Charlie Sdraulig’s music and the Aesthetic of Pianissimo

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Charlie Sdraulig was born in Melbourne, 1985. He moved to London in 2010 for a Master Degree at the Royal College of Music. He is currently a PhD candidate at Stanford University. Charlie Sdraulig looks for the best writing to represent interaction between players: the intra-ensemble relationship. The writing of first works, such as Still for orchestra, reflected his passion for composers such as Brian Fernryhough, Bruno Maderna and Chrsitian Wolff. But his research gets to extreme representation systems, as we can see in Hush.

His latest production is focused on an aesthetic of pianissimo. Listening to a performance of his work we are not sure if musicians are actually playing any sound, or pretending to: it is almost-silence. While he reaches visual results between comedy and mimes, remembrances of Marx Bros or Charlie Chaplin’s master works where actors go for repeated gestures aiming to deliver a message (a comical message but loaded with drama), the composers is actually exploring different types of risks in the sound production, trough the usage of extremes instrumental techniques, finely written. In other words: the notation refers to space, it says physically how much the performer should risk producing a sound, approaching more and more to the string, to the point of scraping it. It says play the closest possible to the string trying not to touch it and not producing any sound: as to say “try not to play but do risk doing it”. This sort of indication produces those theatrical gestures.

Hush, for harp and cello, is the best example. Almost the same bowing technique, plucking and percussing is used for both instruments and the harp is landed on one side in a fashion that does not have previous. As it happened in a earlier set of work (Interior for violin, oboe, vibraphone, piano; For an interior for flute, Bb clarinet, percussion, violin. Music for an interior, for piano, clarinet, violin, cello), the interaction between performers and gestures are ruled by signs stating the order of events in space (on the page) and in time (in the performance): the harp part is an original and functional tablature. After less than a minute of Sdraulig music, the audience faces an almost-silence situation, trying carefully to catch every sonic element produced by the performance. Audience is tense in the careful observation of musicians, hungry of the smallest movement.

Charlie Sdraulig’s music is really interesting, full of nuances and accurate gestures. But is also marginal. It does not try to imitate anyone else to be understood. It just take his roots in composers know by insiders, but completely unknown to the rest. He has a passion for sound produced by everyday objects, he wants to eviscerate the instrument to discover unveiled sounds and has the political strengths of writing music that audience must want to listen to, without raising the voice. This is the Esthetic of Pianissimo, a silent fight to conquer a little space of dialogue with the others. It is true that he is speaking his own language, but the message is sharable. His music raises questions about the most radical fringes of contemporary music, about the possibility of classifying it in different “schools”, about the need of having such a wide production without a corresponding request. A big part of this music is out of market, created just for the satisfaction of few: the composer himself, commissioning organisation (often a contemporary music ensemble), few people in the audience. Then: “educated” traits of this music take roots from composers with an already iper-personal language. We are talking about a musical jungle where anyone speaks his own language, made of personal idioms and gestures risking not to create communication.

The most radical music, mirror of an individual thinking pushed to the limit of sharing with the other, is nevertheless sharable. There is not an aesthetically or cultural reason because we cannot have the patience to listen to it and to understand it. It is true that elements around ask us for a selection of those one we like and those one we like not, avoiding to loose ourself, but it is indeed just risking of taking what we don’t like at first, that our own sensibility improves. Going back to Sdraulig music and its main features: we do not hear it and we do not see it. Better: almost we don’t see it and almost we don’t hear it. Is this uncertainty that determine its success or un-success? In this music it is not the point of letting the surrounding speak, as it is for 4’33” by John Cage, but to risk deliberately to speak or not to speak, to move or not to move, but being there. The question is: are we still talking about music? Or thinking? I guess music, as, if on one side the risk of not producing a sound is there, on the other the total risk of not producing it for the whole length of a piece does not exist. In other words: something can always be heard.

Enjoy the music (headphones recommended).
Hush
Charlie Sdraulig

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