Stefano Gervasoni, Sound Poet

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by Philippe Albèra, Musicologist

"Poetizing the world", as Novalis called it, means withstanding difficult times while remaining open to the possibility of a potential re-enchantment. 

For a generation of composers who began their careers in the 1980s, the obvious impact of recent, contradictory trends and aesthetics meant that choices had to be made. The fact that Stefano Gervasoni, born in 1962, turned to Luigi Nono when he accepted his vocation as a composer, then to Niccolo Castiglioni during his academic studies, before attending Helmut Lachenmann and Brian Ferneyhough's composition seminars, should discourage us from attributing his choices as an influence of one of these personalities but to note his interest in the acoustic and semantic dimensions of sound. Within a movement that had brought about the overthrow of old hierarchies, these composers had, in fact, rethought, each in their own way, the question of timbre by linking it to ethical, philosophical, and political considerations. We find these considerations at the heart of the Italian composer's approach. The extraordinary invention of sound that characterizes his music—which strikes us immediately upon hearing it—is not presented as an end in and of itself, or as the result of theoretical speculation, still less as a kind of mannerism, but as an expressive necessity, like a quest for a language that leads to other possibilities.

To do this, Gervasoni first and foremost focused on the sound phenomenon itself, on its complexity and ambivalence, exploring the sound's interior with the help of different playing styles, imagining new alloys, abolishing the frontier between note and sound or between sound and noise. From this "empirical and immediate experience" of the material (to quote Lachenmann), he developed a syntax based on the unstable nature of sound phenomena that the Western tradition had overcome via the rational organization of pitches. The sound in his music throbs; it is made up of tremors, oscillations, shifts, alterations that affect both notes and figures, which refers both to a idea of timbre carried through to its ultimate consequences and to an expressive investigation in which the most subtle movements and nuances count. The result is music that is both feverish and fragile, never pompous.

The introspective character of his music appears in his very first works: Die Aussicht (1985, rev. 2003) based on Hölderlin's final poem as seen through an analysis by Jakobson, Quattro Voci (1988) set to poems by Sereni, Luzi, Sanguineti, and Caproni, or Least Bee with poems by Dickinson (1992). This aspect culminates in his most autobiographical work: Six Lettres sur l’obscurité (und zwei Nachrichten) for string quartet (2005-2006). The lyricism contained in these works does not only refer to the composer's inner self, but extends to other human groups and to everything that lives in nature. For example, in Godspell (2002), the muffled voices of the black American community attempt to penetrate the instrumental texture, but are not able to impose themselves. In descdesesasf (1995) and Atemseile (1997), rituals of extinction, the silent voices of the victims of the Shoah, through the silent presence of a Celan poem, pose the anguishing question Warum? (Why?), borrowed from a work by Schumann. The diffuse snippets of  work for choral by Bach evoke death as it passes, like a ghost, through Un leggero ritorno di cielo (2003).

These musical quotations, most often veiled, are like signals from afar; they break the tendency of language be uniform, singular. This is why, in Com que voz (2007/2009-2010), contemporary writing and fado music face each other without ever coming together. The distance is not bridged. These views of the past, which question the rigid conceptions of a modernity closed in on itself, have nothing to do with a postmodern posture. They make us aware of the flaws and tears that characterize our era, and which writing exacerbates. It is from such critical awareness that luminescent, radiant, magical sonorities spring forth, pure intervals that travel back in time, or those suites of perfect chords linked together that run through Reconnaissance (2008) or Dir - in dir (2003/2010), among others. These ephemeral moments of transcendence arise at the very heart of his works. In Antiterra (1999), which references Nabokov, or in Animato (1992), which is inspired by Ponge, the ascending movements and crystalline sonorities—which polarize the music towards the high register—aim for this type of excess.

Opening up sound, questioning its limits, linking history to the unprecedented, rethinking questions of writing, of style, in relation to the very meaning of music: this is how one could describe the work of Gervasoni, whose voice is unmistakable in today's music. Two aspects that make his works great: the beauty of the sound combinations, which comes from a heightened intuition of the affinity between sounds and maintains the possibility of the marvelous, without which art is alienated from itself, and the necessary relationship between the elements of detail and the overall structure which is the result of his work as a composer and refers to the probity of his craft, to the authenticity of his ideas.

This determination to maintain contradictions alive while inscribing them in an unwavering compositional rigor leads to a fragmented conception of form. It does not refer to schematics or architectural constructions, but demands to be experienced as it unfolds. The individual parts, centered on figures that revolve around themselves while changing imperceptibly, are generally structured without mediation, according to the principle of montage. The almost motionless time that directs the listening towards the heart of the processes, through varied repetition, is opposed to the time of breakdowns, where one jumps into another dimension. The prismatic structure of the form produces multiple perspectives, underlined by a supple rhythm and constant changes of tempo. It leaves no room for secondary passages or fillers, everything being essential. The different moments, however, are not interchangeable: they are part of a trajectory that gives the work its meaning. Not that they aim at a form of culmination or apotheosis, which would give the illusion of positivity: on the contrary, they open up to the unknown, to the promise of a possible, but unexpressed, accomplishment. The endings, which are interrogative, force the listener to question themselves. What at first took the form of separate and related movements—as seen in Concerto pour alto (1994-1995)—gradually became part of a single, complex, and labyrinthine form: Irrene Stimme (2006), Heur, Leurre, Lueur (2013), Clamour (2014-2015), Eufaunique (2016-2017)...

In this constantly growing inner adventure that demonstrates a pronounced coherence, a great fidelity to oneself, Gervasoni, a true "poet of sounds", has found substantial allies in the words of poets. His music, which is in essence linked to the human voice, is based on dense, sober, and allusive lyrics which, while grasping the emotion at its source, reflect and confront great existential questions. Thus, Rilke's "paths that lead nowhere" in the Due Poesie francesi di Rilke (1995-1996), answer Silesius' questions in Dir - in dir "Where is my sojourn? Where is the end I must reach?" Gervasoni did not follow his predecessors in their work of deconstructing texts; on the contrary, he provides a literal reading of the poems in order to reveal their content, including even figurative language, close in this sense to a composer like Kurtág. This is what led him in recent years, to reinvest the madrigal genre, Monteverdi being an essential reference for him. The alliance of word and sound reveals his concern for a music that is not a pure play on sound, but a melting pot of profound meanings. The poets that Gervasoni has chosen, beyond the diversity of languages, reveal the issues examined in his music, its ethical dimension, whether it be Samuel Beckett or Nelly Sachs, José Àngel Valente, or Gherassim Luca.

"Poetizing the world", as Novalis called it, means withstanding difficult times while remaining open to the possibility of a potential re-enchantment. By faithfully staying close to his primary sensations, where wonder and terror touch, Gervasoni has developed, and continues to develop, an uncompromising music, relentlessly questioning the nature and meaning of things. In an era in full regression, his works are a source of hope.

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