Sylvano Bussotti, Fragmentations for harpist

Recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwQ0DAE4Uo8

Fragmentations 7-9

by Nathan Cornelius

On the surface, Sylvano Bussotti’s Fragmentations for harpist seems to be a sort of Rube Goldberg machine of modern music, a perversely complex contraption weaving a thick mesh of notes and strings. Bussotti applies a frightening amount of ink to the page, writing dense textures on non-aligning staves of various sizes, saturated with expressive markings. Even the margins are occupied with constructivist doodles in multicolored ink, which turn out to be miniature graphic scores whose shapes provide a jumping-off point for improvisatory sections. Bussotti eschews the conventional-sounding title Fragmentations for harp because, in fact, there are two harps played by one harpist. Moreover, the second instrument is tuned to incorporate quarter-tones, prepared with elastic woven through the strings, and supplied with at least four different kinds of percussive implements.

Fragmentations 4-2bOnce the shock of the initial encounter with the music dissipates, however, Fragmentations raises some fascinating issues for musicians to consider. First, Bussotti’s graphic score notation engages the performer’s creativity in an intuitive way, rather than a merely deductive one. Rather than simply giving the performer the information necessary to execute the piece and expecting him or her to follow it, Bussotti’s graphic score invites collaboration and vision as the performer seeks to realize the character of the notation in a compelling manner.

Second, this unconventional notation allows Bussotti to notate unusual harp timbres in a surprisingly precise and specific way. He uses different colors for different registers of the instrument to guide not only the contour of pitched gestures but also the quality of unpitched sounds through their placement on the body of the harp. By combining this with an inventive array of symbols, Bussotti subverts the privileging of pitch over timbre in traditional notation, notating both in equal detail.

Third, in keeping with Bussotti’s concern for the physical, corporeal side of music, he affirms the score as a physical object, not just a symbolic stand-in for sound. The score consists of a “cutaway” of fragmentary staves arrayed across three large sheets of paper. Bussotti specifies that these can be read left to right as three separate sheets, left to right across all three sheets as a unit, or in still another order indicated by numbers on each fragment. Furthermore, the ordering of the graphic interpolations within the piece, while generally tracing the path of the numbered staves across the page, is left to the performer’s discretion. Thus, the score gains some of its meaning from its physical dimensions and layout, becoming more than a mere medium to transmit information.

Finally, Fragmentations truly is a piece for a harpist, and a heroic harpist at that. Aside from the headache of deciphering the notation, the harpist has to figure out how to manage two full-size instruments at once (Bussotti does not specify exactly how this works, but recommends using a “revolving stool”). The piece has a certain theatrical quality to it, full of dramatic musical and physical gestures, with the harpist calculating moves like an artist composing a drawing. In effect, Bussotti’s genius is to make a piece of music be more than a noumenal entity existing in a realm of ideals. Not only the composer, but also the performer, the instrument, and even the score itself, participate in the creation of the work through the physicality of their gestures.

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