The Italian 20th century composer Aldo Clementi is perhaps one of the largest influences on my current compositional practice. However, there is very little research about his music in the English-speaking world. Therefore, I feel it is important to write an extended blog on his work, in relationship to his temporal aesthetic.
Clementi was grew up in Catania in Sicily to a musical family but moved to Rome in the 1940’s to study piano at the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia. During his time as a student, he received private tuition from Alfredo Sangiorgi before commencing studies with the distinguished teacher Goffredo Petrassi, who’s pupils also included Cornelius Cardew, Ennio Morricone and Franco Donatoni among others. Whilst studying, it is presumed that Clementi was aware of the contemporary visual art scene in Milan, especially that of the art informel movement, led by the Groupa Forma 1. Clementi had a long-lasting association with one of the groups leading artists Archille Perilli who even provided text and artwork for his stage work College, which made direct reference to the abstract art movement going on in Italy during the post-war period. During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s he attended the International Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, the international school for new music in Darmstadt, Germany where he was the recipient of multiple prizes in composition for his works. At this time, he also became associated with the Italian composer Bruno Maderna and spent a considerable amount of time in the electronic music studios of Rome. After further development of his compositional style, he settled down in Bologna where he taught at the university and focused on a much more rigorous technique of using diatonic stimuli from found material to create dense and static textures.
The American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter suggests that that counterpoint, calculation and emotion are not mutually exclusive, but rather interwoven and work to express as a unified form. For him, “creativity is the essence of what is not mechanical. The mechanical substratum of creativity may be hidden, but it is there.” (Hofstadter, 1979) At the heart of Clementi’s aesthetic is his very clear and defined presentation of canonic material. During an era when the emancipation of the dissonance called for unambiguous rigid pitch structures that were to set the way for serialism as a ‘serious’ movement, Clementi seemed to exploit counterpoint as a form to its very limits. During the 1940’s, his contemporaries such as Luigi Nono and Bruno Maderna were primarily using counterpoint through serial pitch-structure to inform their musical language. However, Clementi instead saw these pitch systems as ‘object’ over ‘component’; something which is symbolic, changing the nature of the music from the direct results of serial technique to an abstraction of form in the more general sense.
A good introduction to Clementi’s compositional canonic writing is his 1977 composition for organ, titled Sigla. This piece has an extremely clear and explicit form that outlines quite distinctly his basic process and common technical decisions. When looking for initial material, Clementi often employs the technique of taking words and translating them directly into musical notes. For Sigla, he starts by taking the letters that are also notes from the names ‘Claudia (and) Gianfranco’ (of which the piece is dedicated to) and presents it in its in its prime form.
From here the retrograde, retrograde-inversion and inversional forms enter in stretto, spaced out after six beats, three beats and then six beats respectively. Dividing the piece into equal thirds, Clementi adds repeat markings; allowing the middle section to act as the piece’s main material with the extra material acting as a sort of ‘introduction’ and ‘coda’. Idiomatic of Clementi’s process, the pitch transformations of the prime row (when referencing his inversional forms) are mapped onto a C natural and C#, rather than being a true inversion of the original cell. This decision seems to be a clear-cut way in which Clementi separates his pitch processes from those linked to the Second Viennese School, as the mapped inversion suggests pitch centricity between the C and C# rather than a denser chromatic aesthetic that could be found in music formed of 12-tone chromatic aggregates.
In the same year as Sigla, Clementi wrote a piece for prepared piano and 14 instruments he named ‘Intermezzo’; a term usually reserved for a movement connecting two larger sections of a work. Named after the eponymous work for piano by Johannes Brahms, Clementi usually reserves this term for movements that join larger sections of music, for example in his operas Es (1980) and Carillon (1992). I can see no significance in the context of his oeuvre why he would use this very specific musical reference. Perhaps, like a lot of his chamber works, this piece acts as a symbolism of his prolonged aesthetic and contrapuntal studies, not least because it seems that his shorter works are generally truer and purer to his contrapuntal technique. Intermezzo is scored for two independent groups of musicians: the first consisting of 12 winds (flutes, clarinets, oboes, horns, trombones, bassoons) and the second consisting of the two trumpets and a prepared piano. Unlike Sigla where the pitch material is taken from synonyms between letters of names and musical notes, Intermezzo draws its pitch material directly from a small cell out of Brahms piano piece. However, much like the pitch processes employed in Sigla, this single melodic phrase is transformed in four different ways (transposition, inversion, retrograde and retrograde-inversion) and mapped onto different starting pitches, spread throughout the ensemble. I have listed these transformations below, where the note names underneath their procedures indicates their phrases starting note and where the Clarinet 2 holds the cantus firmus which is taken directly from bars 5-9 from Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 119, No. 2, shown in Figure 2 (Brahms, 1893). The transposition of the prime appears in the Horn 2, Bassoon 2 and Trumpet one part, mapped onto a C♮, a Db and a Bb respectively. The inversional forms of the row take the same prominence, where the Flute 2, Oboe 2, Trombone 2 and Trumpet 2 play mirror formations of the row. The Flute 1, Oboe 1 and Trombone 1 play the retrograde forms whilst the remaining Clarinet 1, Horn 1 and Bassoon 1 play retrograde-inversional forms of the prime. The RI forms are formed around a cluster from E-F#, as is the transpositions (including the prime) from Bb – Db. The retrograde forms include a slightly wider cluster; however, the inversional forms seem to be further expanded, stretching from a B♮ to an Ab.
There seems to be no clear or controlled method of why the prime form is mapped onto these specific pitches; rather it seems that Clementi is more interested in the registral and textural qualities of the instruments, using gaps of a fourth or a major second to shape the surface qualities of the music. Although one could argue that Clementi is firmly rooted in his pre-compositional process as the primary source of musical interest within his compositions, it is interesting to see the use of the prepared piano, acting as an ‘object-pedal, something which mimics the overall temporal structure of the music as the gaps become wider between the sounding of each chord. This further clarifies his aesthetic decisions that override process to create a coherent and interesting sound for the listener. It is interesting to re-iterate here that Clementi names his period of works from 1970 onwards as his diatonic period, which can be clearly seen below (Brahms, 1910) by the explicit use of modal starting material and focusing more on a surface engagement of perception and aesthetics rather than strict modernist practice. The trumpet parts are labelled A, B, C and D and have a similar temporal function, where, as the piece slows down over time, the sustained notes with stems pointing upward become longer and the gaps between each labelled section become greater.
On a larger scale, as well as the object-pedal, and remembering that this piece is only six bars in length, this piece can be used to echo my earlier point of the contrapuntal becoming an object over a component, that which gives the piece its form. Again, Clementi seems to extrapolate the idea of counterpoint to its extreme, allowing the technique to shape the piece’s structure and aesthetic. Within the metric counterpoint between the twelve winds, there also exists temporal counterpoint within the macrostructure of the arrangement of the instruments. The two trumpets are separate from the piano part, which are again separate from the twelve winds. Here, we have three separate groups that are all slowing down imperceptibly over time. The interactions within the twelve wind instruments become smoother and more static. At the same time, as the gaps between the piano and the trumpets become larger, the piece seems to not only breath slower as a whole but also focus more on the interactions between foreground and background (the winds and two independent groups). This can be seen as a clear focus on Clementi to take the gestural aspect of counterpoint and project its inherent characteristics onto the pieces structure, allowing the attention of the listener to switch from global to local aesthetics whilst still keeping a coherent focus on the piece being about interaction and communication. At the absolute heart of this piece, the interaction between microstructure and macrostructure can be seen as inherently self-referencing and the music is able to function within its own right; something which I will later write on in more detail.
Found material and pitch procedures
During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Clementi began to go through a shift in his compositional style. Previously as what may have been described as his art informel period, his transfer to diatonic canonic material suggests that he may have become disillusioned or dissatisfied with the method of his work. After completing his Concerto for two pianos and orchestra in 1967 and his string quartet Reticolo: 4 in 1968, Clementi took a break for two years, focusing particularly on the works of Bach. As mentioned before, he began to develop this post-serial technique of transferring note names into musical notes. Using mainly the white notes on the keyboard to generate starting material, the initial sound was naturally going to be diatonic. As I will demonstrate later, Clementi uses this to his advantage, creating multiple layers of subdued chromatic counterpoint and accentuated diatonic fragments.
Composizione No. 1 (1957)
Previously to Composizione No. 1, Clementi had only written four pieces for piano; the most substantial of which being a suite which took him two years to complete. A mile-stone in his oeuvre, this piece can be seen as his first major work for piano and is undoubtedly serial as its compositional roots can be directly linked back to the second Viennese school. The Italian pianist Roberto Prossedra once described this piece “as (not too dissimilar) to Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke (1952-53), of which Clementi was a personal acquaintance to.” (Prossedra, 2011) However, Clementi’s later more distinctive and individualistic style might suggest, he, much like many of his contemporaries such as Scelsi and Dallapiccola, wanted to steer away from the post-second Viennese school austerity and rigidity. Many features of what makes this piece serial are idiosyncratic, starting off with his treatment of pitch material. Much like the melodic and lyrical serialism of Dallapiccola, Clementi seems to be particularly concerned in this piece with harmony, making sure that the function of the contrapuntal lines behaves in the same way vertically as they does horizontally. The subtle and sparse use of repetition also grounds the piece, not only creating interest in the pieces sonic aesthetic but also again makes a clear disengagement with the more formal and rigorous structures set out by the second Viennese school. This detachment can further be seen when contemplating these pieces sonic and pianistic aspects; the kaleidoscopic way in which every note is assigned a different dynamic, the constant registral shifts and disjunct melodies, the contrasting and specific concern with different types of accents and the discord created by the mosaic of polyrhythms. There seems to be an ambition in this piece to create texture; a new sort of consistency within serial music that allows the listener to discover colour and become concerned with the qualities of sounds and not just pitches and rhythms.
Prossedra tells us that “the origins (of Composizione) were graphic and geometric and the work was outlined on graph paper before being properly notated” (Prossedra, 2011) As I will discuss later on, Clementi seems to have a pre-occupation with the relationship between the visual and the sonic.
BACH for piano (1970)
For thirteen years after Composizione n. 1 was written, Clementi didn’t write for piano and became much more pre-occupied in his orchestral and chamber music; much inspired by the visual art movement in Milan. During the early 1960’s, he completed both Informel 2 and Informel 3 for orchestra, referencing the visual art informel movement. Alongside this, his piece College (of which he later expanded on in three other pieces College 2, 3 and 4) contained canonic material and sonic motives based on the visual art of the Italian painter Achille Perilli, a founding member of the Groupa forma 1, a Marxist art informel movement who were active during the 1940’s in Milan. The 1970’s for Clementi commenced what he describes as his ‘diatonic phase’, in which he would often employ his rich and dense canonic procedures on extremely humble and simple starting material. For BACH for piano (1970), Clementi’s initial pitch material come from both the famous B.A.C.H melodic motif and from Bach’s own keyboard Fantasia in C minor (BWV 906). The piece is split into three dynamic layers which are separated by register; the first from Eb to Db is to be played pp, the second from D to C is marked mp whereas the lower register of the piece from Bb to A is played p.
The three lines play simultaneously throughout the piece, which create an unstable texture that is extremely disjunct and chaotic. The static counterpoint within the three registers remains staccato throughout, with only the dynamic and registral characteristics of each part acting as the separating and defining features. However, throughout there are also two much more present and obtrusive melodic fragments; a series of held notes outlining perfect fourth and fifth intervals along with the accented notes in the tenor register, spelling out the note names Bb, A, C and B♮ (H). This layering effect creates two very distinctive surface depths. The speed and erratic nature of the underlying counterpoint seems to establish a heavy flow of achromaticism; a static and impenetrable sound world that is characterized by the disjunct melodies and immobile shallow texture. However, from this emerges these infrequent accentuations of the B.A.C.H motif, along with brief moments of sustained sounds in the upper register. The dichotomy here is one of temporality; the tempered and shaded sound of the continuous counterpoint allows the listener to become inattentive of the specific amount of time passing, whereas the sudden bursts of accentuated sounds create a rhythmic grounding which brings the listeners attention back to the chronology of the piece.
As with much of Clementi’s music written in this style, the piece is written out over a single page and the performance instructions indicate the pianist to repeat the piece indefinitely. Quite often, Clementi will employ a slowing down in tempo over time to create a temporal de-escalation, which would make sense in that the two layers of the piece would merge into one as the breaks between the accentuated material would become longer and more prevalent. In this piece he does not employ this technique. Nonetheless, the very erratic and dense nature of the writing means that after the third repeat, the player will naturally begin to lose energy and slow down. Talking about playing this music, Roberto Prossedra tells us that “In this situation, the possibility exists that in passages of especial difficulty, the pianist will slow down, poetically showing the way in which the physical effort of the interpreter plays a vital role in the existence and realisation of music. (Prossedra, 2011)” He goes on to say that “After multiple repetitions of the piece, the performer will start to experience fatigue which will cause difficulty in attentiveness and vigour. (Prossedra, 2011).” Both B.A.C.H (1970) and Fughetta (1973) were the earliest examples of Clementi’s newfound perpetuity and continuance within dense contrapuntal material, making specific use of shards of diatonicism as the basic building blocks for pieces. These pieces seem to play quite directly on the audiences dimensional and temporal perceptions, as the recital of either complementary or identical static material becomes almost disorientating and trance-inducing.
Variazioni su BACH (1984)
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Clementi started to become more unconventional and make use of jazz, folk and pop elements, much like with his pieces The plaint (1992) for female voice and 13 instruments or Interludi (1993) for 12 voices and 24 instruments. However, he still had a fantastic obsession with Bach and used the B.A.C.H motif along with fragments of his music and chorales in most of his works. A complementary piece to B.A.C.H, Variazioni su BACH was written in 1984 and has many of the same or similar melodic and technical ideas of the original 1970 piece. Clementi instructs the performer to play without the sustaining pedal the whole time, creating a very metric and static quality. Much like B.A.C.H, Clementi assigns four different intensities to the different registers of the piano; the highest and lowest register is marked pp whilst the middle register sits at mp throughout the piece. Again, acting as an echo to the previous piece, there are two accentuated fragments, the sparse sustained dyads marked p that occur within the upper register of the piano and the BACH motif that is marked mf and occurs within the middle register of the piano. There are further emphasis’ that Clementi makes in regard to the immobility and stasis of the texture. In regard to the tempo, he asks for the piece to be played as quickly as possible but also as constant in tempo. As well as the lack of pedalling, he asks for every single note marked as a quaver (that is, all of the sub-surface counterpoint played in the middle register) to be played ‘sempre staccato’ with no accentuations at all. Again, the only sonic grounding and flag points the listener receives are the BACH motif played mf and with accents.
In the late 20th century, Clementi made contact with the Austrian musicologist Ernst Gombrich about his use of counterpoint and Bach, saying that “the canon may well be close to my anti-symmetrical obsession to fill up space. Bach played with repetition, superimposition, inversion, mirroring, accelerating and decelerating his themes, in many ways, comparable to the way in which I reflect, translate and distort the themes of recognisable figures. This reason may well be why I especially like his music.” (Prossedra, 2011) The pieces extremely disjunct and chaotic melodies along with awkwardly spaced chords makes it incredibly difficult to perform, yet impenetrable and mesmeric for the listener.
18.104.22.168 Clementi’s contemporaries
After the second world war, many European composers saw the serialist agenda as something which could mature into a network of possibilities. The Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) was one of the first people to embody twelve-tone compositional technique in a new and characteristic way. His early works of the 1930’s like Partita (1930-32) for orchestra and his opera Volo di Notte (1938) began to display a post-serial aesthetic which ultimately grew through a development and expansion of the works of Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Erwin Stein. However, in particular, Dallapiccola was interested in Webern’s assimilation of serial technique and lyricism. His work Canti di prigionia for two harps, two pianos, percussion and chorus epitomise his poetic and linear treatment of dodecaphonic structures, as well as being a good indicator of the clear significance of the voice and operatic approaches to his compositions. Parallel to Dallapiccola’s music in the 1930’s, this aesthetic of ‘serialism with the more universal qualities of diatonicism’ became present in the post-nationalist works of Goffredo Petrassi; an Italian composer who was best known as the composition teacher of Franco Donatoni, Aldo Clementi, Ennio Morricone, Cornelius Cardew and many others. Petrassi’s later music dissipated any attempts at progressive serialism and became more focused on his teaching and conducting.
However, out of the lyrical serialist works of Webern and Dallapiccola came the composers Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, who were seen as part of the ‘second serial movement’, becoming associated with the dramatization and the atricalization of serialism. For Berio in particular, the social importance of art production was just as important as the technique of composition itself. Critical of ‘elemental’ serialism, he said in an essay published in 1996 that “a composer's awareness of the plurality of functions of his own tools forms the basis for his responsibility just as, in everyday life, every man's responsibility begins with the recognition of the multiplicity of human races, conditions, needs, and ideals.” (Berio, 1996) Comparable to the work of Berio and Nono around this time was the composer Bruno Maderna. Along with his fundamental roots in serial technique, Maderna also became very much associated with the role of electronics, working in the Milan national radio station around this time. Eric Salzman suggests that “the studio became a kind of escape hatch for composers who felt compelled to adopt serial controls but were anxious to find a new, substantial music matter.” (Salzman, 1988) He goes onto suggest that their return to vocal and instrumental music was later transformed by working with fresh materials within a serialist agenda. Both Berio’s and Maderna’s work in this period ultimately helped transform and shape the direction of early serialism, with Berio’s continued interest in mapping linguistic structures onto music and Maderna’s work using constant references and fragmentation of ideas creating a gateway in which the foundations laid out by the second Viennese school could flourish.
Visual art in 1940’s Milan
The British composer Bryn Harrison, someone whose compositional aesthetic is not too dissimilar to that of Clementi’s, said about visual art that he is “drawn to the idea that painting, as an immobile art form, can convey movement and conversely, that music, as a temporal art, might be able to convey stasis”. (Saunders, 2009) The idea of informel and object abstraction within the visual art movement during the 1940s and 1950s was something very much alive in Milan, the city of which Clementi was based in for most of his life. For Aldo Clementi, visual art was a “catalysing agent of the experiences (I) have already had.” (Luca, 2009) The term informel, coined by the French art critic Michael Tapié in 1952, addresses the gestural and abstract procedures that were becoming much more common in visual art during this period. One central figure in the early 1940’s in Milan was the painter Achille Perilli. Working with artists such as Piero Dorazio and Giulio Turcato, he quickly became associated with the Groupa Forma 1 whose ideas centred around a duty to overcome the division between post-war abstract and realist artistic movements; all whilst working towards a socialist agenda, using art as dialogue and protestation for contemporary political trends. They also acknowledged their ambition on technical development and wanted to expand current practical and formal technique and artistic trends. To the Groupa Forma 1, the idea of artistic autonomy was absolutely vital, much like the high art and the modernist ideology where art had to function within its own right and work as an organic whole. The idea of Immanuel Kant’s disinterestedness was a key component to their philosophy, where abstract art requires aesthetic contemplation and engagement to be a process of stepping back and relies heavily on art being self-referencing. Their manifesto stated:
We hereby proclaim ourselves ‘formalists’ and ‘Marxists’, convinced as we are that the terms Marxism and formalism are not ‘irreconcilable’, especially today, when the progressive elements of our society must maintain a ‘revolutionary’ and ‘avant-garde’ position instead of settling into the mistake of a spent and conformist realism that in its most recent experiences in painting and sculpture has shown what a limited and narrow road it really is. (Gutiérrez, 2012)
Summarising their manifesto, the group were first and foremost driven to deposing art that is in some way an extension of the human condition. They wanted to move away from art being a channel of expressing and referencing something and to allow form to be its own function within a work, something of which they militantly believed formalism was the only answer to. Stating later on in their manifesto, they said that “in art, the traditional, inventive reality of pure form is all that exists” (Celant, 1994). They draw the example of art’s functionality, using form as an objective that allows art not just to be important in its own right, but to be useful in achieving a certain aim (for example, as furnishing or decoration). As a political movement, the Forma One wanted to move away and repudiate any arbitrary and indistinct work that did not work towards their political agenda, rejecting anything that postulated natural or psychological ideas as a starting point or means to an end for art creation. The Forma One were distinctive in their almost anti-nationalist agenda where there were no hegemonic goals to associate their work with partisan-nationalist agenda or historical/mass-culture. Their idea of form and object within art was to act as a representation of social conscience rather than anything a priori or anything naturalistic between the depiction and the object itself. The Italian art historian and painter Giulio Argan states, when referencing aesthetic contemplation within this phase of Italian art:
“It would be a mistake to consider abstract art as mere aestheticism, as art for art’s sake. On the contrary, the common programmatic motif of the different abstract trends is the justification of the artistic event as a social event. In answering the undoubtedly legitimate question of how the explicit, destructive historicism of abstract art can be combined with the undoubtedly positive scope of its social interests, it can be argued that this art does not constitute itself as an achieved social end (which indubitably supposes a full consciousness of history). Rather it intends to define the condition of the man’s social consciousness, his way of being in reality and the limit of his horizon.” (Argan, 1948)
It's clear to see how the Marxist agenda shaped the doctrine and reasoning for their artistic practice; however, it was just the Italian painter Carla Accardi who died in 2014 keeping to the groups manifesto, whilst the group formally disbanded five years after its creation.
I go around exhibitions and art fairs, and figurative art continue to be predominate, as if to arrogantly ignore that the abstract can and should be a primary form of art from Italy. Many young abstract Italian artists, trying to follow in the footsteps of what was then the abstractism capitalist of the United States, but in general, like I try to do as an artist, the work should start over where it was left by the group Forma 1. (Vela, 2015)
Temporality and Clementi’s lasting impact
The way in which the listener must engage with the music of Clementi is that of two perspectives. The first is the more distant aesthetic created by the general texture of the dense canonic writing. The second is a more concentrated awareness of the individual parts that make up the music, perhaps the registral characteristics of the individual melodic lines, how the pitches create dissonance and resonance or how the rhythmic counterpoint create abrasion between one another. The American composer Pauline Oliveros talks extensively about deep listening by saying “focus is more like digital, in that focused attention needs to be renewed moment by moment, in order to exclusively follow a stream of some sort. Global attention is expanding to take in and listen to everything that is around you.” (Gottschalk, 2016)
Bryn Harrison’s research
An extended quote from the British composer Bryn Harrison on Aldo Clementi’s work demonstrates precisely how composers how the idea of a depthless surfaces alters the audience’s perception of time. In an article written for Contemporary Music Review, he says:
For me, Clementi’s music ensures a close-range listening experience; it is difficult to step back from the work, to retrieve a sense of what has gone on before. From this standpoint, these works suggest a sense of scale imagined on a large level. The beginning is the middle is the end: the form is a circle observed from the centre. (Harrison, 2011)
Bryn Harrison’s music seems to embrace the idea of structural development that materialises from inside the piece itself, rather than from the piece’s original pre-compositional material. Where Clementi’s music is self-perpetuating, meaning the music is constantly self-referencing and enclosed, Harrison uses repeating cells filled with cyclic pitch structures to create aesthetic coherency, whilst maintaining a degree of textural and harmonic development, albeit within a fairly static and surface-level texture. Harrison describes his compositional and aesthetical goals as trying to “create a perception of an object that appears both static and in motion, comparable to ripples in a stream or watching a torrent of rain”. (Harrison, 2011) In an extract below taken from his 2009 chamber piece Surface forms (repeating), one can see, for example, how the pitches of the alto flute line on the top staff are somewhat replicated in a distant form in the right hand of the vibraphone.
As is consistent in a lot of his music from around this period, he seems to use a musical object that is treated as a structure, which is then loosely mapped or mirrored onto another part. This creates a shadow-like structure, where the original fragment appears at the same time of another object, somethings that’s is either augmented, diminished or damaged in some way. Because of the way in which pitch, rhythm and gesture is used in his music to create expansion, the music becomes self-developmental and yet still is ‘held back’ in its aesthetic, remaining within an overall static texture. Unlike Aldo Clementi’s music, the repetitious cells are much smaller and so the self-contained development with the piece is smaller and somewhat clearer for the listener to engage with.