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Dario Palermo
Difference Engines




Paolo Valore


On 26th May 2008, at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino presented for the very first time his 4 Adagi for flute and orchestra, played amid the Violin Concert ‘To the Memory of an Angel’ by Alban Berg and the Symphony no. 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven , directed by Daniel Harding. The performance irritated part of the audience; their complaint was “that thing was not music”. Please note that the complaint wasn’t about taste, such as, “I didn’t like it” but rather a declaration about the very nature of the thing they were experiencing.

   Without taking a stand in this dispute, what seems actually undeniable is that, with no mention of any personal taste, something is music and something else is not. I assume that the same irritated people in Milan were ready to concede that the Seventh Symphony was music, while, let’s say, the coughing coming from the audience at a certain point or the shout “ora basta!” to express their irritation was not.

Whenever we try to decide if a set of sounds, or noises, is music, we implicitly tend to assume that there is a domain of (sequences of) sounds that “count as” music, identifying a specific category of entities which is the “ontological region” of music, a section of things that exist in a certain way (even in the case that we, as a society or a community, consider them in a certain way). And whenever we apply this strategy, we divide the world in things and properties, guided by some intuition as to the essence that things must exhibit in order to be acknowledged as entities of a certain kinds. We draw an inventory of the universe, at least partially: when we use the concept ‘music’ we cut out a portion of reality, we point at a certain kind of thing and not another. It may be or may not be the case that the sounds, or better the sequences of sounds, that we are considering belong to the region “music”, but it seems prima facie non-controversial that what is to be recognized is the property (essence) of “being musical” that some sets of (sequences of) sounds possess and some others don’t. We arrange things in categories.

A less naïve approach, that is more popular among recent philosophy of music, assume that what is to be unveiled or acknowledged is not the property of being musical of certain series of sounds but rather the presence of a certain structure that is relatively independent from the material that implements the structure itself. Rather than arranging things in categories, we discover abstract entities that are exhibited by means of a formal framework. A sort of artificial language that has its own morphosyntactic system, which is independent from the material sounds or signs used to physically represent the language itself. In principle, any sound or sequence of sounds could be used to express a certain structure and that seems the case of contemporary music that does not abstain from using any sound or noise, giving away the presumption that there are sounds or series of sounds that are as such musical. Such is the case of an amplified drum-set percussion or real-time electronics. And perhaps, TRANCE - Five Abstract Stations show this point in the best possible way.

Nonetheless, that might, still, be too easy. Dario Palermo requires the listener, especially in the case of The Difference Engine or RO - Premiére danse de la Lune, to give up this last comfort, challenging the rigidity of formal structures and even the visibility of such structures, at least in a first listening. But, and this is the paradoxical virtue of these compositions, he challenges the structures without rejecting them and, what is even more remarkable, without turning from rhythm. It is the rhythm that gives these compositions the taste of primitive, that merge with the rarefied abstraction that renders the conceptual formality of this artificial language.

   So let’s reaffirm the metaphor of the artificial language. What is the special nature that makes this new thing we face ‘a language’ instead of a sequence of noises or signs on a piece of paper? And, without metaphors, what is the special nature, the particular essence or the specific structure, that makes this new thing we face ‘music’? Or maybe we might reverse the perspective. And, as for any language, instead of requiring that the objects we face satisfy our own expectations, in terms of essences or structures, in order to put it in the correct category, we could try to learn its grammar, in order to understand it.







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