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Solo Nota (San Servolo)

site-specific sound installation

24 hour loop


"In my house on the Giudecca in Venice the sound of various bells rung in different ways and with different meanings reach our ears continously, day and night, through fog or in the sunshine. They are indications of life on the lagoon, on the sea. Calls to work and to mediation, warnings. And life continues there in the painful and calm necessity of the 'balance of the deep interior', as Kafka says.
Luigi Nono
Site for Solo Nota (San Servolo) + Sound Excerpt 1'30"

Solo Nota (San Servolo) was created during the artLAB residency, Summer 2006 in Venice, Italy.

The work was exhibited in the resulting exhibition:

Fatti e Finzioni on the Island of San Servolo, Venice, Italy from Oct 7 -Nov 19, 2006

Text from the Catalogue:

Two stories that might be true:†

The first story goes something like this: after studying atonality under Schoenberg’s student Walter Klein, Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi suffered from a severe psychological crisis. The reason for Scelsi’s illness is unclear,‡ however it has been acknowledged he spent sometime in a psychiatric hospital and underwent chromotherapy. The details of this period of Scelsi’s life find many renditions, taking on a somewhat mythological air.ƒ In all the various anecdotes one event always surfaces: Scelsi intensively listening to a single piano note decaying. Supposedly, he would sit at the piano for hours a day striking a solo note; it was this repetitive activity—and not the doctors, they say —which cured him. Perhaps this affair is not so much a success story for music therapy, as it was a moment in music history when Scelsi found the inspiration for his mature compositional style. Instead of classifying a note on the piano as a homogeneous tone, Scelsi struck a note on the piano and listened to the multiple harmonic overtones that fluctuated as the note lingered. For the first time in the Western tradition, the note imploded and timbre became a primary compositional element. The effects of this radical paradigm shift resonate more and more as time accrues

Like the first story, the second was circulated to a greater extent posthumously: from 1725 to 1978, the small island of San Servolo housed the infamous mental asylum of Venice.§ Probably the most famous madhouse in the world, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley describes the asylum in his poem “Julian and Maddalo.” Spiraling around the island of San Servolo for the entire poem, the conversing duo of Julian and Maddalo (pseudonyms for Shelley and Byron) eventually “Sailed to the island where the madhouse stands/ …climbed the oozy stairs/ Into an old courtyard” where they “heard on high/Then, fragments of most touching melody.” Amidst the “Moans, shrieks, and curses, and blaspheming prayers” their dark journey eventually lead them to a

…Poor wretch …sitting mournfully
Near a piano, his pale fingers twined
One with the other, and the ooze and wind
Rushed through an open casement

While exploring the remains of the asylum on the island of San Servolo, I found a 19th century pianoforte desperately out of tune, and furthermore, with only a few keys still able to strike a note. Whether or not this is the piano of Shelley’s verse I do not know. Whether this is the piano that Scelsi struck repeatedly is less likely. These details seem irrelevant; one hears a solo piano note ringing from the island of San Servolo when the bells from neighbouring islands mark the passing of time.

19th century pianoforte used for music therapy at the San Servolo Insane Asylum. Still from documentation of Performance.

Middle Ear, Icones Anatomicae Ex Optimis Neotericorum Operibus (medical illustrations of human anatomy) 1804
Archives of San Servolo

† I would like to thank Anna Paola Passarini and Maddalena Pugliese for their generosity in making this work possible; but above all else, the work is dedicated to Candice Tarnowski.

‡ Theodor Adorno describes Schoenberg’s music as the necessary outcome of the malaise of modernity. For Adorno, dodecaphony’s atonality revealed the fractured reality of the world on the brink of war and an identity crisis.Whether this had the inverse effect of causing an identity crisis in Scelsi is supposition and would be reductive. While definitely situated in the throws of the mid-20th century, Scelsi—like most of us—had a complex life. See Theodor W.Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music.Trans.Anne G. Mitchell & Wesley V. Blomster. NY: Seabury, 1973. (originally publish in Germany 1948)

ƒ Most recently, see the brief biography by Luciano Martinis in the collected writings of Giacinto Scelsi, Les Anges Sont Ailleurs… Paris:Actes Sud, 2006 . Or less recently:Alex Ross,“The Messenger”, The New Yorker. Nov. 21, 2005. p. 98-99, or Andy Hamilton “Spectral Music” The Wire. Iss. 227 Nov. 2003. pp. 42-49.

§ All mental asylums across Italy were closed in 1978 due to a two-part legislation. The first part closed the asylums, and the second part—which was never implemented—planned to embed these patients into more community based programs.



artLAB_San Servolo artist residency is a programme promoted by San Servolo Servizi in collaboration with the Province of Venice and the following institutions: Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice International University, the Faculty of Arts&Design at the IUAV University of Venice, the Venice Academy of Fine Arts, the Abate Zanetti School for Glass of Murano, European Association Pro Venetia Viva.

Charles Stankievech would like to thank the Canada Council for the Arts, Hexagram + CIAM for making this project possible--particularily Steve Bates, Joel Taylor, Lynn Hughes and Martin Pelletier.