Friday, April 18, 2008

Giacinto Scelsi (2) Uaxuctum

Uaxuctum was composed by Giacinto Scelsi in 1966. It is subtitled: "The legend of the Maya city, destroyed by themselves for religious reasons". The city in question seems to correspond to the largest abandoned Maya city found in the dense jungle of El Petén in northern Guatemala. Archaeologists have found there a complex of cities with more than 4000 elaborate civil and ceremonial buildings. Only a fraction of these have been excavated after decades of archaeological work. In the centre of this mystical area lie the remains of a vast plaza surrounded by 6 gigantic Mesoamerican step pyramid temples (over 60 meters high) and an impressive palace. This was the focal point of all ceremonial and religious activity in Tik'al, the largest city in this area, for almost a thousand years. In 900AD the Mayans suddenly abandoned all the cities, including the bustling Tik'al, and to this day the reason remains a mystery.

The music of Scelsi, from the very first notes, brings to life a profound sound scape of foreboding, mysticism and menace. This is truly frightening music. It has the ability to project and imprint in your mind visual scenes that your imagination is constantly re-inventing. It also brings to the forefront primordial feelings that we have tried to suppress with society and "civilization" for thousands of years.

Scelsi recreates with sound the decline and eventual demise of the Maya civilization which is at one point confronted to the "modern world". Everything progressively builds up to the decision of destruction and abandonment of the city. The music invokes the moment when the balance between the spiritual and the temporal is lost. The mythological world that you piece together from the dissociated bits of musically distilled information, opens up terrifying vistas of reality and of our frightful position therein. The mystical world of the Maya suddenly links with the present world. H.P. Lovecraft should have written the sleeve notes for this work.

When I first listened to Uaxuctum, I had the visual impression that I had entered a cave and was slowly descending the carved steps towards some unspeakable Maya happening or ritual that had already begun down there in the abyss. I had visions of shadows followed by reflections of light which would shimmer on the walls creating constantly changing shapes. I was petrified by the distorted sounds of whispers and hymns echoing their brutal and ecstatic incantations to Gods and to a certain way of life which was doomed to sink into oblivion. Black metal, sounds like children's lullabies in front of this sinister masterpiece.

Scelsi composed the work for four vocal soloists (two sopranos, two tenors, electronically amplified), ondes Martenot solo, vibraphone, sistrum, Eb clarinet, Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, double bass tuba, six double basses, timpani and seven other percussionists (playing on such instruments as the rubbed two-hundred liter can, a large aluminum hemisphere, and a two-meter high sheet of metal). The chorus is written in ten and twelve parts, incorporating all variety of micro tonal manipulations, as well as breathing and other guttural and nasal sounds.

Go for the excellent version that can be found on the 3CD set of orchestral and choir works of Scelsi as performed by the Radio-Television Orchestra and Choir of Krakow, directed by Jürg Wyttenbach (formerly on the Accord label). If the lights start flickering while you play this piece of music don't be alarmed. It's just your imagination playing tricks on you…


  1. Hey,

    Thanks for your insights on this work. I think it's really wonderful too.
    Do you know where to find more information on this legend? Do we know for a fact that he was referring to El Petén now?

    Thanks! And, again, really nice comments.


  2. Thank you for your kind words Julio. It seems, (one can never be of course 100% sure) that Scelsi actually was referring to El Petén. At least El Petén perfectly fits the description. I also found this in the internet... "Su título es una alteración —de apariencia entre exótica y latinizante— del nombre dado por los arqueólogos a la antigua ciudad maya de Uaxactún, sita en la región guatemalteca de El Petén. Como el resto de ciudades mayas, Uaxactún fue abandonada a finales del siglo VIII por razones que han permanecido largo tiempo en el misterio, habiéndose postulado desde invasiones extranjeras hasta motivaciones derivadas de su religión y mitología, pasando por otras bastante más fantasiosas; si bien al parecer recientemente se han encontrado pruebas geológicas de que la causa del declive de la civilización maya fue una brutal sequía." Hope this helps. Take care