In the last example of my musical practice, I decided to accomplish a return to my instrument, the classical guitar. After all the experiences with the creation of sonic images and their various form of interaction with live performance, I wanted to address again instrumental interfaces, how they impose their own physical and semiotic organisation on sound, and how the techniques developed so far would relate to this issue.
In 2011, three years before starting this research project, I had developed a “prototype” for its artistic practice: a “divergent performance” of the tune by Atanasius Kircher (1602-1680) known as Antidotum Tarantulae. In it, at a purely artistic level, I was starting to address some of my current research questions. That experience can already be seen as a form of “performance as writing”, different from a new composition. For practical reasons, I had created a graphic guide serving as mnemonic aid, which by no means could function as a normative score, nor be of any use for other performers.
The formal aspect of that performance already enacted, at an embryonic level, some of the operations I would develop later during the research. The elements were very simple, and of two kinds: 1) fragments of the melody, isolated and framed by long intervals of silence, each of them played with crescendo and diminuendo dal niente, as if emerging from and going back to an imperceptible background of silence; 2) two- or three-notes percussive patterns in triplets played on the sixth string. The whole tension of the performance was generated by the conduct of these two gestures: sometimes juxtaposing them, other times varying or repeating, interrupting abruptly, transferring some elements of one into the other (e.g., displacing the triplet rhythm in the upper register). The primary work was, on the one hand, dissipated into sounds and gestures alien to the world that created it; on the other hand, it unfolded aspects only implicated in it, but not exposed in the “original”: the triplet sound referred to the rhythm of the pizzica, the folk dance that was utilised to cure the bites of tarantulas in the region where Kircher operated – the Antidotum Tarantulae was said to be employed for the same therapeutic treatment. At a basic stage, notions that were to be developed later in my research were already at play, such as the vision of a relationship with a musical work that would include a point of view in it – not only my subjective treatment of the performance, but also other elements, external to it but still part of its imaginative, historical and geographical “assemblage”.
The most relevant reflection upon this past experience concerned the use of the instrument, and in particular the exploration of the periphery of the “classical paradigm” of sound in guitar. Such paradigm, developed throughout my conservatoire training and professional activity, is marked by a minimisation of the many instabilities of the instrument – very soft emission, irregular tuning, high incidence of parasitical noises, short sustain, over-rich harmonic blend of the timbre. In designing the phantasmic version of Kircher’s tune, I concentrated only on extreme registers: almost all of the performance was carried out on the first (highest) and sixth (lowest) strings. On the first string, I played with an unconventional technique, with the left hand pressing the string over the sound hole (therefore way beyond the limit of the fretboard) while the right hand produced a very fast tremolo. The sonic result emphasised, rather than minimising, the “limits” of the instrument: very soft sound, utterly unstable pitch, noise (the attack of the fingernail on the nylon string is louder than the resonance, also due to the extreme shortness of the vibrating string), very short resonance, and marked prevalence of high harmonics – an irregular sound quality, swarming with micro-variations. As for the part on the sixth string, it consisted in percussive patterns with two-hands tapping, so that the complementary sounds sounded as prominently as the regular ones, which were dampened by both hands. Again, the noise of the tapping and the ambiguity of pitch generated a divergence from the “classical” sound of the instrument.

For my last “divergent performance” in this project, I chose to work on a duet from L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), and to apply to myself the technique developed for the case of Variation III (cf. § 5). I decided to record a sonic image using only the guitar, but assembling the recorded sounds through a kind of “montage”. I wanted to generate a dense sequence of sonic events, and while recording and assembling them I did not pay attention to their technical performability: I was interested in the discrepancy and tension between the recorded sound and the live performance, even and especially in the impossibility to match the two. To a certain extent, I wanted not to be able to recognise what I did during the recording, to prepare my own future listening experience as a crisis, even if it was me who had produced and recorded those sounds. As in the case of Antidotum Tarantulae, I chose hyper-modulated textures, most of them in pianissimo or with uncommon sound emissions, and extreme sound ranges, especially in the high register. The sonic image would be in my own instrumental “voice”, but its later listening would be as if in someone else’s “voice”.
Initially, I tried to perform this piece only relying on the memory of the recorded sonic image. Later on I realised that it would have been too demanding to do so. I therefore decided to design a graphic guide, but avoiding the mistakes I did in the case of Variation VIII (cf. Phonographic Writing). This graphic guide was not a mimesis of a rhythmic-diastematic score, but rather a “cartography” of the instrumental interface, non descriptive of sonic events. I invented symbols for various actions of the palms and fingers on the strings, frets, or body of the guitar, the use of objects (bottleneck), the topology of the natural harmonics. I was not actually “playing” the guitar; I was being played on two levels: on the physical level, my body was “played” by the automatisms of the gestures on the instruments, unlinked to a sonic result and to any form of musical signification; on the aural level, I was “played” by my mnemonic navigation of the sonic image, by its fluid arrangement of the musical tempo and of the energetic space of sound. I was creating a bilingualism in my own language: on one side, the wise language of my professional approach to the instrument, and of my interpreter-subject; on the other side, the limping language of another instrument (a sort of anti-guitar) and of another, external subject. Mine was a monologue, but not declaimed on stage and in front of an audience: a monologue that one split part of my non-subject would say to another one, or a short-circuited instrumental monologue.

P O W E R S   O F   D I V E R G E N C E


This divergent performance is constituted by two main gestures: (1) some proto-melodic lines, played as a pianissimo tremolo on the first string of the acoustic guitar, with the left hand pressing the string over the sound hole; (2) percussive patterns of 1 to 3 pitches, played with two hands tapping on the sixth string.
The main technique of the performance is isolation. Melodic lines extracted from of the primary work (1) are played without their harmonic foundation, and are separated from each other in fragments that correspond to a durational length of approximately a semi-phrase. These fragments are articulated as if they emerge and return back to silence They are also not always played in their original sequence, but also repeated or slightly varied.
The technique of isolation is reinforced by deformation. Each melodic line, pulsating between intervals of silence, is also internally deformed. The diatonic relationship between the pitches is deprived of clarity (glissando-like figures); the density of the texture of the tremolo and the imprecision of the intonation caused by the unconventional left hand technique generate a sound quality that is suffocated, blurred, and swarms with internal microscopic irregularities.
The continuity of the semi-phrases is further broken by the irruption of the fragments of rhythmical patterns (2), produced by the percussive actions of the fingertips of both hands on the fingerboard, in configuration of pitches and figures – a set of triplets played without metrical rigour – that distantly recalls the basic rhythmic unit of the pizzica, a dance from the Salento region of Puglia (Southern Italy) by which the phenomenon of tarantism has been used as a cure until recently, and where Kircher himself travelled and worked.
The gestures of this performance were conceived of without fixed duration. It was guided by the memory of the primary work, and aided by a diagram that provided an aide-memoire for its structure.

Execution of Antidotum Tarantulae. Lucia D'Errico, acoustic guitar

Prototype: Antidotum Tarantulae, after Athanasius Kircher’s homonymous tune

Composer: Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)
Primary work: Antidotum Tarantulae
Published in: Magnes sive de arte magnetica (1643)

A   P E R I P H E R A L   I N S T R U M E N T

c a s e   s t u d y :   a t h a n a s i u s   k i r c h e r   +   c l a u d i o   m o n t e v e r d i



"Divergent performance" of Antidotum Tarantulae. Lucia D'Errico, acoustic guitar

Sento un certo non so che, after Claudio Monteverdi’s homonymous duet (from L’incoronazione di Poppea)

Composer: Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Primary work: duet Sento un certo non so che
Published in L’incoronazione di Poppea (~1651)


Preparatory phase: listening to the recording (Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Wien); reading the score.
Compositional phase (generating the sonic image): recording and electronic editing of a track produced using acoustic guitar, voice, Ableton Live software.
Semiotic and performative phase (designing live performance): after experimenting with the use of memory, I decided to use also here the clarification of the sonic image through a graphic guide.


The main technique in this divergent performance is variation. This performance is divided into three parts, each subdivided into “phrases” where fragments derived from the primary work are recombined, repeated, and varied.
In the first part, almost all of the “phrases” are opened by a rhythmical pattern derived from the Ritornello (bars 377-380). The patterns played in tremolo with the left hand finger pressing the first string over the sound hole refer to the diatonic oscillation characterising the vocal conduct in bars 339-344 and 360-368. The use of the voice, mostly in whistling, matches and hybridises the sonic texture of the tremolo patterns. Such texture is further interpolated with the same figuration played with the bottleneck on high positions of the first and second strings.
A series of single pitches punctuates the otherwise misty and unclear sonic space. They refer to pitches that belong to either the melodic line in the primary work or to the bass and its harmonisation. Such pitches are not played in consistent lines, but sprayed over different registers and produced with irregular sound emissions (harmonics, especially very high ones; left and right hand tapping; complementary sounds).
The use of the voice becomes increasingly more pervasive, up to and including a micro-fragment of singing (with the brief appearance of the words “vivo l-”, from bar 366).
The second section is organised around long descending slurs with the left hand scratching the wound strings. These figures reflect the descending movement characterising bars 381-384 and similar figurations, compressing and outlining them, Each slur is preceded by patterns derived from the melody in bars 404-406, played with tremolo on three strings. At the end of it, rhythmic patterns recall the opening of each of the gestures in the first section.
Section three refers mainly to bars 381-387 and 397-400. The melodic profile of the primary work is kept almost faithfully here, but it is made not clearly recognisable through the use of ambiguous sound emissions, the spraying of the registers and octaves, the uneven, non-metrical temporal scansion. The gestures are repeated and varied (each time a slightly different section of the primary work is referred to) and progressively rarefy, ending in a general diminuendo.

"Divergent performance" of Sento un certo non so che. Lucia D'Errico, acoustic guitar

Execution of Sento un certo non so che. Nikolaus Harnoncourt + Concentus Musicus Wien