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A Giacinto Scelsi Journey 1981 - 2011



In the second generation of Scelsi recordings, Mode Records has been pre-eminent. I recently reviewed the last to be released of the Piano Works, Vol 4 (Stephen Clarke) and now have belatedly received a copy of Volume 1 by pianist Louise Bissette (currently out of print) containing Sonata No. 2 & 4 and Suite No. 9 "Ttai" [Mode 92]. It is as fine as the others in an important series and no doubt will become available again. [Earlier reviews: - - this is just Volume One of a projected Scelsi cycle on Mode, I await further elucidation with great interest. Strongly recommended listening for fans of Scelsi and Beethoven alike. Dan Warburton, www.paristransatlantic.com/, February 2001 & - - Terminally boring for some, fascinating an ear-cleansing for others. Giacinto Scelsi sought minimum contrast, maximum concentration on pure sound, ending with works that explore endless inflections of a single note. Here he is en route: still writing tunes, beautiful ones, but obsessively returning to the same note. Stunningly played. ---Michael Oliver]

CDs have proliferated unstoppably since Marianne Schroeder's made in 1987 & 1991 - see Scott McComb's Scelsi discography - but live performances remain sporadic. Stephen Clarke tells me that is so also in the Americas; "performances of Scelsi's piano music are no more frequent this side of the ocean. In Canada there is myself and Montreal pianist Louise Bessette". An extraordinary disjunction.

I take this opportunity to review my own dealings with Scelsi and his music over three decades, with emphasis upon the piano music which had become overshadowed by his later experiments and achievements, involving microtones impossible on the piano. That may have contributed to an apparent lack of interest amongst British pianists, and I wonder whether the time is ripe for one of the music colleges to take up the cause?
[The numerous hyperlinks are integral to this report.]

An unique and controversial composer, who has never claimed centre stage in Europe, I became fascinated by Scelsi in a 1981 broadcast by Adrian Jack of recordings of a string quartet and two of his works for piano, Illustrazione (1953) and Suite No X, the scores of which I bought and studied obsessively at the piano, Suite No X Ka making a particular impression.

In retrospect, that programme was a " life changing" experience for me for a decade or so, leading to a wider exploration of Scelsi's music and what may have been the first article about him in England, DISCOVERING SCELSI (Piano Journal 7/21: 1986). I incorporated Scelsi into my daily piano practice routine, finding that the daunting appearance of his chords belied their lying unexpectedly comfortably for the hands.

In 1985 we corresponded and the following year went to Rome to visit him. That visit is reported in my review of Mode DVD The Piano Works 3, Aki Takahashi, piano.

My particular problem with the music was anomalous; notes and chords proved in the main (with a very few exceptions) pianistic and manageable, but their rhythmic organisation was quite beyond my capacity; was it intended to be taken literally, or just as an attempt to write down how the "composer" had played it?

I raised that question in an extract from 1985 correspondence with Scelsi himself:

and he generously replied:


In retrospect, I missed the chance Giacinto Scelsi offered of "assistance with scores", the originals of which have since his death in 1988 remained unavailable to scholars in the care of the Scelsi Foundation, a huge impediment to musicological research;
-- his numerous piano compositions - - were written in two batches, from 1930 to 1943 and from 1952 to 1956 (if one wants to trust the dates of composition given by Scelsi, who intended to fool musicologists [Sabine Feisst, notes to mode 92]

I did visit him in Rome with my then wife, and were shown around his main room and its treasures.

He was famously mischievous and contrary, including a story that he became blind in the '70s: In the early 1970s, Scelsi became blind: the man who did not like to be seen (no one was allowed to photograph him) could not see any more. Later in the decade, he stopped composing. After his castle was destroyed in a 1980 earthquake, Scelsi spent his final years in Rome leading a reclusive life. He died in 1988 [Blindness, Silence, and Aftermath [2004, Minderovic, Zoran]

We did not suspect any problem with his sight, nor did Harry Halbreich and his partner and translator, Elizabeth Buzzard, who also visited him at via Teodoro in Rome [see her memoir].
[might he have had an episode of hysterical blindness?? PGW]

Gradually interest in Scelsi's music grew, explosively so with an ISCM concert in Cologne which catapulted him from obscurity to contemporary music's centre stage. Miscellaneous writings about him multiplied, but I remained concerned at the lack of any authoritative book in English. Scelsi's wilful self-mystification, and the resistance by his beneficiaries, Fondazione Isabella Scelsi, to making the controversial original manuscripts freely available for study, contributed to vitiating my attempts to broker a first book in English with Harry Halbreich, whose liner notes for the Accord CDs are still amongst the best published analyses of his music.

Specialist British publishers Toccata Press and Kahn & Averill were approached. The former was uninterested and the latter did go so far as a meeting of the three of us in 1990. That was a disastrous occasion, the only material consequence being that the publisher spilt his coffee all over the musicologist's suit... All hope was dashed by their dismissal of the project in these terms:

I also took an opportunity to visit Marianne Schroeder in Basle; she had made the first, and ground breaking, CDs of Scelsi's piano music [hat Art 6006 & 6092], and she drew my attention there to her latest enthusiasm, the piano music of Galina Ustvolskaya - but that is a different story...

And in 1989 I gave an illustrated lecture on Scelsi in a symposium in Malta; publication promised, but that never transpired (copies available). Finally, for completion about my own involvement, I lectured on Scelsi at Bilbao in 2001 and the same year also attended a major Scelsi retrospective organised by Harry Halbreich, reported as To Portugal in quest of Scelsi.

Of other writings trawled on the internet, I recommend

Class, Ideology, and il caso Scelsi by Eric Drott [Musical Quarterly Volume 89]

Giacinto Scelsi "The Messenger" Alex Ross [New Yorker, 2005] - Live performances of this composer’s works remain rare; Michael Tilson Thomas, in San Francisco, is the only American conductor who programs them. It is far easier to get to know the music on recordings, by way of the Accord, CPO, Kairos, and Mode labels. Small wonder that this obscure Roman eccentric, who considered himself a “messenger” or “medium,” has become a cult figure among younger composers: he makes the eternal new.
Scelsi would have been a hundred this year. Given his mystical propensities, it might be better to say that he is a hundred, although he was observed to have died in 1988. After Scelsi’s death, Tosatti published an article with the incendiary title “Giacinto Scelsi C’Est Moi,” asserting not only that he was the true author of the music but that it was all rubbish - -

Scott McComb has maintained his Scelsi discography and would welcome news of other recordings. (We both wonder if there is a digitised version of the historic ISCM 1987 Cologne Concert conducted by Hans Zender?)

Now it is time to hand over my endeavour to a real professional. A younger enthusiast, composer/musicologist Evis Sammoutis, hopes for a grant to pursue his interest in Scelsi, which was epitomised by his composition Dimorphism In memoriam Giacinto Scelsi.

Let's hope Sammoutis can prevail upon the Fondazione Isabella Scelsi to allow him access to the so-far unseen scores from which the published music was taken... [See Sammoutis's Echopraxia on YouTube.]

Peter Grahame Woolf