Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Giacinto Scelsi: Natura Renovatur

and Discovering Scelsi

Ohoi (1966)
Ave Maria & Alleluja (1970)
Natura renovatur

Frances-Marie Uitti (cello) Münchener Kammerorchester, conducted by Christoph Poppen

ECM New Series 476 3106 [June 1905]

On opening this ECM package, two photos of Scelsi's house, where I visited him, gripped my attention. Overlooking Rome's Forum and 'at the exact boundary of East and West', he related its location to his mystical preoccupations.

It has been uncanny to be reminded again of the room where (darkened from the sun outside) I talked with Scelsi in 1986 and, at his request, played part of the Illustrations (1953), after which he demonstrated, at that Bechstein pictured, his auto-therapy for serious psychiatric illness which I have described elsewhere; playing a single note (Bb) repetitively hour after hour, day after day.

Scelsi's concentration upon the minutiae of its resonances led to his discoveries about the nature of sound and consequent abandonment of the piano for realising his visions.

My hope that following his approval of my survey of his piano music in Piano Journal (one of the very first writings about Scelsi in UK) he would resolve some anomalies and likely misprints in the published piano scores which I brought to Rome. That hope was quickly dashed. He evinced total disinterest in such details; I had not previously known of his "mischievousness" which Frances-Marie Uitti discusses, and which made life hard for intending commentators and biographers.

My efforts to "broker" an English book on Scelsi with two publishers and Harry Halbreich (his fine analytic notes for the Accord releases would have been its basis) came to nought, partly because of access difficulties with the Scelsi Foundation. The issue of exactly how the scores themselves came into being, and particularly the role of his assistant Vieri Tosatti, remains questionable...

There is still no book in English that I know of, and it may be that my own occasional writings over the years remain amongst the most substantial from UK.

I have therefore gathered some of them below, with extracts and links to the contexts, and preceded by a couple of succinct recent published reviews which I endorse:-

Little attention was given to the centenary of Giacinto Scelsi's birth last year. Perhaps that was appropriate for a composer who for many years deliberately avoided the spotlight - - archetypal examples of Scelsi's mature music, concentrating on minute deviations of pitch and colour, so the microtonal textures seem to be in a constant state of flux.
(Andrew Clements The Guardian June 16, 2006)

Cellist Frances-Marie Uitti serves up compelling performances - - interleaved with three works adapted for string orchestra, played with shimmering sonorities by the Münchener Kammerorchester, conducted by Christoph Poppen - - concentrated technical studies with incidental atmospheric qualities. Uitti’s cello performances - - and the placid stillness she communicates in Ave Maria and Alleluja is quite similar to the timeless effect of Gregorian chant; this was perhaps Scelsi’s intention - - Ygghur occupies the central position on this fairly symmetrical program, and while it seems to be Uitti’s most raptly meditative performance, it is also the most directly communicative in emotional depth and physical presence. ECM’s engineering is exceptional, finely balanced (Blair Sanderson)

I am pleased to endorse the praise heaped on this important centenary recording of characteristic later scores of music of Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), superbly recorded in Munich and with the orchestral pieces (closely related to two of the string quartets) under the baton of a super-sensitive conductor; it is a good-as-any way into this still controversial composer's world.

Most of the music here had appeared on LP and CD before, and is in my large collection of tapes and discs, together with privately published essays and poems which he gave me. Uitti had, of course, previously recorded the whole of the Three Ages of Man cycle dedicated to her, of which Ygghur is the last part, and it will probably have evolved in this room. After the composer's death she spent some 700 hours archiving the tapes from which the scores had been produced collaboratively.

The notes and essays for ECM by Uitti and pianist Herbert Henck are as good as you will easily find, and the CD is unreservedly recommended. Contrary to ECM's intentions, "rare early photos" of Scelsi are not to be found in the booklet as issued; in later life he forbade any to be taken 'on pain of death'! There is however a photo of the young Scelsi on Todd McComb's invaluable compilation, an indispensible source.

Instead of a normal review, I am therefore bringing together my writings on Scelsi over two decades; Scelsi had been a central part of my musical writing life (and his music part of my daily piano practice) for many years.

Discovering Scelsi [1981-1986]

Giacinto Scelsi Piano Music

The unforgettably powerful impact of Giacinto Scelsi's Ka Suite broadcast in 1981 prompted my exploration of the piano music of this elusive and little known Italian composer, whose 80th birthday last year passed unremarked.

His is a strange story. He travelled widely in Europe and the East, got married in London and was received at Buckingham Palace. Eventually he settled in Rome. where he has lived for more than thirty years. He has published poetry in France but has never engaged in promotion of his very numerous musical compositions, which have remained mostly unpublished until recently. Very little has been written about Scelsi until now and this may be a first article for a British journal.

He was one of the first outside the Viennese circle to explore serialism, which he soon discarded. Later he was influenced by Oriental thought and music and became preoccupied with monody and with exploring micro­intervals between the notes of the chromatic scale. He has composed prolifically for large and smaller scale combinations of voices and orchestra, as well as for unaccompanied solo singers and instrumentalists. There have been occasional performances and broadcasts and a few gramophone records, but no records of the piano music.

Scelsi ceased writing for the piano in 1955 because of the limitations of the tempered chromatic scale. However, a new catalogue from United Music Publishers includes some twenty substantial piano compositions from 1930 onwards. All this music is strikingly original, and ahead of its time. Scelsl has a unique voice, which remains recognisable from the earlier piano music right through until his later works after he had abandoned the keyboard.

Eight Suites are now available, as are three Sonatas and several other sets of pieces, Suite No.2 (1930) The Twelve Minor Prophets lasts over three quarters of an hour and is expansive and richly expressive, sometimes reminiscent of early Bartok or of Skalkottas. Its gestures are those of a confident young composer claiming attention. Suite No. 5 (1935) Il Circa includes some attractively witty pieces which become outrageous harmonically and revel in building up the tension towards vigorous scrunching final cadences, I have found them marvellous studies for developing keyboard facility, Suite 8 (1952) Bot Ba evokes solemn Tibetan rituals, prayers and dances. Suite 10 (1954) Ka is a fine example of Scelsi's later piano style. with procedures which anticipate recent music by composers such as Ligeti and Berio.

The astonishing tryptich Hispania (1939) is a bizarre distillation of Spanish flamenco rhythms and gestures, transformed and assimilated into Scelsi's own idiom. The 4th Sonata (1941) has a dark. somewhat Brahmsian. 1st movement which gathers extreme harmonic and emotional tension. eventually dissipated with a cadence in the lowest depths. Four Vishnu Illustrations (1953) can be recommended to teachers as an approachable smaller set of characteristic pieces, very suitable for introducing Scelsi to adventurous piano pupils.

Scelsi brought new possibilities of expression to the piano. His music is at once clean and spare. austere and logical, yet at the same time expressive and fanciful He often starts a piece with apparently drastic self-imposed limitations, but his ideas are developed without ever relying on mechanical repetitions. There is always something unpredictable about the sequence of events, but familiarity brings a feeling of rightness and inevitability. Scelsi's keyboard layout is innovatory and indissolubly linked to his personal harmonic language. 2nds, 7ths and 9ths are used as indispensable building blocks in his musical syntax. For Scelsi, a minor 2nd chord appears to function as a single sound, rather than as two close neighbours competing for dominance. Diatonic harmony is eschewed from his earliest years, but his favourite chords are valued for their ambiguity, rather than being perceived as discordant clashes. This ambiguity is enhanced by his liking for both extreme ends of the keyboard, with complex harmonies enriched and blurred by pedalling. With hindsight, one can sense that he has been consciously straining towards the gaps between the notes. His slower music produces strange and evocative resonances. linking with his esoteric titles and the synthesis of Western and Eastern religious philosophies in his spiritual world.

For the pianist, Scelsi offers particular challenges and rewards. Numerous adjacent semitones and frequent double accidentals make his chords hard to read. At first glance they seem to need huge hands with extra fingers, but always prove to lie comfortably under the hand. Unusual hand shapes are often called for, with crossing over and spreading the thumb across two notes. Although never easy, Scelsi's piano music is always pianistic and grateful to play. Internal evidence suggests that the piano was his own instrument and he has confirmed that he worked out his scores at the keyboard. (In later years he has worked at a piano fitted with extension keyboards tuned in quarter-tones.)

Difficulties arise from the virtual absence of those repetitive patterns which can facilitate memorising, and also by his frequent demand for very fast tempi. Many of his pieces are exhilarating and would repay virtuoso performance. Difficult too is Scelsi's rhythmic style. His slow music is contemplative, with a feeling of freely floating improvisation and with performance instructions encouraging rubato and flexibility. Yet, paradoxically, the notation is meticulously detailed with extremely complex subdivisions of beats and notes placed so as to defy even fleeting and transient metrical expectations. To master such passages, one has to count furiously, yet the intended effect is often of a timeless contemplation. [q.v. Mieko Kanno: rhythm in Coelocanth (1955) by Giacinto Scelsi]

There is a fascinating paradox inherent in such music. The harmonic subtleties of the fast music can only be grasped through patient study of the chords and careful listening at a very reduced tempo. The casual listener to a performance up to tempo may receive only a general effect and miss its cunning organisation. On the other hand, the slower pieces, which are deliberately freed from any familiar metrical framework, need to be heard away from the distractions of the notated score, which can only interfere with the spirit of the music. (Suite No.9 Ttai carries a Scelsi health warning: "This suite should be listened to and played with the greatest interior calm. Restless people should keep away ".)

It therefore becomes important to study the scores oneself and also to have an opportunity to hear the musIc expertly played by professional pianists. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to this important collection of piano music and to encourage both these activities. I had not been able to hear another note of Scelsi's piano music performed professionally since that broadcast In 1981, until he was featured in the Almeida Festival of Contemporary Music in 1986.

The composer himself attended three of the concerts curated by Yvar Mikhashoff at the Almeida Festival, his first visit to England for forty years, and Yvar Mikhashoff himself gave impressive performances of his 4th Piano Sonata and the Hispania tryptich which were enthusiastically received. However. most of Giacinto Scelsi's numerous compositions for pianoforte still await discovery and should not remain ignored during the ninth decade of this unique 20th Century master who deserves fuller recognition and appreciation in his remaining years.

P. Grahame Woolf

Cutting Edge European Music 1960-2001 (PGW)

Giacinto SCELSI Natura Renovatur, Elohim, Anagamin, Viertes Streichquartett,

Klangforum Wien, Hans Zender

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-88) has featured prominently in my music writing life for a decade and a half, ever since I wrote Discovering Scelsi on my first computer for Piano Journal (Oct. 1986), one of the first UK articles about this fascinating and elusive composer.

There are particular reasons why the Scelsi CD in the latest, indispensable batch from Kairos prompted a trawl of my files. Scelsi applauded my analysis of his piano music and we had a cordial correspondence, after which I met him twice at his home overlooking the Forum in Rome, where he gave me rare copies of his privately published essays and poems. This programme of music for strings is a good introduction to a composer who can become addictive. The concise fourth string quartet is one of his best. The masterly Natura Renovatur for string orchestra is in the safe hands of one of Scelsi's most important champions, the composer/conductor Hans Zender who was in charge of historic premieres of his major works for large orchestra in Cologne (Zender sent me reel-to-reel tapes of those 1987 performances; I thought them possibly better than the Accord recordings, and they ought to be made available on CD).

The booklet is important for placing Scelsi in the third millennium as well as in the 1960s. For an excellent reason, it boasts some of the worst photography you will ever see on a CD production, blurred images from Cologne in 1987, one of them with John Cage. The following year he died and in my Obituary (The Independent, 17 August 1988) I recounted how Nouritza Matossian, the biographer of Xenakis, had taken a photographer with her to interview him, but was warned "If you take a photograph of me you will not leave this house alive; I am a Sicilian". Apart from a photo of the young Scelsi on the cover of the miniature score of his first string quartet, those are the only ones I have ever seen. [I had a camera with me when I "looked after him" for some minutes when he was attending the Almeida Festival, but didn't pluck up courage to risk a shot; no chance of avoiding images in these mobile phone/cameras days!!]

Scelsi's wilful self-mystification, and the resistance by his beneficiaries to making the controversial original manuscripts freely available for study, contributed to vitiating attempts to broker a first book in English with Harry Halbreich, whose liner notes for the Accord CDs probably still constitute the best published analyses of his music. This saga of secrecy and deliberate disinformation has contributed to polarisation of opinion and the 'Scelsi phenomenon', as it is characterised by Bern Odo Polzer's illuminating notes for Kairos, 'Work on Myth'.

Even more welcome is a five-page selection from Scelsi's own writings, including an expansion of what he demonstrated to me, how during a period of psychiatric incapacity he believes he cured himself by endlessly repeating a single note on the clinic piano, until he discovered 'the entire universe in this one sound'. From this developed his unique late style of the 1960s & '70s, with few notes explored in all timbral and microtonal possibilities; he had abandoned composing for the piano before I met him, and he showed me a primitive quarter-tone keyboard with which he was working.

Scelsi can no longer be ignored and recordings of his music are proliferating. I have no hesitation in recommending this important CD, of music which is relatively easy on open ears, as a first choice for an aural explorer, even though worlds away from mainstream music of the mid-20th century. I find his writing for strings extremely sensual and beautiful; maybe you will too? (from Seen&Heard 2002)


A 20th Century Tower of Babel
Extracts from Lecture to International Composers Master Class and Music Week Bilbao July 2001

My modern Tower of Babel reflects the exciting but daunting diversity of composing idioms and methods during the second half of the 20th Century, greater than at any time before - - There have always been composers who followed their own star, taking a chance on whether people may become interested sooner or later. - - More English people will have heard music by Giacinto Scelsi by going to see our Rambert Dance Company than at all the concerts with his music that have been given in UK - - two people very much in tune with my taste and thinking are the Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich, who is still very much with us, and Yvar Mikhashoff who sadly is no longer. Yvar Mikhashoff, responsible for programming the famous Almeida Festival in London, the most important UK new music festival in UK during the 1980s, brought to London many marvellous individualist composers, notably the reclusive Giacinto Scelsi. - - Scelsi, an eccentric Italian Count who threatened death to anyone who attempted to photograph him, illustrates the problems of composers born at the wrong time. A major Scelsi retrospective, reported as To Portugal in quest of Scelsi (2001) drew us to Lisbon last month.

Its theme, devised by Harry Halbreich, was to present a musical Salon des Refusés - towards an alternative history of 20th century music, one very close to my own heart. A group of painters in France, including Courbet, Manet & Pissarro, were rejected in 1863 by the academic jury of the prestigious biennial Paris Salon. They decided to organise their own break-away Salon des Refusés. - - Lisbon's Salon des Refusés focused upon the resurrection of some undeservedly neglected composers of the recent past, headed by Giacinto Scelsi, with Maurice Ohana , Roberto Gerhard, Stepan Wolpe and Nikos Skalkottas - - .

Scelsi (1905-1988) remains controversial and hard to evaluate. I had been hooked upon first hearing a radio programme of Scelsi's 10th suite for piano and the 2nd String Quartet. I studied his sonatas and suites very intensively and wrote some of the first articles about him published in English. There is still no book in English devoted to him; he was a perverse character who deliberately made life difficult for writers and scholars, sometimes falsifying dates of his manuscripts, and at times he even opposed having his music performed.

I visited Scelsi in Rome towards the end of his life, hoping to discuss some anomalies in his scores. I found him totally disinterested to look at them, and instead he demonstrated at the piano how a nervous breakdown led to completely new thinking about music and, particularly, about sound. He showed me how he helped his own recovery in the clinic where he was being treated, by sitting at a piano day after day playing the same single note again and again, absorbing its essence and all the sounds contained within it. Scelsi's music is still not widely known, and his larger orchestral works have still not been heard by the public in UK. It was ironical that although an excellent Flemish orchestra, conducted by Luca Pfaff (a friend of Luis de Pablo) gave fine, well prepared performances of two of them in Lisbon, only tiny audiences came to hear those concerts, put on in large concert halls....

OBITUARY (The Independent, 17 August 1988)




© Peter Grahame Woolf