Aldo Clementi: Works With Guitar

Aldo Clementi: Works with Guitar

by Stephen Snook © 2005


Like his near contemporary Franco Donatoni, Aldo Clementi is an Italian composer who has had an occasional but very fruitful association with that most Italian of instruments, the guitar. Despite its ubiquitous Spanish associations, the guitar has long had an Italian tradition of construction and performance, and it is also not generally recognised that Iberian guitarists often took their lead from
the experiments and developments of their Italian counterparts. The guitar also played an important part in the development of tonal thinking in music, with the early adoption of a chordal style of playing allowing a freer exploration of tonal transposition than that allowed by the more intricate contrapuntal textures of the lute and keyboard instruments. It is ironic that, while the earliest practical works ranging
through all major and minor keys were written for the guitar in the early seventeenth century (by the Italians Angiol’ Michele Bartolotti and Francesco Corbetta, and both well before the later keyboard counterparts by J. C. F. Fischer and J. S. Bach), the guitar repertoire has for centuries been tied to a few keys that most easily exploit its open-string sounds. The long Italian tradition of the instrument, particularly the movement of Italian performers and teachers to Vienna and Paris early in the nineteenth century, continues today, but with the most skilled composers finding ways of avoiding the instrument’s often stultifying tonal traditions to incorporate its small but highly adaptable voice within a variety of individual post-tonal compositional languages. In addition to the works on this recording there are other guitar works by Clementi, including a version of the keyboard work Replica B.A.C.H for three guitars, and a curious Fantasia for four guitars which superimposes themes from four composers who have written for the guitar: Manuel de Falla, Manuel Ponce, Francisco Tárrega and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Both Clementi and Donatoni shared similar paths in their compositional development, from the early absorption of influences of major early twentieth-century composers through their adoption and later rejection of the serialist hegemony of the Darmstadt course s they both attended, and culminating in mature styles as individual as they are similarly based on an almost obsessive immersion in the purely
craftsmanlike construction and setting in motion of highly personal musical mechanisms. Both composers have been described as “clockmakers” but Clementi’s mechanisms are often more readily identifiable than the more arcane ones of his contemporary Donatoni.

Clementi’s Style

All of the works in this recording come from what has been described as Clementi’s “diatonic” period where he moved away from the structuralism of his early works towards a compositional method based on the selection and subsequent polyphonic elaboration of modal and diatonic materials drawn from past European music, particularly the music of Bach and Brahms, but also Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky,
Liadov, Chopin, Schumann, Mozart, Purcell, Dufay, troubador melodies and Gregorian chant. Clementi sometimes echoes his earlier structuralist style by using more mechanically-derived materials, such as a “zig-zag” figure flowing from expanding intervals which unfold from a twelve-tone set, or by using letters or sounds from a dedicatee’s name to create short themes for subsequent elaboration.

Perhaps one of the most significant influences on the texture of Clementi’s recent pieces is the work of visual artists, particularly the intricately recursive figures in the lithographs of M. C. Escher and the richly repetitive surfaces of the paintings of the contemporary Italians Pietro Dorazio and Victor Vasarely. Escher’s interlocking and gradually evolving repeated figures seem ironically to put time into motion within the intrinsically static frame of the picture, while Clementi mirrors and reverses this process by so saturating the aural surface of his works with repetitive moving lines that their intrinsic temporal motion becomes subsumed into an aural stasis, producing a diffuse sonic “image” within an indeterminate “frame”. Where his American contemporary Morton Feldman makes his visual metaphors by projecting pure sounds like brush strokes on a blank aural canvas, Clementi starts with a saturated image and allows its pulsations and vibrations, its condensations and rarefactions, to register briefly in aural perception, and then inevitably and ineluctably fade away.

Clementi’s method of looking both backwards to the music of the past and forwards to its perhaps doubtful future is to construct works using a technique that itself can be made to look both ways in time: the canon. By manipulating and superimposing many versions of the same theme he manages to completely diffuse any concept of the passage of musical time to arrive at “continuous present” which simultaneously captures both the momentary sensuality of sound and its continual inability to move forward to any resolution. Indeed, many of Clementi’s works do not really end but simply fade away in a clearly predetermined way, like a wind-up mechanism that inevitably slows as it runs down, or a mobile that gradually loses it momentum after some initial impulse has set it in motion. This idea of a measured rallentando probably came from hearing carillons whose bell sounds gradually die away as their initial momentum exhausts itself. It was first used in his Intermezzo from 1977 based on material from a piano intermezzo of Brahms.

The Ensemble Works

Serenata, written for Magnus Andersson in 1988 for guitar and four instruments (flute, clarinet, violin and viola) suggests, both from its title and instrumentation, a light entertainment but, rather than providing a stream of pleasantly familiar sound, its form and performance directions typify the abovementioned scenario of structured decay and loss. The piece is to be played three times, with each repetition being slower and quieter than before. The underlying pulse falls from 80 to 60 to 40 beats per minute (allegretto to andantino to adagio), but, rather than happening in discrete decrements, the composer asks for a continuous imperceptible and gradual rallentando (“insensibile e graduale”). The dynamics begin mezzopiano and fall below ppp at the end, with the final fade out assisted by most instruments dropping out of the texture before their original part is complete. Only the clarinet remains to complete the mechanism, but rather than this being gesture of finality there is rather the sense of an exhaustion of energies. The thematic material is drawn from a set of solo guitar studies by the French nineteenth-century guitarist-composer Napoleon Coste. The guitar in this piece, rather than being simply a sound colour in the ethereal canonic mass, having more of a concertante role, setting the music in motion solo and then being set against the sustained sounds of the other instruments.

The same threefold repeated form and decaying tempor and dynamics are found in Albumblatt, composed in 1995 for female voice, flute, violin and guitar, and dedicated to Michael Marschall von Bieberstein. This time, however, the initial statement and repetitions are more discrete in mood (marked brilliante, moderato and lento), but the sense of fadeout is enhanced timbrally by having the violin initially play with normal vibrato, then with less vibrato and with the mute in place, and finall with no vibrato and a muted ponticello. Again the instruments gradually drop out at the end to leave a single sung note, seemingly suspended at the edge of some uncertain future. This short “album leaf” is marked Tempo di Valzer, but the sustained sounds of the voice and instruments, the frequent syncopations and overlapping phrases dilute any sense of a danceable triple meter. In his score Clementi suggests a link with the linear counterpoint of the distant past by eschewing barlines in the parts and instead inserting mensurstricht lines between the staves, a practice used by musicologists transcribing early polyphony to show the uninterrupted linear flow of each part while providing a visual grid to assist their temporal alignment. The text for the voice (a-e-a-scha) are simply vowels and syllable extracted from the dedicatee's name (Michael Marschall).

Clementi uses a more through-composed form for his C.A.G. Written in 1992 for flute, violin, vibraphone and guitar, drawing the title from the dedicatee's name Camillo ToGni, a fellow composer. The work again unfolds via familiar overlapping canons, and is given an ethereal atmosphere by its constant quiet dynamic and sparing use of vibrato, but Clementi carefully inserts “echoes” throughout the score where single notes or segments of canonic parts are resounded, extended and played ppp before returning to the prevailing piano dynamic. The echoes adds a further means of multiplying and diffacing the selected material but in a way that further enhances the veiling of all mechanisms within a relatively static sound mass. Here the guitar is used as simply another timbre within the texture but, as with the vibraphone, is restricted in its own harmonic and contrapuntal resources to simple two-part writing.

The Plaint, written in 1992 for the ELISION Ensemble, is scored for voice and a thirteen instrument chamber ensemble including vibraphone, mandolin, harp and guitar. The text is a single lamenting exclamation (“O, O let me, let me weep!”) taken from Act V of The Fairy Queen by Henry Purcell, which is repeated eight times in whole or in part, sometimes breaking off mid-phrase, while the ensemble instruments maintain their familiar canons and echoes. The ensemble does not “accompany”the voice in the manner of a Baroque continuo group since the lack of long vocal lines affords it no opportunity to react to the voice's declamatory or narrative inflections. The single exceptions to this are the repeated arpeggios of the mandolin during the voice's sustained notes on the word “weep!”, perhaps an attempt at “word-painting” on this climax word in the phrase. The familiar Clementian stasis is enhanced by the perception that the voice will never continue to another phrase, meaning that there will be no further explanation of why the voice wants to be allowed to weep. It simply presents an impassioned “interjection” extracted from another context which is repeated with different melodic profiles, with the progress” of the work only being suggested by wavelike gradual intensifications of overall texture towards the vocal entries and gradual textural thinning out after the voice breaks off. The threefold repetition of the whole work in this recording proceeds via the characteristic Clementian gradual fading away.

The Solo Guitar Works

The Dodici Variazioni from 1980, rather than being based on a thematic fragment from the past, is more abstractly conceived in terms of pitch material but also very practically conceived in terms of realisation on the instrument. Each variation is based on diverse abstract arpeggiated figures which zig-zag across the guitar's fingerboard with carefully differentiated speeds of execution, and though occasionally interrupted by loud six-note chords, the composer's performance directions indicated an uninterrupted flow. “The piece should give the idea of an undulating flow, without any loss of continuity, through a true and proper rubato. Also the variations should be bound together without interruption.” Clementi was clearly aware of the practical realisation of the work since he notated the work unconventionally on two staves, with the upper stave for the three treble strings and the lower stave for the three basses. The resultant work is a type of exploration of the possibilities of placing arpeggiated figures within the physical limitations of the guitar fingerboard, with the variations based not on a thematic fragment but on changes in speed, dynamics and articulation which are all designed to produce a seamless sonic flow.

The Fantasia su frammenti di Michelangelo Galilei for solo lute, composed in 1978, illustrates another facet of Clementi’s compositional repertoire; that of montage or collage using fragments of music drawn from existing compositions. Instead of using contrapuntal devices on an extracted short theme Clementi here attempts to keep as close as possible to the nature of the original instrument by using its
characteristic figures, phrases, textures and cadences as exemplified by twenty-one series of fragments drawn from the Primo libro d’Intavolatura di liuto by Michelangelo Galilei published in 1620. The fragments, alternating from minor to major tonalities, are played without pause and are chosen and arranged so that all chromatic pitches are included. Thus without adding a note to the original fragments, or changing their rhythms, Clementi takes inherently non-chromatic material and arranges
it quasi-serially to include all pitches. When combined with continuous rubato fluctuations in tempo in a long uninterrupted wave motion, the result is a type of sonic vertigo which is not dissimilar to the pulsating stasis of Clementi’s predominant compositional style. Although originally intended for lute, the composer has authorised versions for guitar with or without additional bass strings.

The Otto variazioni from 2002 were written for, and are dedicated to, the present performer Geoffrey Morris. In keeping with Clementi’s continuing search for new sources of material, they are indeed more eclectic in their derivation, being based on a short extract of bird-song. The composer specifies a four-part contrapuntal structure where each voice is a transposition or inversion of the soprano theme, but the voices are continually fragmented and interleaved within a pointillistic web of single note attacks. After a statement of the theme the variations follow each other almost without pause within this relatively static texture, with the timbrally varied points of sound recalling the glints and pulsations of light reflecting from the suspended rotating facets of a Calder mobile. The work is itself symmetrical about a central statement of the theme in the bass voice only, with the four variations on each side mirroring the same material and the work concluding with another statement of the theme stepping backwards to its starting point, like one of Bach’s “crab” canons.

Thus the most recent work on this recording encapsulates Clementi’s more than three decades of preoccupation with mechanisms that appear to go nowhere and inevitably fold back upon themselves, seemingly collapsing into negativity and decay. While this may appear to be his way of dealing with the “death” of music after the depredations of modernism, the very act of listening to his fascinating soundscapes engenders a sense of continuing wonder at the apparently infinite possibilities of musical expression using the simplest of materials and an unerring ability to continually reinvent seemingly purely abstract mechanisms that nonetheless project a compelling sonic sensuality.


Aldo Clementi (Catania 1925) began his piano studies at thirteen, and received his diploma in 1946 under the guidance of Giovanna Ferro, a student of Alfredo Casella. He continued studies with Alfredo Sangiorgi (who studied with Schoenberg in Vienna), who introduced him to the technique of twelve-tone composition. He studied in Rome with Goffredo Petrassi (195254). From 1955 to 1962, he attended the course s at Darmstadt. His meeting Bruno Maderna in 1956 opened new horizons and marked a decisive turning point in his musical thought. Attendance at the Studio of Phonology in Milan (1956-62) constituted another fundamentally important stage in his development.

In 1959 he won second prize in the ISCM competition with Episodi and in 1963 he was awarded first prize in the same competition for Sette scene da “Collage” (1961).

From 1971 to 1992 he taught music theory at the University of Bologna (DAMS) and is frequently invited to give guest lectures and composition courses at major festivals and institutions. In 2005, numerous monographic concerts celebrated the composer’s eightieth birthday; in particular, the University of Catania (Università degli Studi) organised an international conference on Clementi’s music, during which the composer was conferred with the laurea honoris causa. At the Festival “Suoni e Colori in Toscana” (Rignano sull’Arno-Firenze) the composer was awarded the “Presidente della Repubblica”. He also has received the DAMS Special Prize for his career from the University of Bologna. (Biography courtesy Edizioni Suvini Zerboni)

Geoffrey Morris has created a unique path as a classical guitarist in Australia primarily through his pioneering work in contemporary music. To date he has played in over 150 performances of works for solo guitar, chamber works and works employing electronics.

His interpretations are often based upon direct contact with composers: Elena-Kats Chernin, Brian Ferneyhough, Jason Eckardt, Michael Finnissy, Horatiu Radulescu, Walter Zimmermann, Aldo Clementi, and many others.

He has been a member of the ELISION Ensemble since 1993, with whom he has premiered new chamber works by Franco Donatoni, Helen Gifford, Chaya Czernowin, Maurizio Pisati, and Gerard Brophy. With ELISION he recently premiered and recorded two new works by Brian Ferneyhough.

Also interested in the guitar’s earlier repertoire, Geoffrey has also explored the performance of the guitar’s nineteenth-century solo and lieder repertoire performing these works on both period and modern instruments. He has worked with many leading ensembles and individuals including the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, the Song Company, guitarist Norio Sato (Melbourne Festival), Ensemble 21 (New York City), Paul Grabowsky and Aphids Trio.

Since its formation in 1986, ELISION, Australia’s leading contemporary music ensemble, has established a profile and reputation for virtuosic and authoritative performances. The practice of the ensemble ranges from concert-giving to music theatre and cross-disciplinary projects with a wide range of new media and visual artists.

ELISION has developed a rare authority and expertise in the performance and recording of music by Brian Ferneyhough, Liza Lim, Chris Dench and Richard Barrett.

Born in England, Carl Rosman has appeared as a soloist throughout Europe and Australia, the USA, Japan and South Korea, collaborating closely with a wide range of composers including Richard Barrett, Liza Lim, and Rebecca Saunders. In 2002 he took up a residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude (Stuttgart), before joining musikFabrik

Carl has conducted ELISION at the Studio of the Sydney Opera House, the 2000 Adelaide Festival and at the 2006 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.