On the Recent Piano Music of Claudio Ambrosini (1)


Meijane Quong


Various extraneous factors contribute to the characteristic sound of Claudio Ambrosini's music. First, there is his study of linguistics; second, his experimentation with new timbral possibilities of traditional instruments; third, his interest in ancient instruments combined with electronically-generated and computer sounds; and fourth, his Venetian roots. Various other factors have molded his works' form and notation. These include the composer's nonmusical studies and his concern for universal comprehension of his idiom.

Ambrosini's study of linguistics is reflected in the clear delineation of phraseology in his compositions. The music flows in logical progressions which fit together in sentence and paragraph-like order. In this way, Ambrosini fulfills one of his musical goals:

I like my music to talk, "carry" and storm the listener, I like it to communicate. It should not sound like some "abstract new" language, but something known (in the depth of our unconscious) told with new words. (2)

Ambrosini's exploration of new sound possibilities on the piano and his reworking of piano gestures previously explored by other twentieth-century composers result in a unique piano idiom. It is devoid of the more radical sound modifications presented in earlier "avant-garde" piano works (John Cage, Henry Cowell, John Eaton, (3) and Ben Johnston). In comparison to works by these composers, Ambrosini's works, which use only the keyboard of traditionally-tuned instruments, are really very conservative.

Although like most composers, Ambrosini strives to create an idiom recognizably distinct from that of his contemporaries and earlier twentieth-century composers, his music is not completely devoid of the gestures or sounds used by them. Prime examples of such sounds and gestures are the cluster chords and glissandos.

One sound which is unique to Ambrosini's piano idiom is that which is produced on upright pianos equipped with an apartment mute pedal. When the pedal is depressed, a strip of felt is interposed between the strings and the hammers. The felt not only reduces the dynamic range, but also dramatically modifies the timbre of the instrument. The sound effectively emerges as a ghost, shadow, or distant memory from the past. The coloristic use of this pedal is unprecedented.

Another factor contributing to the characteristic sound of Ambrosini's music, that of the composer's interest in ancient instruments and electronically-generated sounds, results in compositions using artificial resonance, echo, reverberation, and natural sound decay. In his piano music, these effects are created several different ways: through the execution of glissandos at successively increasing and decreasing speeds; the use of the apartment mute pedal to color an echo-like phrase or repetition of a passage; and the presentation of various musical gestures which in context create echo-like effects. Magnified versions of sound decay resulting from extended silences following massive build-ups of sound are indicated as

A further factor influencing Ambrosini's musical language, his Venetian roots, is manifest on both the dramatic and formal levels. Venice, the city where the composer was born and now resides, is unique in that life and communication depend almost solely on the surrounding waters. It is not surprising then that the music of Ambrosini often conjures up wave and water-related images in logically-sequenced series of elaborately embellished sound gestures. Allusions to undulating waves and the sight of boats in the distance, appearing and disappearing in turbulent waters, are dramatically enhanced through dynamic and temporal fluctuations. Sounds fade in and fade out, and gestures accelerate and decelerate according to the notation in which the temporal relationships are defined by the quarter-note beat subdivided into duple and triplet groupings rather than by a traditionally set meter. Both conventional and unconventional techniques are used to produce these sounds that are carefully integrated into the works. The assimilated sound is unmistakably Ambrosini's, exuberant and energetic. According to Mario Messinis, Ambrosini

follow[s] his own way, obstinately reproposing an intellectual awareness which functions as a search of the unknown sound. Thus the instruments lose their natural connotations and, in a sense, reflect the physical aspects of music or a sort of acoustic biology which strikes out in directions of no return. The sound then becomes illusion of sound and the past reappears as a ghostly presence. (4)

To Ambrosini, whether or not

a composer belongs to one or ten preceding generations makes no difference. I look at it as I look at many other things and in many other directions. Because, in art, vision is always, in a certain sense, spherical: you look ahead because your work is projected into the future; you look around yourself, because for professional information you have to know what is happening in the world, and you look back to learn what has already been made/composed, in the light of which thought your own product finds its place. (5)

What is most important to Ambrosini in terms of musical creation, is originality. In an interview with Luigi di Fronzo published in La Repubblica (11 March 1988) Ambrosini said:

For this reason, I consider myself independent, outside any musical trend, be it French, or "structuralist" or Darmstadtian. (6)

Like Debussy who rejected his formal German romantic-based schooling in favor of reviving a tradition of "French" music, Ambrosini denies any influence of contemporary colleagues or schools of composition. The only tradition which Ambrosini acknowledges strongly influences his work is that of the seventeenth - and eighteenth-century Venetian composers. These include Gabrieli, Monteverdi and Vivaldi, composers who, during their lifetimes, created the musical fabric of Venice. In an interview published in Il Giorno (Milan, 13 March 1988), Ambrosini said of these, his Venetian ancestors,

I feel very close to them in respect to nineteenth-century tradition, even though in reality, I don't look for teachers. I feel like an inheritor of all those who worked on expressiveness and communication, filtered through the study of new linguistic forms. (7)

In effect, his sound comes from his experience with the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music idioms transferred to the twentieth-century medium. Novel gestures resulting from his investigation into various sound possibilities of conventional instruments, create new sounds. In the composer's own words,

I want to graft myself onto the twentieth century as a point of departure that will last, but I want, above all, to make a music that is new, that exists from now on, without having to have existed before. (8)

While the composer's music is rooted in the Venetian tradition of previous centuries, it does not simply parody the ancient forms, nor does it imitate modern forms. Ideas gleaned from his study of psycho-acoustics, mechanisms of perception, and Gestalt psychology have been metaphorically transferred to his music. In Ambrosini's perception, "Sound is something that comes from outside; form from inside." (9) Each of Ambrosini's pieces is, in this sense, analogous to an architectural structure of which there are many levels of conception and understanding. Each gesture and each note of the piece represents a different perspective of the core design. The levels are discovered gradually through study of the various works, their energy, timbre, phrase movements, and contrast notated in the score.

Ambrosini actually uses the classical forms such as rondo and sonata as a structural basis for his music. Devoid of the traditional rhythmic and tonal systems associated with these forms, however, the works rely heavily on the imitation and repetition of gestures for formal coherence and unity. As in the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928), the form is generated and dictated by the reworking of germinal motives; but, while in Stockhausen's work juxtaposed musical passages are not necessarily functionally related, all musical gestures in Ambrosini's music are related and are functionally important within generally homogeneous textures. Only by the end of the piece, after all the gestures are set in perspective, can one fully understand the work.

As explained in his letter of 10 July 1987 to the present writer, the music "is built having in mind several conceptual levels or 'networks'." (10) It is comparable to the creation of energy and its continuous transformation. Within broad formal outlines, the composer seeks

to create, address and SAVE the energy, applied at the beginning of the piece, down to the form's fulfillment. Of course energy does not only mean "force;" there is energy in the most tender things, in caresses, in silence.

In the beginning, sound comes from outside, from meeting the world, the [musical] instruments. At this point of my life, it comes from the years I spent on research of new technical and expressive possibilities.... I like to work with players, to make music, not just think of it.

But a piece is something that is generated inside; even more, it is focused, shaped, gets weight, color, duration inside. I usually compose by letting the idea grow in my mind; I mentally drive the starting invention (idea) up to a burning point and then I write, trying to recreate on paper the "fields of interacting forces," previously perceived with the mind's ear. (11)

To Ambrosini, composition is, in this way, the creation of relationships built on repetition of simple or complex structures with intricate inter-relationships. Every sound and silence functions as a word or inflection in the language of music and, as such, gives a signal according to its placement, timbre, volume, and length. Relationships are formed and the sounds and silences are sequenced and made meaningful in being together. The resulting homogeneous blend is the individual expression of Ambrosini.

Because he wishes his music to be understood, Ambrosini endeavors to communicate it in a fashion which is intelligible to performing musicians in general. Accordingly, he retains as much traditional notation as possible. Articulation markings such as tenutos, staccatos, legatos, and accents along with dynamic markings are abundant. While actual phrase indications in the scores are only sporadic, the notation is such that the phraseology is clear. It must be observed that all the dynamic markings must be realized within the context of individual works, relative to juxtaposed dynamic levels. Not every forte marking in a piece written for the upright piano with an apartment mute will have the same volume. In fact, all the dynamics marked in a passage in which the mute pedal is depressed will be softer than those in passages played without the mute pedal. The actual volume must be measured by the musical sensitivity of the performer, the acoustics of the hall, and the limitations of the piano sound itself with and without the mute pedal engaged. Pedalling, like the dynamics and articulation, is also meticulously marked. While the notation of rhythmic groupings is traditionally-based, there are some indications that are non-traditional and need explanation. These will be found in Appendix B along with the other performance suggestions.

Specific directives as to the mood and intent of the gestures, rubato, and touch are found throughout the scores. Ambrosini feels that his descriptive written suggestions are absolutely essential to the most accurate interpretation of his compositional intent. In the composer's own words,

Notation, musical or not, is a spelling problem, not one of content and, concerning the substance of what is said, whether something is written by hand or by machine does not make a difference. In fact, the clearer ideas you have, the more the means to communicate it, "make it known," must be comprehensible, diffuse, and universal. Traditional music writing is the result of a selection of centuries among an infinity of writings. It is not perfect, even though it keeps getting richer with new signs, but it is universally known, so that it can transmit your thought in any age and in any country. It is like the Latin of the Middle Ages or the English of today. If musical notation was a private handwriting it would soon become a foreign language for others.

In the '50's and '60's, there was a great flowering of new writings but today the tendency world-wide is no longer to work on writing, but on contents....

As far as I am concerned, I propose the opposite idea, that of creation of language. What interests me as a composer is not only the writing of "music pieces," but creating a style, a personal language, capable of crossing space and time. (12)


Rondò di forza (1981)

Ambrosini feels that Rondò di forza represents the first stage of his active research into the novel sound possibilities of the piano and the essence of his highly personalized piano idiom. While the earlier works, SSSSonata and Ballo italiano, present some of the sounds and gestures characteristic of his idiom, they are experimental in nature and so heavily imbued with sounds and gestures borrowed from other twentieth-century compositional schools that Ambrosini feels they are not truly representative of his genre.

As implied in the title, the form of this work is rooted in conventions of past centuries. The opening thematic material returns in various forms between a number of developmental sections based on modifications and superimpositions of the original gestures. The overall effect is similar to that of a

deforming mirror in which different elements are enlarged, compressed, or are absorbed. Like different characters taking part in the play, the principal theme groups presented at the outset are shuffled, superimposed, and mixed over the course of the piece. (13)

The ideas fuse together such that the total work evolves organically.

In keeping with the conventions of more elaborate classical rondo forms, Rondò di forza features a false reprise of the opening material and an extended coda section at the end. The false reprise occurs at beat 174 and continues through to the final return of the opening material at beat 182. The coda begins at beat 191. It consists predominantly of forte single note and cluster glissandos on black and white keys among which two short scalar cluster groups are interjected. After the second presentation of scalar clusters at beat 195, the glissando activity continues uninterrupted. Gradually, the texture thins out and the glissandos are played "Progressivamente rit. e dim., come perdendo energia e ragiono" [progressively slower and softer, as if losing energy and motivation]. Following a final ascending single black note glissando, played ppp, and a quarter beat pause marked "sospéso," the piece closes explosively with a gesture recalling the octave theme.

The global idea of Rondò di forza is to obtain an impression of strong forward momentum through the growth of the thematic material, speed, and intensity. Sounds accumulate in a logical order within the collage-like presentation of gestures. Often, melodic strands emerge from within these gestures and form what Ambrosini calls, "virtual polyphony." In contrast to real polyphony which refers to the written simultaneous presentation of two or more voices, virtual polyphony refers to the imaginary lines resulting from our perception of what we hear. In effect, they are mirages created by our ears which are, at the same time, caused by and intensified by the effect of speed and forward motion. Particularly strong examples of this type of polyphony, are found in Examples 1 and 2. In the leaping octave passages such as those found in Example 1, two melodic lines emerge as a result of the repeated and accented articulation of the different tones in the extreme registers of the piano keyboard. In other less dense passages such as those found in Example 2, melodic strands are simply highlighted with accents.

The sense of forward momentum in Rondò di forza is further enhanced by the intensity with which "C" grows to be the tonal focal point. As the work unfolds, it becomes evident that all the gestural movement is gravitating around the tone C. In all but one of the glissando-based sections, C is the first or last pitch of glissandos. (See Examples 3 to 5.) In the octave-based passages, the importance of the tone is more firmly established. Each of them features C as the pitch to and from which the sounds move. (See Examples 6 and 7.) In other octave-based passages such as at beats 154-158, 162-164, 169-171, 178-181, and 187-189, octave C's are used as a pedal point above which melodic fragments emerge. (See Example 8.) In the high register theme, the scalar cluster groups, the first of which is shown in Example 9, circle around C8. In addition, more often than not, C is the accented end pitch of a phrase or section. Beats 5, 8, 9, 58, and 182 in Examples 3 to 5 illustrate this. The final octaves at beat 206, assertively confirm C as the central tone. (See Example 10.)

Example 1: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 44-51


Example 2: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 141-145


Example 3: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 1-9


Example 4: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 57-60

Example 5: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 182-186

Example 6: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 11-16

Example 7: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 44-51

Example 8: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 154-158

Example 9: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 23-29

Example 10: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 206-207

It is important to note that while the tonal focus of Rondò di forza is C, the work is not based in the key of C. There are passages in which black and white keys are carefully intermingled and passages in which only black or only white keys are found. The effect of each in combination with the others not only creates a sense of tension or of relaxation, but also helps define the phrase structure. Passages based on the white keys most usually involve the dissonant interval of the augmented fourth and are therefore prone to result in a feeling of tension. In contrast, the passages based on the black keys outline a pentatonic progression, and therefore lack a comparable sense of tension or direction and need for resolution. Consequently, these passages are perceived as resolutional points to the white-key passages. When black- and white-key passages are played simultaneously, there is a mild tension which, like that of the passages based on the white-key scale, also requires resolution.

Of course, the sense of tension and resolution and phraseology is not based solely on intervallic content. The dynamic level, register, texture, and direction of line need also be taken into consideration. The various effects resulting from the combination of these parameters and gestures create in a highly dramatic work in which one is apt to perceive waves of sounds, the ebb and flow effect which is analogous to the effects of tension and relaxation within the structural units of the music.

Each of these parameters contributes to the structural outline and the dramatic effect of the work, and is foundational to the composer's search for new sound possibilities on the piano. It is, therefore, important to examine them more closely in order to illustrate Ambrosini's idiomatic use of them. The first of these parameters to be examined is the dynamics. Enhancing the undulatory effect of tension and relaxation and supporting the high energy level of the work, the dynamic level fluctuates mainly between f and ff. The accentuation and successive repetition of notes in all registers of the keyboard results in a full rich aura of overtones that accumulates and effectively increases the perceived volume from f and ff to full ff and fff possibile, respectively. Softer dynamics, p and pp, are rare, and when they do occur, are short-lived. Extended silences are found primarily at the ends of large formal sections, while shorter eighth- and sixteenth-note pauses are found only occasionally within the phrases and sections. (See Examples 11 to 15.) The relatively guarded use of the softer dynamic range and silence supports the generally exuberant and joyous atmosphere and the search for the new sound possibilities of the piano.


Example 11: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 52-53


Example 12: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beat 79


Example 13: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 116-117

Example 14: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 120-121

Example 15: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 125-127

The same is true of the use of different registers and textures in close juxtaposition. Excitement mounts with each interaction of the very high, basically descending scalar cluster passage work and the octave-based theme. The scalar clusters are volatile by nature of the register and rhythmic drive and conjure up images of hysterical laughter. The octave theme and the other gestures based in the lower and middle register of the keyboard sound assured and jubilant. The two gestural groups are effectively perceived as protagonists in a play. The thicker-textured octave passages intermingled with alternating cluster chord patterns tend to produce tension which is released by the thinner, mainly contrapuntal scalar textures. In terms of drama, the thicker-textured sections impress the listener as the principal character to which the more thinly-textured sections, chattering and bubbling up in the top register of the piano, react.

Another aspect of texture, is whether or not sounds are characteristically "wet" or "dry." Themes or theme groups are "wet" or "dry" dependent on the consistent use and non-use of the damper pedal with the various gestures and their registral placement. The "dry" sounds include the glissando theme presented in beats 3 to 5 shown in Example 3 and the high scalar cluster passages first introduced at beat 16. The "wet" sounds include the opening ascending glissando gestures and the octave theme which amasses sound upon sound as the damper pedal remains fully depressed throughout entire passages, regardless of implied harmonic changes. (Refer to Example 6.) Whereas the "wet" sounds are generally ascending lines which accumulate energy, the "dry" sounds are generally descending lines which effectively release energy.

Another key factor which affects both the delineation of tension and relaxation and the definition of phrases is the direction of line. Upward-moving lines, regardless of whether they involve black or white keys, create tension that is subsequently resolved in downward-moving lines. This order of events in combination with the other parameters usually results in the forming of complete gestural phrase units. From the beginning of Rondò di forza this is immediately apparent. Here, the first phrase consists of three ascending gestures followed by descending glissandos. Tension created in the ascending line is released in the descending lines. As will become apparent in the following synopsis of the work, the creation of tension and relaxation resulting from the interaction of ascending and descending passages is undisputedly fundamental to Rondò di forza.

Like the phraseology and delineation of tension and relaxation, the metric structure of Rondò di forza is based on a mesh of conventions of past centuries with the ideas and gestures of the twentieth century. While the gestural activity is notated precisely in traditional terms of pitch and rhythm, standard meters and barlines are absent. They are replaced by the quarter-note beat which remains constant throughout the work. Functioning in place of the measure, it is most often subdivided into triple and duple units featuring further subdivisions of irregular groupings of sixteenth and thirty-second notes which may or may not be aligned vertically. Groups of five thirty-seconds against three or four thirty-seconds are not uncommon. The addition of voices such as found in the octave-based sections, intensifies the sound and usually results in a more dense polyrhythmic texture. Following such passages, the rhythmic complexities usually subside as the number of voices is modified and the rate of rhythmic activity decreases.

It must be noted that the tempo of rhythmically intricate passages is dependent on several factors. These include metronome markings, descriptive written directives, and rubato markings provided throughout the score. The glissandos and scalar passages are marked to be played at q = 60 while the octave passages are marked to be played at q = 50. More important than the strict maintenance of these metronome markings, however, is the creation of the suggested affects of the work. The gestures should, of course, be played so that the timing of adjacent gestures is relatively proportional and the effect described in the score is attained. The quarter-note pulse indicated is, as such, very flexible. The written directives combined with the fermatas of various shapes and the rubato markings such as stringendo, accelerando, and ritardando provide a natural sort of rubato within the prescribed metronome markings. They also help render each performance unique.


Synopsis of Rondò di forza

The formal outline of Rondò di forza is as follows:

A - beats 1-10

B - beats 11-53 (link - beats 54-57)

A1 - beats 57-79 (link - beats 80-91)

B1 - beats 92-117 (link - beats 118-121)

A2 - beats 122-153

B2 - beats 154-173

false beginning of

A - beats 174-181

A3 - beats 182-186

B3 - beats 187-190

Coda - beats 191-end

The first phrase in the A section of Rondò di forza, begins with two contiguous clusters, the first one played with the side of the hand and the second played with the forearm. (See Example 16.) A glissando played with the palm of the left hand, and an extremely fast scalar passage follow. (See Example 17.) Each of the latter two statements effectively allows for the intervallic content of the original gesture to be revealed. The descending glissandos in beats 3 and 4 release the tension created by the opening ascending gestures and mark the close of the phrase group. A new phrase group begins at beat 5. It consists of a descending glissando and two ascending rolled clusters on the black keys with the palm of the hand, immediately followed by ascending glissandos in canon. After the cluster-based descending scalar passages at beat 7, the phrase group and opening section of the work come to a close with white-key glissandos in contrary motion followed by a single ascending glissando on the black keys.

Example 16: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beat 1


Example 17: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 1-2

The ascending scalar passages of beats 9 and 10 link this glissando theme group to Section B which comprises successive wide leaping octaves with added seconds played ff, punctuated by passages of bubbly descending scalar clusters in the highest octave of the piano. (See Example 6.) While the first three appearances of the scalar passages are relatively short and of a transitory nature, the third, beginning at beat 17, is extremely expansive. It begins a new phrase group and effectively overtakes the octave-based thematic material. From this point to beat 43, the mainly scalar passages are interrupted several times by cluster chord patterns played alternately between the hands and once by a glissando.

In this and most of the other octave-based sections, contrary motion first introduced in beat 5 becomes a prominent element. In the excerpt of Example 1, the bass line moves up chromatically from C1 to E1, against the treble voice moving down chromatically from C7 to G6. This flow of the chromatic lines is interrupted at beat 52 by three groups of very soft ascending glissandos. The first of the groups consists of two glissandos played simultaneously on the white and black keys. The second is a glissando on the white keys and the third is a glissando on the black keys. The section closes at beat 53 with a rest.

Several successive glissandos followed by descending scalar cluster groups form the link to the return of the glissando theme group at beat 57 and Section A1. In the first phrase of this section, the original opening gesture of Section A is replaced by diverging glissandos. The single ascending black-key glissando and extended scalar group are followed by successive glissandos played on various combinations of black- and white-key patterns in varied rhythmic groupings. In the next two phrase groups, beats 61-62 and 63-68, the ascending black-key glissandos initiating the phrases are followed by the bubbly high-register theme material. The second of the two phrases is brought to an abrupt halt with a group of alternating cluster chords at beat 68. The next phrase, beats 69-71, begins like the previous phrase, with the high bubbly scalar cluster groups. Starting at the same pitch level C6, it follows a similar pitch order as the two previous phrases. As in the phrase of beats 63-68, alternating cluster groups bring this phrase to an abrupt end. The subsequent phrase begins with the exact gestures of beat 5. It is interrupted at beat 73 with a dramatic echo-like effect of an ascending white-key glissando presented in canon with an ascending black-key glissando which function as a link to the codetta-like presentation of material over the next five beats.

In keeping with general conventions of previous centuries, this codetta-like section presents no new ideas. Rather, there is a condensed restatement of the ideas presented in the previous twenty beats: a series of contrary scalar passages in the middle to low register of the keyboard punctuated with an ascending white-key glissando played in canon with an ascending black-key glissando. A flash of the octave theme occurs just before the final two very soft canonic ascending glissandos of beat 78. The first is played on white keys while the second is played on the black keys.

Following a very short pause, there is an extended passage of new combinations of the glissando theme, the bubbly high-register theme in a lower register, and the octave theme which together, serve as a link to the next section. Like the glissando at beat 73, the ascending black key glissando at beat 91, marked "p (rit.) pp come indugiando f fulmìneo fff," is the gesture which serves to close the section and mark the beginning of the following one.

The new section B1 consists of two variations of the octave theme. The first variation, beginning at beat 92, is very similar to the presentation of the octave theme at beats 44-51. A great mass of sound is created through the presentation of notes covering the entire range of the keyboard at the f to ff dynamic levels. The sound very gradually subsides to mf at beat 103, by which time the bass line has moved chromatically from C1 up through to C3 and the upper line has simultaneously descended chromatically in pitch from C1 to F5. The second variation of the octave theme is based on the rapid alternation of F's in three octaves of the high and middle registers of the piano (F4, F5, F6). It is enhanced with acciaccatura F's in the same registers. Beginning at beat 105 and ending at beat 116, it is the final sound gesture of the B1 section.

Following the quarter rest lengthened by a square fermata confirming the end of Section B1, there is a short linking passage of three quarter-note beats which sets up the return of the opening material and the beginning of Section A2. Marked "Ricomincia, improvviso," the linking passage consists of the octave theme followed by ascending white-key glissandos which begin pp, get gradually louder, and finally culminate at the ff dynamic level. The quarter rest at beat 121 indicates the end of the passage and section.

Section A2, beats 122-153, opens as does Section A, with a palm-forearm cluster glissando, an ascending black key glissando, and an ascending scalar passage. (See Example 18.)

Example 18: Claudio Ambrosini, Rondò di forza (1981): beats 122-123

After these initial gestures, the glissando theme group and the high register scalar cluster group appear and disappear more often and in more varied guises. The dynamic level fluctuates more frequently and black- and white-key passages are more often played simultaneously or in rapid succession. A group of alternating cluster chords appears once at the close of the phrase (beat 128). As momentum builds throughout the section, the phrasing becomes more fragmented. The entire section comes to an abrupt end at beat 153 with the interruption of the scalar cluster groups by the octave theme at beat 154.

Mingled with the high register theme group as in Section B of the work, this presentation of the octave theme marks the beginning of Section B2 (beats 154-173). Presented in the treble register of the keyboard, over a pedal C bass, the octave theme is interrupted by a return of the high scalar theme at beat 159 beginning at the original C7 pitch level. Alternating cluster chords at beat 162 bring the high register phrase group to an abrupt end. The octave theme group at beat 162 is similarly interrupted at beat 165 by the scalar theme followed by a group of alternating cluster chords. The section closes with an octave-based gesture.

The glissando gesture of beat 5 followed by two converging glissandos form the link to the return of the first theme group material at beats 174-177 and another variation of the octave theme at beats 178-179. Together the two themes form the false beginning of Section A7.

Section A3 of the work actually begins at beats 182-183. It begins with the original three opening glissando gestures followed by an exact repetition of the gestures first found at beats 3 and 4. A short presentation of the octave theme at beats 187-189 comprises the B3 section of the work. Four successive glissandos in beat 190 form a link to the coda which, although it begins with the bubbly high scalar cluster theme group at beat 191, consists mainly of glissandos. The work closes with a final flash of the octave theme on C.


Compositional Elements of Special Interest in Rondò di forza

Three compositional elements of Rondò di forza are particularly interesting. First, there is the use of glissandos as a basis for an entire work. While the use of glissandos is not new in piano music, their use as important thematic material with structural significance rather than ornamental material of little or no structural consequence is unprecedented. In the past, composers used glissandos simply as sound effects or formal links.

The second interesting element presented in Rondò di forza is the consistent use of the affective difference between passages based mainly on black and white keys to delineate tension and relaxation and general phraseology. Previously, the dramatic differentiation of affect in passages based on black and white keys has only been used in the occasional sections of a piece. This is the case in Ambrosini's earlier works, SSSSonata and Ballo italiano. In neither of these works is the juxtaposition of white- and black-key passages of general structural consequence.

The third compositional element is the process used to define the texture and density of the octave passages as well as the exact number of repetitions and duration of the pitches. All of these factors were determined by a thorough investigation of the nature of the natural piano sound based on the facts that each note in each octave has its own duration and, as the pitches get higher, the durations of the notes get shorter. Ambrosini actually used a computer program developed at the Engineering Department of Padua University to create a mathematical representation of the average duration of each key on a nine-foot grand piano. The computer graphics were, in effect, drafts used to calculate the number of repetitions of each pitch theoretically necessary to last through a single articulation of a fundamental tone.

Rondò di forza thus presents sound gestures characteristic to Ambrosini's piano idiom which were not fully conceptualized or had previously been overlooked by other composers. Many of the gestures, particularly the glissando and the alternating cluster chords, are found in embryonic stages in the earlier works including SSSSonata and Ballo italiano. They, along with the other gestures, are found in various guises in later works including Imromptu, Apocrifo, Grande Ballo Futurista, and Epater! Epater!. In this regard, Rondò di forza is a milestone in Ambrosini's research into musical sound effects possible on the piano and in his compositional development.


Grande Ballo Futurista (1982)

The Italian Futurist movement in art and music flourished from around 1909 to 1916. It was pioneered by Filipo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), a poet and composer who advocated and used machine guns, steam whistles, sirens, and other noisemakers in musical compositions. Composers whose works are more commonly associated with the use of such unconventional resources include John Cage and Edgard Varese . Although Ambrosini's works do not incorporate the unconventional sound sources or noisemakers advocated by Marinetti, Cage, or Varese, his personal sound idiom, using only traditional instruments, does involve gestures which result in unique and unconventional sound effects.

There is, however, one work of Ambrosini's in which direct reference to the Futurist movement is made. This work is Grande Ballo Futurista. While the title simply translates as "grand or magnificent Futurist dance," it also has two other Futurist innuendos. First, the word "Ballo" is actually an allusion to one of the most important and influential Italian artists of the Futurist movement, Giacomo Balla (1871-1958). He, along with two other Italian artists, Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) and Gino Severini (1883-1966), created powerful paintings and sculptures which reflect Marinetti's ideals. Second, the word "Futurista," is actually the composer's facetious reference to the sounds in the work that the classically-oriented contemporary audiences so often deem futuristic, offensive noises.

The work fulfills the request of the Italian pianist, Marco Fumo, for Ambrosini to write a contemporary ragtime dance. It presents various sound gestures and piano timbres that create dramatic effects ranging from violent exuberance to delicate nuance. The gestures recur within the work's large dynamic fresco of extreme softs and louds mainly in the middle and high registers of the keyboard. Together with dramatic silences and apartment mute pedal effects, the various clusters and glissandos create a very convincing and unique pianistic idiom.

As in Rondò di forza, all of the work's primary thematic and formal gestures are established in the two-part introduction. In the first part, beats 1-8, cluster glissandos, scalar clusters, alternating cluster groups, reverse echo gestures, and extended silences are presented. Throughout the work, these gestures are varied and, as such, assume different formal and dramatic roles. The opening cluster glissando, for example, appears a second time in variation at beat 4. Here, presented as a pair of glissandos in descending and ascending order, the gesture serves as a preparation to the closing reverse echo gestures. The single descending glissando at beat 17, marked "come risonanza lontano," however, acts as a bridge to the following phrase group. The ascending cluster glissandos at beats 99, 112, 227, and 234 and the extended descending glissandos at beats 256-257 and beats 427-428, similarly function as bridge passages. At beats 328-339 and beats 356-370, the descending and ascending seesaw gesture links adjacent phrase groups.


Synopsis of Grande Ballo Futurista

The formal structure of Grande Ballo Futurista is as follows:


Section 1: Introduction beats 1-8

part 1: 9-24 (ends with reverse echo gesture)

part 2: 25-43 (ends with repeated acciaccatura-cluster chord gesture)


Section 2:

part 1: 44-88 (ends with acciaccatura-cluster chord gesture)

part 2: 89-121 (ends and elides to next section with a glissando)


part 3: 122-168 (ends with repeated acciaccatura-cluster chord gesture)

Section 3:

part 1: 169-211 (ends with a glissando)

part 2: 212-223 (ends with acciaccatura-chord gesture)

part 3: 224-255 (ends with repeated acciaccatura-cluster chord gesture)

bridge: 256-257

Section 4:

part 1: 258-297 (ends as end of section 2/1)

part 2: 298-369 (ends with acciaccatura-cluster chord gesture)

part 3: 370-396 (ends with repeated acciaccatura-cluster chord gesture)


Bridge: 397-403 (elided to coda)

Coda: 404-431

There are other more elaborate presentations of glissandos throughout the work which also link adjacent phrases. The first of these occurs at beats 86-87, where there are two simultaneously descending cluster glissandos followed by two simultaneously ascending cluster glissandos. (See Example 19.) Later, through beats 138-153, several more cluster glissandos presented both simultaneously and successively, similarly serve as links between groups of alternating clusters.

Example 19: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 86-88

Example 20: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 347-350

Example 21: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 44-49

Other glissandos in the work also create important dramatic effects. The successive converging cluster glissandos at beats 328, 336, 347-350, and 355-369, for example, are to be played so that a kind of surprise results from the accented articulations at the beginning of successive glissandos. (See Example 20.)

In these passages, the upper descending cluster glissando is to be played in dynamic relief, while the following ascending cluster glissando is to be played mf. In this way, the seesaw effect is achieved.

Other cluster glissandos played on black or white keys or a combination of the two help create forward momentum within phrase groups. Some, like the successive black-key glissandos notated at beats 44, 49, 194, 202, and 204 are played without the damper pedal. An example of this type of glissando is shown in Example 21. An effect

not unlike gentle cat scratches, results. (14) Others, like the descending glissandos in Example 22, are more full sounding due to the minimal amount of damper pedal indicated. Similar glissandos are found at beats 4-5, 58-59, and 72. In general, none of the glissandos are sforzato or hurried, but played with a constant pressure for their full duration. They should sound like very fast scales. What should be avoided in the execution of the giissandos in general, is a "Debussian harp feeling" (15) which would be foreign to a piece inspired by ragtime music. Like the glissandos, the cluster chord sequences of the introduction are presented in several different guises throughout the work. When they are played with two hands, alternate clusters are based on black and white keys. They may be found in ascending, descending, or diverging patterns. When the sequences are to be played legato, they are notated with the stems joined together on one staff as shown in Example 23.

Example 22: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 34-35

Example 23: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beat 10

The clusters in such passages are to be played alternately with the stiffened fingers on the black keys and the palm of the same hand on the white keys. Similar passages are found at beats 31-32, 92, 101, 272-273, and 280-281. At beats 117 through 119 there is a sequential presentation of legato alternating clusters. (See Example 24.) Of course only ascending and descending patterns are possible in such alternating cluster groups.

Example 24: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 117-119

In other cluster passages such as those at beat 3, the right hand plays the groups notated in the upper staff, while the left hand palm plays the clusters notated in the lower staff. (See Example 25.)

Example 25: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beat 3

Although as in Section 2, part 1, some sequences played in this way may present clusters of increasing size (as beats 44 and 49 shown in Example 21) most sequences feature a set cluster range.

Yet another variation of the alternating cluster groups is presented at beats 341-345 shown in Example 26.

Example 26: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 341-345

Here, cluster groups are played against single detached notes in sequential groups. Similar grouping of single detached notes appear at beats 326-327 against the only non-alternating patterns of cluster chords of the work, shown in Example 27. A final variation of the alternating cluster pattern is found at beat 98.

Example 27: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 326-327

Here, there are two sets of alternating clusters played simultaneously. (See Example 28.) Similar passages are found at beats 108 and 246.

Example 28: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beat 98

In all these alternating cluster groups, the different directions, densities, and intensities provide variety to the texture and gesture.

The remaining two gestures introduced in the first part of the expository section serve cadential functions. The first of these, the reverse echo gesture, is created by a single cluster chord followed by a release of the keys, one by one in order up or down, at various speeds. The gesture clearly marks the ends of phrase groups at beats 22-24, 163- 164, 174-175, and 180-181. The one exception to the closing function of the reverse echo occurs in Section 4, part 1. As shown in Example 29, the same gesture is used as a precipitating gesture of the phrases.

The other gesture which serves a cadential function in Grande Ballo Futurista is silence. Each occurrence, regardless of length, is sudden, unexpected, and indeed, very dramatic. From the onset of the work, the element of silence assumes an important formal and dramatic role. Sounds stop suddenly or gradually disappear and gestures slip in and out of silences. Crescendo markings such as that found at beat 9 indicate that the sound should effectively begin from within the silence and gradually grow, only to be severed by the following silence indicating the end of the phrase.

In the second part of the introduction, all these gestures are presented in various combinations and mingled with three other thematic and formal gestures. The first of these is the scalar cluster group. Introduced at beats 11-13, it presents clusters in scalar groups played alternately on the black and white patterns similar to those of the alternating cluster chord groups. These scalar clusters most often occur in the middle and upper register of the keyboard and are usually accompanied in the lower voice by scalar patterns in ascending order. These accompanying patterns may be simultaneous or successive and divided between the hands. Both types are shown in Example 30. From time to time, accent marks on the first note of successive scalar groups result in the emergence of melodic strands which effectively add another dimension to the basic two-part texture. (See Example 31.)

The second new gesture is the acciaccatura-cluster chord gesture. Like the reverse echo gesture and silence in Grande Ballo Futurista, the acciaccatura-cluster chord gesture functions as a cadential unit. Introduced at beats 15-16, it is the only gesture that consistently covers a wide range of the keyboard. As such, it is the strongest of the three cadential gestures. Wholly synonymous with closing phrase groups, it is found both singly and in succession at the close of phrases. The single articulations at beats 15-16, 88, 223, 236, 369, and 396 are all preceded by passages of scalar clusters. The successive groups found at the close of sections, beats 38-41, 154-166, 247-255, 378-384, and 404-424, are preceded by descending cluster glissandos and scalar cluster groups of three to five notes played in the high register of the piano. The dynamic levels of all the successive units are gradated such that a "kind of compelling crescendo, like a guillotine falling down again and again," (16) is created.

Example 29: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 258-270

Example 30: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 56-60

Example 31: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 78-88

The third thematic feature is the echo effect. First found at beat 13, it is actually a variation of the reverse echo effect presented in part 1 of the introduction. Distinguished by the coloration of the cluster-based gestures through the use of the mute pedal, this particular timbre is independent of the reverse echo gesture. Most prominent in Section 2, part 3 (beats 122-153) and Section 4, part 2 (beats 298-369), the echoes create dramatic glissando effects enhanced with periodic sfzp and sffzp markings within a relatively soft dynamic range. Both the glissando and the sforzando markings are, at times, further enhanced by the damper pedal. In his letter to John MacKay (31 January 1984), Ambrosini wrote that the pedal timbres should create effects "similar to outbursts of a boiling pot, on which the cover is raised every now and then by the hot steam." (17) (See Example 32.) In Section 4, part 1 there are other passages of scalar cluster groups that create the "ancora come risonanza lontano" [more like a distant resonance], and "quasi eco della frase prec." [as if echoing the preceding phrase] effects stipulated in the score. (See Example 33.)

As in Ambrosini's other works, all of the sound gestures are presented within a metrical framework in which the quarter-note beat is divided into triplet eighth-note values, subdivided into irregular groups of thirty-second and sixty-fourth notes which may or may not be matched vertically. Groups of five thirty-seconds within a quarter beat are as common as groups of seventeen or nineteen thirty-seconds within the quarter. The resulting polyrhythmic texture is exciting and rich, and provides an elasticity to the tempo. This elasticity is further enhanced by ritardandos and allargandos which denote the ends of phrases and stringendos marking bridge passages.

The rubato markings also help create a flexible temporal framework in which the various gestures are presented. The piece starts at a tempo of q = 46. The tempo gradually increases to q = 56-58 through Section 2, part 2 (89-109), then gradually decreases to q = 44 at beat 247. From this point on, there is a fairly steady increase in tempo to q = 66-69 at beat 397. At the beginning of the coda, the tempo returns to q = 44. A stringendo beginning at beat 421 helps bring the work to a dramatic close.

Example 32: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 122-134

Example 33: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): beats 256-297

Overall unity in the work is achieved by the systematic recurrence of thematic material presented in the introduction. Although these create very distinct sound effects, each of the themes is simply a variation of the original cluster glissando gesture at beat one. In the first variation, the contents of the cluster are spread out and notated as an extended acciaccatura. (See Example 34). In the second variation, the cluster glissando is extended vertically from a range of a third to a fifth and is presented in a pattern of alternating cluster chords shown in Example 35.


Example 34: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): cluster acciaccatura

Example 35: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): alternating clusters

The third variation is an echoeffect created by the presentation of a descending cluster glissando immediately following an ascending cluster glissando. The fourth variation combines the expanded cluster range of the second variation with the echo gesture of the third variation to produce the reverse echo effect. The cluster glissando in the fifth variation is a scalar cluster, while the sixth is the acciaccatura-cluster chord gesture. (See Example 36.)

Example 36: Claudio Ambrosini, Grande Ballo Futurista (1982): thematic variations 3, 4, and 5

Unity of form ad contrast are provided in Ambrosini's music through the transformation and development of gestures. Thus, extremely well-integrated pieces evolve very naturally. At climactic points, textures become contrapuntally and rhythmically more complex, the rate of change of gestures increases, the dynamic level intensifies, and the texture, which is generally in two contrapuntal parts, often becomes multi-layered. When textures are less dense, there is a sense of relaxation; the counterpoint and rhythmjic groupings become less complex, the rate of change of gestures slows, and the dynamic level usually decreases. Variations of these textural, rhythmic, and dynamic factors, which contribute to a clear delineation of formal outlies, are ehanced by changes in articulation, register, tempo, gesture, and timbre. All effectively conjure up images of the 'double reality' Ambrosini experiences daily in Venice - life and its reflection in the surrounding water. While these images are not purposefully transformed or trasferred by the composer to his music, they do seem to be omnipresent in it. The imaginative and concrete descriptions of mood and specific directives concernig the phrase shape and rubato provided in the scores, such as 'come ondate,' 'fluido,' and 'come une grade onda,' not only affect the suggested tempos and create a flexible flowing pulse, but also serve to cofirm the presence of water-related images. These direct expressions of Ambrosini's intended musical inflections enable the heedful performer to present the music in a fashion faithful to the composer's intetions. They serve to enhace the very precise and detailed scores which show the performer the relationship between adjacent gestures, their dramatic impact, and the overall temporal framework.

1. This paper is extracted from Ms. Quong's doctoral dissertation entitled "The Piano Music of Claudio Ambrosin," University of Oregon, 1993. ed.

2. Claudio Ambrosini, Venice, Italy, to the present writer, Eugene, Oregon, 10 July 1987.

3. Eaton, a student of Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions, is best known for his work, Microtonal Fantasy (1964), which is for one pianist at two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart. Ben Johnston's contribution to the twentieth-century piano literature includes works using just intonation. His one solo piano work is Sonata for Microtonal Piano (1965).

4. Mario Messinis, Cadeau, liner notes for Claudio Ambrosini's demonstration tape.

5. un compositore appartenga a una o a dieci generazioni precedenti non fa nessuna differenza. Io guardo, come guardo moltissime altre cose e in moltissime altre direzioni. Perché in arte la visione è sempre in un certo senso sferica: ti guardi avanti, perche il tuo lavoro è proiettato nel futuro; ti guardi intorno, perché per informazione professionale devi sapere cosa si sta facendo nel mondo, e ti guardi indietro, per sapere cosa è stato già fatto, alla luce di quale pensiero il tuo segno si pone. [Claudio Ambrosini, "La musica è ciò che faccio io," interview by Roberto Cecchetti, Spirali, 9/84-85 (March/April 1986): 51-52.]

6. Per questo mi considero indipendente, estraneo aqualsiasi corrente musicale, che sia quella francese o quella "strutturalista" o darmstadtiana. [Claudio Ambrosini, "L'indipendenza sullo spartito," interview by Luigi di Fronzo, La Repubblica, 11 March 1988.]

7. li sento molto piu vicini rispetto alla tradizione ottocentesca, anche se, in realtà, non cerco maestri. Mi sento erede di tutti auelli che lavorano sull'espressività e sulla comunicazione, filtrate attraverso la recerca di nuove forme di linguaggio. [Claudio Ambrosini, "Rubiamo il segreto del suono, come il sacrilego Prometeo," interview by Carla Moreni, Il Giorno, 13 March 1988.]

8. io voglio innestarmi nel '900, come punto di partenza che serva proprio a mettere in evidenza le differenze; ma io voglio sopra tutto fare una musica che sia nuova, che esista d'ora in avanti, senza il bisogno d'essere esistita prima. [Claudio Ambrosini, "La musica è ciò che faccio io," interview by Roberto Cecchetti, Spirali, 9/84-85 (March/April 1986): 51.]

9. Claudio Ambrosini, program notes for Capriccio, detto l'Ermafrodita.

10. Claudio Ambrosini, Venice, Italy, to the present writer, Eugene, Oregon, 10 July 1987.

11. Ibid.

12. La notazione, musicale e non, è un problema di (orto)-grafia, non di contenuti e, per quanto reguarda la sostanza del dire, che una cosa sia scritta a mano o a macchina non fa alcuna differenza. Anzi, quanto più hai le idee chiare, tanto più il tramite che le deve comunicare, mettere-in-comune, deve essere comprensibile, diffuso, universale. La scrittura musicale tradizionale è frutto di una selezione di secoli tra un'infinita di scritture. Non è perfetta, tant'è vero che si arricchisce in continuazione di nuovi segni, ma è universalmente nota, cosi che è in grado di trasmettere in qualsiasi epoca e inqualsiasi paese il tuo pensiero. È come il latino nel Medio Evo o l'inglese oggi. Se la notazione musicale fosse una scritture privata diventerebbe subito una lingua straniera per gli altri.

Negli anni '50's e '60's c'è stato un grande fiorire di nuove scritture, ma oggi la tendenza a livello mondiale non è più quella di lavorare sulla grafia, ma sui contenuti....

Per quanto mi reguarda propugno l'idea opposta, quella della creazione del linguaggio. Quello che m'interessa infatti come compositore non e soltanto scrivere dei pezzi-di-musica, ma creare uno stile, un linguaggio personali, capaci di attraversare lo spazio e il tempo. [Claudio Ambrosini, "La musica e cio che faccio io," interview by Roberto Cecchetti, Spirali, 9/84-85 (March/April 1986): 52.]

13. Claudio Ambrosini, from program notes for Rondò di forza.

14. This is the analogy used by Ambrosini in his letter to John MacKay, Ottawa, Ontario, 31 January 1984.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.