Cyclic Defrost Magazine
Barcelona-resident composer (and graduate of Galvani Conservatory, Buenos Aires) Sanfilippo has released albums since 2000 for a variety of forces, but the piano has proven an abiding interest. ClarOscuro marks his entry into the modern classical world, with an album which doesn’t quite know where to stand.
Arvo Pärt is obviously a touchstone for the music here, but it’s not a hugely helpful comparison. Where the Estonian composer’s music is meditative and almost completely still, there is a feeling of restlessness, of a desire for movement in Sanfilippo’s work. In fact, there’s more in common with Michael Nyman’s work here – a continual melodic line is the hallmark of these pieces rather than an unearthly stillness.
The music is uniformly quiet in a way you’ll be familiar with if you’ve heard Nyman’s The Piano soundtrack (‘Absentia’), or perhaps the piano works of Gavin Bryars (‘Luciana’), Yann Tiersen (the titular opener) or (in her quieter moments) Elena Kats-Chernin. It’s lyrical and there’s a lot of sustained notes, stretching into decay. There’s touches of the rainy-afternoon Erik Satie or Claude Debussy about the work, but I feel that’s just in terms of emotional association rather than in terms of execution: the sound of the piano played this way makes the listener feel this way, almost regardless of the content. It could be library music.
The bulk of the disc is piano-only compositions (sometimes multitracked) but there’s also the occasional celllo and violin. ‘A Constant Passion’ is the album’s best combination of other instruments, though it does lack the reversed-chord weirdness which marks ‘The Movement of the Grass’. Elsewhere, moments of humanity leak in – though to the point of distraction – key travel clunking can be heard. It’s interesting in its effort to both create and break a sense of stasis, of soporific acceptance.
There appear to be quotations of other pieces throughout, for the alert listener. I swear there’s snippets of David Shire’s music from The Conversation as well as some Debussy piano pieces salted through. These create some clever aha! moments for the attentive listener. The diversion is good, as your enjoyment of the album will be determined by how familiar you are with the composers Sanfillipo seems to refer to. His work is enjoyable yet unremarkable, with some of the sterility ECM recordings are known for – though I readily admit this could be to keep the listener in a sense of stasis.
The difficulty with the pieces here is they appear to the listener as cues from a film rather than standalone compositions. It speaks to their strengths that they’re evocative of film, but the seem to lack the structure of concert pieces. I suppose the intent is to be more relaxed than staged – hence the references to Brian Eno and Harold Budd in album promo, though I only really hear the latter, and not too much of the former save the Discreet Music vibe and occasional wind sounds. Sanfilippo is attempting to straddle the classical and ambient markets but manages to lack the successes of wholeheartedly chasing either camp. If anything, this lands more in the Windham Hill camp, a great example of the in-between.
ClarOscuro is a good album. It’s serviceable, it’s soundtrack-y and it creates a mood. It’s just not great. Sanfilippo obviously has some ability – it’d be good to hear it escape the shadows of Nyman, Budd et al and make its own music. It’s almost as if ClarOscuro is a collection of variations or exercises, a warming-up for what may follow.