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Solmund Nystabakk:

Franco Donatoni: Algo Due pezzi per chitarra

An analysis

Sibelius Akatemia, 2009

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

Table of Contents
Table of Contents


Franco Donatoni: A short biography

Algo: Analysis



About... Algo




Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

Algo is a work for solo guitar composed by Franco Donatoni in 1977. In this paper I will give a
brief introduction to Donatonis life and work, followed by an analysis of Algo.

The analysis will give an introduction to formal and structural aspects of the piece, from a
compositional point of view. It is by no means exhaustive, but may serve as a "performers guide"
to the work, or as an introduction to Donatonis music, as many of the structural features of Algo
can be observed in most of his works.

Conclusively, I will present some thoughts regarding the interpretation.

NOTE: Although the analysis contains several music examples, I recommend the reader to refer to
the score in order to follow the discourse in detail. Algo is published by Suvini Zerboni, Milano.
The work has been recorded by the following interpreters:

Magnus Anderson:

Short Sounds, nosagcd 056

Stefano Cardi:

Franco Donatoni: Chamber music, Stradivarius STR33773

Timo Korhonen:

Guitar Recital, Ondine ODE730-2

Geoffrey Morris:

In flagranti, ABC Classics ABC465701-2

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

Franco Donatoni
Franco Donatoni was born in Verona in 1927, and so grew up in the province during the two
decades of fascist rule in Italy. He attended violin and solfeggio lessons at Veronas Liceo Musicale,
but there was little at the time that might suggest that he was to have a brilliant career in music.
Making little progress on the violin, Donatoni found an occupation more suitable to his talents and
interests in his composition studies with Piero Bottagisio, and went on to study at the conservatory
of Bolzano. He subsequently studied at the Milan conservatory, but later described those as
"unhappy years" 1): his teacher, Ettore Desderi, had been accused of collaboration during the war,
and was hardly capable of doing anything. In 1948 Donatoni transferred to the conservatory of
Bologna to study with Lino Liviabella, from which point his studies prospered.

In 1951 Donatoni met Goffredo Petrassi in Venice, and as a consequence of that meeting moved to
Rome the following year. He officially went to study with Ildebrando Pizzetti at the Accademia St.
Cecilia, but more importantly he sought further contact with Petrassi, whose support was to be of
major significance. In 1953 he met Bruno Maderna, who was at the time already a major figure in
Italian new music. Maderna encouraged Donatoni acquaint himself with the music of Mahler and
the Second Viennese School, and also prompted him to visit the summer courses for new music in
Darmstadt. Donatoni visited Darmstadt so the very next year, and was exposed to the music and
ideas of the serialists with Boulez and Stockhausen at the forefront. Donatoni returned to the
Darmstadt summer courses in 1956 and 58, and the serialist influences were soon to be evident in
his own writing, although it was not until the very end of the decade that he had developed from
merely processing his impressions, to a more independent style. Donatonis take on serialism
involved a somewhat freer approach than that demonstrated by Boulez and Stockhausen in the
1950s. He would use a set of codes, techniques of substitution, elimination, proliferation, etc., and
apply these to a certain piece of material (often borrowed, from his own works or those of others),
thus to produce a set of new material. The ordering and application of the material in the
composition was then carried out rather intuitively.

The meeting with John Cage in 1959 was, with time, to prove another important event, even though
Donatoni was not immediately convinced by Cages ideas. In his search for some creative
"objectivity", he found himself compelled to investigate the possibilities offered by Cages chance
operations. Whereas Cages motivation for his work may have been rooted in his philosophy an
all-encompassing conception of music, Donatoni was rather searching for an aesthetic position free

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

from the pose of subjective expression on the part of the composer. In the early 60s, he produced
several works based on aleatoric methods, such as Per orchestra (1961) and Zrcadlo (1963) for
string quartet, but eventually abandoned these ideas, realising that they were threatening to make
himself superfluous as author. Instead, he returned to common notation, though still with the same
aversion against subjective involvement in the act of composition. Through the use of automatic
codes, he placed himself at safe distance from creative intervention, seemingly unwilling to take the
full responsibility of the author.

Donatonis works gradually started taking enormous proportions (some of the most extreme
examples being To Earle Two (1971-72), Voci (1972-73) and Duo pour Bruno (1974-75)), and
although receiving critical acclaim, the composer himself showed less regard for his compositions.
Apparently, the distance he had at some point deliberately tried to create between himself and the
music was becoming a threat, both on the artistic level and personally.
The crisis that according to Donatoni himself had begun in the form of depressions already in
1967 1 , intensified in the early 70s due to various circumstances, most notably the death of his
mother in 1973. To an increasing extent influencing his artistic work, the crisis entered its gravest
phase in early 1975, when after having completed Duo pour Bruno, Donatoni resolved to stop
composing for good.

However, as depression subsided, he was persuaded by his wife to fulfil one last commission: a
chamber piece for some of the instrumental teachers at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena,
where he had been teaching composition. Perhaps having decided not to compose anymore had
relieved Donatoni of some of the pressure associated with his success. At any rate, his supposedly
last piece, Ash for chamber ensemble, was composed with a far more liberal approach to the
compositional techniques employed, than what had been the case. Donatoni still used the same kind
of automatic codes that he had been working with for more than a decade. But according to himself,
the chamber format implied a more linear use of the codes, whereas his earlier practice often
involved superimposing codes, focusing more on colours and surfaces. 2

Working with Ash Donatoni found way back to composition, and was the beginning of one of the
major musical comebacks in the 20th century. In the following years he composed a large number of
works for chamber ensembles or soloist, something which helped spread his fame all the faster, as
1 Enzo Restagno, ed., Autori Vari Donatoni. (Torino: EDT, 1990), p. 5
2 Enzo Restagno, ed., Autori Vari Donatoni. (Torino: EDT, 1990), p. 43

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

the smaller-scale works were performed more frequently than his previous works requiring large
orchestral forces. A work that has become emblematic of Donatonis artistic rebirth is Spiri (1978)
for 10 instruments. Other important chamber works are L'ultima sera for voice and 5 instruments
(1980) Arpge for 6 players and Refrain for 8 players (both 1986), the string quartet La souris sans
sourire (1988), and Hot for 7 players (1989).

From the early 1960s Donatoni enjoyed a rapidly advancing teaching career alongside his
compositional work. In 1961 he was appointed professor in composition at the Milan conservatory,
and got an appointment at Turin a few years later. In 1970 Donatoni began teaching at the summer
courses at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, from where he exercised a major influence
on younger generations of italian and foreign composers. Further teaching commitments from the
70s onward included courses at the University of Bologna, the Accademia di St. Cecilia in Rome,
and in Milan, Biella and Brescia, as well as great deal of teaching abroad.

Although he was having difficult psychological problems also later in life, Donatoni remained a
particularly prolific composer throughout the second phase of his carreer.

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

The material
Django Reinhardt fragment
As many times before, Donatoni chose a piece of borrowed material as his point of departure for
Algo. This bjet trouve is a short fragment, or lick, from the highly influential jazz guitarist Django
Reinhardt (1910-53). As we shall see, this fragment is developed by means of extension, sequence,
augmentation or compression through its various appearances, but clearly retains its motivic and
harmonic identity throughout. Its tonal implications provide contrast to the otherwise chromatic
harmony derived from the twelve-tone row.

The row
The basic pitch material of Algo is derived from a twelve-tone row: C-Eb-E-F-Ab-A-Bb-C#-D-F#G-H. The row divides clearly into four three-note cells, A, B, C and D (see fig. X). The three first
cells have an identical interval structure; a minor third followed by a minor second. Cell D consists
of a minor second followed by a major third. Although not identical, its interval structure (secondthird) is clearly reminiscent of A, B and C.

Fig. 1: The row

The interval structures of both cells A/B/C and D are also found elsewhere within the row (E-F-G#;
A-Bb-C#; C#-D-F#; D-F#-G). The cells A/B/C/D are linked by a minor second interval. The minor
second is thus both an internal similarity between the cells, and the interval that separates one cell
from the next (A/B, B/C, D/C). Thus, Donatoni has provided himself with a row of particular unity
in regard to both its harmonic and motivic implications. The basic cell contains both a minor (C-Eb)
and a major third (C-E), creating a certain harmonic ambiguity. The minor third minor second, or
more generally: third second are to remain a main motivic element throughout the work.

Open strings
Another source of material in Algo are the guitars open strings, with the pitches E-A-d-g-b-e'.
Whereas the pitch material of the row can always be subjected to various permutations and other
forms of change, the pitches "native" to the guitar remain the same, thus providing a static harmonic

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

backdrop against which other harmonic entities stand in relief. There is in fact one more pitch group
that is derived directly from the instrument, namely the groups of irrationals in pianissimo found in
the first movement (see analysis below). These gestures make use of the ten pitches found in the
first two frets of the guitar, and remain unchanged.

Donatonis choice of material indicate an exploration of the instrumental resources at hand,
resulting in an intimate connection between the instrument and the structure of the piece. The
instrumental influence on the material is also present in the variety of playing techniques employed
throughout the work: glissandi, Bartk pizzicati, damped sounds, pizzicati, tambora, and percussion
effects. These constitute the timbral palette with which Donatoni separates different structural
elements from one another.

A last musical element that I have chosen to define as material in Algo, are the rests, as these are
subjected to compositional processes in the same manner as pitches or motives.

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

The form

First movement
The first movement of Algo opens with an extensive collage of various elements that can be defined
as either gestures or textures, depending on their length. These are clearly distinguished by means
of timbre, dynamics, articulation and register/tessitura. Note that successive elements in the collage
are often connected by common pitches, so that the last note of one phrase or texture will be
repeated as the first note of the next.


The row






Fig. 2: Algo, page 1, lines 1-6

The main components of the collage are seven in number;

1) Short single notes, dyads and small groups of these in forte, separated by rests. When
appearing in "complete" form, these phrases each consist of 12 pitches that constitute the
main row or its permutations. The last three notes appear in succession as Bartk pizzicati

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

(fff), linked by glissandi. Shorter bits of this texture appears frequently in the collage,
interrupting other textures.
2) Fast, short gestures in pp (irrationals), played with the left hand only lightly touching the
strings, to produce a muted sound where pitches are only barely perceptible. These gestures
tend to function as markers, separating other elements in the collage. Their pitch material are
the ten notes found in the first two frets of the guitar, in fact somewhat reminiscent of the
interval structure of the Django Reinhardt fragment (see point 4 below).
3) Longer phrases of broken melody, characterized by big leaps and shifting tuplet rhythms,
and with frequent rests giving an impression that there are notes "missing" from the line.
The texture and the rhythm are strikingly reminiscent of solo improvisation in modern jazz
guitar, which is, as we shall see, perhaps not at all a coincidence:
4) A short arpeggio figure (usually in septuplet rhythm). This is a quotation of Django
Reinhardt, and one of the main pieces of material in Algo. In the collage it appears both in
its initial arpeggio form (with small variations in shape and rhythm) and as chords
(compressed variant). It is difficult to tell which, if any, is the "original" fragment, as it
keeps reappearing in slightly different shapes. However, this is of minor importance to the
perception of the form, since it retains its motivic identity throughout the piece.
5) Sequences of sustained thirds in fortissimo, preceded by upbeats (forte) of one or more
semiquavers and with added open strings immediately following the thirds. These "chains of
thirds" tend to end with a figure similar to their upbeats, as a cadential gesture. Upbeats,
dyads (thirds) and endings are always linked by a minor second interval. The melodic
context of the dyads imply a two-part polyphonic texture. Also the melodic figures (upbeats
and cadences) are dominated by minor second intervals, implying leading tones, but never
reaching harmonic resolution. Each phrase of this texture is paired with:
6) a fast pizzicato phrase in pianissimo (irrationals), being a retrograded pitch outline of the
preceding phrase. This means that the pitches of the pizzicato phrase are the same as in the
chain of thirds, starting with the last, ending with the first (or first two). Thus these two
collage elements work in pairs, the latter as a blurred reflection of the former. Note that the
pitches are usually slightly reordered to produce a clear line.
7) A seventh material component of Algos first movement are the rests, that are subjected to a
process of growth. Right from the beginning of the piece, the duration of the rests increase
regularly by one semiquaver producing the following sequences: 1-2-3-4, then 1-2-3. This
process only appears in connection with certain textures (mostly numbers 1 and 2 of the
above). The rest sequences vary in length, the longest rest being 10 semiquavers.

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

This collage of different elements goes on for the first almost three and a half minutes of the piece,
making up more than two thirds of the first movement.

Page 3, line 5: After about two minutes there is a clear break, as a compressed variant of the
"Django Reinhardt fragment" appears fours times at short intervals in fff. This functions as a
reference to the coda, but does not otherwise affect the collage, which after this point is increasingly
dominated by the "chains of thirds" pizzicato phrase pairs.

Page 5, line 4: At about 325 begins a transition in the form of a long, gradual accelerando. The
pitch material of this section originates from the row, with pitches now fixated in register (see figs.
3a and b). Changing tuplet rhythms with frequent off-beat sforzati efficiently blur the sense of
meter, and invoke a sense of several staggering attempts at a faster tempo. The result is an
increasingly agitated character more than a regular accelerando. Note that the sforzati are always on
dyads of which one of the notes is an open string. This hints at a superimposition of the to sets of
pitch material, namely the row and notes of the open strings.

Fig. 3 a: Algo, page 5, lines 4-5

Fig. 3 b: Registrally fixed pitches extracted from the example in fig. 3 a.


Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

At page 6, line 2 begins a sequence of a developed variant of the Django Reinhardt fragment
(arpeggio in semiquavers), filling in the two-octave range and continually transposed stepwise
upwards. This leads to, or rather: is interrupted by, the coda. The Django Reinhardt fragment is now
compressed as chords in fff. Between these loud outbursts appear the notes of the opening cell of
Algo; "C-Eb-E", in sustained notes or chords, vibrato, and spread throughout the register. This
establishes a field of static harmony, emphasizing the harmonic significance of the opening motive,
a function somewhat resembling that of the coda in a classical sonata movement.



Basic cell

Fig. 4: End of first movement. Page 6, lines 2-8.


Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

Second movement
Algos second movement can be divided into four sections with clearly differentiated texture. The
first begins quietly, setting a dreamy atmosphere that provides immediate contrast to the first
movement, although the pitch material is exactly the same. A line of long natural harmonics
(referring to the open strings) is accompanied above or below by alternating minor thirds. Note how
the harmonics and accompaniment are always joined by minor second intervals or inversions of
these. The line of harmonics is left alone at regular intervals to move briefly into a different
harmonic field by adding chromatically altered pitches (artificial harmonics) to the natural
harmonics. These brief phrases contain material from the row, now presented melodically.
Page 7, end of line 4: Before long, the quiet atmosphere is disturbed by sudden percussive strokes
(fortissimo) on the fretboard of the guitar, signaling the transition to the next section.

Fig. 5: Beginning of second movement. Page 7, line 1.

Page 7, line 7: The music remains on the soft end of the dynamic range, with with a murmur of
fluid legato phrases in pianissimo. However, the atmosphere is now inevitably more restless, due to
the shifting tuplet rhythm and the many percussive sounds in sudden forte. At first, these appear
singly, as parts of the rhythmical flow of the legato phrases, though like insertions from a different
source of material. Thus Donatoni establishes two simultaneous layers within the same line, clearly
separate by means of timbre and dynamic. In this section, the compressed variant of the Django
Reinhardt fragment reappears, now as tambora chords, which means striking the strings with the
thumb in stead of plucking. These chords are perceived as more insistent interruptions of the main
musical flow, reminiscent of the fortissimo strokes at the end of the previous section. The Django
Reinhardt fragment also constitutes an important motivic link to the first movement, adding to the
overall sense of formal unity. The same may be said of the short groups of harmonics (2 or 3 notes)
that intersperse the legato texture. These consist of the basic cell that reoccurs throughout the piece
"C-Eb-E". Note that whenever this motive contains only two harmonics, the third note of the cell is
always the last of the preceding phrase or the first of the following one.

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

Towards the end of the section, the legato phrases are shorter, and gradually give way to the
remaining material, the frequency of which consequently increases.

Page 9, line 3: A long legato phrase around a B natural pedal tone brings the section to its close,
and forms the link to the next section:




Fig. 6: Page 9, lines 3-4.

Page 9, line 4: A unison B in fortissimo sets a new texture in motion, in which four different
elements alternate in fast tempo (see fig. 6 above).
1) The first of these are triads in rapid succession (piano), in which a minor second interval (or
one of its inversions, minor seventh or equivalent minor ninth) functions as a pedal, over
which the remaining voice moves stepwise, mostly chromatically.
2) These are interrupted by single open strings in forte, or by
3) chromatic cluster triads in pianissimo.
4) The fourth element of the section is perhaps not as evident, but nevertheless a vital part of
the texture: the silences (rests). All the elements are in rhythms that divide into semiquavers,
but durations vary irregularly, so that the tempo of the section and so there is a firm sense of
the tempo in this section.

Page 10, line 4-5:A short transitional break of soft, strummed chords marks the end of the section.
An insertion of by two rapid legato phrases notated in irrationals sum up the pitch material of the
strummed chords, fixated in register but with the pitches reordered from high to low. This short
"digression" recalls both the sound and the structural function of the pizzicato lines of in the first

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

Page 10, line 7: A C in octaves (fortissimo) sets the fourth and last section in motion "il pi veloce
possibile" (as fast as possible) with a flurry of demisemiquaver arpeggios (pp). Notes are ordered
rhythmically by dotted slurs in groups of five, but with occasional minor second dissonances, so
that some groups contain six pitches. These groups are four in number, and keep appearing in the
same order, while pitches are rotated within each group (see fig. 7 below). Because of this rotation,
bass notes appear irregularly and mostly off-beat.




a) sim.

Fig. 7: Page 10, lines 7-8.

The arpeggio texture is interrupted by the occasional ff octave C. After the second of these, the
length of the dotted slurs start varying, as the central B is being repeated each time it occurs in the
arpeggio. Note that after the third C, the B is repeated three times, so what we have is a growth
process similar to that described in connection with rests in the first movement.

Page 11, line 4: The fourth C is followed by a substantial dynamic shift, as the arpeggio flurry
continues in forte. Until this point, the pitch C has not occurred in the arpeggio texture, but now the
arpeggio begins with the basic cell "E-Eb-C", marking a harmonic shift. The slurs are once again of
(almost) regular length, now in groups of four. All dyads (seconds or inversions of seconds) are
marked with sforzati, which under the circumstances (f sempre, il piu veloce possibile) creates a
most irregular surface.

After the sixth ff C, the arpeggio is gradually shortened, or rather, gradually more frequently
interrupted by the C octave, until there is, in fact, nothing left of its original shape. What lingers on
(page 12, line 3) is only residue of the original arpeggio material (ppp, sulla tastiera), consisting of
the pitches E-Eb-C-B. This makes up the coda of the piece.


Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

Low E)

Fig. 8 a: Page 10, lines 7-8.

Fig. 8 b: Page 12, line 3.

What Donatoni has done to produce this texture, is a technique commonly referred to as a filter. He
removes all pitches but the chosen four (E-Eb-C-B) from the original arpeggio, and repeats the
section from the first C octave to the point where the shortening of the arpeggio began (see figs. 8 a
and b). The filtered material is now compressed in time, so that there is only a demisemiquaver rest
separating the notes or groups. Note that adjacent pitches in the original texture are left intact as
groups. The octave Cs are now played in succession, except for the last one, after which follows a
repeat of the last "phrase", further compressed, and the final chord: C-Eb-E.


Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

Having pointed out several structural and technical features of Algos both movements, I would like
to finish this analysis by discussing some aspects of the piece concerned with its interpretation.

Physical music
Throughout Algo the player is confronted with various extremes of instrumental performance. The
music fluctuates, at varying speed, between strongly contrasting characters, that are partly a matter
of expression or mood, but more importantly a play with different physical poses. Thus, on a certain
level, the work becomes a piece of theatre about the act of playing, parallel to the purely musical
discourse, the result being a kind of meta-music.

As mentioned earlier in the analysis, Algo contains frequent references to tonal harmony. There is
an abundance of minor seconds inevitably resembling leading tones, though never in the course of
the piece arriving at a point of harmonic resolution. This at times invokes an almost elegiac mood,
for instance in the chains of thirds described in the first movement. On the other hand the many
active surfaces and spontaneously extrovert gestures, together with the at times improvisatory
character, express a fervent vitality. This particular polarity brings to mind the ancient Italian
tradition of the pantomime, with its ever-present duality of the tragic and comical.

About... Algo
Algo was composed in 1977 and was Donatoni's first work for guitar. The piece is the first in an
extensive series of two-movement solo works, that constitutes a significant part of Donatonis
output in the second phase of his career. The first follow-ups where Ali for viola, from the same
year, Argot for violin, Marches for harp and Nidi (1979) for piccolo, and Clair (1980) for clarinet,
and the series of similar solo pieces was to be continued throughout the eighties with works for
cello, double bass, piano, bass clarinet, flute and vibraphone, among others. It is also worth
mentioning that material from these solo pieces soon reappeared in chamber music format, as in
About... (1979) for violin, viola and guitar, and Small for piccolo, clarinet and harp (1981). Algo,
however, was to provide material for a number of different works of various size and
instrumentation over a period of twenty years: Algo II (1993) is a title attributed to two works,
namely a duo for female voice and guitar (1990), and a guitar duo (1993). Algo III (1995) is a
concerto for guitar and 23 instruments, and Algo IV (1996) is an ensemble piece for 13 players,
with a concertante guitar part.

Solmund Nystabakk: Franco Donatoni - Algo

Andersson, Magnus

CD: "Short Sounds", nosagcd 056. Booklet notes by David OsmondSmith and Magnus Andersson

Annibaldi, Claudio

"Donatoni, Franco" The New Grove Dictionary of Music and

Musicians. Ed. Sadie, Stanley. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited,

Brindle, Reginald Smith

"The Lunatic Fringe: Computational Composition", The Musical

Times 97 (July 1956): 354-356

Cardi, Stefano and the

Freon Ensemble

CD: Franco Donatoni: Chamber music, Stradivarius STR33773, 2008.

Booklet notes by Paolo Petazzi.

Decker, Bradley D., DMA Preserving the Fragment: Techniques and Traits of Franco Donatonis
Late Chamber Music
Donatoni, Franco

ALGO -Due pezzi per chitarra (score), Edizioni Suvini Zerboni,

Milano. Copyright 1978

Dorow, Dorothy and the

Nieuw Ensemble

CD: Donatoni: Music for Soprano and Ensemble, Etcetera KTC1053,


Molino, Andrea and

Gruppo Musica Insieme
Di Cremona

CD: Franco Donatoni: For Grilly and other works, Stradivarius

STR33315, 1993. Booklet notes by Giordano Montecchi.

Osborne, William

"Franco Donatoni", authors web page, 2007

Osmond-Smith, David

"Donatoni, Franco" The New Grove Dictionary of Music and

Musicians, 2nd edition. Ed. Sadie, Stanley. London: Macmillan
Publishers Limited, 2001

Restagno, Enzo

Unautobiografia dellautore raccontata da Enzo Restagno. Autori

Vari Donatoni. Ed. Enzo Restagno. Torino: EDT, 1990. pp. 3-74
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