SALVATORE SCIARRINO'S "Cutting the Circle of Sounds" for 104 flutes

[Unlike] anything anyone had surely heard before or even ever imagined.
— Los Angeles Times

I have always been fascinated by the emotional impact of a single, non-pitched exhalation into the flute, a sound that anyone can make with exhilarating individuality, purpose and nuance. There is a kind of irrepressible poetry to this most quotidian of labors: the simple gesture of breathing in and out, trying precisely not to make a tone on the most lyrical of musical instruments.
— Claire Chase

Salvatore Sciarrino, who began as a visual artist and was largely self-taught as a composer, has emerged as one of the important and inventive compositional voices of our time. With Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling architecture as an inspiration for this mysterious and arresting piece – part soundscape, part moving installation, part performance – Sciarrino places the four soloists in a circle surrounding the seated audience, creating a blanket of often barely audible sounds, which are then disrupted by processions of the other 100 migrating flutists, effectively “cutting the circle of sounds." (Read more.)



On Februrary 1st, Claire will lead 200 flutists in a performance of the two 20th and 21st century works for solo flutes and forces of mass community participation at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's Ordway Concert Hall. (concert info here) 

Here is her program note on this project. 


This evening’s event – part concert ritual, part community gathering - pairs two trailblazing and genre-defying new works of the 20th and 21st centuries. Salvatore Sciarrino’s Cutting the Circle of Sounds and Marcos Balter’s Pan both call for solo flutes and forces of mass community participation. Both deftly meld the performance of notated and non-notated practices, and both metamorphose the concert hall into an enormous lung in which sound stems from every corner of the space, situating the audience – not the stage – as the beating heart at the center.

Next to my passion for playing the flute, my great love in life is bringing people together to do something more extraordinary, more outrageous, and more courageous than any one of us could imagine doing alone. Some of my most formative experiences involved building a rag-tag theater with my older brother out of a ramshackle shed in our backyard in Leucadia, CA. From the time that I was four until I was about ten, we wrote and put on original plays, musicals and miniature operas, casting neighborhood ruffians as extras and ingénues in ecstatic, often chaotic weekly performances.

In my adolescence, this collectivist energy transformed into political and social activism, organizing marches and mobilizing mass-participatory events around LGBTQ and immigrant rights. Here again, the act of shaping stories conjointly, of participating as one tiny voice amidst a cacophonous mass of hundreds of voices, was what moved me. All along, I was playing the flute and discovering a deeper-seated love of music, but like many public school kids, that exploration took place mostly alone.

It was in college that I realized I could combine all of these passions into a single pursuit, and that, in the words of the visionary teacher and dance artist Liz Lerman, an artist can indeed have “one foot in the community and one foot in the theater.” At Oberlin, I began what has become a lifelong exploration of self-organizing, artist-led communities of musicians. For the past sixteen years, I have been a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), a collective which is committed to making the music of our time, by artists in our generation, in new and inventive ways that reach audiences of all ages.

Circles of Sounds is natural outgrowth of these experiences, and it also is the first time I have had the opportunity to bring this many people of different ages together to make sound under one roof!


Tonight’s excerpt of Pan, a prelude to what will eventually be a 90-minute work encompassing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of community participants, sonically spins tales of the mythological Greek god of the wild, the god of rustic music, and of ancient flute-playing fame. In our version, Pan speaks, sings, hums, and screams through the flute in lingua ignota (“unknown language”), a language that Hildegard of Bingen, the polymath composer, philosopher, mystic, German Benedictine abbess (and my personal musical heroine), invented in the 12th century.

The composer writes the following:

Part man and part goat, and juxtaposing naïveté with malevolence, Pan was perhaps the most human of Greek deities. It is impossible not to associate sublime elements such as music and nature with Pan. But, while Pan gave us the Pan flute, he also gave us the word “panic,” derived from his monstrous screech that could scare even the most valiant of creatures. He loved intensely, sometimes to the point of agony. But, he also loved violently, and had no qualms about infringing agonizing pain on the objects of his affection. His world was one permeated by moral dichotomies: he was pure and impure, wise and childish, a victim and a villain.
Part One: The Death of Pan
Along with Asclepius (the god of Medicine), Pan is the only god in Greek mythology to experience death. In fact, early Christian historians came to believe that Pan’s death itself symbolized the birth of theology and death of paganism; for some, the death of Pan announced the birth of Jesus. Our story begins at the very last minutes of Pan’s life, with our protagonist agonizing after being flayed to near death, hanging upside down in a cross after losing a musical battle to Apollo. Sensing the nearness of his demise, he yells in terror and pain amidst bouts of anger, crying for himself while hexing his executioners for his unjust death. As Pan takes his final breath, the entire world breaks into a somber lament.
Part Two: Pastoral
We then look back at Pan's beginnings as a shepherd. Pan whistles his calling tune to his sheep. Suddenly, he hears a choir of nymphs nearby. Among them is Syrinx, the youngest and most beautiful of them all. Overtaken by lust, Pan goes into a frenzy, causing panic amongst the nymphs. In a desperate act to avoid being captured by Pan, Syrinx’s sisters transform her into several reeds, which Pan collects and assembles together: the pan flute is born.
Part Three: Syrinx
Pan starts to explore the sounds of his flute. Little by little, each pipe unfolds itself into a unique sonic universe, from the highest to the lowest notes. As Pan goes from one pipe to another, his playing abilities are greatly enhanced. By the time he reaches the longest pipe, he has become one of the greatest musicians of all time. The whole universe sings with Pan's music.

A kind of 21st century, crowd-sourced Greek chorus results, with performers stationed in and amongst the audience, playing all manner of ocarinas, toy xylophones, bamboo wood chimes, and tuned wine glasses and bottles. Many of these sounds are processed electronically and sent spinning, like spirits, around the hall.

Pan will be premiered in its full, 90-minute version, in New York City in December 2017, directed by Doug Fitch and conceived collaboratively with the cultural production company Project&.


Salvatore Sciarrino’s sonic explorations of the flutist’s bow arm – her breath - have metabolized into slow-moving soundscapes, operas and immersive musical experiences that defy categorization. There are few composers since the 18th century who have done more to expand the expressive capacity of the flute than Sciarrino, whose compositional influences range from Perotin to punk rock. Cutting the Circle of Sound, which takes its inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic spiraling architecture, is one of the composer’s most intrepid investigations into a few simple, barely audible sounds re-imagined en masse.

The composer describes the impulse of the work through the patterns of a particularly fearless, but supremely delicate migrating animal:

A wild butterfly crosses the space and seems to fly randomly, but she has a precise direction and she is at once moving of her own volition and not ever alone. There are no living beings that don’t move periodically…. In recent times we have seen that our species is very attracted to the opposite instinct, to home, to stability, to the absence of motion, to keep ourselves and our society in balance. An impossible balance. Impossible? Yes, life is mutation.

The hour-long piece has only been performed a handful of times, and it has never been documented as a complete performance, so our work this week has been equal parts inventing and inheriting a nascent oral tradition. I am reminded of Rumi’s wise words on flute-playing from nearly 800 years ago:

We have fallen into the place / where everything is music.

Taken together, breath becomes music; footsteps become music; movement becomes music; and each of us, both performers and audience members, listen of our own volition and never alone.

As a bookend with Cutting the Circle of Sound, I will open tonight’s program with Sciarrino’s brilliant transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, in which all of the notes of the original organ score are reworked for solo flute, reducing - perhaps whimsically, perhaps futilely - the work of thousands of pipes into one.


photo credit: Michael Nowakowski