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Giacinto Scelsi Piano works 3 & 4


The Piano Works 3

Aki Takahashi, piano

Suite No. 10 "Ka" (1954)
Quattro Illustrazioni (1953)
Sonate No.3 (1939)
Cinque Incantesimi (1953)
Un Adieu (1978/88?)

Aitsi for amplified piano (1974)

mode 159

Giacinto Scelsi abandoned the piano after discovering the richness within a single note and becoming engrossed with microtones. However, his catalogue of piano music is extensive and important.

I was amongst the earliest to study and write about it in UK and for a year and more it became part of my daily piano practice routine. One discovers that despite forests of accidentals, the dense chords mostly lie comfortably under the hand.

I was invited to visit Scelsi in his home overlooking the Rome Forum, where he told me how his insightful parents did not curb his wild improvisations on the piano as a child. Later, after a serious crisis necessitating in-patient treatment, he recovered control of his disturbed mind by playing one and the same note endlessly on the clinic piano, and demonstrated it to me at some length.

That later generated his best-known work, the Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola (1959) which is the title theme for a London Sinfonietta concert scheduled for next year, the thirtieth anniversary of Scelsi's death.

He showed us around his room, with valuable artwork by Dali et al, but repeated his familar warning about photography, of which he is superstitious*.

We had to be content with his 'sign', a line under a circle.[But see a rare photo in musicaltimes.]

Unfortunately a second visit, to discuss the scores in more detail, came up against the death earlier that day of his close friend Henri Michaux, dedicatee of the Cinque Incantesimi in Aki Takahashi's selection; he felt too distressed to talk and sent us away with his chauffeur. There was no further opportunity to meet before we returned home.

A revival of interest in Scelsi's piano music is in full flood (q.v. my writings collected around the review of a fine release by Hinterhauser) and although my efforts to broker publication of a first book in English about Scelsi foundered (it was hoped that Harry Halbreich's extensive analytic notes for Accord's releases would have become its basis) there is now a growing body of literature and the essays in mode's Scelsi collection are invaluable.

Aki Takahashi's program offers a representative selection, largely made up of works which she prepared with the composer. They are mainly works I had come to know and love; the spur to my in depth involvement was a BBC broadcast of Quattro Illustrazioni and "Ka", which bowled me over and, for a few years, changed my life!

In general, the filming is low-key and undistracting; you feel as if you are in the studio with the pianist and can watch or not as you feel inclined (just as in a live recital). You get views of the pages of the score, but not close or sharp enough to follow; that to my regret. The booklet carries an excellent six-page analytic essay by Andrea Olmstead.

There are a couple of novelties, the late Un Adieu, filmed with the pianist gradually fading into invisibility, and Aitsi, Scelsi's experiment with electro-acoustic transformation, imaginitively filmed and to be seen only on the DVD version, which I would urge you to choose.

Peter Grahame Woolf

The Piano Works 4

Hispania “Triptyque pour piano” (1939)
Suite No. 5 “Il Circo” (1935)
Suite No. 6 “I Capricci di Ty” (1939)
[All first recordings]

Stephen Clarke, piano

mode 227 (CD)

This latest Scelsi release by Mode is particularly exciting. I studied these works at the piano during Giacinto Scelsi's latter years and came to love, especially, Hispania, which I have never heard performed professionally until now.

The Canadian pianist, Stephen Clarke, has the measure of them all and his commanding performances are superbly recorded.

Of especial interest is Benjamin R. Levy's commentary, which brings together scattered information and places Scelsi's piano works (these from 1930-41) in context, scotching any notion that they are less important than his later music which emerged from an obsessive exploration of the depths within single notes and individual tones during a period of serious ill health after the War, which eventually led towards the emergence of Spectralism.

Hispania has a recognisable Spanish feeling and stylization which helps to make it one of the most accessible of his major piano works. This music is difficult, and the Capricci for his wife (whom he called Ty) are dissonant to the limit. I discovered at the keyboard that often what looks impenetrable on the page proves to be surprisingly comfortable under the hands; if not so up to speed...

Scelsi is definitely a "composer pianist".

The more compact Il Circo suite ("Circus" in its various meanings) is less densely scored and easier to approach, with connections to older suites as collections of dances. The pieces are shorter than others in this album, "aerated", and and not too dense, many of them to my mind, rhythmic and decidedly witty.

I see no reason why they should not be popular for pianists who like to vary their programmes with something "modern" or "contemporary" - if you can say that for 1935.

This latest disc brings it all back to me like none other. In my copy of “I Capricci di Ty” I found a relic, the programme of a recital before a tiny BMIC audience which I'd forgotten (Maria Carla Notarstefano, 1993 [L]). Despite growing interest internationally, since then his solo piano music has been heard here but rarely. Time for some young pianists to look him up?

Did "Ty" appreciate her Capricci? Is there any reliable record of her response to her husband's music? Start listening with No 24 Capriccioso - that one and the last few may well have been received as affectionate portraits of a capricious personality?


Ty was Dorothy Kate Ramsden (d. 1978) a divorced Englishwoman, whose daughter from a later third marriage was Katie Boyle, a TV celebrity I remember well...

Dorothy had left Scelsi after the War, perhaps precipitating what turned out to be his musically fruitful breakdown; has her story ever been told?


Is this the same Dorothy

The names which come up searching Scelsi on Google are redolent of past magnificence; Giacinto Scelsi - Count of Ayala Valva; Marchese Demetrio Imperiali dei Principi di Francavilla, marriage at Buckingham Palace, etc...

Giacinto Scelsi was notoriously secretive and misleading; at our brief visit to his home - arranged not without difficulties - we found him disinterested to address queries about his scores. It was ended, after he'd demonstrated his one-note "cure", by his giving us a set of his privately published poems in French, and sending us away in his chauffeur-driven car...

I hope that Mode's persistent championship of one of the truly unique creators of 20 C music will filter across to UK again. A firm believer in reincarnation, he liked to think of himself as the vessel through whom the music came into being through him, and repudiated the description "composer". With so many composers jostling for a spot in our focus weekends and festivals, a full reappraisal in our contemporary music concert scene is overdue; Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) is a composer for the 21st century, not just a peculiar historical figure from the last.

Peter Grahame Woolf

*Stephen Clarke has kindly sent me some pages from MusikTexte issue 101 (May 2004) with some information about Scelsi and England, and with this rare photo of Dorothy Ramsden by a grand English oak, apparently taken by Scelsi himself (presumably before he became phobic about cameras !)



See also recital review Jan 2011:Scores That Dare the Ear (NYTimes Jan 2011)






Scelsi in MusicWeb:
00 [PGW 1]
" - - 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 of Scelsi with John Cage.

* The following year he died and in my Obituary (The Independent, 17 August 1988) I recounted how Nouritza Matossian, Xenakis' biographer, had taken with her to interview him a photographer who 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.

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 illness he believes he cured himself by endlessly repeating a single note on the 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?


Finally, for the burdgeoning of interest in this composer,
see updated Scelsi Discography - http://www.medieval.org/music/modern/scelsi/discs.html