Vol. 43 Issue 2-3 Reviews
Agostino Di Scipio: Concrezioni Sonore

Compact disc, 2018, Stradivarius STR 37100, available from Stradivarius, www.stradivarius.it/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

Di Scipio

Agostino Di Scipio’s Stradivarius recording Concrezioni sonore contains a treasure trove of contemplative electroacoustic compositions for piano and live electronics. This disc features three multi-movement, and two single-movement pieces. According to the liner notes the five works represent Di Scipio’s entire piano oeuvre as of today. They “seem to reflect various manners of conceptualizing and re-shaping the piano, by situating it in an hyper-system of live electronics means.”

In the first work 3 pezzi muti (dalla superficie al fondo) [3 silent pieces (from top to bottom)] “the pianist makes contact with the keys yet does not really play – not depressing the keys hard enough as to have them hit the strings…” Gestural noises produced by the contact points between the instrument and the performer are captured and transformed by the computer. This intriguing idea produces an audible, yet understated, drama.

This piece begins by slowly fading in sounds that resemble birds and water. There is also a soft, repetitive clicking sound that is heard periodically. After about a minute we hear the first sounds that obviously belong to the piano – clearly articulated high register pitches. Simultaneously we hear the slight presence of feedback, which is haunting. Toward the end of the first silent piece there is a single pitch (F#5) that is repeated as it speeds up and then slows down. This gesture, which happens twice more in the succeeding silent pieces, serves both as an ending and as an initiation of the next piece.

The second silent piece begins with sounds of the processed piano along with the previously heard clicking sounds, but now they have more dynamic presence. Low register piano pitches appear followed by long, poignant, decay trails. The music thus far is ambient and sparse, and represents some of the best principles of acousmatic practice. The composer has successfully created an imaginary sonic landscape that conjures more than it represents. As in the first silent piece, toward the end of the second we hear a single repeated pitch (this time it's a C#5), which serves to close the second piece and as a bridge to the third piece.

The third silent piece is texturally the busiest and uses the extreme piano registers for its processing fodder. There is a cyclic use of materials, which serves to ground them. Toward the end we hear another but different single pitch (D#5) repeated as before. These three pitches can be heard as part of a structural pentatonic scale. In short, there are no traditional melodies or harmonies to speak of here. The focus is clearly on texture and timbre. This is an evocative, understated piece that conjures up imagined places via the composer’s use of processing techniques.

The next work on this collection 6 studi (“dalla muta distesa delle cose…”)[6 studies (from the silent expanse of things…)] consists of six short studies for piano and live electronics from 1995-1997, and is the oldest work on the disc. The short movements carry a sense of material compression. At times it sounds as if the same sounds or techniques were being used in each of the movements, but in slightly different ways.

The first study begins with single repeated note attacks. Unlike how this technique was used in the previous piece, here the notes frequently change pitch. Each new grouping seems to trigger live electronic processing that alters the overall timbral shape. In the second study it sounds like pitch following was used. Also, percussive sounds emanating from the piano, including muted notes, are captured and processed. The third study is in many respects similar to the first two, but includes and occasional dissonant chord and granular processing techniques to create some interesting envelope distortions. The fourth study contains sounds that sound like they came from the pianist playing the inside of the piano, including muted strings. The fifth study uses more granular sounding techniques and an emphasis on resonance. The sixth, and final, study sounded like it contained fragments from the previous studies in various combinations. There is a long fade-out at the end to close out the piece.

The middle work on this five-piece disc is entitled Settimo studio (“dalle brume… l’evidenza…”) [Seventh Study (“from the mists… comes evidence…)]. Composed between 2017-2018 it represents the most recent piece on this collection. According to the liner notes it “takes over from where the six studies had ended, twenty years earlier” and is “the one (piece) featuring the most linear and predictable interaction between instrument and electronics.” It can also be described as a slow burn.

The piece begins with various groupings of notes that are followed by long fade-outs or decay trails, almost until the sounds completely decay to silence, a process that can take many seconds on the piano. There is a very effective, subtle use of electronics, as an echo, or distant memory, of the previous material. Some of this involves sonic ‘whiffs’ of simple amplitude modulation.

As in the other works on this disc, the composer uses electronics to slowly build texture largely by altering timbre. The slow rates of harmonic change work well with this compositional approach, which relies upon slow development and lengthy sonic decays. About halfway through the piece one begins to wonder if anything substantial will change. But this is not a music that contains catastrophic change or sharp corners. Rather, it is one that represents with nuance, an inner, contemplative world.

ater on we hear waves of similarly articulated and processed sounds. One wonders what would result if the composer used more tracks or channels to enhance the basic sonic image of this piece. At the end of the composition there is a softly repeated G#-A half-step that occurs within a rubato texture, almost sounding like a leading-tone to tonic resolution.

The penultimate work, chpn3.2, makes intriguing use of electrodynamic actuators designed and built by Giorgia Klauer called “self-sensing actuators.” They are used as part of complex process described in the program notes thus: “In the performance, these actuators are used by the two pianists to ‘inject’ in the strings a number of selected recordings of Chopin piano music (chosen by the performers. The piano strings into which the injection is made, are themselves selected according to any Chopin piano music fragment. The tiny resonances of the injection, are taken up in a larger electroacoustic chain, with microphones and speakers positioned just next to the piano or inside, whose sound loops back into the string via the actuators.” This complex process yields a fascinating and elaborate feedback system.

Chpn3.2 is separated into three sections or parts that contain similar treatments. They each begin similarly and then veer off in slightly different directions. The first part begins with liquideous sounds that suggest movement below a surface, either subterranean or underwater. There are other sounds that suggest that sounds of the human performers were embedded into the texture. All of this occurs within a very slow dynamic build-up. About 45 second from the end of the first section we hear a prominent tapping sound on the body of the piano that quickly fades out. This tapping also occurs in the second part, in a similar location. The second and third parts begin like the first part, only with somewhat busier textures and more layers added. One wonders if each section contains a different run through of the same processes or structures. 

The final work, Dal fondo [from the bottom, or from the background], is the longest piece on the disc, clocking in at 17’45”. The liner notes describe this piece as “a slow adagio growing out of the noise of piano keys and their mechanics.” This work also contains playback systems that play “back audio excerpts from the piano repertoire.”

In the lengthy introduction, incidental noises, including scratching and scraping sounds are prominent. Because of the extremely slow rate of change every new sound carries a weighted significance. Processing techniques include the boosting of filtered resonance, similar to the feedback in previous works.

The obvious presence of the piano is disguised or masked until shortly after the three-minute mark. Here the composer sparsely introduces middle to high register pitches. There is something Feldmanesque in the way Di Scipio utilizes compositional restraint. At times each attack is followed with an avalanche of granular-like, pitchless echoes, sounding like pebbles being poured into a container. These echoes eventually turn into wavelike utterances that conjure up an aquatic environment, within a slowly building crescendo texture. Like Shepard tones there is a continuous, almost infinite sense to this textural build-up.

After 12 minutes the traditional piano gestural repertoire comes to the surface, which takes on an alien character given all that has happened in the preceding 12 minutes. There is a long fade-out at the end, sufficiently proportional to the 17-minute length of the composition.

Overall, this collection contains fresh uses of sparse textures and dissonance, sustained textural drones, and creative use of various technologies and processing techniques. This is pure electroacoustic music that takes delight in timbres and textures for their own sakes. There is a sense of aliveness and organicity that is easy to appreciate.