A long ignored eccentric and outsider of the new music world (who never wanted his photograph to appear in connection with his music), the Italian composer and poet Giacinto Scelsi (strictly speaking Count Giacinto Scelsi di Ayala Valva, 1905-88) gained considerable recognition in the mid-1980s, just as his creative powers began to slacken. Hence he is often called the Charles Ives of Italy. While it took music publishers nearly 50 years to take on and promulgate his works, three collections of his poetry were published in French in Paris in 1949, 1954 and 1962. Scelsi was mainly a self-taught composer, but received some instruction from Giacinto Sallustio in Rome and Egon Koehler in Geneva who acquainted him with Scriabin’s work. He also studied with Walter Klein, a music theorist and friend of the Schoenberg circle who introduced him in 1936 to the music and theory of the “Second Viennese School.” Shortly thereafter Scelsi, made extended visits to Asia and became interested in Eastern philosophy, theosophy, yoga, and Buddhism, all of which affected his compositional approach as did his musical studies in Geneva and Vienna. Eventually settling in Rome, Scelsi once remarked: “Rome is the boundary between East and West. South of Rome, the East starts, north of Rome, the West starts. The borderline runs exactly through the Roman Forum. There is my house: This explains my life and my music.” Thus it is not surprising that Scelsi’s artistic ideas and compositional procedures, thwarted Western concepts of composition, improvisation, interpretation, and performance. He did not consider himself a composer, but rather a medium or vessel who transcendentally received musical messages while meditating and improvising at the piano or on the guitar and percussion instruments. Such “intuitive” or “real time” compositions were taped and transcribed and edited by others since the 1940s. (After Scelsi’s death, some of his assistants, whom Scelsi had merely viewed as interpreters of his sonic messages, publicly and provocatively claimed to be his ghostwriters.) The resulting scores, however, did not allow for flexibility or improvisation. Like Scelsi and his assistants, the performer assumes the role of a medium, who merely conveys the sounds to the audience. For Scelsi sound was cosmic energy and three-dimensional: “The sound is round like a sphere, yet when one hears it, it seems to have only two dimensions: register and duration-of the third [dimension] we know that it exists, but it escapes us in some way. The high and low overtones sometimes give the impression of a more comprehensive, manifold sound beyond duration and register, but it is difficult to comprehend its complexity.” Searching for the “third dimension” or “depth” of sound, Scelsi attempted to expand the tonal realm and focused more and more on one or two single pitches. These were treated like focal points and were reiterated or embroidered while subjected to very subtle modifications in intensity, timbre, dynamics and pitch. This approach, however, led Scelsi to embrace microtonality and write music primarily for winds, strings and voice from the mid-1950s on. Such works as Tre pezzi (1956) for trombone, Quattro pezzi su una nota sola (1959) for chamber orchestra or his last three String Quartets (1963-85) are based on single notes and their iridescent microtonal nuances. Herewith Scelsi incidentally anticipated compositional techniques developed further by La Monte Young and Phill Niblock.
How do Scelsi’s works for solo piano and piano chamber works fit into his ouvre? Most of his numerous piano compositions, among them forty Preludes, eleven Suites, four Sonatas, Quattro illustrazioni, Cinque incantesimi, and Action Music, were written in two batches, from 1930 to 1943 and from 1952 to 1956 (if one wants to trust the dates of composition given by Scelsi, who intended to fool musicologists). In 1974 Scelsi employed the piano for the last time when he created Aitsi for amplified piano and To the Master (two improvisations in collaboration with Victoria Parr) for cello and piano. Assuming a special position within Scelsi’s compositional output, his works for piano shed not only light on his outstanding pianistic talent and his abilities as an improviser, but they indicate major changes in his compositional development. Twelve-tone procedures in his early piano works reveal the influence of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. His Quattro Poemi (1936-39), for instance, of which the last piece is dedicated to Alban Berg, feature quotations from Berg’s Piano Sonata, op. 1, fourth chords and suggestions to dodecaphony. In following works such as the Second Sonata (on mode 92) and the Sixth Suite, Scelsi concentrated more and more on the exploration of pitch centers and clusters as focal points and on the autonomy of single tones or sounds. When after more then a decade-long psychic crisis, Scelsi resumed composing for the piano, he fell back upon techniques he had used in his early works, namely motivic organization contrasted by somewhat amorphous pitch or sound centers. Yet, more and more of these pieces focus on the repetition of single pitches. They also reveal meditative aspects which are emphasized by such Sanskrit-derived subtitles as Bot-ba – An evocation of Tibet with its monasteries in the high mountains: Tibetan rituals, prayers and dances, (Suite No. 8, 1952), Ttai (Suite No. 9), or Ka (Suite No. 10). In his search of the “depth” of sound and its microtonal qualities, the piano with its half-tone step limitation could no longer correspond to his artistic ideas; and as a consequence he stopped composing for this instrument in 1956. However, Scelsi did not discard the piano, which had served as one of his imperative composing aids since the mid-forties. Instead, he employed the “ondiolina,” an electric keyboard instrument which made possible quarter-tone differentiation. Aitsi, Scelsi’s last work for amplified piano solo of 1974, in which the sustained pitches are distorted, incidentally originated due to a malfunction of his tape recorder. It was ultimately arranged for string quartet in 1985.
—Sabine Feisst (from the notes to mode 92)
Cinque Incantessimi for piano - Haydée Schvartz, piano + works of Berio, Cage, Gandhini, Kagel, Pärt and R. Schumann (mode 31)
Vol. 1 The Piano Works 1 (mode 92)
Vol. 2 The Orchestral Works 1 (mode 95)
Vol. 3 Music For High Winds (mode 102)
Vol. 4 The Piano Works 2 (mode 143)
Vol. 5 The Piano Works 3 (mode 159)
Vol. 6 The Orchestral Works 2 (mode 176)
Vol. 7 The Works for Double Bass (mode 188)
Vol. 8 The Piano Works 4 (mode 227)
Vol. 9 The Works for Viola (mode 231)
Vol. 10 The Works for Violin (mode 256)