Giacinto Scelsi (pronounced Ja-si-to Shell-see) has been called the Charles Ives of Italy. For almost 50 years he has been writing music which, like that of the American iconoclast, has little to do with the usual practices of contemporary music. One could say that the way his dissonant music hammers away at particular pitch centers is reminiscent of Varese, or that the consistent moods maintained by many of his pieces reflect forms found in recent minimalism. One might even say that he has something in common with Morton Feldman in his taste for extreme registers, unusual colors, and quirky changes. But these are only vain attempts to describe a sort of music that isn’t like any other.
Over the years, Scelsi’s music has received a few major presentations under Monteux and Desormieres and at Tanglewood, but at 75, he remains little known in Europe and almost completely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Yet the one Scelsi piece I heard a couple of years ago piqued my interest, as had a number of comments from knowledgeable musicians who admire his work. So I was quite pleased when, on a recent visit to Rome, composer Alvin Curran offered to introduce me to the man.
The report of our visit might best begin with the observation that Scelsi is a count, and thus independently wealthy. That helps to explain why his house lies in an exclusive district in Rome, and has a drawing room that looks directly onto the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum. His freedom from material concerns also provided leisure time which he used to visit the Orient, to consider spiritual and philosophical questions, and to produce over 100 carefully notated compositions for all sorts of vocal, instrumental, and orchestral groupings. But then, Scelsi’s unique personal circumstances may also help to explain why publishers, performers, and record companies have not provided many outlets for his work, and why he has seldom turned to such people. Noblesse oblige.
As the elderly but still vital man spoke that afternoon, it became clear that his attitude toward his career is a little different today. Not that he feels neglected or frustrated. Scelsi is clearly the sort of man who long ago solved any ego problems he might have had. He did, however, express concern that many of his works have never been performed. When he hears one of his scores for the first time, he usually finds that he wants to make some adjustments, and in the case of many unplayed works, he has not had an opportunity to do this. So now it bothers him that his time might run out while imperfections still lurk in untested scores. He recently turned over his entire catalogue to the G. Schirmer firm, where they are gradually, extremely gradually, becoming available in printed facsimile editions, and he spoke with pleasure about forthcoming performances and recording projects.
In the case of a composer so eccentric, so prolific, and so little discussed, it would be foolhardy to try to draw immediate
conclusions about how his music is made, even if I had access to all of it. And since all I have to go on is one recording, six small scores, and a dim recollection of a live performance of ‘Rucke di Guck,’ a curious duet for piccolo and oboe, I can hardly offer the final word. I can say with some confidence, however, that the music works, that it works in a completely unique way, that it is far more mystical than rational, and that sooner or later it will have to be reckoned with.
One of the more remarkable things about Scelsi’s work is its stylistic consistency. An early work like the Piano Sonata of 1939 rises, falls, changes tempos, and develops itself quite purposefully, while ‘Pranam I’ of 1972 is more adrift, less predictable, less concerned about going anyplace in particular, and ends unexpectedly. One might say that the early work functions vaguely in the world of expressionism, while the later one transcends such categories. But the basic vocabulary is the same in both pieces, and in everything else of Scelsi’s that I have seen or heard. There are always dissonant harmonies, jagged rhythms, radical inconsistencies in motivic organization, crazily asymmetrical forms, and slow underlying melodies that hold everything together.
Those underlying melodies are perhaps the most distinctive thing about Scelsi’s compositions. His music generally focuses on one or two pitches at a time. Usually these essential pitches are reiterated strongly and returned to frequently, so that they become tonics in an odd sort of way. Yet these focal points can move. It’s hard to tell where the focus will go or whether it will eventually return to the original pitch, but in some way the slow progression of focal points forms a kind of underlying melody, deeply buried below all the details of the music. This process somehow makes Scelsi’s seemingly incoherent forms cohere rather neatly. The general procedure is easy to hear on Scelsi’s 1978 album (Ananda No.3), which features Michiko Hirayama, a wonderful singer who uses a nonverbal vocal style that she and Scelsi developed together. Another particularly clear example is the Three Pieces for Solo Trombone, which could salvage many trombone recitals.
A number of Scelsi’s works have Sanskrit titles, and I had been told of his interest in Oriental thought, so I broached this subject at our late afternoon meeting. The composer did not volunteer to discuss his personal religious views, or to say whether he practices any form of Eastern meditation, but he did speak about one matter that clearly concerned him a great deal.
‘Zen has been so misinterpreted in the West,’ he began, as I recall. ‘People think if they scramble things together by chance, or improvise according to their feelings of the moment, that this has something to do with Zen. But such things are just the opposite of Zen. If you meditate for a long time, and your mind becomes completely calm, then you are free.’ He demonstrated by placing his hands in a meditating position, then setting one arm free in a long wandering gesture.
‘But if you try to avoid that preparation, you are not practicing right action, but merely reaction.’ To demonstrate this process he gripped one wrist tightly and then suddenly let it go so that his arm flew out in an erratic uncontrolled pattern.
Did this demonstration explain how his music is written or how it should be listened to? Well, I can certainly recommend considering the question as you listen to Scelsi’s music. Perhaps you will find, as I did, that there is a certain mystical clarity even in some of the murkiest parts of his pieces.
By the time we left, the sun had set, and the towering ruins of the Forum had become dark shadows against the night sky. These omens of the past, mingled with the sounds of the modern city, sent massive contradictions reverberating through my head, and momentarily I began to question whether I really knew anything about anything, or ever would. It was a little like listening to Giacinto Scelsi’s music.