Music from the Cosmos

Giacinto Scelsi extracts universal truth from one note

Frances-Marie Uitti
Scelsi: Natura Renovatur
ECM

The only photo of late-20th century Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi that turns up on a Google image search is a portrait of the artist as a young man, his bright blue eyes almost clear in their eerily steady gaze. Kodachrome notwithstanding, Scelsi preached "transparency as the way" in his compositions, his immense though esoteric body of work founded on the power of sound above other musical considerations such as pitch, harmony, and rhythm. He would be the first to admit that he himself was not a composer—structuring notes and arranging movements—but rather a messenger, an earthly emissary, an alembic distilling cosmic energies into sound. Scelsi's admirers, a group that includes several of pop's most forward-thinking contributors, consider him more of an avatar, on the plane of G.E. Gurdjieff, William Butler Yeats, and Nikolai Tesla. He even envisioned his own end "when the eights line up," and so he came to leave this world nearly 20 years ago, on August 8, 1988.

Born into Neapolitan noblesse in 1905, Scelsi studied composition and serialism, dabbling also in Eastern religions as he traveled through India and Nepal. After World War II, a mysterious illness overtook the 43-year-old, crippling him for nearly five years. Hundreds of doctors and specialists failed to get at the root of his nervous condition, so Scelsi took matters into his own hands. Drawing himself to the piano, he began to meditate on a single key, playing it for hours so as to hear the inherent depth and infinite possibilities in the note. Healed via such reflection, he abandoned the European tradition of music-making, foregoing standard musical notation to focus on improvisations born out of these extended meditations and transcendental states.

In the notes for the most recent recording of Scelsi's music, the sterling Natura Renovatur, cellist and longtime student Frances-Marie Uitti noted how Scelsi "incorporated automatic writing, trance states, breathing exercises, and meditation" into his singular, one-note sound. The piano proving too inflexible for the permutable tonalities he could perceive in his third ear, Scelsi began to use an early electronic keyboard, the ondiola. A variant on the Jenny Ondioline, this rare device has been occasionally dusted off by sonically-curious pop groups like the Beatles, Stereolab, and Radiohead (the latter two explicitly indebted to Scelsi's work, as are Spiritualized and Sunn O)))). Legend has it that there are nearly 700 hours of such meditations on tape, a fraction of which have been transcribed for strings over the decades. Natura Renovatur draws from a few of these improvisations: the tempered, understated liturgical beauty of Three Latin Prayers and the three-part Ygghur (dedicated to Uitti). Playing Scelsi's music requires a religious devotion, and lucky for us, Uitti was a star pupil. Having transcribed many of these pieces, she grasps and elucidates nuances in Scelsi's music unheard by other interpreters.

Don't confuse Scelsi's sound with new age music, though. While he may intone the sound of om, there's no mellow yoga state to be found here. When Uitti performs alongside 11 strings under the direction of Christoph Poppen on "Anâgâmin" and the title track, a heightened anxiety not unlike the climax of a Bernard Hermann score pervades. Unfettered by rational development or linear key changes, this music quivers and spasms, screams and howls, eliciting charged emotions or a state not unlike trembling before the infinite. Uitti plays as if gleaning a charged filament from the ether, expanding that thin wiry hum into clouds not so much cumulous as thunderous. Her cello swiftly ascendant into high frequencies, it soon swoops and tumbles, at times playful, other times striking with great ferocity. Revealing a sonic space heretofore unglimpsed, it evokes both the terror and exhilaration of flight in a suddenly clear sky.

 
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