Although born in Palermo, Sicily, Maestro Salvatore Sciarrino chooses to live in Città di Castello, as he told in a recent interview from The Guardian. He is widely considered Italy’s most important modern composer. His music has been played all over the world at the most renowned venues, from La Scala in Milan to Lincoln Center in New York City. The Mag met with the Maestro for a personal chat about his own development as a composer, and what it means to be an artist.
by Marta Cerù
You are a rare example of “the self-taught artist”. How is it that you have had such success in the world of classical music where academic credentials are essential?
At first I was kind of ashamed of my lack of formal education, then during my years as a conservatory teacher I started being proud of it. Today when I see how poorly creativity is taught I feel like being ashamed again. Should I? I don’t think my path was wrong, it was just unusual. Everybody should have the opportunities I had. When I started teaching in a Conservatory for example there was a certain freedom. I was kind of insecure about my own education, but I soon realized that many teachers were focusing on grammar when their students wanted to become poets. It was as if instead of giving priority to esthetic elements they were teaching mechanical elements. I think the most important thing is to stimulate the natural creativity children have, in every direction with no restrictions. Otherwise we generate calculating machines, while what we want is to have curious and interested minds, open to loving the world around them. Isn’t this the duty of every school? Unfortunately the education system seems to do just the opposite, destroying any chance of creativity.
How is it possible for an artist to emerge?
Everybody needs courage and energy, especially if he or she is going against the main stream. It was like that for me. There was a turning point in my life in which my father and my brothers started pressuring me about choosing an alternative to music. Either I would quit my music or I would have to leave our home. Without their ultimatum I wouldn’t have had the courage to leave Palermo. Having absorbed and overcome that rejection made me restless, I am always searching, going…
What brought you close to music in the first place?
I believe the environment is the first influence on a child who then can choose among different motivations. I was always passionate about music and art in general, it was almost an obsession, a sickness if you like. I still can’t explain how all of a sudden I lost interest in everything else but music. But I was an unusual child I have to say. And my accomplishments were far from exceptional…
So your family…
My family influenced my musical development. Not my father though. My mother and my sister were passionate about music and they loved to sing. I also have two older brothers and one of them started composing music but in a way I totally rejected. He considered music to be a hobby, while I considered it as the primary thing, not merely a self-pleasing activity. Nowadays people think that everybody can be creative in a way that makes them an artist. I do not agree.
What is the difference between the artist and the creative person?
Every living cell is creative, and so is every human being. But in order to be an artist you have to constantly face a crisis and be able to overcome it. What I mean is that only by overcoming your own personal blocks can you hope to find a unifying language. That is the world of art: it is the culture that unifies and characterizes a society.
Can you tell us how you came to live in Città di Castello?
When I left Palermo, I went to Rome. At first it wasn’t easy to survive but those were the best years. The most important thing is not the security that money can give you but the ability you have to create a sharing environment. At that time I was working as a copyist for Ricordi. I had the ability to copy difficult contemporary music, jobs that others refused to work on. That was my good fortune, it allowed me to exercise my hand and accumulate practice. On top of that I was well paid so I could work two months out of the year and compose the rest of the time.
Then after Rome you lived in Milan…
Ricordi gave me an exclusive contract as a composer which ended my copyist career. I had to move to Milan since the company was based there. In 1972 I had my debut at La Scala and then I had to serve in the military, which was good because at that time you couldn’t teach if you hadn’t served in the military. I became a teacher in the Milano School of Music where the Director, Marcello Abbado, chose me on merit as opposed to strictly because of an education level I hadn’t achieved. I was a composer.
What about Città di Castello?
Well, at one point I got tired of Milan and I was already teaching composition in Città di Castello’s Summer Class. It was during a rebirth of the historical center, and that inspired me to find the house where I still live. I loved it immediately because of its light and that was one of the most significant moments in my life. I had second thoughts though. I had spent some time in Cortona, but that landscape never struck me. It is beautiful there, but it is like looking at a postcard from faraway… here, I love the variety of the surrounding hills: it is like a constantly changing sea whose waves are forests responding to the light. It is something I can’t change with anything.
Do you have suggestions for someone planning a career in music composition?
Become familiar with every kind of music. Open your mind to curiosity. The world of culture is a world of journeys. In every journey we have to enjoy what is foreign to us. We have to “discover”, not just “know”. It is the adventure of discovery as opposed to simply the journey, that brings out emotions and energies.