolo, clarinet and harp, you realize you haven’t even heard the strangest music yet. This is begins like ambient classical, except that it uses bits and pieces of the previous three works, combining them and eventually becoming quite excitable. The piccolo screams in the upper register, the clarinet plays a lyrical theme and the harp surrounds them with a series of corrugated eighth notes. Eventually the clarinet gives up trying to be lyrical and instead tries to shout the piccolo down, to no avail. Of this piece Donatoni stated, “One could say that the piccolo is the husband, the harp the wife and the clarinet ‘the third party.’”

Estratto, a one-minute piece for piano, is comprised of “short, systematic attacks that form a continuous pulse.” The Secondo Estratto is ten and a half minutes long but uses the same principle, multiplied in this case by dividing the music up between piano, harpsichord and harp. In this instance, however, I felt that Donatoni went on too long and said nothing of any value for the last eight and a half minutes. The fourth Estratto, for piccolo, flute, mandolin, harpsichord, harp, piano and celesta, instructed to play “as quickly as possible,” is undoubtedly the most interesting. Here the cross-currents of the various instruments create a whirlwind pattern that the ear must straighten out and make clear. It’s possible to do this but it takes great concentration. A snippet of the score (below) gives one an idea of the piece’s difficulty in performing.

Quartetto Estratto

With the exception of the second Estratto, I liked this collection of pieces very much. They’re strange enough to capture the imagination and different enough to hold one’s interest.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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