Scelsi: Konx-Om-Pax

GIACINTO SCELSI was born into an old family of Italian aristocracy on 8 January 1905 in La Spezia and died in Rome on 9 August 1988. Konx-Om-Pax, perhaps the most straight-forward of his six mature orchestral works, was set to full score in 1968 & 1969. Scelsi's ascendance from obscurity occurred in the mid-1980s, and was consummated in October 1987 at the SIMC International Festival in Cologne where his symphonic music was featured to great acclaim. Like many of his works, Konx-Om-Pax was premiered in the months leading up to the Festival, on 6 February 1986 in Frankfurt by the Hessian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jürg Wyttenbach. [Note: It appears that this information is incorrect, and that Konx-Om-Pax was premiered in Venice on 10 September 1970.] This is the North American premiere, and a followup to the San Francisco Symphony's successful performance of Aion on 12 June 1997, also under Michael Tilson Thomas. That concert was the North American debut for Scelsi's orchestral music as a whole. Konx-Om-Pax is scored for chorus and large orchestra, including full strings, but without flutes and including an organ part.

His personal eccentricity and the unusual route of his rise to prominence have combined to produce wildly differing impressions of Scelsi the man and the composer. His aristocratic position and resulting means lent a dilettantish quality to his early background, in spite of a conspicuous study of the major musical trends of the time. In 1935-36, after he had already written several large-scale works, Scelsi studied the Viennese style with Walter Klein, a student of Schoenberg, and went on to declare an allegiance to Berg's version of tonal dodecaphony. He next studied Scriabin's harmonic vocabulary with Egon Koehler in Geneva, and the resulting combination of mystical & chordal thinking clearly marks the remainder of his career. He continued to compose, in a mostly conventional style which attained something of a personal character apart from these influences. For instance, although it was written prior to the "break" in his career, Scelsi's String Quartet No. 1 is a work of considerable quality, and one of the few from this period which he continued to embrace. To escape World War II, Scelsi abandoned his family's Neapolitan estate for the safety of Switzerland, and wrote two articles there on music aesthetics. These are his last public remarks on the subject. The dense French prose is sometimes insightful and sometimes contradictory, a combination which Scelsi's later poetic aphorisms take to extremes of concision.

Scelsi's life story becomes more mysterious after this period, a situation he maintained intentionally. He resisted any attempt to analyze his music, refused to be photographed, and generally removed himself from public view. All of these decisions followed quickly in the wake of his mental breakdown in the late 1940s, a crisis from which he apparently recovered only very slowly. According to later reports, the only therapy which helped him was sitting and striking a single piano key again & again, listening for the slight differences in each individual sound. This is also how he reinvented himself as a composer, finally reappearing in an old house overlooking the Roman Forum in 1951, ready to compose in a completely new idiom. Scelsi's gentility did not suffer as a result of his ordeal, or along with his retreat from public view. He entertained regular visitors, principally musicians, and was described uniformly as impeccably polite, yet with probing bright blue eyes. Scelsi's working arrangements during the period of his artistic maturity were also unusual, although not unprecedented. His music was scored in several steps, beginning with frequently improvised performances by himself onto audio tape which were transcribed by paid assistants, and then scored according to his instructions. His partially cataloged musical output consists of more than one hundred items, including the six mature orchestral works, five string quartets, several works for larger chamber ensembles, and a substantial body of solo & duo pieces. Scelsi frequently made use of the human voice, often treated instrumentally, and published four volumes of French poetry.

Although many of his works are for solo instruments, and his chamber music is often detailed enough in its demands that it places unusually high emphasis on individual musicianship, Konx-Om-Pax is perhaps Scelsi's prototypical large-scale expression and an ideal introduction to his oeuvre. It also includes one of his most discursive subtitles: "Three aspects of Sound: as the first motion of the immutable; as creative force; as the syllable Om (the Buddhists' sacred syllable)." Taken together, the title & subtitle serve to indicate most of Scelsi's principal influences, as well as the frequently muddled way he referred to them. Fascination with ancient mythology and other cultures around the world is often expressed in Scelsi's titles. In this case, the title is straight-forward: It consists of three words arguably translating to "peace" in Assyrian, Sanskrit, and Latin, respectively. It also shows a dilettantish approach to scholarship, despite what is an evident erudition, in e.g. the attribution of the Hindu syllable "Om" to the Buddhists. Perhaps even more illustratively, Konx-Om-Pax is the title of a 1907 neo-hermetic text by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), in this case subtitled "Essays in light." Crowley is best known for the commandment "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" and in fact the alternative religion he founded, Thelema, continues to have a loyal following. Like Crowley's, one can view Scelsi's use of muddled & tangled references to various & sundry historical ideas and cultures as allusions designed to merely indicate what are more unified underlying truths. Like Crowley, Scelsi rarely "argues" as such -- he indicates.

Scelsi adopted the non-rationalist position enthusiastically, describing himself not as a composer, but as a messenger. The conspicuous examples of correlative & lateral thinking which abound in Scelsi's allusions are characteristic of creativity at many levels, and consequently no indication that his actual artistic production suffers from a similar pastiche. Indeed, Scelsi's mature music is highly unified in gesture, direct & coherent in approach, making for perhaps its greatest contradiction. While reasonably straight-forward on its own terms, it does demand from listeners the suspension of many pre-conceived ideas on music, constructed as it is in a radically different manner. Although long considered baffling & unprecedented, in retrospect, Scelsi's fundamental concerns were actually fairly typical of the 1960s. His interest in world music, and especially Eastern mysticism, was very much in the air and was reflected in both the classical & popular spheres. More technically, his approach to sound and timbre are realistic answers to the questions posed by the avant-garde of that era, specifically in such poles as Stockhausen's "timbre-music" and Cage's abdication of compositional control. In Scelsi's case, the former is especially prominent, as timbre shifts frequently serve as the primary dynamic around which individual movements are constructed. Inspired by the repeated striking of the piano from his clinical recovery, Scelsi erected entire forms around single notes, articulated in various octaves by various instruments. The timbre of the note-complex is varied by shifts in orchestration, as well as by microtonal slurs which serve to inject a dynamism into what might otherwise be a static sound. Scelsi's human concerns are also evident, as he rarely used any electronic devices to break down timbre in this way, instead giving it a formal role through a kind of organic motion which Stockhausen's superformulæ never seem to fully realize. Likewise, although Scelsi's work leaves little to chance and contains little silence, his concerns regarding our connection to a universal consciousness expressed through the always-changing sound of a single note mirror Cage's in some ways. Scelsi's resolution of these issues appeared on the public scene only in the 1980s, lending his musical ideas an exoticism they may not have had otherwise.

A discussion of Scelsi's artistic concerns and the demands he makes on listeners overstates the actual difficulty of his music. Although there is frequently a mental "leap" required, advanced musical training or erudition are not prerequisites. Indeed, experience suggests that Scelsi's music may be easier to grasp initially for someone with only modest experience in contemporary music and few pre-conceived notions. It is not elitist music at all. Scelsi is sometimes described as a minimalist, and in that he could be seen as a forefather of the minimalist movement, yet his music is packed with activity. Although it may involve only one note for extended periods, that note will be restated in parallel intervals, slurred, or varied in orchestration in a continuous way throughout the piece. Indeed, there is a classical balance of activity in Scelsi's music which serves to give it a density of ideas very comparable to Mozart's. What Scelsi does, however, is place that activity into directions orthogonal to the usual course of musical argument. The fundamental motion in Scelsi's music is interior, as one note mutates into another note through a process beginning with shifts in timbre. Within that idiom, once grasped, the ideas are expressed succinctly and cogently.

In the case of Konx-Om-Pax, the subtitle provides a clear orientation for the music. In the first movement, an opening C becomes larger & larger, until it is slowly destabilized by what begin as timbral and then quarter-tone variations, only to reassert itself. Although unified in gesture, the movement has an unsettling quality arising from the motion driven by microtones. It is a fine example of Scelsi's ability to let a small inflection drive a larger form. The overall sonority and articulation style, reminiscent of a bell, are also vintage Scelsi. The brief second movement starts slowly on a main pitch of F, only to become increasingly animated and even violent. It is a sudden explosion of dissonance which ends just as one grasps what has happened. As in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the chorus enters only in the last movement. In Scelsi's case, it brings a quintessential evocation of peace by repeatedly chanting the syllable "Om" on a main pitch of A. The chorus is surrounded by various destabilizing musical gestures which it nonetheless succeeds in unifying. Both of the larger outer movements have a relatively simple bipartite form, building to an initial climax which is followed by a central calm and then a reassertion of the original musical dynamic. Despite a relatively simple general description, the range of harmonic material swirling around the central "Om" of the last movement resists a naïve interpretation, as does the overarching tonal sequence (C-F-A) of the symphony as a whole. Whereas Crowley used light as the central metaphor of his text, Scelsi's cosmology-in-sound yields a very real, haunting sound. When it ends, the return to silence is palpable.

To discussion of Konx-Om-Pax, part 2.

Back to Giacinto Scelsi page.

Todd M. McComb
21 January 2000