Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Giacinto Scelsi (1) The photograph

It is the eyes. What can you see in these hypnotic transcendental eyes… Disquiet, concentration, intellect, fear, insecurity, intensity, curiosity, stubbornness, sensitivity…one can fill the page. When was this photograph taken? Probably in the 30s or maybe early 40s. We know precious little about the life of music composer Giacinto Scelsi or Count of Ayala Valva. That was of course always his intention. Photographs of him are very hard to find as he did not appreciate having his picture taken and consistently shunned publicity and even personal contacts. This rare photograph above, is one of the very few (if not the only one) that can be found. He was born on January 8th ,1905 to an aristocratic family in La Spezia in southern Italy and died in Rome in 1988. It is known that Scelsi suffered a psychological breakdown in the 40s. The story goes that he cured himself by repeatedly playing the same note on the piano over and over again. That was the starting point. And then suddenly a whole new world of infinite sound revealed itself to him in the circumference of a single note. A microcosm of harmonics, tonal shadings, timbre, dynamics, resonance and decay. From there he went on to experiment with repetition of notes, polyphony, counterpoint, harmony and toccata structures as well as modal development.

It is very difficult to distinguish fact from fiction when talking about Scelsi. First of all he did not work alone. Many times he insisted that he was not the composer but just the messenger - un postino. And throughout his career he received the help and collaboration of Roman composer Vieri Tosatti. Scelsi would receive the inspiration, he would record sound sequences on some small electronic equipment and Tosatti would do the rest preparing the scores. The two men worked closely together for almost 30 years. But no one knows exactly the details of their collaboration. In January 1989, Tosatti brought himself into the spotlight by writing an article called "Giacinto Scelsi c'est moi". He later regretted having done so and died in 2000 without revealing further information on the nature of his (Faustian?) collaboration with Scelsi.

Franco Sciannameo, who was a former member of the quartetto di Nuova Musica", in his very interesting article "Remembering Scelsi" provides some interesting anecdotes from the career of Scelsi. He writes for example what happened at a concert in Hamburg: "… a string quartet from Hamburg gave a concert in Rome at the Goethe Institute. Its programme included Scelsi’s Quartetto no.2. We were invited to attend the concert, at which the Hamburg players performed honourably, and at the end of Scelsi’s piece the first violinist invited the composer, who was present in the hall, to stand and take a bow. An upset Scelsi, though, moved rapidly to front stage and in a stentorian yet agitated tone of voice declared that the instrumentalists’ interpretation did not correspond to his wishes; therefore he could not acknowledge the audience’s applause…"

Further down Sciannameo recalls the events that took place at the world premiere of Scelsi's Quartetto no.4: "…In 1965–66 Scelsi was ready to emerge from self-imposed obscurity. Tosatti had prepared for him the scores of most of his major orchestral compositions, and many more works were in the making. Scelsi’s oeuvre was taking shape. However, it was still a secret shared by only a few.

Through the efforts of the Italian conductor- pianist Piero Guarino and the Greek composer Giannis Christou, Quartetto di Nuova Musica was invited to perform at the 1966 Hellenic Festival of Contemporary Music in Athens, Greece. The selected programme consisted of quartet music by Alfredo Casella (Guarino’s and Christou’s teacher), Franco Evangelisti, Luciano Chailly, and – with the world public premiere of Quartetto no.4 – Giacinto Scelsi.
Scelsi travelled to Greece ahead of us. There he was treated like the grand seigneur of contemporary music, and his quartet soon came to be regarded as the gem of the Festival. When the audience demanded that Scelsi’s piece be repeated, he was beside himself; for him it must have been an experience just short of apotheosis. For us, as we rearranged chairs and music stands for the encore, it was like entering a new era: the twenty-first century.

A photograph of the Quartetto di Nuova Musica was taken backstage by a reporter after the performance. It is a pity that Scelsi declined to be photographed with the group. That evening at a reception given by the Christous in their Athens penthouse to honour the festival’s participants, Scelsi and two other gentlemen performed on an upright piano a very dynamic and prolonged six-hand improvisation…"

To say that Scelsi revolutionised modern music seems an understatement if one considers the incredible variety and originality contained in the approximately one hundred musical works that he created in his lifetime. They encompass almost all genres of classical music for he composed pieces for many different instruments, for orchestra, for voice, quartet, even for ondes Martenot.

Back to the photograph. There is something slightly unsettling in these eyes. And this something is also reflected in the music of Scelsi. It is not what you would call "easy" music. It is not background music. You have to concentrate and you have to take the ride. And there is always an element of risk when you take a ride. The music of Scelsi has the power to sup you into the downward spiral that you will obligingly create with your imagination. Or as Dylan put it …As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes.


  1. Actually, on Discogs, there is another photography that is said to be him. The funny thing is that it doesn't say where the picture is from, who uploaded it or anything else.. Funny ;-j


  2. "To say that Scelsi revolutionised modern music seems an understatement [...]"

    Actually, and with all due respect, it seems like a ridiculous overstatement, no matter how one qualifies it, and not least because it elides the "Tosatti problem".

  3. Hi Kevin. Thanks for your comment. In my view the contribution of Tosatti was more of a practical nature. He would put into notes the ideas and transcribe the work of Scelsi into musical scores. The fact that he later regretted having attempted to take full credit for these works, tends also to support this argument. The work of Scelsi on tonality and the idea that one note in itself can be the subject of a musical composition were quite revolutionary at the time. But I get your point. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  4. Thanks, in turn, for your courteous response. I hope that my use of the word "ridiculous" wasn't too discourteous, by contrast, but I have heard so many statements over the years along the lines of "Charles Ives is the father of modern music" that I sometimes can't help letting my exasperation at these sorts of generalizations show.

    As to Scelsi and Tosatti, I am afraid that we shall never know the entire truth, but I suspect that Tosatti does deserve much of the credit that we give to Scelsi for what is good in his work, and also blame for what his bad (the inept way the massed brass instruments in the orchestral works sometimes lumber and career through the pieces like drunken dinosaurs, for instance).

    Whoever is responsible for the works we recognize as Scelsi's, I like several of them very much. But when I heard about the Samuragochi fraud, I have to admit that the case of Scelsi also came to mind, and that's not a good thing.