Sunday morning, November 8, 11-11:50 CST

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Salvatore Sciarrino's Novel Forms: Organic Ideals and Multilinear Temporalities

Orit Hilewicz (Eastman School of Music), Chair
Robert Hasegawa (McGill University), Respondent

Writing in 2001, David Osmond-Smith called Salvatore Sciarrino “one of the most distinctive (and widely imitated) voices of his generation.” Sciarrino’s prodigious output in the nearly two decades since has cemented his reputation as one of the new century’s foremost composers. Scholars have been intrigued by the music’s obsessive repetitions, carefully crafted Gestalten, and naturalistic approach to musical sounds, in addition to his well-documented compositional philosophy (Sciarrino 1998, 2001, 2004). This alternative-format session aims to promote music-theoretical engagement with Sciarrino’s work and to encourage dialogue between European and North American discourses.

The three papers in this session share a thematic focus on form, temporality, and process. Christian Utz offers a corpus study of Sciarrino’s unusual beginnings and endings, using perception-sensitive analytical methods (Deliège 2001; Utz 2016) to show how Sciarrino’s temporal strategies combine linear and nonlinear aspects and reclaim holistic elements of the listening experience. Antares Boyle turns a microscope on Sciarrino’s multivalent temporalities through analysis of a single piece, the 1999 piano concerto Recitativo oscuro. Mingyue Li interrogates Sciarrino’s concept of “organic music” itself (Sciarrino 2013). With a methodology grounded in Clarke’s (2005) ecological approach to musical listening, she argues that Sciarrino’s musical processes, conceived in synthetic rather than analytic terms, are akin to natural phenomena.


Robert Hasegawa (McGill University)

Imperceptible Beginnings and Inescapable Endings: Suspended and Enhanced Temporality in the Semanticized Form of Salvatore Sciarrino

Christian Utz (University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, University of Vienna)


A decisive feature of modernity in the temporal arts—in music in particular—might be seen in the challenge, suspension, or even abolition of conventional temporal functions. Such modernist concepts of suspended temporality (“non-linear time”), however, remain multiply cross-related to conventional concepts and qualities of time (“linear time,” Kramer 1988, 20–65). This is exemplified by Salvatore Sciarrinoʼs creative method which reconciles more conventional elements of discursive organicist design (processes of accumulation, multiplication, and transformation) with strategies of rupture and formal deterioriation (“little bang,” “window form”). This unique mixing of “linear” and “non-linear” strategies is staged in a soundscape of mostly very low dynamics and reduced activity at the edge of silence, sensitizing the listener for minimal changes.

This paper introduces key strategies in Sciarrino’s temporal form based on analytical investigations into various genres. Based on context- and perception sensitive analytical tools such as morphosyntactic musical analysis (Utz 2016), imprints and prototypes (Deliège 2001), and formal association and categorization (Hanninen 2004), this corpus analysis forms the background of a discussion of relationship between beginnings and endings in relation to constellations of duration and density. While beginnings might be marked by unconventional topoi such as “in medias res,” they frequently establish an almost imperceptible sonic ground. Endings, by contrast, are often marked by irregularities and signify impasses that prevent any further musical development. Such markedness emphasizing difference, open questions, and unresolved conflicts, make these beginnings and endings keys to an understanding of the composer’s unique staging of reflexive musical form.

Gestural Time and Grundgestalt in Sciarrino’s Recitativo Oscuro

Antares Boyle (Portland State University)


Sciarrino’s writings describe a compositional philosophy that prizes multidimensionality and spatiotemporal discontinuity (1998, 2004). Yet his allegiance to teleology, physical metaphors, and “coincidences of the microcosm and macrocosm” (2004, 54) intimate an underlying unifying organicism. I analyze how these seemingly conflicting aesthetic priorities coexist within a single work, Recitativo oscuro (piano concerto, 1999), as the multiplicity of its temporal structuring serves as a counterweight to a motivically integrated, fractal construction.

Kramer (1973, 1988) and Lochhead (1979) distinguish between beginning/ending functions suggested by musical material’s content and by its temporal position within a phrase or piece. Kramer’s “gestural time” refers to perceptions generated by the former when they conflict with the “absolute time” of the latter (1988, 168–89). This multilinearity can occur when temporal functions implied by a segment’s “sonic” (psychoacoustic) qualities, such as its intensity profile, consistently conflict with those implied by its “contextual” properties, such as its order position in a recurring series (Hanninen 2012; Boyle 2018). The opening piano solo of Recitativo oscuro is characterized by such conflict, first heard in microcosm in its opening gesture. As similar gestures accumulate to form longer segments and phrases, each mimics the original gesture’s intensity profile, mirroring its Janus-faced temporal implications at ever higher formal levels. The opening gesture thus serves as the passage’s Grundgestalt, providing both raw material for longer phrases and a blueprint for their shape. Recitativo oscuro demonstrates how Sciarrino manipulates intensity change and repetition at multiple formal levels to create a rich tapestry of temporal implications.

Through Chaos: Conceiving A New Organicism in the Music of Salvatore Sciarrino

Mingyue Li (University of Oxford)

Mingyue Li [李明月] is a DPhil candidate reading musicology at the University of Oxford, St Cross College, fully funded by Chinese Scholarship Council. She also holds a BA in musicology from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and an MPhil in Music Studies from the University of Cambridge, funded by Cambridge Commonwealth Trust. Her research interests are in areas including Western art music after 1945 and related aesthetical-philosophical theories, musical meaning and subjectivity, musical multimedia of the late 20th and 21st centuries, and global modernism. Mingyue’s doctoral thesis focuses on the distinctive concepts of sound and ways of listening emerging from the musical works of Salvatore Sciarrino and Helmut Lachenmann. Its central research question revolves around the perception of musical meaning and the condition of subjectivity (human and musical), both approached through a compound analytical-hermeneutic method that is reception- or perception-oriented.


When interpreting extra-musical referents, Sciarrino scholars often embrace an array of metaphors borrowed from the physical world ranging from natural, environmental matters to bodily, physio-psychological sensations. Marco Angius (2016), above all, compares Sciarrinoʼs music as a whole to “a living organism.” Arguably, the “ecology of music/listening”—a kernel of Sciarrino’s musical poiesis—epitomizes a quasi-naturalist and sometimes naïve-seeming approach to expression and reception. This paper seeks to offer new perspectives on the music’s affinity with the physical world that goes beyond surface- and local-formal levels. Through a formal-morphological and perception-sensitive account of the music of Lohengrin and Studi per L’Intonazione del mare, I try to elaborate on the notion of “organic music,” opaquely articulated by the composer himself (Feneyrou 2013) as a search for a new type of post-tonal structural force.

Sciarrino’s organicism, I suggest, pertains to a holistic aesthetics and Gestaltian thinking. In contrast to the slightly worn-out notion of musical organicism, Sciarrino’s formal principles could be justified by placing the core of the term anew within the broader view of chaos. Based on an ecological approach to the perception of musical meaning proposed by Eric Clarke (2005), this paper argues that points of correspondence could be made between the perception of sound organisation and some characteristic aspects of biological organisms (e.g. infinite variations of a prototype, self-organization, responding to stimuli) and of natural phenomena that are particularly studied within the framework of chaos theory (Madden 1999; Kramer 2016) (e.g., a complex event resulted from simple occurrences, fractal geometry, and intermittency).