m a k i n g t i m e
I have been thinking a lot about Bach recently due to the 250th anniversary of his death and the spectacular recording projects underway to celebrate it. It is a truism that to think well about any one thing, one needs a foil from which cognition might be positioned. I have found myself repeatedly returning to an easy, but I think illuminating, contrast between Bach and Handel. Where Handel thinks through music, Bach thinks in music. Both composers think profoundly, and their musics manifest richly secured epistemologies-ways of knowing and being-but, for Handel the thought seems to exist as distinct from the musical garb in which it is represented, whereas for Bach, the thought is in the possibilities of music itself. He thinks in music.
Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) is a composer whose entire career can be charted as a quest towards thinking in music—of figuring out what musical sound is as a medium of thought. Unlike Bach, this ability does not seem to have been, by culture, training or intuition, native to this modern Italian eccentric. Rather the modernist representational styles in which he schooled himself, including serialism and expressionism, had to be rigorously un-learned and rejected in order for his interrogation into musical sound to be mounted.
More than any recent composer I know, Scelsi provides a number of conundrums for me; so let me get them on the table, even though I will not seek to resolve them.
* Since the late 1980s a steady flow of CDs of his works has been issued to the point that about half of his oeuvre is now recorded, but why are the recordings almost always on obscure hard to obtain labels-some of which remain in catalogs for only short times (Hat Hut, KAIROS, ETCETERA-to name a few)?
* And despite breathtaking performances, why are these rarely reviewed? In the last ten years, I have only seen one brief review of a Scelsi disk.
* The liner notes to Scelsi recordings oddly offer snippets of information, but rarely a coherent grounding, either biographically or musicologically. Why is he treated as an enigma? Reading these liner notes, at times, I have felt like an outsider attempting to enter a conversation already in full swing among coterie aficionados.
* Or is it that no one has figured out how to write informatively about Scelsi?
* Only by piecing such snippets together have I come to appreciate how remarkable is his achievement, even though every recording I have (and I believe I have every recording there is) on initial listening is a riveting and arresting experience. Grabbing a listener's attention and gaining a listener's comprehension and admiration are not the same thing, and for Scelsi are in fact quite disparate activities.
* How can a composer be so fortunate in his performers and remain so little discussed? Many of the disks feature a performer who has devoted a significant segment of her or his (usually a her) career to promoting Scelsi, and these are all astonishing performers in terms of their arrays of technical innovation. Marianne Schroeder's piano athleticism, Frances-Marie Uitti's astonishing cello playing using two bows at the same time, and the devoted performances by the Ardetti Quartet stand out.
Let me share a few of these snippets, perhaps as a way of enticing you to track down and listen to at least one of the Scelsi recordings.
He was heir to an ancient Italian aristocratic dynasty and always relished his inheritance that included invitations to European coronations such as Elizabeth II, but he lived as a Bohemian artist, and became a recluse in later years. Philosophically he turned to Mayan, Hindu and Celtic mythology but also wrote devout Catholic liturgical works. He spent hours at the keyboard striking one note as many different ways as he could and finding ways to notate these timbre and attack differences in his scores. He believed that music was based on a complex of properties at the level of pitches-and that western music had scarcely begun to explore or exploit these vast possibilities. In the latter part of his career, he stopped composing altogether, in the sense of writing out pre-imagined scores; instead, he resorted to a system by which he would mentally prepare himself (sometimes for days) to perform improvisatorially. His assistant, Vieri Tosatti, had learned to take down these improvisations as musical dictation-exacting and detailed. From these were produced the written and printed scores. Tosatti was incredibly skilled and accurate at notating Scelsi's dictations, but disapproved of what Scelsi produced and stated " . . . sono certo che il suo valore (della produzione scelsiana) e nullo. (I am convinced that Scelsi's work is of no value at all)" (qtd. in Hans Zender "Speculations About Scelsi," KAIROS 0012032KAI, 1999, p.14-5).
The "Canti del Capricorno" (Songs of Capricorn) for voice and various instruments is a wonderful place to begin an exploration of Scelsi. Michiko Hirayama worked with Scelsi in the production of this cycle of textless songs, nineteen of which are recorded here. Working with Hirayama, Scelsi exploits a range of vocal sounds far beyond that of singers trained in the normal western traditions. These include microtonal pitch differentiations, glissandi, an electrifying range of vocal attacks, sudden leaps of tessatura, surprising kinds of breath production in relation to pitch and volume, and various voice production qualities. The first song includes a thai-gong, numbers five and seven have a saxophone, fourteen and eighteen use percussion and for number nineteen Hirayama is both vocalist and bass recorder player. As I have discovered over the years of writing this column, finding a vocabulary to describe music is a daunting task; I have had various degrees of success, or lack thereof. But whatever descriptions I might come up with to tell you about Hirayama's singing, they would be pitifully inadequate!
As with many Scelsi works, the initial listening can produce a reaction the mixes something like terror and embarrassed laughter-particularly if the volume is turned up. This is because one is suddenly in an unfamiliar aural universe in which amazement that human musicians can produce such sounds stimulates conflicted responses. A friend walked into the room while this disk was on and asked "Is someone strangling her?"
However, a revolution occurs with revisits to Scelsi compositions. The initial conflicted and inappropriate responses soon give way to a meditative intensity that draws one inside the sounds into spaces of profound inner reflection and timelessness. Space and interiority are words that befit the Scelsi aural universe-interiority, not subjectivity. We are inside sounds, not inside an evoked psychic-spiritual subjectivity or personality. Scelsi may be a mystic, but the music works on musical terms not extra-musical associations, as say, Scriabin or Arvo Part wrosk require. Regardless of one's personal religious orientations, Scelsi's music pulls one into a space of reflection, associative drifting, and intimations of transcendence. As the revolution in listening continues with renewed familiarity, not only do the initial alarm and giggles give way to far more sustaining responses, anticipation replaces discomfort, and for me, this anticipation defines itself as absorption. Scelsi has become a composer to whom I listen with undistracted attention. The more complete my attention is, the more compete my enjoyment is.
This listener devotion that I have come to trust seems an analogy to the performer devotion that Scelsi inspires. Indeed, few composers have welded musical concept, performer, performance and aural materiality so inextricably. At the same time, in a charmingly uncanny way, I feel in my ongoing listening quest with Scelsi that I am repeating my experience thirty years ago when I first discovered the clashing dissonances and stunning harmonics of Don Carlo Gesualdo's madrigals-another Italian aristocratic odd-ball. After the freshness paled, Gesualdo came to seem simply eccentric and interesting; Scelsi, by contract, seems to invite a new musical order that may cast a long shadow over the next century similar to the one that Webern eighty years ago cast over the Twentieth Century.