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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal

“Infinito Nero” by Salvatore Sciarrino: On the Phenomenon of “Invisible Action”

Chupova Anna

Lecturer at the Department of Theory of Music of Cherepovets Art College

162602, Russia, Vologodskaya oblast', g. Cherepovets, ul. Stalevarov, 34a
Other publications by this author










Abstract: Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (born 1947), a philosopher and esthete whose music experimentalizes with audibility threshold, is one of the leaders of the vanguard music culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. The author’s artistic concept is developed within the framework of post-serial searching, which is defined as “music ecology” and the “ecology of listening.” Despite his music's wide recognition in Europe and the US, Sciarrino’s artistic work has received little analysis or study thus far. This is especially the case of his opera works, which draw the attention of the leading opera houses and become significant musical events. The topicality of this research is determined by the necessity to study the composer’s works and his philosophic and esthetic views in detail. Sciarrino’s experiments in the realm of music theatre are connected to the notion of azione invisible (“invisible action”), which is the focus of this article in the context of the composer’s artistic concept. The research subject of this study is Sciarrino’s opera Infinito Nero (1998). The research methodology is based on a complex approach that includes systematic, interpretational, musical, and analytical methods. Through an analysis of the libretto, dramaturgy, and its acoustic realization, the author uncovers the distinctive features of “invisible action” in Infinito Nero, including the lack of traditional plot development, the leveling of a visual component, the ambiguity of character identification, the vagueness of space and time, and the modeling of a sonorous environment in which the microscopic acoustic elements with ecological origins and their transformation become of primary importance. The concept of “invisible action” is defined by the dramaturgy of listening and the new mode of listener comprehension in which the visualization process of acoustic images plays a central role in understanding the meaning of everything that’s happening.  


contemporary opera, opera theatre, Maria Maddalena de'Pazzi, azione invisibile, Infinito nero, Salvatore Sciarrino, opera dramaturgy, libretto, ecology of sound, aural ecology

Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947) is now considered one of the leaders of modern avant-garde musical culture, as evidenced by the wide recognition his work has received on both sides of the Atlantic. The originality of Sciarrino’s musical thinking and artistic attitudes is partly due to his independent comprehension of the art of composition. At the same time, musical tradition is also important for his work, which he understands extremely broadly, as “a continuous tradition from Monteverdi to Stockhausen” [8]. The peculiarity of Sciarrino’s works lies precisely in this synthesis of traditions and innovative aspirations.

The composer’s music is a rarefied sound fabric, consisting of a continuous stream of insignificant noises, quiet, barely perceptible sounds literally balancing on the edge of silence. His artistic concept is in line with the post-series search, called “sound ecology” and “listening ecology” (see more about this in the works of S. V. Lavrova [1],[3]). Sciarrino himself defines it as musica naturale and offers a philosophical and aesthetic justification for this phenomenon in his books: the collection of articles and essays Carte da Suono (Sound Cards, 2001) and the monograph Le Figure della Musica da Beethoven a Oggi (Figures of Music from Beethoven to the Present Day, 1998).

Sciarrino has long been recognized as one of the most original opera composers of our time. This is confirmed by numerous productions of his operas in musical theaters around the world: in Germany, France, America, Austria, the Czech Republic, Colombia, Norway, Great Britain, Russia, and, of course, in his homeland, Italy.

For almost all of his operas, the composer comes up with original, at first glance, even paradoxical genre designations: “Three acts for the museum of obsessions” (Cailles en sarcophage, 1979–1980), “Still life in one act” (Vanitas, 1981), Invisible action (Lohengrin, 1982–1984), “Ecstasy in one act” (Infinito Nero, 1998), “Three untitled acts” (Macbeth, 2002), and “An almost circular monologue” (La porta della legge, 2002).

The idea of “invisible action” (azione invisibile) is at the heart of three circular monologues by Sciarrino: Lohengrin, Infinito nero, and La porta della legge. In itself, the expression “invisible action” can be attributed to a form of oxymoronic combinations. The word azione ( “action”), in this case, implies a “dramatic performance.” In turn, the meaning of the word “performance” in relation to musical theater is associated with the presence of a visual aspect, entertainment. However, the absence of this very visual component is contained in the word “invisible.” What is the meaning of Sciarrino’s definition of “invisible action”? Let us turn to the opera Infinito nero (“Black infinity”) to answer this question.

The work for voice and eight instruments was written in 1998 by order of the German city of Witten and the Ministry of Urban Development of Culture and Sports of the North Rhine-Westphalia regions. The premiere took place on April 25 of the same year at the Witten Chamber Music Festival, performed by the ensemble “Recherche” and Sonia Turchetta, with whom Sciarrino had a long artistic friendship.

The libretto of the opera, written by the composer himself, is based on the texts of the ecstatic revelations of Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, whose interest was rekindled by the 1984 publication of recordings of her mystical experiences Le parole dell’estasi (“Words of ecstasy”). The book consists of fragments of transcripts describing the amazing encounters of this woman with Christ and Satan.

Saint Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi (1566–1607) is one of the most striking and remarkable figures in the history of the Italian Catholic Church. A Carmelite nun, canonized by the Vatican (1669), she came from a well-known and wealthy Florentine family and was christened Catherine. During her years of study at the school of the convent of San Giovannino della Cavalieresse di Malta, she developed such a love for religious teachings, prayer, and penance that it prompted the nun to predict her life as a saint.

Despite her father’s desire to marry her, Catherine became a novice of the Carmelite convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and in 1583 she took the veil and the name of Maria Maddalena. During the following years, she would fall into ecstasies, during which she would talk a lot and quickly and then suddenly fall silent. During her ecstasies, she could move rapidly or, on the contrary, continue to work – embroidery, drawing. Mary Maddalena spoke on her own behalf and sometimes on behalf of one of the persons of the Holy Trinity. The language of her utterances during ecstasy was scientific, “specialized,” “far superior to the level of her education” [5]. The ecstatic utterances of the saint became her “works,” although she herself did not write down a single word. The confessor of Maria Maddalena, who wanted to make sure that her visions were not the machinations of the devil, hysterical fits, or autosuggestion, instructed the monastery sisters to record her statements during ecstasies, for which they performed a rather complicated procedure. Four nuns memorized what the saint said, while the other four took shorthand notes of her words and gestures. These descriptions and sayings have made up five volumes of manuscripts, which contain expressions, visions, and voices calling to respond to the love of Christ for man.

The image of the crucified Christ is one of the saint’s most vivid and terrifying visions. Sciarrino’s libretto begins with the words of Maria Maddalena, “anima si trasformava nel sangue” (“the soul has turned into blood”). According to S. Brun, this “soul” may be Maria Maddalena herself. The researcher writes: “Mary Maddalena’s attention is absorbed by the horrifyingly torn and wounded body, so much so that she loses herself in the wounds of Christ, interprets the blood from the crown of thorns as the ink with which God wants to write, and thus explains in retrospect her original image of drowning in blood” [6, p.478].

Maria Maddalena ended her days after three years of agonizing illness, accompanied by unbearable pain. She endured this pain stoically, with joy, following her famous saying “Pati et non mori” (“To suffer and not die”), because she saw in suffering an opportunity to share the torment of the cross with Christ.

Despite the canonization, Maria Maddalena’s personality attracted Sciarrino with its inconsistency. He tends to see her as more of a repulsive, “devilish” figure. “With her, you can’t tell God from the devil. Her visions still cause horror,” the composer said in an interview before the premiere of Infinito nero [13, p. 23]. At the stage of the opera’s conception, the idea of the polarity of black and white played an important role. Initially, even the participation of two singers was assumed. Sciarrino also wanted to delineate the stage space using a sudden change of instantaneous lighting, “like blinking.” “These changes are extremely important since the work itself is so made,” the composer said. These are parallel discourses. The idea of the correlation of opposites must be conveyed. In the end, Infinito nero “could be called Infinito bianco (“White infinity”).” This is not a paradox: if you look at white or black for a long time, you will eventually see the same thing [13, p.24].

It would seem that the life story of Maria Maddalena provided exciting material for creating a spectacular mystical drama. However, the composer did not take advantage of its dramatic potential. He was interested not only and not so much in the nature of the origin of Maria Maddalena’s ecstatic visions and auditory hallucinations – “divine” or “diabolical” – as in the phenomenon of the psychopathology of ecstasy, its mental and physiological manifestations, and the possibilities that open up for the transmission of this state in music.

Sciarrino’s libretto, based on fragments of the text Le parole dell’estasi, is filled with colorful and sometimes creepy images but does not represent any coherent text. In one version of the libretto, the composer used lines by Jules Laforgue but later excluded them. “The text of Maria Maddalena conveys loneliness, suffering, and confusion much more strongly,” the composer explained in an interview. “I think the result will be more effective if the text stays on its own. Because in it there is a separation of black and white, God and the Devil, maybe even silence and the word, breath and silence” [13, p. 25].

Combining phrases in the flow of speech, the composer uses constant violations of syntax, word breaks (tanto da non in-) and beginning a phrase with a broken half-word (-sformava sangue), numerous obsessive repetitions of single-root words (influirsi, influssi, influiva).The technique of working with the text becomes an extremely important dramatic factor affecting the dynamics of the form. The appearance of new phrases creates the illusion of movement, while the return to the old ones and the repetition of words determine the process of inhibition. Sciarrino will call a similar method of work stillicidio di parole (word percolation)and will develop it brilliantly in the opera La porta della legge.

As an illustration, we present a fragment of the Infinito nero libretto and its implementation in the opera. The ‘/’ sign indicates pauses of varying length between words.



l’anima si trasformava nel sangue,

tanto da non intendere poi altro che sangue,

non vedere altro che sangue,

non gustare altro che sangue,

non sentire altro che sangue,

non pensare altro che di sangue,

non potere pensare se non di sangue.

l’anima si trasformava nel /

sangue, tanto da non in /

-sformava nel sangue, tanto da /

da non intendere poi altro /

poi altro che sangue, non vedere /

altro che sangue, non gustare altro che sangue, non sentire /

altro che sangue, non pensare /

altro che di /

-tro che di /

sangue, non potere pensare se /

pensare se /

pensare se /

pensare se /

se non di sangue. E tutto ciò che operava /

the soul turned into blood,

understanding nothing but blood,

seeing nothing but blood,

eating nothing but blood,

feeling nothing but blood,

without thinking about anything but blood,

I can't think of anything other than blood.

the soul turned into /

blood, so much so that it doesn't hurt. /

"got into the blood, so much so that /

to not understand anything /

nothing but blood, not seeing /

nothing but blood, tasting nothing but blood, feeling nothing /

nothing but blood, without thinking /

about nothing but /

than, except for /

blood, unable to think /

think /

think /

think /

not about the blood. And whatever she does /

When listening, there is a feeling of tense awkwardness, somewhat similar to when you perceive the speech of a severely stuttering person and try to understand and get ahead of what he wants to say.

The listener’s perception is also hampered by the swift pace of the recitation, so fast that it is probably even difficult for Italians themselves to understand the spoken words. Within the duration of one-eighth (and even one-sixteenth!) Sciarrino puts in a few words. This is explained by the composer’s desire to convey the ecstatic state of the heroine, in which “the words actually shot out of her like bullets from a machine gun” [13, p. 23]. The reproduction of a “frank form of pathology” [ibid.] leads to the fact that words generally lose their meaning, and any attempt to understand them is doomed to failure.

As noted above, the real Maria Maddalena, during the ecstasy, spoke first on her own behalf, then on behalf of one of the voices she heard. In a continuous stream of speech, it is almost impossible to distinguish between these points. Because even phrases in the first person (for example, io non lo so / I don’t know; allora il santo mi vers ò sul capo un vaso e il sangue mi coperse tutta / then the saint poured a cup over my head, and the blood covered me all over; Egli scrive su di me con il sangue / He writes on me with his blood,etc. ) and appeals (ma dillo, dillo / but tell me, tell me; vieni, vieni / come, come ) do not guarantee that this is the voice of Maria Maddalena herself. Being in an ecstatic state, the character becomes a mediator, a kind of sound transmitter, and, consequently, loses its identity.

It would be logical to assume that the voices and sounds heard by the nun receive a certain personification in the instrumental parts. The refined timbre palette of Infinito nero includes four groups of instruments: wood (flute in C, oboe and clarinet in B), percussion, interpreted as a single timbre (big drum, bronze, and tubular bells, as well as such specific instruments as dobaki and krotali), strings (violin, viola, cello) and piano (but, in essence, Sciarrino considers it as a percussion instrument).

As tempting as it may be to draw an analogy between the eight different timbres and voices that Maria Maddalena hears, or the novices who repeat and record her words and gestures, it is still worth admitting that the composer avoids such a straightforward comparison, even though some passages in the score seem to suggest the possibility of such an interpretation. For example, in the flow of a high-pitched, nondeterministic vocal prosody, a short, persistently repeated archaic chant appears in a bright flash, like a child’s chant or a catchphrase:

Example 1.

S. Sciarrino. Infinito nero tt. 182–183.

Then the violin repeats it with flageolets in the speaker pppp, thanks to which there is an absolutely fantastic sound.

Example 2.

S. Sciarrino. Infinito nero, tt. 193–194.

Emotional recitation, which is based on obsessive repetitions consisting of single-root words, also gets a peculiar reflection in the flute part:

Example 3.

S. Sciarrino. Infinito nero, vol.114.

Is it the voice of a novice who is transmitting the words of Maria Maddalena, whose real sound is distorted by the refraction of a clouded consciousness? Or is it one of those voices that the saint hears? We can formulate a more general question: are they the sounds of the surrounding reality, refracted through Maria Maddalena’s consciousness, or the sounds created by her imagination, into which the composer immerses us?

In an interview, Sciarrino said: “I am primarily interested in the world of perception. My music is a space where something happens. The space that we share with all living things can be called the environment. In this environment, I create a tension between the sound elements, a conscious connection between the elements where, in fact, there is not. This is not reality but a representation of reality.” [8]

The task of the “invisible action” is to create a unique psychoacoustic space in which the boundary between illusion and reality is blurred. In musical and theatrical synthesis, azione invisibile, where the visual aspect is absent or does not play a significant role, and the words lose their meaning, the main focus is on the sound fabric of the score. This opera achieves a strong effect, according to the personal experience of the author of the article, not when viewing, distracting with extraneous noises of the auditorium, but when listening (preferably with headphones).

To explain the phenomenon of the musical originality of the score, you can refer to the terminology of Sciarrino himself. “Listening to reality with the ear of an insect and a giant,” the composer wrote in the author’s commentary to the score “Responsorio delle tenebre,” “I try to bring it back in a cloud of wind and stone” [10]. The composer’s literary language is highly complex and metaphorical, but there is always a fairly accurate acoustic image behind every poetic metaphor. In fact, what are “wind” and “rock” sounds of meteorological (or, as Sciarrino says, ecological) origin?

The sounds of the wind, the breath (consisting of in-breaths and out-breaths) have the properties of continuity, duration, the ability to strengthen and weaken, represent the horizontal axis of movement. The sounds of “stone” – pulse, knock, thunder, impact – are distinguished by the discreteness, brevity, and vertical axis of the fall. In essence, these are two different spatiotemporal systems – y e categories.

A cloud, as you know, is the condensation of water vapor. An important property of this natural phenomenon is the limited area of real visibility. It is no coincidence that a cloud is understood as a darkening, a change in state, or darkness that clouds the mind in a figurative, allegorical sense. In Scairrino’s musical world, the sound cloud has the characteristics of its climatic counterpart; weightlessness, variability, instability, unsteadiness. This, as Gianfranco Vinai shrewdly observes, is the “sound placenta” that envelops the listener, suspending time and imposing a different perception of the surrounding acoustic space [11, p.19].

In creating sound images of “wind,” “stone,” and “cloud,” an important role is played not so much by the timbre itself but by the sound production techniques specific to each instrument. At the same time, following the naturalistic concept, Sciarrino focuses on sounds that were not previously considered to be musical but rather a by-product of the sound production process.

The sonor spectrum of “stone” includes multiphonics, tongue and valve beats for wood, short piano sounds in the most distant registers, pizzicato strings, muffled beats for a large drum softened by a soft cloth, such, according to Sciarrino, “to get only momentum, not vibration, almost infrasound” [9].

The sonor palette of “wind”: in wooden instruments, sounds with air noise (such as “inhale-exhale” without the formation of a specific note), various types of glissando; in strings, the technique of “air noise”: a light flautando push that creates a sound close to a flute.

The sphere of “clouds” is represented by specific techniques of sound production associated, figuratively speaking, with the “mutation” of sound: extended flageolet technique (including flageolet glissando), compressed tremolo by the upper part of the bow; “distorted” sounds when playing sul tasto; and “metallic” sound, characteristic of sul ponticello; whistle tones in the flute (an acoustic phenomenon of sounds or whistling sounds). At the same time, the “cloud” includes the entire set of sound images of “wind” and “stone.”

All these naturalistic sounds form not only the acoustic space of the environment (rustling, grinding, knocking, creaking, dripping, etc.) but also a reflection of the physiological processes of the human body: breathing, gasping, heartbeats, buzzing in the ears, trembling. Using advanced sound production techniques, Sciarrino achieves an incredible mastery of “naturalistic illusionism” (S. Lavrova).

The listener’s immersion in this psychoacoustic space is inevitably associated with a special reflection of the time system (y x relationships), experiencing the tightness and length of time. In Infinito nero, Sciarrino uses such a technique as temporary y e (the progression of the convergence and deletion of sounds performed by different instruments). For example, at the beginning of the opera (see tt. 7–42 of the score [9]), the long ostinato of the wind trio draws our attention: the flute, oboe, and clarinet play short sounds with a blow of the tongue. The interaction between the parties forms three parallel timelines; y e lines: flute-oboe, flute-clarinet, oboe-clarinet.

Example 4.

S. Sciarrino. Infinito nero, tt. 7–15.

The line of a flute-clarinet pair is a time constant. In the oboe-clarinet and flute-clarinet pairs, there is a gradual temporal deviation. Over the course of 35 bars, Sciarrino builds a time progression, alternating between rational and irrational methods of dividing the fraction, and the units of crushing are microscopic (thirty-second and sixty-fourth). This is, figuratively speaking, time viewed under a microscope.

Example of reverse progression (convergence of sounds) between an oboe and a flute:

Example 5.

S. Sciarrino. Infinito nero, tt. 47–52.

An example of a synchronous horizontal shift that is not relative to each other but to its own reference point:

Example 6.

S. Sciarrino. Infinito nero, tt. 59–64.

Focusing on the smallest changes in the sound object sharpens the perception of the compression and extension of “microscopic” time. It becomes, according to Sciarrino, a kind of perception exercise for the listener. “By focusing on the infinitesimal and the infinitely immobile, we lose not only our sense of time but also our sense of image,” the composer said in an interview recalling Infinito nero. Such an exercise in perception is not a test but something much stronger and much more ascetic: it forces the listener and performer to live in a different sound reality. It was the idea to contemplate a crack in the wall, to contemplate it for so long until it turns into something else; the wall opens, and we travel: the crack is no longer a crack, but a chasm in which we can get lost” [12, p. 60]. Contemplation of the slow transformation of a sound object initiates the process of immersion in the space of the unconscious – the space of freedom, into which the true reality of desires, fears, and delusions lurking in the depths of consciousness breaks through [2, p.150]. So the “invisible action” also becomes, according to Lavrova’s correct observation, “voice-over guidance of perception,” a technique very characteristic of Sciarrino’s work.

Summarizing our observations and returning to the question posed at the beginning of the article, we will highlight the features of the “invisible action.”

1) The lack of consistent development of the plot as a chain of external events that reveal the main content of the work and, as a result, leveling the visual component of the performance.

2) Since there are no events whose sequence is regulated by causal relationships, there is no plot time in the “invisible action,” but there is a psychological time. It can be equivalent to the psychological time of each listener’s perception and, at the same time, to the psychological time of the hero. The place of action, which is a scene, only “visually” correlates with reality. The listener’s immersion into the character’s consciousness leads to a blurring of the boundary between reality and illusion (dream, delirium, vision, fantasy), causing a sense of uncertainty about what is happening. Sciarrino disorients the listener, whose point of view constantly fluctuates between perception and observation.

3) Ambiguity of character identification. In Infinito nero, Maria Maddalena, a Carmelite nun who hears voices, is not identical to the Maria Maddalena who speaks with one of these voices. A similar situation occurs in the opera Lohengrin, where Elsa is both Lohengrin, priest, and people. In La porta della legge, the character is represented by two different voices but is depersonalized and referred to as Person 1 and Person 2. The Kafka-Sciarrino universe, based on disjunction, presupposes their simultaneous identity and difference.

4) The creation of a special psychoacoustic space by modeling a sound environment; the materials are sounds of environmental origin. In this space, microscopic sound objects that require listening play a major role.

The word “performance” has a meaning that is, in some sense, the opposite of representation as a theatrical act. This is the process and result of imagining objects and phenomena that currently do not affect the human senses. In the case of Sciarrino’s operas, the invisible action provokes the listener to a new type of perception [4, p. 20], in which the process of mental representation of auditory images and building a logical connection between them, contributes to the creation of the meaning of what is happening.

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2. Lavrova, S. V. (2019). "Invisible Action": off-screen role of the sound landscape and intertextuality in the operas "Aspern" and "Quail in the sarcophagus" by Salvatore Sciarrino. Bulletin of the Academy of Russian Ballet, 1(60), pp. 136–157.
3. Lavrova, S. V. (2015). Naturalistic concept of Salvatore Sharrino. Problems of musical science, 1 (18), pp. 24–27.
4. Lavrova, S. V. (2013). "Ecology of listening" and the effect of "Invisible Action" in the operas "The Little Match Girl" (Das madchen mit den schwefelholzern) by Helmut Lachenmann and "Lohengrin" (Lohengrin - azione invisibile) by Salvatore Sciarrino // Bulletin of St. Petersburg State University. Series 15: Art history. – No. 1. –. – S. 9–20.
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6. Bruhn, S. (2003). Saints in the limelight: representations of the religious quest on the post-1945 operatic stage (Dimension & Diversity. №5). Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press. p. 664.
7. Capes, F. (2019). St. Mary Magdalen de' Pazzi. New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. (date accessed 14/07/2019)
8. Cassin, A. (2017). Salvatore Sciarrino with Alessandro Cassin. The Brooklyn Rail. (date accessed 24/07/2017).
9. Sciarrino, S. (1998). Infinito nero. Estasi di un atto per mezzosoprano e strumenti: Partitura. Ricordi. p. 37.
10. Sciarrino, S. (2019). Responsorio delle tenebre: Nota dell'autore. Salvatore Sciarrino: official website. (date accessed 28/04/2019)
11. Vinay, G. (2013–2014). La porta della legge: gli enigmi di Kafka e il “quasi monologo circolare” di Sciarrino. La Fenice prima dell’Opera: La porta della legge, 6, pp. 15–24.
12. Vinay, G. (2002). La costruzione dell’arca invisibile. Intervista a Salvatore Sciarrano sul teatro musicale e la drammaturgia. Omaggio a Salvatore Sciarrino, 3–7 settembre 2002. pp. 49–65.
13. Vogt, H. (1999). On “Infinito Nero” Salvatore Sciarrino speaking to Harry Vogt. In C. Preiner (Trans.), Salvatore Sciarrino: Infinito Nero: Le voci sottovetro. Kairos. pp. 23–25