One-Note Wonder

 by Kyle Gann

Originally found:

         New York gets a retrospective of Italy's saintly mystic, Giacinto Scelsi

There are no known photographs of Giacinto Scelsi. "He didn't," as Frances-Marie Uitti puts it, "want his body photographed" - that is to say, his corporeal form. She describes him, though, as a short man, 5'6" or 7", stocky but not fat, powerfully built, with a mischievous smile and bright blue eyes that were absolutely clear into his 70s; and he loved to wear Tibetan caps over his head of thick Italian hair. Uitti, one of new music's most expert and adventurous cellists, worked closely with Scelsi (pronounced Shell-see) from 1975 until his death in 1988. She is the impetus behind this upcoming week's remarkably diverse retrospective of Scelsi's music at Merkin Hall, the Kitchen, Greenwich House, and elsewhere. And as she describes this reclusive, mysterious hero, this veritable saint of recent European music, it dawns on me that I have never had a visual image to connect with his growling, sliding, writhing, meditative, formless, melodyless, harmonyless music, so unlike anything else in European history. It's no small feat that the man remained even more elusive than his music.

Morton Feldman, in an off-the-cuff comment, dubbed Scelsi "the Charles Ives of Italy," and for lack of any firmer image to grasp, the title has stuck. The resemblances are superficial, but compelling as far as they go. Just as Ives was born to a successful business family who looked down on musicians, Scelsi was born to Neapolitan nobility and scandalized his family by becoming an artist. Both were independently wealthy, neither lived ostentatiously, and neither relied on their music for income. Both composed by improvising, and both relied heavily on other musicians to prepare their scores for performance. Both suffered from nerves so sensitive that going out in public, even to hear their own works, was a torturous ordeal. Both remained unknown to the public until late in life; when I heard my first Scelsi work in 1974, he was 69 and still almost totally obscure. (I was at Oberlin the year the orchestra there recorded his incredible Anahit for violin and ensemble - his first disc available here, I think - so I got a prime seat on that bandwagon.)

Yet how could any two artists differ more in personality, temperament, and significance? Ives was deeply attached to his 19th-century New England roots, and in expressing them created an American aesthetic where none had existed before. Scelsi, steeped in inherited culture, rejected his European heritage lock, stock, and barrel, turning to Persian Sufi and Egyptian musics, absorbing Tibetan and Indian thought. Ives was a conservative Protestant who quoted hymn tunes; Scelsi was a devotee of the occult who immersed himself in Madame Blavatsky, Sri Aurobindo, Krishnamurti, Tibetan practices and secret doctrines. At bottom, the comparison seems to spring mainly from our surprise that a European composer could work in isolation; we Americans thought we had a monopoly on that condition.

Like that other recluse Conlon Nancarrow, however, Scelsi has become an excuse for a parade in the last ten years, and his works are now staples of the European avant-garde circuit. If his music sounds like it came from Mars, his origins explain at least his early work. Italy has always produced two musical archetypes in tandem: the facile, lyrical melodist (Verdi, Puccini, Berio) and the introverted, contrapuntal intellectual (Busoni, Dallapiccola, Maderna). Scelsi is clearly one of the latter. He is also part of a European generation born between Schoenberg and Ligeti (K.A. Hartmann, Wolfgang Fortner, and Boris Blacher are others) who got knocked out of circulation by a double punch, first World War II and then the implacable ascendancy of serialism. Scelsi, Uitti says, sat out the first punch in Switzerland in a depression so deep that 300 doctors failed to cure him. He also studied composition with a Schoenberg student, Walter Klein, and then, having been the first Italian to write 12-tone music, was also the first to abandon it as a dead end.

The cures for Scelsi's psychic and musical malaises both arrived through Eastern meditation. One day he passed by a piano, Uitti explains, and "started to play one note over and over, and became absorbed. He began to improvise, to tape his improvisations and rework them onto the page, receiving music in a deeply inspired state. His whole view of composing and proper use of sound had changed." In a widely quoted statement from the early '50s, Scelsi wrote, "Sound is spherical. When we listen to it, however, it seems to have just two dimensions, pitch and duration. We know there is a third - depth - but depth in a certain sense escapes us. Painting long ago discovered perspective... Yet music... has not succeeded in going beyond two dimensions."

To achieve perspective, Scelsi narrowed his other dimensions. His breakthrough work, a kind of paradigm for his later music, was his Quattro pezzi su una nota sola - Four pieces on one note - of 1959. They aren't really on one note, but slither, grumble, crescendo, and slowly glissando around a central pitch with the drama of a Mahler symphony and the intensity of focus of an Indian raga. This was the inception of what Scelsi called his "one-note" music, a microtonal idiom in which tunings squirm restlessly. In later works with Sanskrit, Assyrian, Latin, and mythologically-inspired titles like Anahit, Konx-Om-Pax, and the ecstatically glowing Uaxuctum for four vocalists, Ondes Martenot, and orchestra, the one-note aesthetic expanded to symphonic proportions, with huge, moaning, microtonal gestures that leave the scales and metric grids of European music far behind. Paradoxically, it takes tremendous nuance of notation to make Scelsi's music sound like it isn't notated at all. His music for strings is so detailed, so attuned to the exact sound and technique of the instrument, that he often notated a violin part on four staves, one for each string.

Scelsi's manner of composing was unusual: he would improvise into a tape recorder and then either notate the results or have an assistant do it under his direction. Soon after his death, the practice spawned an intercontinental controversy. Vieri Tosati, Scelsi's main assistant for the last ten years of his life, was interviewed for the Giordinale de la Musica and claimed, more or less, that he had basically written Scelsi's music for him. Word spread like wildfire that the great man was a rich fake who had paid others to write his music. Unhappily for those of us who live to report on musical controversies, this one seemed pretty thin in content, and died out quickly. First of all, Tosati clammed up and refused to speak another word on the subject. Secondly, according to Uitti, Tosati's own music is conservatively Wagnerian, and while Scelsi had had several other assistants in preceding decades notating his music, there was never any corresponding change in his inimitable style. Uitti suggests the controversy was fanned by enemies who resented Scelsi's apostasy against the 12-tone tradition.

Finally, On March 1 at Merkin, Continuum will play chamber works, including Scelsi's ecstatically writhing String Quartet No. 5 and my favorite of his smaller pieces: Okanagon for the memorable combination of harp, tam-tam, and double bass. This last work Scelsi compared to "grasping the heartbeat of the Earth," an apt description.

Perhaps all that survives from that flare-up is what it revealed about Europe's attitude toward improvisation. Though Liszt and Beethoven composed by improvising at times, the option wasn't available for any self-respecting 20th-century European; it flouted current European ideas of method and structure, of the paradigmatic making of a musical artifact from the outside in. Scelsi was a worshipper of sound, a believer in the immediacy of undefinable auditory experience. As such, his more relevant American analogues are the Indian-music-studying La Monte Young (though without Young's theoretical interests) or, perhaps most appropriately, Feldman himself. He was also the only European composer to date whose interest in Asian aesthetics seems more than anecdotal, the only one to totally break free of Western rationalism and achieve a true spirituality in sound akin to non-Western traditions. Next to him, PŠrt and Gorecki seem like mere dabblers. And his posthumous presence in New York this week promises the most intense and enlightening musical experience New York has been offered in years. 

 Scelsi Hotel

Scelsi's legacy will come to us via some performer who ought to be heard for their own sakes alone. One is Frances-Marie Uitti, the Chicago-born cellist living in Amsterdam who, starting in 1975, electrified audiences by eliciting thick counterpoint from her instrument by playing with two bows at once; she's a passionately physical player. Another is the Swiss conductor JŸrg Wyttenbach, who worked closely with Scelsi for ten years, and who has recorded all his major ensemble works on the Accord label.

Uitti will reminisce about Scelsi on February 20 at 6 at Casa Italiana, 24 West 12th Street. If you want to hear Scelsi's biggest and best-known orchestral works (Quattro pezzi, Pranam II, Anahit, I Presagi), hear Wyttenbach conduct the Klangforum Wien on the 22nd at 8, at Merkin Hall. On the 25th at the Kitchen, Uitti performs Scelsi's cello solo Trilogia, one of the most massive works in the literature, a concert for which she stole the headline I would have used: "Scelsi in Chelsea." The night of the 26th, back at Merkin, brings together superb soloists such as Aki Takahashi on piano and Janos Negyesy on violin, plus Michiko Hirayama, the amazing vocalist for whom Scelsi wrote so much of his haunting vocal music. The Guggenheim will host a concert of soloists playing music by Scelsi and others on the 27th.


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