Scelsi: Konx-Om-Pax, part 2

[This section was not commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony for their program notes, but is nonetheless some discussion I wanted to add. As it turned out, most of the first paragraph below was actually included as part of an introduction to the program. Beyond that, this full article would have been both longer than they wanted, as well as more speculative than might have been appropriate. This part takes up immediately upon the conclusion of the previous part, to form one longer essay.]

Konx-Om-Pax is typical of Scelsi's work in its mythological character, and in the almost universal force with which it seems to will itself out of silence. It is elemental in sonority, like an unstoppable force of nature. Nonetheless, especially given the programmatic subtitle, it is tempting to perceive a more personal narrative. It opens with the self-confident C, asserting itself boldly and almost naïvely with no sense of consequence. The action of the C itself, the forces inherent to its nature, eventually overcome its confidence and destabilize it. Next comes an influx of powerful creative energy in the dynamic second movement. We can view it as Scelsi's own transfiguration as a composer. In the last movement, the "Om" chorus repeats itself, unperturbed by the surrounding musical motion, except as regards loudness and phrasing. It remains rock solid on its A and consequently on its intent, and so despite the myriad activity and forces of the world around it, maintains a state of inner peace. This is a relatively simple interpretation, but one to which Konx-Om-Pax lends itself. Ultimately, however, it is a work which expresses these ideas very powerfully, and so finds its ultimate success in that power.

Not only does it contain some of his most prototypical & potent gestures, but Konx-Om-Pax occupies a clearly privileged position within Scelsi's musical output as a whole. It concludes what I have called the third period of his musical production, and does so convincingly. After the more conventional first period, and the more unsettled experimentation of the second period, the third period contains much of Scelsi's best (or at least most expansive) music. The works are of uniformly high quality and clear expression. By the fourth period, Scelsi had retreated even more into the truncated world of aphorism, and at times his works from the 1970s can be too polished. A fine example of this phenomenon is the next & final choral-orchestral piece: Pfhat, written in 1974. Here a similar sequence of illustrations is employed: Mundane reality destabilizes itself, there is a creative injection, and then mystical revelation. Pfhat is even more concise & severe than Konx-Om-Pax, not to mention somewhat derivative, and so therefore clearly the lesser work. Its impression rests more on "shock" value in the last movement than on the deliberate exposition of Konx-Om-Pax. The finely chiseled expression of Scelsi's fourth period can, however, be quite effective in its own right. In particular, the small string pieces continue to project a luminous quality, one which may even be intensified by their economy. Scelsi moved rather decisively from the orchestral idiom in his late work, marking Konx-Om-Pax as at least one climax to his oeuvre.

Unlike Aion, Konx-Om-Pax does not attempt a truly symphonic argument, at least not from the perspective of rhetoric and dialectic. However, it is not a wholly post-impressionist work either, as are so many of Scelsi's small-scale fourth period works. Konx-Om-Pax illustrates something, to be sure, but it does so in a more directly evocative way. It does so in an indicative way, and the intent is clearly to lead the listener along a path already traveled by the composer toward a specific mystical revelation. In that sense, it does not fulfill the impressionist ideal of an illustrated scene, and so consequently one can suggest that Konx-Om-Pax makes a modified form of symphonic argument, although a unitary one. Similar remarks hold for some other significant works by Scelsi, such as his String Quartet No. 4. The existence of the very terse "program" does not really interfere with the symphonic idea, because the program does not interfere with the directness of the abstract expression. Of course, the underlying point to be illuminated is also an abstract one, and so perhaps we have impressionist music in the end, but a sort of modified "universal" or meta-impressionism. Regardless, Konx-Om-Pax is not pretty, it is ominous.

Scelsi takes heat in the press both for his situation with regard to paid assistants transcribing his music, as well as for the frequently clichéd quality of his Eastern mysticism. However, the underlying counter-argument to these dismissive claims is the integrity of the music itself. Scelsi projects a personal vision throughout his oeuvre, and does so in music which is never pastiche. Likewise, when it comes to material, Scelsi is effective. Once his idiom is grasped, his music can be absolutely compelling in its evocations and even devastating in its emotional impact. One cannot take such facts lightly. As indicated, then, it is Scelsi's "surrounding haze" of allusions which is dilettantish, and not his music itself. From the technical perspective, what Scelsi's music provides in terms of a coherent structural role for timbre is epochal. This is precisely a topic probed by the avant-garde, a topic which received considerable but mostly unsatisfying attention, and a topic which suddenly had a particularly personal resolution burst from obscurity in the 1980s with the "discovery" of Scelsi. From somewhat before that time until his death shortly afterward, well-known musicians such as Michael Tilson Thomas and Irvine Arditti, musicians whose professional stature is unimpeachable, went to learn Scelsi's music directly from him. That they came away with fully positive impressions seals his stature, even leaving aside Scelsi's impact on the noted avant-garde musicians of own circle: France-Marie Uitti, Joëlle Léandre, Alvin Curran, and many others.... Scelsi was no crank.

When one of Scelsi's sounds begins, there is almost always a sense that it is inhuman. The music has a raw, elemental sonority which is part of what makes it so original. Simply put, it can make one tremble, often for inexplicable reasons. The same was true of Scelsi the man, as cellist France-Marie Uitti (famous for her two-bow technique) recalls nearly fainting when she met him. For me, as someone who has somehow become connected to Scelsi after his death, if only in the sense of writing program notes for his premieres, there is something forceful and persuasive about his expression which cannot readily be described. When writing these notes, predictably enough, I took out the recording on Accord to listen while I wrote. I knew the piece... every sound... so it was not something done to refresh my memory, but just to have some appropriate background music. Nonetheless, before it was over, I found myself shaking. Maybe this is a trick of memory, an accident of hearing Konx-Om-Pax when my own mind was supplying the subtext, and then identifying the response with the music and reminding myself of that response by listening again? How can an individual deny such explanations? One cannot get outside of oneself to do so. Yet when multiple people independently report similar responses, how can one deny that? Is Scelsi's music simply something which speaks to some people and not others, never others? I cannot answer this question either. What I do know is that when Scelsi talks of reaching behind the veil of mundane existence and plucking what is inside for all to hear, I do hear it.

In works such as Konx-Om-Pax, Scelsi makes many of his more eccentric and abstract ideas very concrete. While the solo string works demand concentrated listening and attention to which notes are played on which individual strings -- an innovation in notation which was also part of a trend in the 1950s & 1960s -- the more expansive orchestral works allow one to wallow in the larger sound-compexes, if desired. Konx-Om-Pax does repay close attention to the means by which sounds are transformed, or in the case of the last movement not transformed, but it also allows for easier appreciation of its general contours. It makes a direct impression through its grandeur and its large-scale sonority. In short, it is concert hall music. Whereas Scelsi's elemental sound world frequently seems to be extracted from Tibet or Tuva, his use of forms is frequently rather Western. His movements are clearly defined and his musical phrases cadence in regular, if oblique, ways. In works such as Konx-Om-Pax, not to mention the string quartets or piano sonatas, he also utilized the standard Western ensembles in relatively straight-forward ways. Scelsi's grammar was mostly Western, even if his material was mostly Eastern. Or were they?

Scelsi's act of fusion was at such a fundamental level that it can be difficult to say which part is which. His music is never a simple case of "foreign tunes" being put into sonata form, as it were, and that one often cannot distinguish Eastern from Western influences is one of its most profound strengths. Scelsi's works use Western instruments almost exclusively. His titles are frequently Eastern in some way. His sense of tonal interplay reflects Eastern philosophy, but is usually expressed with a Western sense of development. Despite some "evocations" noted by others, even his late works do not follow e.g. a raga from a grammatical perspective. I insist that the grammar is Western, but that it is expressed in an oblique domain of tonal fluidity which is the most striking feature of its canvas. Scelsi's improvisational working methods were at least Eastern-inspired. The sonorities of his music, in spite of the instruments, are frequently Eastern. These aspects are all found in Konx-Om-Pax, but as usual, they are closely intermingled. The idea of mutating a single note through timbral & microtonal shifts was decisively Scelsi's own, however, and here it is expressed most clearly in the first movement. That basic dynamic was the inspiration for his recovery, and it became the fount for his act of fusion, allowing the Western rhetorical dynamic to be subverted into a space small enough for Eastern ideas to unfold. Ultimately, it is in the elegance and mutual cogency with which the two musical worlds are wed that Scelsi's greatest artistic contribution lies.

To discussion of Konx-Om-Pax, part 1.

Back to Giacinto Scelsi page.

Todd M. McComb
27 January 2000