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Giacinto Scelsi
Piano Music 1952/1953

Quattro illustrazioni " Four Illustrations on the Metamorphosis of Vishnu"
Suite No.8 Bot - Ba (Tibet)
Cinque Incantesimi

Markus Hinterhauser (piano)

col legno WWE 20068 [54 mins]


Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) is one of the most individual and elusive of composers; he was given to secrecy and mischievous misinformation.

I had been bowled over by hearing a piano Suite and the Third String Quartet of Scelsi on BBC Radio 3, bought all the music I could find, and went on to write one of the first articles about his piano music for Piano Journal. Over the next years I studied all Scelsi's piano music at the keyboard, and visited him in Rome, where I found him friendly but disconcertingly unwilling to discuss details of the music and its notation. That remains open to question and a minefield for music writers; col legno's commentator writes about the 'great rhythmic precision' of the notation, but it is probably the case that some of that is apparent, resulting from attempts to notate taped recordings of the composer's improvisations.

Here is a well chosen selection of Scelsi's later piano music, which belongs to the early 1950s, and listeners will be surprised at its originality for that time. The performances are scrupulous and the recording quality superb; Scelsi is a composer who has come into his own with digital recording. The major work Bot - Ba is a half-hour ritualistic sequence of major statements inspired by monasteries and mountains of Tibet, depicted with spacious solemnity, several of the movements culminating in dizzying dances which demand transcendental pianistic virtuosity, well served by Markus Hinterhauser.

I offer readers a copy of my 1986 article, and also some extracts from Todd M. McComb's website, a valuable listings source, with a page about this favourite composer of mine and his. Lastly, an extract from an important lecture at Goldsmiths College in which the violinist/violist Mieko Kanno tackled the vexed question of uncertainties in Scelsi's published scores.

I hope readers will be encouraged to purchase this newly released CD.

Peter Grahame Woolf

DISCOVERING SCELSI (Piano Journal 7/21: 1986)

The unforgettably powerful impact of Giacinto Scelsi's Ka Suite broadcast in 1981 prompted my exploration of the piano music of this elusive and little known Italian composer, whose 80th birthday last year passed unremarked.

His is a strange story. He travelled widely in Europe and the East, got married in London and was received at Buckingham Palace. Eventually he settled in Rome. where he has lived for more than thirty years. He has published poetry in France but has never engaged in promotion of his very numerous musical compositions, which have remained mostly unpublished until recently. Very little has been written about Scelsi until now and this may be a first article for a British journal.

He was one of the first outside the Viennese circle to explore serialism, which he soon discarded. Later he was influenced by Oriental thought and music and became preoccupied with monody and with exploring micro­intervals between the notes of the chromatic scale. He has composed prolifically for large and smaller scale combinations of voices and orchestra, as well as for unaccompanied solo singers and instrumentalists. There have been occasional performances and broadcasts and a few gramophone records, but no records of the piano music.

Scelsi ceased writing for the piano in 1955 because of the limitations of the tempered chromatic scale. However, a new catalogue from United Music Publishers includes some twenty substantial piano compositions from 1930 onwards. All this music is strikingly original, and ahead of its time. Scelsl has a unique voice, which remains recognisable from the earlier piano music right through until his later works after he had abandoned the keyboard.

Eight Suites are now available, as are three Sonatas and several other sets of pieces, Suite No.2 (1930) The Twelve Minor Prophets lasts over three quarters of an hour and is expansive and richly expressive, sometimes reminiscent of early Bartok or of Skalkottas. Its gestures are those of a confident young composer claiming attention. Suite No. 5 (1935) Il Circa includes some attractively witty pieces which become outrageous harmonically and revel in building up the tension towards vigorous scrunching final cadences, I have found them marvellous studies for developing keyboard facility, Suite 8 (1952) Bot Ba evokes solemn Tibetan rituals, prayers and dances. Suite 10 (1954) Ka is a fine example of Scelsi's later piano style. with procedures which anticipate recent music by composers such as Ligeti and Berio.

The astonishing tryptich Hispania (1939) is a bizarre distillation of Spanish flamenco rhythms and gestures, transformed and assimilated into Scelsi's own idiom. The 4th Sonata (1941) has a dark. somewhat Brahmsian. 1st movement which gathers extreme harmonic and emotional tension. eventually dissipated with a cadence in the lowest depths. Four Vishnu Illustrations (1953) can be recommended to teachers as an approachable smaller set of characteristic pieces, very suitable for introducing Scelsi to adventurous piano pupils.

Scelsi brought new possibilities of expression to the piano. His music is at once clean and spare. austere and logical, yet at the same time expressive and fanciful He often starts a piece with apparently drastic self-imposed limitations, but his ideas are developed without ever relying on mechanical repetitions. There is always something unpredictable about the sequence of events, but familiarity brings a feeling of rightness and inevitability. Scelsi's keyboard layout is innovatory and indissolubly linked to his personal harmonic language. 2nds, 7ths and 9ths are used as indispensable building blocks in his musical syntax. For Scelsi, a minor 2nd chord appears to function as a single sound, rather than as two close neighbours competing for dominance. Diatonic harmony is eschewed from his earliest years, but his favourite chords are valued for their ambiguity, rather than being perceived as discordant clashes. This ambiguity is enhanced by his liking for both extreme ends of the keyboard, with complex harmonies enriched and blurred by pedalling. With hindsight, one can sense that he has been consciously straining towards the gaps between the notes. His slower music produces strange and evocative resonances. linking with his esoteric titles and the synthesis of Western and Eastern religious philosophies in his spiritual world.

For the pianist, Scelsi offers particular challenges and rewards. Numerous adjacent semitones and frequent double accidentals make his chords hard to read. At first glance they seem to need huge hands with extra fingers, but always prove to lie comfortably under the hand. Unusual hand shapes are often called for, with crossing over and spreading the thumb across two notes. Although never easy, Scelsi's piano music is always pianistic and grateful to play. Internal evidence suggests that the piano was his own instrument and he has confirmed that he worked out his scores at the keyboard. (In later years he has worked at a piano fitted with extension keyboards tuned in quarter-tones.)

Difficulties arise from the virtual absence of those repetitive patterns which can facilitate memorising, and also by his frequent demand for very fast tempi. Many of his pieces are exhilarating and would repay virtuoso performance. Difficult too is Scelsi's rhythmic style. His slow music is contemplative, with a feeling of freely floating improvisation and with performance instructions encouraging rubato and flexibility. Yet, paradoxically, the notation is meticulously detailed with extremely complex subdivisions of beats and notes placed so as to defy even fleeting and transient metrical expectations. To master such passages, one has to count furiously, yet the intended effect is often of a timeless contemplation

There is a fascinating paradox inherent in such music. The harmonic subtleties of the fast music can only be grasped through patient study of the chords and careful listening at a very reduced tempo. The casual listener to a performance up to tempo may receive only a general effect and miss its cunning organisation. On the other hand, the slower pieces, which are deliberately freed from any familiar metrical framework, need to be heard away from the distractions of the notated score, which can only interfere with the spirit of the music. (Suite No.9 Ttai carries a Scelsi health warning: "This suite should be listened to and played with the greatest interior calm. Restless people should keep away".)

It therefore becomes important to study the scores oneself and also to have an opportunity to hear the musIc expertly played by professional pianists. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to this important collection of piano music and to encourage both these activities. I had not been able to hear another note of Scelsi's piano music performed professionally since that broadcast In 1981, until he was featured in the Almeida Festival of Contemporary Music in 1986.

The composer himself attended three of the concerts, his first visit to England for forty years, and Yvar Mikhashoff gave impressive performances of his 4th Piano Sonata and the Hispania tryptich which were enthusiastically received. However. most of Giacinto Scelsi's numerous compositions for pianoforte still await discovery and should not remain ignored during the ninth decade of this unique 20th Century master who deserves fuller recognition and appreciation in his remaining years.

P. Grahame Woolf

Dr. P. Grahame Woolf is a consultant psychiatrist and amateur pianist with longstanding interest in contemporary music. He has produced LP records of 20th century songs issued by Unicorn & Turnabout.


Scelsi: Piano Works (extract from review) (Todd M. McComb)

- - After 1948, Scelsi abandoned composing for a few years only to emerge with his new style in 1952. The beginning of this period is again concerned almost exclusively with the piano, the following pieces being written at that time: Suite No. 8 (1952), Four Illustrations (1953), Five Incantations (1953), Suite No. 9 (1953), Suite No. 10 (1954), Action Music (1955), and Suite No. 11 (1956). - - The Suite No. 8 "Bot-Ba (Tibet)" is subtitled: "Evocation of Tibet with its monasteries on high mountain summits - Tibetan rituals - Prayers and Dances". Though it is described as less(!) violent than the Suite No. 6, the Suite No. 8 makes much use of toccata-style movements largely based on clusters. These alternate with slower meditative sections based on slow chord ostinatos, with still a hint of Schoenberg in the connecting sections. This Suite is immediately attractive for any barbarians who might like cluster toccatas and percussive devices, as it is still largely concerned with aggressive motion, despite the title. However, it is still successful at evoking Tibet -- or at least the recorded Tibetan music I have heard, which is more than a little dissonant. The suite is in six movements with the "center" in the third based on the golden section. This is followed by an extremely dissonant movement, then the slowest movement of the suite, and then the complex Bartokian finale. Bartschi's playing is admirable, particularly in the extremely virtuosic finale.

The Four Illustrations and Five Incantations are recorded by Suzanne Fournier on Accord 200742. These works are much shorter than the Suites 8 & 9, and the Four Illustrations in particular is more concentrated in form. This piece is in four movements describing four avatars of Vishnu, and might be said to correspond roughly to a sonata -- in particular the Four Illustrations occupy the same position in Scelsi's middle output with respect to the piano sonata as does the massive orchestral work Aion with respect to the symphony. Both conclude with slow, fading resolutions. The Four Illustrations is charged with a variety of ideas, and is a piece I continue to find fascinating after more than a hundred hearings -- I have little doubt that it is Scelsi's finest piano piece. For the most part it is a slow work based on murky passage-work in the middle registers and subtle interactions between the movements; the violent Varaha Avatar (as scherzo) is the exception. The Four Illustrations begins Scelsi's concentration on slow and static music. The Five Incantations are much simpler in conception -- though quite virtuosic pianistically, each is basically independent with a clearly identifiable theme. They might be described as rhapsodies, or possibly etudes. - -


- - In the session about performance practice, Mieko Kanno was especially challenging in her examination of notated scores and differing views about how complex rhythms may be treated. She distinguished rhythm from metre, and the conflict between 'accuracy' and expression of underlying meaning, taking the confusions and uncertainties in the published score of Scelsi's Coelocanth for viola solo, which she played in the evening concert, for particular consideration. - -