Saturday, 3 March 2012

Unwinding with Aldo

Just heard a beguiling piece by Aldo Clementi (1925-2011) on BBC Radio 3. I was unaware of the fact that he died last year, thus taking away from us the last remaining member of that group of Italian post-war modernists which also included Maderna, Berio and Nono. I've always liked Clementi's works, or at least the half dozen of so I've come across in the last couple of decades. (Not many, I know). I've been acquainting myself with some other Clementi pieces tonight and would like to share some with you. 

His music is quiet-spoken, so expect no thrills and spills whatsoever. It is, however, very beautiful. Carefully thought-out, it often taking the form of a canon. The canons can get pretty tangled. In an individual twist, though, they have a habit of slowing down as the piece progresses, like clocks which have been wound up but then begin to run down to a halt. The result often has a rather melancholy effect which strikes me as being deeply poetic. The sound of Clementi is also attractive as his scoring is exquisitely judged. 

A particularly attractive place to start is with a piece called C.a.g., as you will be able to hear the canon in play among the four instruments (flute, violin, vibraphone and guitar) - at least to begin with. The guitar opens the work with a theme (on the note C) which you will grow to recognise. It begins with a falling perfect fifth followed by a falling minor second followed by a rising minor second. The violin joins in a tone lower (on B flat), followed by the vibraphone a two further tones lower (on G). The flute, however, begins a tritone away from the vibraphone (on D flat) and plays the theme upside down (a canon by inversion). As the piece continues, the music seems to be ever circling around itself and you find yourself following different players at different points of their 'cycle' as the piece continues. The harmony at the start sounds tonal but chromatic notes soon obscure this impression and, though the music has 'openings' where the impression returns, this is not tonal music. There may be dissonant harmonies as a result, yet there's nothing harsh about Clementi and C.a.g. is as gentle as modernism gets. 

Another lovely piece is Albumblatt for female voice, flute, violin and guitar. Again, you will probably find yourself (like me) floating peacefully from line to line, losing yourself in music that could go on circling, stopping and re-starting from here to infinity, were it not slowing down, slowing down, slowing down...No voice is raised,  not even the singer's. The lines are beautiful and memorable. I'm sure you will find the singer's line easiest to follow and you will hear how radiant it is, for all its quietness. Quite a few of the ideas for the composer's later works were borrowed melodies - themes for him to weave with, as it were. I'm not sure whether this is the case here, but the singer's line has the feel of something that could have been derived from, say, a Renaissance motet. Move on to, say, the flute and you will hear just as distinctive a line. You'll also hear it echoing the shapes found in the singer's line.  And so on. 

Clementi's scoring is at its brightest and most bewitching in one of his best-known pieces, Madrigale for prepared piano, glockenspiel and vibraphone. I don't doubt you will hear the winding-down process expressed in its clearest form, conjuring up the sound-world of a music box. Magical, isn't it? Especially attractive is the way the 'running down' reveals jazzy syncopations that had hitherto been hidden by speed. 

Another delightful piece is Om Dagen I Mitt Arbete... for two violins, cello, clarinet, celesta and piano where, using much the same structure as Albumblatt and using the same winding-down processes within each section as Madrigale, Aldo Clementi casts his spell yet again. 

There's a surprisingly large amount of his music on YouTube for people to explore at their leisure. I shall keep returning to Clementi's delightful, touching music.

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