Stefano Scodanibbio, bass in duests with members of the Arditti Quartet
Whomever with a sensible ear was listening to the most recent music written between the last century and the one before must have felt at times startled in a marvelous and unsettled way. In the first of the three poems, “Troi poémes de Mallarmé,” Ravel had the string section playing prodigious arpeggios of harmonic sounds. Stravinskij, to a lesser extent, did the same thing a couple of years before in “L’oiseau de feu.” In “La mer,” Dubussy obtained from the violins a very high hiss by the use of harmonics. And Mahler, even before, forced the double basses to climb up to notes so high that it felt like the light of dawn was squirting from that strain in the beginning of his first symphony.
One hundred years had passed from those first signs and since then many composers explored systematically the impalpable translucent world of harmonic sounds produced by string instruments. In the French language harmonic sounds are called “Partials” and this seems to me an appropriate definition to introduce non-experts to this little known dimension of the acoustic phenomenon.
Normally we speak about one sound, but the event we define as “one” is a complex phenomenon that is comprised of different parts. The harmonic sounds added together produce what we normally refer to as sound. It is not difficult to imagine that this sound (that from now on we will call sound) is stronger in presence and consistency than each single part. So in conclusion we have the real sound and the harmonics: more consistent the first, lighter and more vanishing the others. I made this preamble using on purpose raw terminology because we are talking of simple construction materials but let’s not forget that each artist can perceive the virtual poetics of the material he/she uses. That said, let’s approach the “Six Duos” by Stefano Scodanibbio, who knows wonderfully how to make a good profit from the contrast, the sum and the alteration of real sounds and harmonics.
The difference of weight between real sounds and harmonics holds a quality of poetic implications. The real sounds are more consistent and have a closer presence. The harmonics instead are gentle, distant and, with their thinness, vibrant, almost as if only in one’s memory. To oppose, to superimpose or to juxtapose these two types of sounds means to give life to vicissitudes of presence and absence so to construct true and real novels.
The “Six Duos” by Scodanibbio, in which memories, meditations and fantasies are mixed together, belongs more to an intimate diary than a novel genre. Protagonists of these six episodes are four strings instruments: violin, viola, cello and double bass, in all possible combinations. We must consider also that each instrument has a personality derived from the poetic sum of its technical requirements. These personalities come in contact from time to time, reacting psychically just like two people who after meeting each other decide to travel together. The encounters of the instruments are also constructing the classic “Couple’s Game.” And from Goethe on we know well that the “Couple’s Game” is what lets emerge the so called “Elective Affinities” of two partners. The game of the parts in an instrumental duet is something infinitely profound and wonderfully ambiguous. You can get an idea of this listening to the Sonata for violin and cello, by Ravel, where the two instruments are mutually exchanging parts using in turn each other’s register. The principal of the exchange of registers can also be found in “Six Duos” by Scodanibbio. We need to add that the stretching of the register, thanks to the use of harmonics, ends with the attribution of a double personality to the single instrument. “Six Duos” resembles from time to time pages of a diar, conjuring up suggestions of remote music and distant countries, real or imagined. In the second section of “Escondido,” dedicated to violin and cello, a growing rhythmic animation, induced by the crackling of accents, brings to us the souvenir of popular melodies. Melodies are made even crispier by the chromaticism, producing a drone resembling that of Bartók. Listening to “Humboldt” for viola and double bass we are invited to contemplate other horizons. On an undulating foundation made of regular intervals growing in complexity, episodes are layering themselves always in an arrhythmic, supple and dancing fashion. Picking through these staves we can find remarks about distant places but the imagination is what prevails in the creation of the “Six Duos,” fed by fantastic meditations and frequent literary influences. The “Jardins d’Hamilcar” reveals in its title an obvious reference to “Salammbô,” by Flaubert. But what really impresses the imagination of the listener is the arcane effect, almost like the sound of an organ, created by playing double stops with real sounds and harmonics. It is an effect that permeates the entire screen of the composition on top of which the imaginary and whimsical visions of the violin will glide throughout.
The working relationship between Stefano Scodanibbio and the Arditti Quartet has existed since the mid 80’s. I remember very well looking at his first Quartet ‘Visas,’ which included some very unusual harmonics for the string instruments. These harmonics are very difficult to play and originate from Stefanos’s great command and knowledge of double bass. I suppose in the beginning of our relationship, I needed convincing that these techniques were actually possible on the violin. Through our rehearsals and performances of this quartet, it became apparent that these harmonics were possible to play, and with extended hand positions could actually become quite fluent on the violin. Stefano’s music is original both in his understanding and exploration of string techniques and the sound. Other pieces followed, and a few years later, I was presented with a further challenge in “My new address’ for solo violin. Stefano’s approach to this solo work was to make a present day virtuoso challenge, always with his harmonic sound world. In the 90’s followed a set of duos for each instrument of what he calls the ‘real’ string quartet: violin, viola, cello and double bass. This gave us (three of us) the possibility of actually playing as well as working with this composer on his music. This practice of working with the composer on the his music has been existing from the very first concerts of the Arditti quartet, but now we were able to take this idea one step further. Stefano is a composer of today who has a very individual language within which he works, but one can also feel a real sense of development from one piece to another. None of these pieces are really similar in any way. I was very happy when we had the possibility to make these recordings to document his work.
Irvine Arditti, violin
Dov Scheindlin, viola
Rohan de Saram, cello
Stefano Scodanibbio, contrabass
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