Note that this text is more than 10 years old, and has not been thoroughly revised.
Giacinto Scelsi was born on January 8th, 1905 to an aristocratic family living on an old estate in the country surrounding Naples in southern Italy. Though he had little formal musical training, he is now recognized as one of the most creative composers of our century.
Scelsi's mature music is marked by a supreme concentration on single notes, combined with a masterly sense of form. Scelsi revolutionized the role of sound in western music -- his best known work is the Quattro Pezzi per Orchestra, each on a single note. These single notes are elaborated through microtonal shadings, harmonic allusions, and variations in timbre and dynamics. It is impossible to express the immense power of this apparently simple music in words.
Fortunately, a set of Scelsi's orchestral music has recently been released on three CDs: Accord 201692. This article will primarily discuss the music on this set, and will hopefully serve as an introduction for interested listeners. The works recorded (please refer to the separately posted discography for information on other recordings) on this set are:
which belong to Scelsi's later phase, and attest to a supreme contribution in redefining classical music. The music is masterly performed by the Radio-Television Orchestra and Choir of Krakow, directed by Jurg Wyttenbach. Most of these works had to wait until the late-80s for a first performance, though Scelsi was still able to attend before passing away on August 9, 1988.
The placement of these works within Scelsi's large output can be found in the separately posted list of compositions. This list has been divided into four periods -- such a distinction is, of course, in some ways arbitrary; however, the nature of the music lends itself well to this division and in particular it is important to know the break between the first and second groups. In fact, Scelsi's music in his Second Period represents a dramatic departure from the trends of his time and is almost completely unconnected with the more traditional music of his First Period; some ideas do continue intact, such as his sense of form, but on the whole his output could easily (assuming the daunting technical skill involved, of course!) have been written by two different composers. Scelsi was to state with some pride that by the early-50s he had forgotten everything he ever knew about music.
Scelsi's early music is based in the music of the time: he studied with a pupil of Alban Berg in Vienna, as well as with a follower of Scriabin in Switzerland. Though little of this early music is recorded and thus definitive conclusions are impossible, it is easy to notice Scelsi's interest in strict form from the titles of these compositions (ex. Introduction and Fugue, Variations, etc.) In addition, the majority of this music was written for the piano: an instrument on which Scelsi was a virtuoso performer. Scelsi's counterpoint in this period is very strict, making use of dodecaphony and other neo-classic and neo-baroque elements. Scelsi's paradigm is strict counterpoint defining harmony, in much the same idiom as K. S. Sorabji -- the comparison of these two figures is highly appropriate for a variety of reasons: position outside the mainstream, pianistic virtuosity, and above all a neo-baroque paradigm within a chromatic framework. However, Scelsi shows a marked tendency toward thematic compression and brevity which is certainly absent from Sorabji.
During World War II, Scelsi wrote his String Quartet No. 1 (1944) which is one of his most important early compositions. During this same period, his wife left him and he later underwent some sort of psychological breakdown. His therapy eventually consisted of playing a single note on a piano over and over again, and this was to lead the way to his new style. The last work which Scelsi composed during his First Period was the cantata La Nascita del Verbo (1948), and this piece continued to have profound implications (though apparently not pleasant ones) for him when it was performed in 1950. The cantata has not been performed since then, and remains Scelsi's most important unrecorded work. The String Quartet No. 1 has been recorded, and the following analysis should help in understanding Scelsi's early music... and in understanding the direction from which he had come when initiating his new style.
The first quartet is in four movements which basically correspond to the classical order. The first movement is a set of linked variations out of which emerges a compressed sonata form. The main idea is the theme of Bach's Chaconne in D minor (pointed out to me by Prof. Angelo Frascarelli) which is stacked vertically into two block chords -- this compression of horizontal material into the vertical domain anticipates some of Scelsi's later music (ex. Aitsi) and can be seen as deriving from other composers of the time, such as Webern. The set of variations is divided into three sections of equal length; the first section varies the chaconne idea by a variety of methods including dodecaphony, in a manner recalling Berg; the second section begins with slow, mysterious counterpoint during which the theme of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge is introduced in a highly disguised form as the subsidiary idea and then subjected to variation; the third section recapitulates the primary chaconne theme and continues with variations on the two ideas together, ending in a very brief coda during which the chaconne and fugue are stated simultaneously in the smallest possible space. Skipping to the fourth movement... here the form is divided into two sections of which the first is slightly longer. The principal idea of the first section is the Grosse Fuge treated in cancrizan, and then elaborated contrapuntally in such a way as to introduce the chaconne as the underlying harmonic context; this section ends in slow polyphony in the style of the second movement -- during which the fugue theme is treated in diminution within the layout of the chaconne. The second section begins with a recapitulation of the chaconne which is then varied harmonically, leading to an extended coda in which the preceding chromatic polyphony is translated into a purely tonal C major. This coda constitutes the ending of the entire piece and shows Scelsi's dedication to tonality even within this complex idiom -- it also ends on a chord in fourths which anticipates the open cadential motion prevalent in his later output, a style which has something in common with the vocal polyphony of the early renaissance. The brief third movement is a ternary scherzo, complete with serial trio. This is rhythmic process-music which recalls Stravinsky, and in some ways anticipates Messiaen. The slow second movement is the heart of the entire work, and here Scelsi is his most original. It opens with pizzicato chords which are packed into the low register of the cello and gradually dissolve into slow and sublime polyphony using the two main ideas of the work. The chords re-assert themselves from time to time, and the polyphony takes on fantastic elements; the style is more extended and personal in this movement and the harmonic transitions have something of Scriabin about them. The movement eventually ends in a slow, ethereal, transfigured coda. Scelsi's Quartet No. 1 (1944) is an extremely powerful and moving work, built on a strict contrapuntal paradigm, incorporating the musical trends of its time. Though it is quite different from his later music, it is a masterpiece on its own merit -- one of the greatest quartets ever written, and one of the finest musical examples of its period.
Hence, it was with a profound knowledge of form, counterpoint, and the musical directions of his time that Scelsi was to begin his Second Period. Here the musical ideas of the East and India in particular suddenly play a large role in his music -- the result being an immense intensification of the power of the single sound. When Scelsi began composing again in 1952, he turned immediately to his own instrument: the piano, and produced a quick succession of suites and other sets of pieces. There is now an emphasis on the repetition of notes, leading to ostinato formations and incorporating clusters, resonance effects, subtle harmony and toccata structures. Several passages have resemblance to the late piano style of Scriabin, but in addition there is a far-flung, almost encyclopedic range of references to other musics both western and beyond. Here the allusions can be quite subtle and difficult to place -- in fact, considering that these piano suites most likely were notated from Scelsi's improvisations, it is likely that these references emerge entirely subconsciously. There is an increasing preoccupation with formal symmetries, especially those based on the golden mean and during the most violent harmonic passages, there is an underlying feeling of peace -- something which makes this music sound quite different from that of Bartok, regardless of the similarity in language used to describe it -- culminating in the Peace Suite, No. 9 (1953), and serving as a foundation for Scelsi's further exploration of sound.
The tightest (with only four movements, compared to the nine of Suite No. 9, totaling under fifteen minutes in length) and most masterful of this piano music is undoubtedly the Quattro Illustrazioni (1953) which is for all practical purposes a classical sonata. Here the four illustrations depict four metamorphoses (or avataras) of the Indian deity Vishnu. This is Scelsi's first direct reference to Indian mythology in his music -- something which was to continue throughout his output. Scelsi never uses Indian musical forms or instruments, but there is definitely an eastern current underlying the remainder of his music; here it asserts itself in a subtle and powerful use of rhythm built from ostinato notes and into chords. The opening movement Shesha shows Vishnu asleep as the body of the universe, and the opening chords are to form the basis for the whole work. The second movement Varaha is a powerful and destructive scherzo-style movement depicting Vishnu as a wild boar ravaging the world. This leads to the majestic Rama movement and then to the concluding meditative Krishna. This "sonata" shows much of Scelsi's mature style: an eastern mystic awareness (and it should be noted that in Indian tradition, sound or Nada-Brahma is the underlying basis of the universe) brought into western language on western instruments (though later incorporating less traditional instruments and combinations) and written in classical sequences. Later this is to combine with a profound feeling for the interior of sound and with it the use of microtones and glissandi (which again play an important role in Indian vocal music) providing even more violent and energetic outbursts surrounded by sublime harmony.
This piano music accomplishes the beginning of a revolution in Scelsi's music in which extreme power and tension can be drawn from a single note. Already the context can be quite dramatic as in the thrashing of Varaha, and resonance plays a large role -- as it no doubt did for Scelsi during his long recovery from western musical malaise during which he played his single note over and over again and listened to the resonance and decay, and most importantly the lack of uniformity even within a single sound. This is really Scelsi's most profound realization: that a single sound is not a musical point in any real sense, it is a dynamic entity shaped by a variety of influences, and it is to his glory that he not only realized this fact but set it to music in a way that no one else has ever done. By the mid-50s, Scelsi was to totally abandon the piano which had until then been his most important means of expression. This must have been very difficult for him, but at the same time freed him even more from his earlier thoughts: by then he had truly forgotten everything. It was also necessary to move to instruments accommodating microtones, string in particular, in order to completely realize his new musical ideas. Hence the piano music does not reveal Scelsi in his later phases, but it still contains some masterful and above all purely pianistic writing which should not be neglected -- please refer to a previous article which reviews Scelsi's piano music.
One thing which had been accomplished in Scelsi's piano music, and particularly in the Suite No. 10, was that a single tone could be changed in pitch without losing its identity as the same tone. In the world of equal temperament, this was done by shifting the harmonic context intact with the shift of the note, usually accomplished via ostinato. Obviously, this idea takes on even more promise using microtonal glissandi and it is in this interior chromaticism that Scelsi really redefines music -- any notion of "perfect pitch" becomes not only unnecessary, but a real handicap to following the ebb and flow of the music. In the mid-50s, Scelsi returns to string writing (which he had used sparingly in his First Period) with a series of Divertimenti for solo violin. The title of Divertimento is interesting for what it brings in the music: this is purely tonal music written in traditional style (obviously derived primarily from Bach's solo violin Sonatas) and incorporating virtuosic playing. The Divertimento No. 3 has been recorded, and is yet another masterpiece in the tonal idiom -- this music has an intense and timeless quality (perhaps most closely akin to the solo violin sonatas of Ysaye) and is really a sonata (in four movements) of great scope and invention. The fact that Scelsi could write such fine violin music (and these 'divertimenti' are arguably the finest in this idiom since Bach) is quite astounding -- and shows again that Scelsi is far from abandoning tradition.
Scelsi was fifty years old in 1955, and in the midst of establishing his epoch-making style which was to yield a succession of individual masterpieces in the 1960s. Though his aristocratic position freed him from financial worries, his emotional life must have been difficult indeed marked as it was by extreme self-criticism and now by a completely solitary existence. He had traveled extensively in India and Nepal, learning much of eastern yoga and mysticism -- he had essentially withdrawn into himself in order to extract his most profound music, a task which must have racked him and yet yielded a huge number of musical works, works which show not only a profound musical intuition but a deep concern for performance. The fact that this music can be performed as written on a wide variety of instruments and in an idiomatic way is supreme testimony to his deep involvement, despite his lonely existence. By this time Scelsi had restricted himself to linguistic expression only through French poetry -- he had disavowed any analysis or explanation of himself or his music, indeed refusing much personal contact as well as photographs. He had moved to an apartment in Rome, overlooking the ancient Roman Forum, and had established an environment in which his intuition was to blossom apart from the mainstream of music, and he had returned to a deeply religious nature incorporating elements from around the world. Scelsi's use of eastern musical elements is never tacked on, and he does not engage in pure exoticism: he redefines the basis of music using these elements out of which spring a new logic which is both western and eastern at its core. Here his music is more deeply eastern than Messiaen's use of Hindu modes of melody and harmony, or of Tournemire's quintessential modal development based in Catholic choral thinking. Scelsi matches Tournemire in his subtle and philosophical use of extended modality as no one else has, and rises above Messiaen's juxtapositions to a more unified view of form -- he does this by finding a certain innocence and power in sound itself, and redefining his material at its core. In addition, Scelsi is not bound to the chromatic scale, and one is immediately reminded that middle-eastern modes make explicit use of quarter tones. Scelsi is no longer a composer, but in his own words: a messenger.
Scelsi's Second Period begins with his return to composition with the piano music, moves through a variety of short as well as classically-sized compositions for solo instruments of all kinds, and ends in a return to ensemble thinking climaxing in the Quattro Pezzi per orchestra (1959). By this time, the basic aspects of his mature style have been established: this style was to find its perfect expression in the music of his Third Period. In the mid-50s, as well as concluding his piano output and writing his marvelous series of tonal Divertimenti for solo violin, Scelsi wrote many short pieces for wind instruments. This music includes not only the influence of Hindu sound philosophy from India and the far east, but also of the near east: Greece, Egypt, Syria, Arabia, Byzantium. Scelsi's titles become more obscure, and draw on Latin, Ancient Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, Sanskrit, even Mayan and other words which have been impossible to identify. There is a feeling for middle eastern modality in some of this wind music: Pwyll (1954) for flute evokes Greece, and Ixor (1956) for reeds evokes the ancient Egyptian ney. The many short solo pieces for woodwinds and brass, can easily be viewed as studies for his later ensemble and orchestral music; in fact, many are titled simply as 'pieces' which lends itself well to this interpretation. He returns also to music for voice with instrumental accompaniment in Yamaon (Yama is the Vedic ruler of the dead), a format which was to have increasing interest for him. It was during the 50s that Scelsi built the foundation for his subsequent phenomenal music -- music which eventually becomes totally transfigured by the early 70s.
In addition to the many shorter pieces with perhaps a more restricted purpose, Scelsi also began two of his greatest chamber masterpieces in the later 1950s. The Trilogy for solo cello ranks as one of his most intimate works, the first two parts of which (Triphon, Dithome) were written in 1957 while the third (Ygghur) was completed in 1961 and only finally notated in 1965. In addition, the phenomenal Elegia per Ty for viola and cello was conceived in 1958, only to be notated in 1966. This disparity in dating some of Scelsi's music is undoubtedly due to the fact that it was worked out in improvisation and in fact recorded, only to be notated subsequently with the help of copyists. The Trilogy is Scelsi's autobiography in sound to that point -- please see the earlier posted article which deals with this series in some detail -- and it is also his first major attempt at developing his new polyphonic style.
This is a polyphony which emerges out of monody: Scelsi's movements have a unity of gesture about them even when not restricted to a single note (which is actually rarely the case) and the polyphony of his string writing is contained within a purely melodic conception which is articulated polyphonically not just as ornamentation, but as an essential aspect of the sound itself. Scelsi's polyphonic style is undoubtedly drawn in part from the more open style of the early Renaissance: Ockeghem and Busnois; and one is reminded of Scelsi's early "medieval education," his position as a classics scholar. Beyond that, it draws from the Greek drama with its declamatory style and unison writing. Scelsi's love of polyphony and counterpoint is already apparent from his early compositional work, such as the second movement of the first quartet -- and his later polyphony continues to seek a compactness of expression, though largely abandoning counterpoint interpreted as such. His writing for solo strings presents a variety of new instrumental techniques, not least of which is his use of new types of mutes: metallic and applied to individual strings, lending buzzing overtones as in the Indian sitar. This string polyphony was to find its perfection in the mid-60s with his use of string by string notation, as in medieval tablature. He also uses a variety of mutes for brass, illustrating his profound concern for timbre. Scelsi's polyphony is both ancient and modern, and particularly in the works for solo strings presents the player with the difficult task of retaining a unity of utterance while performing the complex individual parts, and of course it is precisely on a stringed instrument that this program can best be carried out.
In 1958, Scelsi returned to choral writing with his Tre canti popolari for 4-voice choir and his Tre canti sacri for 8-voice choir. It is precisely in these three sacred songs (Angelus, Requiem and Gloria) that one can find this polyphonic writing at its most intense and complex. Each of these songs (and one might call them motets) is approximately five minutes in length, compact and uses tight formal structures. One finds sustained notes, unison writing leading to shimmering and buzzing overtones, quick movements in some parts, slow glides between notes, sometimes convulsive verbal delivery, and above all a powerful and mystical utterance outside of the normal flow of time; the coda of the Gloria is especially effective in ending the set. These are tough pieces to crack, slices of eternity, and anticipate the extremely complex choral style of Uaxuctum. Another important work from the late-50s is Kya for clarinet and seven instruments (1959). This is one of two concertante-style pieces in Scelsi's late output (the other being Anahit), and presents a rather relaxed and open atmosphere. In addition to being a scrupulous study of timbre with particular reference to the solo clarinet, it presents the basic cadential motion which is to continue in force through the more complex orchestral works, Hurqualia and Aion.
Also in 1958, Scelsi wrote his String Trio. This piece is a close companion to the following year's Four Pieces for Orchestra: it is also in four movements each based on a single note, and in fact the combination of movements in each of these two pieces serves to dissect the tritone. In the String Trio, the instrumental forces are of course much smaller and the composition itself is slightly shorter -- each of the two being approximately fifteen minutes in total length. So, in some ways the trio is more adventurous than the set for chamber orchestra: not only is the sequence of pitches between movements complicated by transposition, but the third movement of the trio has two important pitches instead of one. At any rate, there is an incredible tension about this piece which one cannot imagine from a description alone. Scelsi's music has been compared with Ligeti's use of micropolyphony; however it has quite a different effect and emerges from a completely different source: there is no mechanical quality as one so often finds in Ligeti, there is no formula of any kind, only a simple prescription of boundaries in which the imagination of the composer is given free reign: an idea going back to Josquin and beyond.
Scelsi's most famous work is the Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola (1959) for chamber orchestra of twenty-six musicians. Unusually for Scelsi's orchestral music, this composition was performed shortly after it was written: in Paris under Maurice Leroux on December 4th, 1961. It gave the composer some amount of recognition at the time, and is now known as one of the most pioneering works of the 20th Century: each piece sticks rigorously to a single note, the succession being: F, B, Ab, A. As is normal in Scelsi's orchestral music, the instruments are concentrated in the low registers and include percussion: alto flute, oboe, english horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, four horns, saxophone, three trumpets, two trombones, bass tuba, musical saw, timpani, bongos, tumba, suspended cymbal, small and large tamtam, two violas, two cellos, double bass. The four movements use slightly different forces, and only the last combines all twenty-six musicians. The pieces each elaborate their single notes by means of variations in tessitura (unisons and octave doublings), dynamics and timbre, as well as introducing microtonal fluctuations and the occasional harmonic shadow; climaxes appear in these various domains at different times, all formally derived from the golden ratio. This is Scelsi's premier revolutionary work, springing out of the ether in an act of pure intuition. There is no sense of monotony as one might expect from the verbal description of the piece, or as one finds in Glass' or other "minimal" music; there is no real predictability in the music: it is spontaneous invention within a formal constraint which quickly disappears in the face of the power of the sound. The rhythm of the Quattro Pezzi is both subtle and powerful: already Scelsi is modeling the presentation on the act of breathing which is so important in yoga, and which is to become ever more crucial in his Fourth Period. There is an eternal quality about the music which at times flows and at others halts in a suspended glimpse of cosmic motion, it goes beyond itself and within itself, producing a heightened sense of existence emerging from beyond. This is derived from the infra- chromatic nature of the piece, which as in all of Scelsi's mature music, draws much of its musical direction from the complexities inherent within each individual sound, both as regards duration / decay / resonance and timbre / inflection / dynamics. The brief first movement presents the melodic material -- and it is indeed melodic, due to shading, rhythm and instrumental timbre -- in an eruption of incredible power; one could not imagine a more effective introduction to this piece or to Scelsi's mature music in general. After the high drama of the second movement, the third (omitting percussion) has an ethereal quality about it which hangs beyond time in the slowly decaying sound of its final moments. The fourth movement has an extreme finality, with cadences punctuated by percussive outbursts, as if to say: I am sound.
Scelsi's Third Period begins with the great orchestral masterpiece, Hurqualia (1960). The work is in four movements, lasting under eighteen minutes, and scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, two tubas, timpani, four percussionists, strings excluding violins, and three sets of amplified instruments: microphone one: oboe, english horn, Eb clarinet; microphone two: horn, tenor saxophone, musical saw, viola, double bass; microphone three: two trumpets, trombone. Hurqualia was not performed until June 18th, 1986 at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam directed by Arturo Tamayo -- Scelsi attended every rehearsal. It has been impossible to trace the origin of the term Hurqualia to this point; a Sanskrit origin was conjectured, but now abandoned. It would seem to have some sort of dramatic (or perhaps rhythmic) connotation -- Hurqualia is a tensely dramatic epic in sound. As opposed to the Quattro Pezzi of the previous year, intervals play a definite role here, particularly the third: hence there are harmonic references, though true harmony has to wait until Scelsi's later orchestral music. Still there is an underlying unity of sound, at times admitting contrasts contained therein. Hurqualia reaches a new level of rhythmic sophistication -- Harry Halbriech likes to take every opportunity to compare Scelsi's massive sound and seemingly immense lapses of time with Bruckner, though this comparison is quite overdone by the second mention of Bruckner's 9th Symphony. Scelsi's rhythmic constructions emerge out of breathing rhythm, even when quite intense; and the sophistication with which he constructs episodes outside of time and subtle time relationships within the piece is far beyond Bruckner. The closest comparison is with the extreme rhythmic complexity of South Indian Carnatic music (please see the Indian Classical Discography posted some time ago, and in particular one is referred to Dr. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer for the kind of rhythmic sophistication which is found in this music.) So, in Hurqualia we have a massive (despite its length) orchestral masterpiece, an epic in sound. It is subtitled simply as "A Different Realm" and one could probably read into it various dramatic interpretations: here the epic of choice will be the Ramayana, the world's leading epic. The first movement is a sort of overture, beginning with low and quiet sounds reminiscent of the syllable 'om', and gradually building into a massive fanfare of foreboding on brass and percussion. The world is in chaos as the Demon King is extending his power -- yet there is a glimmer of hope expressed by the woodwinds as it is decided that the great god Vishnu will descend to earth in the guise of the Prince Rama to defeat the Demon. The fanfare continues, ending abruptly to start the story in the next movement. The second movement is the beginning of the epic proper: Rama and his wife Sita leave for the wilderness, Rama is tricked into leaving Sita alone for a moment at which time she is kidnapped by the demons; the movement ends in quiet, tense realization of this event, hanging on the major second. The mysterious and contemplative third movement is a time of gathering information for Rama and forming alliances; Sita's whereabouts are discovered and her serenity is played on flutes. Overall, though, there is an extreme fatalism about the horrible battle which lies ahead, and of course Rama knew all that would come to pass before he was even born. The fourth movement gradually gains momentum, complete with a march to battle starting pizzicato on the strings, and the first part ends with a composed confidence resting on Rama's incredible prowess as the battle proper is about to begin. The second part of the fourth movement is the battle, complete with intense percussive outbursts and brass fanfares -- it ends with the total defeat of the demons, and a view of the horrible carnage. This rather far-flung interpretation might act to undermine the absolute quality and unity of thought behind Hurqualia, however it is included simply as an entrance which one might take into this 'different realm' which certainly admits of an epic interpretation of one kind or another. Regarding the instruments which are provided with specific amplification, it is unclear from the recording exactly what role they play: whether they are meant to represent characters, or simply to be heard above the din of brass and percussion.
Scelsi's next great orchestral masterpiece is Aion (1961). As opposed to the epic nature of Hurqualia, Aion corresponds even more closely to the classical idea of the symphony. It is also in four movements, and totals slightly over twenty minutes in length. This work is one of Scelsi's most profound even among the other masterpieces -- it is also his first major composition which I heard, one of the most powerful musical experiences in my life, and initiated this review project in early 1990. The scoring is quintessential for Scelsi and consists of: woodwinds by threes excluding flutes, six horns, three trumpets, four trombones, four tubas, timpani, six percussionists (whose instruments include a two-hundred liter metal can rubbed violently across its lateral grooves), harp, viola, four cellos and four double basses. The brass is almost always in the foreground, sometimes giving way to the other winds; the strings are rarely independently audible. Scelsi's use of percussion is rather complex and sometimes ingenious (the huge can is found also in Uaxuctum); there is never a glittering or crystal sound in his percussion section as one might find in other modern symphonic works which make a heavy use of percussion, rather there is a dark background muttering which is sometimes violent and othertimes subdued. Aion is the name of the personification of eternity in Ancient Greek mythology, and this work is Scelsi's most effective portrayal of immense lapses of time. It is subtitled "Four Episodes of a Day of Brahma," making explicit reference to Indian mythology (as in the Quattro Illustrazioni for piano; in fact Aion corresponds to Scelsi's perfection of the symphony in the same way as that work marks his conclusion in the genre of piano sonata) -- a day of Brahma is a very long time, and in fact contains an entire cycle of existence for our world. It is unclear exactly how much Indian classical music Scelsi knew, and he never makes explicit reference to it, however as in Hurqualia there is a rhythmic sophistication about this piece (and really more so here) that is comparable only to the most complex Indian music -- but of course extended to a truly polyphonic idiom. It is also unclear what the 'episodes' of the subtitle are: the sequence of movements corresponds closely to a symphonic form. The first movement is a passacaglia establishing interval relationships, and complete with intense percussive outbursts; it is the longest of the four and an extremely intense introduction to Aion, ending with a mysterious coda initiated by the harp. The second movement is a sort of scherzo in ABABA form: the brutal discordant outbursts in quarter tones of the B sections are framed by more quiet melodic sections. The slow third movement is the most eternal of the set (despite being the shortest). As with the Quattro Pezzi, it seems to emerge out of itself in the smallest harmonic space and moves by microtonal fluctuations through quarter tones developing into loud climaxes in the brass, ending on the interval of a minor second. It provides one with a mystical look at eternity. The last movement is a sort of rondo, complete with dramatic cadences leading into an extended climactic episode in E-major harmony which dissolves away to the opening rondo theme in the slow quiet ending. Aion is undoubtedly one of the greatest orchestral masterpieces of this century, and marks Scelsi's total command of his new style.
Hymnos (1963) marks the end of Scelsi's great symphonic trilogy: the later orchestral works call for chorus or a solo instrument (in Anahit). It also marks his convincing return to harmony and his consolidation of forces in the mid-60s. Hymnos is a single movement work lasting eleven and a half minutes, and scored for Scelsi's largest group of instruments (including violins for the first time): two flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, two tubas, sixteen first violins, fourteen second violins, ten violas, eight cellos, and six double basses; these instruments are divided antiphonically into two symmetric groups placed about: organ, timpani and three percussionists. The percussion is quite subdued in this piece, and includes a gong on top of a kettle drum; the organ plays a major supporting role; and all timbres are indicated with extreme precision. Hymnos is a Greek word, and is of course the origin of our word hymn: and in this respect the meaning of the work is more clear than in the preceding two. The origin of 'hymnos' in Greek is from the number six, and though it may be coincidence, the piece is made up of three distinct sections multiplied by the two orchestras. The two outer sections are in Scelsi's typical massive style, surrounding a quiet and sublime middle section during which the violins and high winds dominate as never before in Scelsi's mature orchestral music. The first section begins slowly on D, gradually building to a climax which wavers between D minor and Bb major (keys which already had important associations for Scelsi during his First Period). This is broken up by microtonal fluctuations on the violins in the highest register, and the piece gradually dissolves into the ethereal second section on E with dissonant tensions of interior chromaticism. Rumblings in the percussion gradually inaugurate the third section which returns to the harmonic context of D minor/Bb major and finally cadences at about the ten minute mark. This is followed by a recapitulation and above all by a consolidation of the previous uninterrupted development which fades away by the eleven minute mark; the piece then ends in a grand unison on F. Hymnos is one of Scelsi's easiest pieces for analysis, and it is also one of his most simply effective. It has a hymn-like healing quality about it, and one can imagine Scelsi finally conquering his harmonic demons in this hymn. Harmony will continue to play an important role throughout his Third Period -- and this is a harmony which Scelsi was able to develop out of his own style, rather than having it imposed upon him.
The symphonic works Hurqualia (1960), Aion (1961) and Hymnos (1963) form something of an orchestral trilogy, and taken together make a super-symphony of about fifty minutes duration. There is hardly a more intense listening experience than beginning with the dramatic Hurqualia, following with the absolute mysticism of Aion, and concluding with the extended harmony of Hymnos. In addition to these three great works, the early 60s also saw Scelsi's return to the medium of the string quartet with another succession of astonishingly varied masterpieces: String Quartet No. 2 (1961), String Quartet No. 3 (1963) and String Quartet No. 4 (1964). These three quartets are among Scelsi's greatest masterpieces -- each makes important contributions to his oeuvre and the genre as a whole. Much has been written about these works, and they are not the focus of this review, however a few comments are in order for understanding Scelsi's music in the 1960s. The String Quartet No. 2 was written in the same year as Aion, and shares much of that work's rhythmic intensity. Here again is absolute music of incredible power and depth which also marks Scelsi's increasing development of string writing, using his individual metallic mutes which lend a grating sound to many of the passages, and writing such complex and powerful rhythms. The quartet is in five movements, with G as the focus note of the entire work: the first movement starting on G presents a dramatic introduction, climaxing at the golden section; the second evolves within the space of the minor second Bb-A, introducing violent dissonances and sharp buzzing overtones along with surreal metallic glissandi; the short third movement is centrally symmetric, focusing on B with occasional harmonic allusions, complete with percussive attacks and an extended bizarre pizzicato; the fourth movement returns to G with deep meditative resonance, developing into an impressive rhythmic conclusion of great power; the fifth movement, the longest of the five, develops harmonic associations in F minor (as Aion does in E major), though the G gradually re-asserts itself and ends the work alone. The String Quartet No. 3 was written in the same year as Hymnos, and makes use of major/minor harmony (of course, in Scelsi's inimitable manner) throughout most of the piece. Unusually, Scelsi specifies a program for the work (also in five movements) ending in the movement "liberation, catharsis." This quartet is certainly an attempt to help listeners approach his style, and presents something of a simplification from the previous quartet. Along with harmony, the quartet introduces Scelsi's ethereal transfigured writing entirely in microtones in the high registers -- this style was to play an increasing role in the music of his Fourth Period. Finally, the String Quartet No. 4 (1964) in one ten-minute movement is Scelsi's crowning architectural achievement. It is based formally on the golden section and symmetric principles throughout, beginning on C and rising in a powerful infra-chromatic wave to A. This work also marks the first employment of string-by-string tablature notation which Scelsi was to continue to use, and as such represents an orchestral view of quartet writing: 16 strings as individual instruments. Scelsi's fourth quartet is among his most widely regarded works and presents an astonishing compactness of form with innovative instrumental writing, leading to a conclusion of great power.
The mid-60s also saw the production of some of Scelsi's greatest chamber music for small forces. The third part of the Trilogy for solo cello, Ygghur (catharsis in Sanskrit) was conceived in 1961, and finally notated string by string in 1965. In addition, the duo for viola and cello, Elegia per Ty (which was the nickname of Scelsi's wife who had left in the 40s and who he was never to hear of again) which had been conceived in 1958 was notated string by string in 1966. Ygghur forms the conclusion of one of Scelsi's most personal works, the Trilogia "The Three Ages of Man," and the Elegy is equally personal -- one of Scelsi's most powerful and most melancholy works. The Elegy (in three movements) is arguably the greatest composition for the combination of viola and cello, and an extremely emotional and intense piece, though very difficult to approach and beginning in a state of utter anguish. Perhaps with the final notation of this incredible work, Scelsi had come to terms with his own loneliness. Scelsi's greatest composition for solo violin (and this from a composer who wrote some of history's best solo violin music) is Xnoybis (1964) which was entirely conceived at this time, and takes up the string by string writing of the contemporaneous fourth quartet as well as requiring scordatura. Xnoybis is a work of great tension, demanding intense concentration from both the performer and the listener. It is in three movements and evolves almost entirely within the smallest microtonal space -- leading to a powerful vision of the interior of sound. Xnoybis is one of Scelsi's most important and most difficult works, and a masterpiece of the violin literature.
As well as continuing his series of string quartets and pieces for smaller string ensembles, Scelsi also wrote five pieces for larger string ensembles during his Third Period. Already he had written for string orchestra with the Introduction and Fugue (1945) of his First Period, and his first string orchestra work of the Third Period was also drawn from this time: in 1962, he produced a version of the Quartet No. 1 (1944) for string orchestra. This was undoubtedly viewed as a study for the upcoming series of works elaborating the later quartets for large forces. The only new work for full string orchestra is Chukrum -- also written in 1963, a year when Scelsi was apparently rather busy. This is followed by Anagamin (1965) for twelve strings, Ohoi (1966) for sixteen strings, and Natura Renovatur (1967) for eleven strings. These three works for string ensembles are drawn in some degree from the second, third and fourth string quartets (it is unclear to me to what extent without hearing them), and it is worthwhile to mention Robin Freeman's remark that calling these works for string orchestra merely the quartets with a few instruments added is like calling Bach's 6-part ricercar merely a two-part invention with a few voices added. At any rate, they do play some significant role in Scelsi's output, not least of which because he saw fit to give them abstract titles and even subtitles, but also because the tonal elaboration involved in increasing the number of instruments undoubtedly contributed to the more full sound of the late works of his Third Period. It is suspected that the name Anagamin is pulled from near eastern mythology along with Xnoybis and Anahit (which certainly is), though this has not been established; the piece also has a very interesting sub-title: the one who is faced with a choice between turning back and refusing to. [Note: Ville Sinkko has informed me that "Anagamin" is a Buddhist term signifying someone who has attained freedom from the cycle of reincarnation. - 2 March 2000] Hence this work seems to mark some sort of definitive conclusion for Scelsi, in 1965 -- the year after String Quartet No. 4 and Xnoybis. Ohoi (which may simply be a variant of 'ahoy') is subtitled 'the creative principles,' again indicating that the piece had some significance for Scelsi. Finally, Natura Renovatur (Renovative Nature) is the re-working of fourth quartet -- and it above all possesses such a tremendous potential for expansion and elaboration that one can imagine Scelsi renovating this work many times. These three pieces for string ensembles are among Scelsi's most important unrecorded later works (along with the cryptic Tkrdg (1968) for accompanied choir) and are important for understanding his orchestral development from Hymnos to Konx-Om-Pax.
Chukrum (1963) seems to have been first performed in connection with preparing Accord's set of Scelsi's orchestral music. It is in four movements, lasting under eighteen minutes, and in many ways is conceived as a string quartet written for extended forces -- and as such would be Scelsi's only late quartet in four movements. Chukrum is written for a full-sized string orchestra, and since it was prior to his employment of string by string notation, the complexity of sound is likely quite similar to the later pieces for smaller forces, discussed above. The origin of the word Chukrum is completely unknown at this point (though the nature of the piece leads me to associate it with 'kernel' or 'fulcrum' and seek the origin in the middle-east.) [Note: Ville Sinkko suggest that "Chukrum" is a misspelling of "chakra" the energy centers of the body as studied in yoga; the idea has some appeal, and fits something of my intuition. The misspelling idea had not occured to me. - 2 March 2000] The piece presents a distilled microcosm of Scelsi's interior harmony: the basic referent is A major, though there is never any vertical harmonic writing. The first and fourth movements are the longest of the set: the first is a strict palindrome beginning on A and reaching to the fifth, complete with dramatic rhythmic elements; the fourth movement is a repetition and recapitulation of the first, not exactly the same, in a way such that an asymmetric form is introduced. The second movement is limited almost entirely to the major third, with a luminous rise to the fifth in its last moments; it contains several percussive effects, interspersed with ethereal microtonal and resonant writing. The third movement, the shortest of the four, is a violent rhythmic surge from the minor third to the fourth, largely obliterating the preceding harmonic references, and ending in an emphatic rhythmic gesture. The varied repetition of the opening in the fourth movement lends a peculiar re-entrant effect (already begun with the strict palindromic form of the first movement) to the piece: on repeated listening it seems to close in on itself, a procedure which actually heightens the timeless quality of this singular work, and is provided a precedent by Scelsi's previous redefinition of material in compositions such as the first and second quartets. In addition, the large group of strings gives at times an overwhelming, massive intensity of sound. Chukrum really stands alone in Scelsi's output, an encapsulation of much of his sense of harmonic form -- though neglecting vertical writing -- but of course including his handling of microtones, his strong sense of rhythm, and his ability and desire to alter his material at the conclusion of a piece.
In 1965, the year following Xnoybis for solo violin, Scelsi wrote his Violin Concerto, Anahit. The scoring of the orchestra is: two flutes, bass flute, english horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, two horns, trumpet, tenor saxophone, two trombones, two violas, two cellos, and two double basses. The solo violin is re-tuned to G-G-B-D, increasing the concentration required of the soloist considerably, and again notated string by string. Unusually for Scelsi, this work was also performed the year after it was written: in Athens with Devy Erlih (the same man who had premiered Xnoybis in 1964) as soloist in 1966. The subtitle is "Lyric Poem dedicated to Venus" and Anahit is the ancient Egyptian name for Venus, as well as being the name of the main female deity in ancient Asia Minor. The form of the work is reminiscent of the ternary architecture of Hymnos, though Anahit is in three distinct sections which are built on the golden section rather than linear symmetry. The work is thirteen minutes in length, the middle section being an extended cadenza for the solo violin centered at the golden section (i.e. the eight minute mark). In the two framing sections, the violin continues to operate in microtones and is supported harmonically by the orchestra. The first movement is predominately in G minor with the leading tone F# playing an important role; it starts slowly with the violin working out an ascending line, cadences in an orchestral interlude dominated by the brass at the golden section of this movement (i.e. just under the five minute mark), continues the preceding development, and then ends in another more subdued orchestral interlude just before the cadenza (beginning at the seven minute mark). After the beautifully ethereal microtonal cadenza, the second movement is predominately in G major reaching to high F# and dominated throughout by the solo violin; this movement builds a sort of pulsating wave which recapitulates the previous material and fades away as the violin reaches high G. Anahit is a beautiful, lyrical work and provides an interesting glimpse of Scelsi's use of the concerto format, with the soloist given over entirely to intense microtonal development and supported in harmony by the orchestral accompaniment.
Throughout his Third Period, Scelsi wrote vocal music -- this begins with unaccompanied songs already in 1960, and progresses to one of Scelsi's most important chamber works: Khoom (1962) for soprano voice, horn, string quartet and percussion. The work is in seven movements, subtitled: "Seven Episodes of an unwritten story of Love and Death in a distant land." Khoom is a powerful succession of narrative episodes, dominated by the vocalist who is accompanied by various combinations of instruments. The text of the work is entirely of words made up by Scelsi, a technique he had already used in The Birth of the Verb (La Nascita del Verbo; 1948) and was to continue to use in most of his other vocal music. Of course, he was not the first to do this -- in fact, Khoom is rather similar to Messiaen's Harawi in general idea -- but the semantic content which emerges from these syllables is eerily effective. Khoom also marks the first important work in Scelsi's collaboration with the Japanese singer, Michiko Hirayama whose voice continued to be the model for much of Scelsi's future vocal output. 1962 is also the year in which the series of songs, Canti del Capricorno (written specifically for Hirayama's voice as an instrument), was begun; and there are several other vocal works, some with chamber accompaniment, which were written during the 60s. Another series of works which belong to the Third Period are Scelsi's Rites (already pre-figured by I Presagi in 1958): there are three compositions with this title for different chamber forces and dedicated to different historical personages. This series of rites reaches something of a climax with Okanagon (1968) for harp, tamtam and double bass (a piece which was recorded several years ago, but is now unavailable). Finally, there is a continuance of choral writing with Yliam (1964) (the title may be a variant of Ilium -- ancient Troy) and Tkrdg (1968) for six-voice choir, electric guitar and percussion.
In 1966, Scelsi wrote his most complex, dramatic and incredible work: the choral and orchestral masterpiece, Uaxuctum. This extraordinary piece is in five movements, totaling approximately twenty minutes. In addition to the large chorus, written at an astonishingly difficult technical level, the work is scored for: four vocal soloists (two sopranos, two tenors, electronically amplified), ondes Martenot solo, vibraphone, sistrum, Eb clarinet, Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, double bass tuba, six double basses, timpani and seven other percussionists (playing on such instruments as the rubbed two-hundred liter can, a large aluminum hemisphere, and a two-meter high sheet of metal). The chorus is written in ten and twelve parts, incorporating all variety of microtonal manipulations, as well as breathing and other guttural and nasal sounds. This piece is certainly Scelsi's most difficult to perform, and was not premiered until October 12th, 1987 by the Cologne Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra. Uaxuctum is subtitled: "The legend of the Maya city, destroyed by themselves for religious reasons" and corresponds to an actual Maya city in Peten, Guatemala which flourished during the first millennium AD; in addition, the Mexican state of Oaxaca comes from the same ancient meso-american root. This is an intensely dramatic work, and the most bizarre in Scelsi's output. It depicts the end of an ancient civilization -- residing in Central America, but with mythical roots extending back to Egypt and beyond -- it is the last flowering of a mystical and mythological culture which was slowly destroyed by our modern world. In this case, Scelsi says, the Mayans made a conscious decision to end the city themselves. Uaxuctum incorporates harmonic elements throughout, and is extremely difficult to come to terms with. The first movement, the longest of the five, is a grand overture; it begins in quiet contemplation, only to be interrupted by the violent mystical revelation of the chorus propelling this story into the present from the distant past, and then sinking back into meditative tones with a presentiment of the upcoming adventure. In the wild and dramatic second movement, we enter the world of the Mayans, complete with mysticism in all aspects of life; it is an incredible and violent tour-de-force of orchestral writing. The short third movement opens with an atmosphere of foreboding, building into a realization of things to come, and reaching a decision. After a few seconds of silence, the city of Uaxuctum is quickly destroyed and abandoned. The fourth movement is dominated by the chorus throughout, and presents the wisdom gained by the Mayans as they gradually fade into oblivion. The fifth movement returns to the opening mood, and gives a dim recollection of the preceding events which have now been told, in abstract form, to our time and civilization. There really are no proper words to describe this amazing piece, which presents Scelsi at his most daring and innovative. It is a world all to itself, and a warning.
Konx-Om-Pax (1969) marks the end of Scelsi's Third Period. As well as summarizing his basic material to that date, it his last piece which uses extended movements and large forms. The music of his Fourth Period was to become increasingly transfigured. Konx-Om-Pax is also one of Scelsi's most effective compositions, using relatively simple material projected on a broad canvas. It is scored for large orchestra (including full strings, and lacking only flutes) along with organ, and in the final movement a mixed chorus. It was premiered on February 6th, 1986 by the Hessian Radio Orchestra in Frankfurt and conducted by Jurg Wyttenbach. [Note: This information is apparently incorrect. Konx-Om-Pax was premiered in Venice in 1970, according to the Scelsi Foundation. - 17 April 2003] The title of the piece is three words meaning 'peace,' in ancient Assyrian, Sanskrit and Latin. It is subtitled: "Three aspects of Sound: as the first motion of the immovable, as creative force, as the sacred syllable 'Om.'" Konx-Om-Pax is especially effective at creating a feeling of peace, and as such is a particularly useful piece for coping with the modern world. The first movement is based entirely on C, first treated as in inner pedal, and fans out harmonically at first symmetrically and then asymmetrically with the addition of quarter tones, rising to a great climax completely elaborating the underlying C. This movement is a gradual gathering of harmonic forces, with great calming effect. The short second movement begins on F, slowly builds until unleashing a great explosion of power in the form of rapid chromatic scales engulfing everything in their path, and ends again on F. The third movement is on A (and recall that the movement from C to A was the basic feature of Quartet No. 4 (1964)) and marks the entrance of the chorus, chanting only the syllable Om, and supported by the orchestra. This movement gives the impression (however absurd it may seem) of process-music or even a fugue on the single note theme, 'Om.' This is accomplished by a tight interior chromaticism with microtonal variations, a careful consideration of length of utterance and inflection, and by the building of a countersubject out of harmonic resonances. The entries of 'Om' continue steadily throughout the slowly-paced movement. The movement is in three sections: the first builds slowly, sticking almost entirely to 'Om' with single note responses; the second is an extended episode dominated by the orchestra, with percussive punctuation, in which harmonic associations are worked out in more detail; and the third re-introduces the chorus on 'Om' along with the longer countersubject developed in the previous episode, slowly fading away in a profound ending to this majestic work. In many ways, Konx-Om-Pax is Scelsi's most perfect creation: it attests to his supreme power of harmony, and above all it is always effective. For many of Scelsi's works, it is necessary to have the proper frame of mind in order to approach, but here that frame of mind is established within the twenty-minute work itself. Hence other pieces can be ineffective at times, but with Konx-Om-Pax this is never the case.
Scelsi's Fourth Period begins in 1970 with a return to the purely tonal idiom in Antifona for tenor solo and eight-voice male choir. It is a strict antiphon, using only the name 'Jesu' built into simple and austere melodies, in which the tenor alternates with the choir usually in unison; it is also among the most relaxed. At fourteen minutes, it is Scelsi's longest recorded single movement. The Three Latin Prayers (Ave Maria, Pater Noster, Alleluia; 1970) are also written in austere tonality, this time for solo voice. Here Scelsi is re-asserting his love for tonality, as well as returning to traditional Latin lyrics. On the whole, the music of the early-70s is marked by extremely short pieces, completely transfigured, and almost crystalline in their perfection; Scelsi had moved past the consolidation of his Third Period into a time when he was to give expression to his musical intuition in its purest form. Most of these compositions come in pairs: two pieces for solo violin, two for solo cello, two for solo double bass; as well as a return to writing for string duos: two violins, cello and double bass, two double basses. This series of music for double bass also marks Scelsi's association with Fernando Grillo. The duo for two violins, Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow; 1973), is one of his finest mystic revelations. It is in one movement, lasting under five minutes, yet gives witness to a profound vision of time and sound. Arc-en-ciel consists almost entirely of microtonal glissandi in the highest register, extending beyond and within itself. The vocal works of this period also come in pairs, along with Pranam I (1972) and Pranam II (1973) -- the first for voice and chamber orchestra, the second for a chamber orchestra of nine musicians. Pranam is an Indian gesture of greeting, and Pranam II is Scelsi's retrospective look at his previous achievements: it contains the performance note: "Though the tempo and other directions must be followed, a certain amount of flexibility of phrasing is required in order to create an impression of breathing (inhalation, exhalation, suspended respiration and so on) or the image of a wave on the sea." This same note could apply to much of Scelsi's Fourth Period music, and Pranam II (in one movement, lasting under seven minutes) is a particularly fine example of his flowing and eternal style.
The last period also marks Scelsi's return to keyboard writing with In Nomine Lucis (1974) for organ and Aitsi (1974) for prepared piano. In Nomine Lucis (In the Name of Light) consists of two works for organ (though mysteriously titled as I & V, indicating that three intervening ones may yet turn up), one written for chromatic electric organ and the other for quarter-tone electric organ. Each presents a re-working of the basic theme of Konx-Om-Pax (1969), though compressed into a single movement of approximately five minutes. As the title suggests, In Nomine Lucis is one of Scelsi's most luminous works, building into a massive complex of sound and then ebbing away -- the second, with its quarter-tone writing, is an especially powerful invocation. Aitsi (whose title probably comes from the Greek stem meaning 'cause') is Scelsi's return to the piano after almost twenty years of abandonment. In this case, its sound is de-tempered and manipulated by electronics. This one movement work of approximately six movements is built out of stacked chords whose constituent elements are subjected to varying resonant decays: it is perhaps Scelsi's most complex and daring vision of sound. Aitsi also forms the basis for the String Quartet No. 5 (1985) which was precipitated by the death of Scelsi's close friend, the French poet Henri Micheaux. Finally, Scelsi's last original work is Maknongan (1976, at which point he was over seventy years old, and had produced more than one hundred works of incredible variety and startling originality) for either bass tuba, contra-bassoon, bass saxophone, bass flute or double string bass; it has been recorded on both contra-bassoon and double bass. The title has some meaning for me (though I have been unable to exactly place the term; possibly implying a Celtic origin), and the extremely short piece (under four minutes) is his most compact, abstract (particularly given the variety of instruments allowed in the score), and monodic mystical epic in sound.
In 1974, Scelsi wrote his final piece for large orchestra, again including chorus & organ and excluding violins: Pfhat. Pfhat was premiered by Jurg Wyttenbach and the Hessian Radio Orchestra in Frankfurt on February 6th, 1986. It is in four movements, totaling under nine minutes. The subtitle reads: "A flash... and the sky opened!" and the title is apparently chosen for its onomatopoeic quality. This is an extremely concise depiction of mystical revelation for full orchestra, divided into four brief movements each of which presents a single gesture in sound. The first movement is based on the choir's breathing sounds, supported by only thirteen instruments. Here we have the emergence of sound from immobility, leading into an 'om'-ing from the tubas, and anticipating the upcoming surge of power. The very short second movement consists of a sudden ringing cluster for full orchestra and chorus, gradually fading away. The slow third movement begins with a quiet fanfare punctuated by ringing intervals, and gradually builds with the om-ing and sighing of the chorus into a large complex of sound elaborating a single note. The eerie fourth movement presents us with revelation from the open sky: the piccolo, flute, celesta, piano and organ play a very high ostinato on a semi-tone while the rest of the orchestra and chorus quickly ring high-pitched dinner bells. The glittering, crystalline and static sound is certainly unique in the symphonic literature. This work (and the last movement in particular!) is Scelsi's most singular attempt at ushering the listener into his sound universe. The succession of movements is highly dramatic, and listening to Pfhat for the first time is certain to be one of one's most intense listening experiences. Whether this highly polished work continues to be effective is debatable, but at times it has really worked for me. Hence it is with an attempt to guide the listener that Scelsi ends his orchestral output -- his creative energy was to ebb away in the face of his increasing age during the mid-70s (though he did spend time working with performers, leading to the performance of much of the chamber music), finally exhausting itself in the re-scoring of Aitsi as String Quartet No. 5 in 1985, and then finding fulfillment in the orchestral premieres of the late-80s.
Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) had a creative life lasting fifty-three years during which he composed a huge assortment of pieces in two distinct styles, the last of which has been divided into four phases. Much of his musical contribution consists of a re-intensification of chamber music -- however, his series of orchestral works is among his most impressive testimony. Scelsi developed a style in which microtonal writing not only found a place, but formed the core of his expression. He successfully combined musical styles from around the world, incorporating them into his personal view of the mystical power of sound. It should be apparent from this article that the traditional language of music theory is largely inadequate for describing Scelsi's music; at the very least, these ideas must be modified into an entirely different context. I have tried to refrain from engaging in continual flowery epithets, though this has not always been successful: words are really foreign to this music, and in describing my own feelings for it I have sometimes relied on the vaguest of mystical descriptions -- hopefully this will serve to prompt other listeners to discover these pieces for themselves. Scelsi's influence on contemporary music is only beginning, and the 3-CD set of orchestral music from Accord marks the major inauguration of this era. This series is one of the most important recording projects of our time.
The three discs were recorded in 1988, 1989 and 1990 -- shortly following Scelsi's death -- and then packaged as a set. The first disc (Aion (1961), Pfhat (1974), Konx-Om-Pax (1969)) is the most powerful and characteristic of the set. Here we find Scelsi's most abstract and symphonic work, followed by his most singular and specific, followed by his most majestic and effective. Starting with the awesome rhythmic power of the first movement of Aion, the disc ends in the peaceful triumph of the final om-ing of Konx-Om-Pax, an incredible journey in sound. The second disc (Quattro Pezzi (1959), Anahit (1965), Uaxuctum (1966)) is the most varied and experimental of the set. It begins with Scelsi's most revolutionary exploration of the power of a single sound -- the piece which unlocks his great series of masterpieces during the 1960s, followed by his most beautifully lyrical orchestral work, and climaxing in the incredible mystic drama of his most complex and difficult creation. Finally, the third disc (Hurqualia (1960), Hymnos (1963), Chukrum (1963)) fills out the set. It begins with the epic return to full orchestra in Hurqualia, followed by the healing return to harmony in Hymnos, and ends the entire set with the symphonic 'quartet' Chukrum presenting all aspects of his mature style. Scelsi's music for orchestra is his supreme contribution to the most characteristic genre of western classical music -- these are pieces which will be heralded far into the future of music.
Back to Giacinto Scelsi page.Todd M. McComb 8 November 1992