Sound Icon’s Saturday concert at the Fenway Center at Northeastern, presented by Northeastern Center for the Arts, was dedicated to two works by Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, a prolific 67-year-old composer whose first work was publicly performed at the age of 15 and who can still be safely called avant-garde. His fascination with unusual sound production and with the relationship of sound to silence abides.
The concert was somewhat lopsided: Fanofania for a mixed ensemble of winds and strings, was only about ten minutes long; the remainder of the evening was devoted to the much longer “Invisible Action” for actress and ensemble entitled Lohengrin. The texture of the two works was somewhat similar; otherwise, they were quite different beasts.
A work from 2010, Fantofania explores four families of audible materials: breathy, unpitched sounds from winds; sustained tones from strings; low rumblings from percussion and contrabass clarinet; and long pitches that start from nothing and increase in volume until they terminate in brief “tails” of pitches. About halfway through, vibrato and other wavering gestures became apparent and were absorbed into the texture. Over about ten minutes these spare materials created a tissue of sounds and a structure of echoes and distortions whose complexity snuck up on me, and whose eventual heft and density only became apparent when the work was abruptly cut off and silence ensued. It left behind a sense of evolution that was elusive while it was occurring; and despite its relatively limited resources, it did not overstay its welcome. Sound Icon, under director Jeffrey Means, produced a shimmering, delicate fabric of sound whose every movement was audible.
It is fair to say that Lohengrin (1982) is more taxing, and not just because it was four times as long. It sets an episode from Jules Laforgue’s Moralités légendaires. In the brief time in between his birth in Uruguay of French parents and his death of tuberculosis shortly after his 27th birthday, he left behind a body of symbolist poetry powerful enough that T. S. Eliot would say Laforgue was “the first to teach me how to speak, to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech.” Sciarrino takes Laforgue’s own diffuse and dark version of the story and makes it into a lurid fever-dream of sexual disturbance. On the surface, it sounds like lazy, familiar European nonsense: a noisy, fragmented dream, with (literally) dripping eroticism, panicked outbursts and lugubrious musings, which is ultimately seen to be the product of a mental hospital patient—this last I understand is Sciarrino’s own innovation. However, it is also a tour-de-force for a female vocalist of unusual talents, and Sound Icon had Tony Arnold on hand . An undisputed queen of contemporary vocal music, Arnold was only occasionally asked to produce anything that sounded like conventional singing. Instead, while sitting, brightly lit, at a table, she produced all manner of onomatopoeia, from those drippings I alluded to, to the ticking of a clock and the twittering of birds, along with the utterance of the text and a disconcertingly large number of pitched swallowings. All of this was made audible through amplification, and was produced against a background of music from a sizable ensemble that seemed rather larger than necessary for its secondary role. The extreme vocal techniques recall people like Lachenmann and Ferneyhough, but I don’t know anything by them that calls for the combination of narration and weird virtuosity demanded of the actress in Sciarrino’s Lohengrin.
The bones of the story come from the old fable: Elsa’s virtue has been questioned, Lohengrin comes to defend her, they are married; then she makes an inappropriate request and he flees. But we start well into the story; they are already married, and are in “the Nuptial Villa.” Lohengrin is a piece of work. His first line, “You’ll regret for the rest of your life having said this,” comes admittedly in response to Elsa’s insecure badgering: “Why don’t you give me more of yourself… You don’t love me… you know everything! Don’t you answer?” Later he denigrates her “meager hips” and there’s a suggestion he’s rather more attached to his swan than is healthy. Lohengrin leaves at the end of the second of four scenes; Elsa’s condition does not improve.
One assumes her execution was definitive: as uncomfortable and unexpected as some of the sounds were, Arnold seemed fully committed and totally in control of what she was doing. The piece requires no traditional acting; Sciarrino provides a hortatory note that states that “these actions are already theater,” but Arnold made the most of simply gazing at the audience. The technical presentation needed some work. The piece depends heavily on the text and although the libretto was distributed, very little light was available to read it. Arnold’s microphone was prone to emitting loud thumps at inappropriate moments; by contrast, the male chorus (which sang only twice) was nearly inaudible. Also, Sound Icon must be pretty sure its audience is hard-core about this music, inasmuch as it provided no notes at all to guide the listener apart from the libretto and a few sentences in oddly translated English from Sciarrino with instructions for listening: “…every scenic insinuation should enhance the sounds without imprisoning them. The drama of what is heard is effective, regardless of the space.” OK, then.
At its best, the work is cinematic and hallucinatory. Once one gets used to the various sounds and effects being employed; it is possible to hear two or three different layers of action happening at once. Natural sounds from the outdoors mingle with Elsa’s pleadings and Lohengrin’s demurrals; these are interrupted by grunts and groans that presumably emanate from inside Elsa’s head. There are also stretches that do little but establish the mood, which does not vary much from beginning until nearly the end. At the conclusions, we find ourselves in the mental hospital, with Elsa reduced to imbecility, singing a simple tune. It’s a striking moment, but it’s also a narrative cop out. It does not diminish Arnold’s significant achievements to believe that the piece’s self-indulgence and constant hysteria seriously undermine any serious dramatic impact it might have. It’s a fascinating effort; but it was a relief to have it end.