There has been a proliferation of releases lately of the music of Giacinto Scelsi. The Mode and Accord labels are both currently releasing their respective Scelsi Editions and there are many other labels getting in on the act too, though actual performances on these shores of the difficult music are still few and far between.
The works presented on this new release from the Neos label are mainly orchestral, performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The works include the Quattro Pezzi (su una nota sola) for orchestra – probably Scelsi's most famous work and the first from his mature period to have been performed (in 1959 to general uninterest) – and go up as far as Natura Renovatur from 1967 for eleven strings. They therefore present us a vista on such elaboration as occurred in Scelsi's style over the course of the '60s –more a refinement of that style than any great change in its substance.
Scelsi's life story, if you are unaware of it, certainly makes for a good myth to accompany the music. Born in 1905 into wealthy Italian nobility – he was a Count whose wedding reception was held in Buckingham Palace – his early musical studies led to the initial development of a compositional style in the twelve-tone avant-garde idiom of his day, before he underwent a mental health crisis in the late 1940s which put paid to his activity for a few years. While recovering from this illness in a clinic he would sit at a piano for extended periods of time playing one note, over and over again. Of this he later commented: 'If you play one note for a very long time, it grows large. It grows so large that you hear many more harmonies, and it becomes larger inside. The note envelops you. In the note you discover an entire universe with overtones that you never hear otherwise. The note fills the space you are in, surrounds you, you swim in it.' Something of a recluse (few photos of him exist), he died in 1988 having largely ceased composing in the previous two decades and having only begun in his later years to have widespread recognition as a composer of import.
The method used in the pieces for which Scelsi is famous and all of which were composed after his breakdown was to improvise extensively on one note and record the results onto tape, this later being transcribed in score by an assistant. Scelsi did not think of these works as compositions with an author in the conventional sense but as snapshots of something more profound and of which the composer was something of an intermediary. His work has been quite influential in contemporary music, with Tristan Murail encountered his work while based in Rome after winning the Prix de Rome and John Cage among other American composers who specifically sought out the Italian.
The music is audibly distinctive, in its obsessive exploration of a sound that has been reduced to the process of pitch, and generally makes for an intense listen. Neither has its reception been without controversy. Scelsi is still more or less unrecognised in Italy, with one of his transcription assistants recently asserting that, although he helped in scoring it, he considers Scelsi's music to be of absolutely no value. Lyricism such as permeated previous Italian music is herein exterminated in the face of an articulation that each work spends its duration prying open.
It is hard to know what to say in response to a music that is so removed from the conventions of melody, harmony and rhythm – that indeed reduces music to a decomposed pitch, a pitch no longer operating as unitary value but as access to the sound it allows to course through it in myriad distortions, with microtonal movements and variances of articulation and dynamic acting as an engine to drive the music's incessant motion. The notion of process engaged herein influenced the spectral composers and also displays kinship with the process-based compositions of American minimalism, for example that initial version of minimalism pioneered by La Monte Young. The listening experience in the case of Scelsi is quite extreme and sometimes even harrowing; Natura Renovatur in particular on this disc seems to explore every possible detail within the range of a sixth or so in a manner that becomes more and more shrill as the piece progresses, erring towards aural violence.
The performance of such strong and unorthodox music is difficult to bring across but the performances here are matchless, executed with a refinement that does each work real justice. The recording quality also is crisp and conveys well the depth of the music in its richness of harmonic overtones, the recording coming across as something of an authoritative representation. The works are all of a piece in their adherence to Scelsi's concern with the vast universe to be explored via the threshold of single pitches, and so run into each other in the disc as a complete listening experience, offering up different glances towards the infinity of sonority into which they bound.
By Liam Cagney