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Aldo Clementi's Piano Works (published in Contemporary Music Review, 1/2012)

Aldo Clementi's piano pieces from 1970 onward (the year in which his "diatonic phase" began) are united by a constant and rigorous use of counterpoint and frequent recourse to pre-existing thematic models, grafted, moreover, into a semantic and structural context that is quite original.

B.A.C.H. (1970) is built entirely on fragments derived from Bach's Fantasia BWV 904 in C minor, of which the ascending scales present in the Bachian original are used. In B.A.C.H. these scales (with three different intervallic arrangements) are arranged in three different registers of the keyboard, and are to be played each with a different dynamic. By superimposing them in a staggered and uneven manner, Clementi builds a particular counterpoint, so rapid and pulviscular that it constitutes an indistinct stream of sound (continuum) from which emerge from time to time accented notes corresponding to the four notes of the cryptogram on Bach's name (B-flat, A C, B). These four notes are also, moreover, derived from Fantasia BWV 904, and in particular from the upper voice of the initial chords (C - C - B, B - B - A). Of the same chords, Clementi also reports the inner voices, present in the form of notes held in the high register. B.A.C.H. is a piece of historical importance, as it is the first example of a continuum based on diatonic fragments, thus inaugurating a compositional technique that the composer has continued to use to this day. The piece can be repeated until infinity, and in any case no less than three times (seven times in the present performance). This triggers a fascinating play of spatial and temporal illusions. Indeed, the continuous ascent of the individual fragments arouses the impression of an endless scale; the seamless repetition of the same material in total rhythmic uniformity alters the normal perception of time, achieving almost hypnotic results.

Clementi's later compositions are characterized by a singular use of polytonality, allowing the optical illusions of Max Escher's figures to be set to music. Each line that forms the counterpoint, in fact, has a clear harmonic polarization, different from that of the other lines. The listener is thus led to a continuous change of harmonic "perspective," just as happens to those who observe Escher's multi-perspective planes.

In the 1990s Clementi's piano production was exceedingly rich, and his language, always anchored in a rigorous use of counterpoint, also embraced some elements of folk music and jazz, while continuing to draw on the Bachian repertoire. This tendency testifies to a conception of artistic creation that resorts to preesisent elements (deprived, however, of their peculiarities and radically decontextualized) as a primary source from which to draw sound material. Moreover, the results of these repêchages are of extreme relevance and originality and are inscribed in a poetic path of profound coherence. One difference from the piano pieces of the previous two decades consists in their speed: whereas all the earlier diatonic works, from B.A.C.H. to Variations on B.A.C.H., prescribe (at least at the beginning) a very rapid tempo, thus playing on the continuum determined by a pulviscular polyphony, now the thematic fragments are much more perceptible thanks to a generally slow time scansion and often tending to a further slowing down.

If in the period of the material and optical informal the parallelism was easier with Vasarely's visual illusions, in the diatonic period (and, as far as the piano production is concerned, especially in the pieces from '91 onward), the closeness to Escher's experiences becomes obvious. Clementi, who learns more about it through Douglas Hofstadter's book "Gödel, Escher, Bach. An Eternal Brilliant Garland,[1] now seeks a musical correspondence of his optical illusions. Escher himself, after all, had already studied the relationship between optical illusions and musical procedures, as he writes about Bach: "It may be that the canon is close to my anti)symmetrical mania for filling the piano. Bach played with repetition, superimposition, inversion, reflection, acceleration and slowing down of his own themes in a way, in many ways, comparable to my mirroring by translation and scrolling the themes of recognizable figures. And this is perhaps why I particularly like his music[2].

In the 1993 Study on Touch, the recourse to pre-existing material consists not in the use of a certain theme, but of a certain kind of phrasing: the syllabic phrasing of the Lutheran chorale. Clementi also achieves new stages of partial indeterminacy of the piece, prescribing the performer to form melodies (precisely in the chorale style) using only a group of six notes in the right hand (B-flat, F, D, C, A-flat, E-flat) and another group of six notes, mirrored, in the left hand (B, E, G, A, C-sharp, F-sharp). The twelve notes are all different so as to complete the chromatic total. The pianist must always play them all at the same time (consistent with hand extension), each time giving greater emphasis to a note in the right hand and the corresponding note in the left hand. This results in melodic phrases variously shaped in the chorale style, based on a kind of twelve-part aleatory twelve-tone counterpoint! The partial freedom left to the performer can in no way detract from the clarity and originality of this composition. Indeed, the two ensembles are reiterated and elaborated as in a kaleidoscope, turning out to be continuously iridescent but, at the same time, always identical to themselves, proposing in a new light that peculiar combination of equality and diversity, of static and dynamic, that characterizes Clementi's musical aesthetic.

From 1998 to the present, Clementi has returned to writing for piano with renewed assiduity, and has produced no less than seven works of undoubted interest in five years. They are all united by a particular harmonic color, by virtue of the polytonality that is determined by the superimpositions of tonal fragments at different pitches. By determining a continuous variation of the dominant tonality, through the appearance (or disappearance) of a voice, Clementi achieves fascinating displacements in the perception of harmonic polarity, as Max Escher tricks the eye in his famous lithographs (see Another World, Above and Below) in which the "above and "below" are interchangeable depending on the points of view.

The first piano piece in which we can appreciate these effects is Loure (1998), consisting of three short movements, characterized by the ternary rhythm of the dance of the same name, and based on the same thematic material. This, as usual, is very limited, with precise harmonic connotations, and undergoes ever-changing overlaps, resulting in a four-part counterpoint, in which each voice has a different tonality. The three movements have different pitches: mosso (the first), moderato (the second), and lento (the third): the counterpoint is thus proposed in an increasingly clear way, and the listener is gradually able to perceive the fascinating intervallic overlaps and the variety of articulation, as if observing the score under a magnifying glass that is more powerful from time to time.

Vom Himmel hoch (1999) takes its cue from the famous Bach chorale, whose syllabic phrasing and rigorous four-part counterpoint it retains. This is based on four different lines, which are varied by augmentation or inversion, resulting in eight different movements, each with as many new overlaps. The last four movements are nothing more than the retrograde of the first four, according to the pattern 1 - 2 - 3 - 4, 4 - 3 - 2 - 1. The sound potential of the piano, as usual, is used only minimally, so that the dynamics have only two levels: p and pp possible. This does not detract, however, from the fact that even within such a narrow dynamic range it is possible to achieve results of great timbral interest, thanks in part to the cleanliness of the four lines, two of which have all the notes accented to indicate more incisive declamation. As in Loure, each voice has a different harmonic polarity, and the listener is forced to constantly change "angle" to frame one or the other of the co-present tones. This piece can also be repeated up to three times, each time always at half time. Since the duration of the first time is four minutes, it goes without saying that the total duration of the three repetitions reaches 28 minutes, achieving perceptual results of particular hypnotic charm, and giving the idea of a tired, disintegrating mechanism.

A sad, twilight mechanism can also be spoken of in regard to the 1999 Variations. The theme consists of a hexachord (F, E, D, C, B-flat, A) first descending, then ascending, which is reiterated without any internal modification through the rigorous four-part contrapuntal plot, with the usual variations of inversion and retrograde. The voices, moreover, are not superimposed, but alternated with a puntillistic writing, which gives a peculiar dryness of tone: the whole piece, in fact, acquires an apparent monodic character, lacking altogether the overlapping of two or more voices at the same time.

Polytonality is less evident here, since the simultaneous co-presence of several voices is missing. The rhythm is based on only two units: the quaver and the minim, and has continuous accelerations and decelerations, resulting in an almost mechanical pattern. But it is not a dry mechanism, but a human one, capable of exhausting itself in a disenchanted melancholy. The fascination of this piece lies in the coexistence of monody and polyphony, of regularity and freedom (rhythmically, melodically and formally), of chaos and order, and thus reflects the concept of counterpoint that is outlined through Clementi's works. The variations to which the title alludes are the twelve repetitions of the initial polyphony, each time with a greater horizontal displacement between the four parts..

With the two 2001 Blues, Clementi explores the combinatorial potential of twelve Theolonius Monk fragments, selected on the basis of the presence of the chromatic total in each. In each Blues the structure is mirror-like, since the second half is nothing but the retrograde of the first, following a pattern similar to that of Vom Himmel hoch: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12, 12 - 11 - 10 - 9 - 8 - 7 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1. Blues 2 consists of the inversion of the previous one; the two songs are therefore complementary and when performed in sequence form a third Blues, with the enunciation of the four variations: O - R - I - IR. The two Blues confirm the widespread tendency in Clementi's more recent works to rely increasingly on fragments, shreds of pre-existing compositions. In this case, even, Clementi lets the fragments, without any elaboration, make up the entire piece, directly expressing its contents, steeped in memories, stratifications, unpredictable perceptual short-circuits.

In the case of Blues, the author's intervention consists only in selecting the fragments and placing them in a certain order: everything else will be determined by the sound material itself. However, this type of operation should not be confused with the Dada examples of collages or objets trouvés. In Clementi's case, there is a complete lack of provocative intent, or an attempt to use the artwork as a medium for polemical (or humorous, or moralistic, or political) references to external realities. Simply, Clementi, from time to time, makes his own pre-existing materials (selected, moreover, with extreme care: certainly not "found by chance"!) and makes music out of them that could be anything but his music. As if to reiterate that the procedure (or method, or criterion) by which one works on the material is what determines the identity of the compositional work: the material itself will continue to maintain its own autonomy, merely becoming the bearer of ideas, intentions, expressions derived from its interaction with other objects or simply combinatorial methods.

Similar discourse for In the Invention 4 (2003), four voices intone a cadenced melody in the ternary rhythm of 12/4, based on only three notes.The structure is divided into six variations, the last three of which are the retrograde of the first three, following a pattern not too different from that of Vom Himmel hoch and the two Blues: 1 - 2 - 3, 3 - 2 - 1. This mirror form is also evidenced by the tempo and pitches, as there is a half-tone rise in each variation up to the middle of the piece, with subsequent half-tone lowering and deceleration from the middle to the end. The particular charm of this work lies in the contrast between the deep lyricism of the theme intoned by each individual voice and the complex polyphonic crossover, which imprisons the cantabile in dense contrapuntal interlacing until the pattern of each individual line is imperceptible. The result is a mass of legato and amalgamated sounds that very slowly rises in pitch and then, almost resignedly, falls back.

Clementi's music, even in the absolute abstractness of compositional craftsmanship, could lead the scholar to philosophical considerations, or to identify emotional connotations and semantic implications of various orders. However, we prefer not to go into such areas here, even considering the subjectivity of such kinds of observations. To give an idea of the extent to which Clementi's counterpoint, admittedly devoid of explicit descriptive references, can stimulate the listener's imagination, the following observation by Renzo Cresti is quoted, which although it relates to Clementi's polyphony of the 1970s, may be appropriate to Invention 4: "the musical line can no longer be melodic, individualizable, but totally repressed, like the anonymous "individual" of the bureaucratically organized society, an "organization" not functional to the citizens, but corrupt and at the service of the ruling class, just as the general form of Clementi's counterpoint is not functional to a transparent, clear and comprehensible design, but becomes chaos and appears as a mere agglomeration of unrecognizable individualities. A deliberately cold world, where the sky is a shroud of existence, the absurd existence of 'melodic' lines twisted into a dull discontent that is restless every day with hints of fatigue and pain: they flow like a procession of condemned people."[3]

Roberto Prosseda

1 - Adelphi, 1984 (published in the original language in New York in 1979).

2 - Letter from Max Escher to Ernst H. Gombrich. Reported in Mattietti, op. cit., p. 67.

3 - Renzo Cresti: Aldo Clementi, Ed. Suvini Zerboni, 1990, p. 58.


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