The Strange Cello Music of Giacinto Scelsi

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SCELSI: Trilogia – The Three Stages of Man (Triphon; Dithome; Ygghur). Voyages / Marco Simonacci, cel / Brilliant Classics 95355

I’ve already reviewed one CD of Scelsi’s music on this blog, but this one is quite different. It concentrates on a solo instrument, playing bare and naked with nowhere to hide, and illustrates quite clearly how far ahead of his time this Italian composer really was.

From the first bars of Trilogia – The Three Stages of Man, we’re imeediately aware of his unorthodox musical style. The cello is playing in quarter-tones, occasionally buzzing or otherwise distorting his tones. Even when the music becomes much busier, there are so many strange and difficult moments in the work that it sounds like György Ligeti on acid. The only question I have, which remains unanswered, is whether or not Scelsi was influenced in any way by Harry Partch, the maverick American composer who spent most of his life building and writing for quarter-tone and microtonal instruments. What is certain is that he studied in Vienna with Arnold Schoenberg, organized concerts of the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith and Shostakovich, and was later influenced by Eastern spirituality which radically changed his concepts of music.

The Three Stages of Man are youth-energy-drama (three movements), maturity-thought (one long movement) and a final catharsis (three movements). The last section of the first “stage” is quite busy and edgy-sounding, with jagged musical lines and, later, high-range sustained notes. In the middle section (titled “Dithome”), Scelsi works at first within a very small range of tones, focusing rather on a “wavering” and distorted sound. At about the five-minute mark, however, the music becomes increasingly busy and agitated, perhaps representing a flood of competing thoughts in the mind. Later on, after some repeated tenuto notes, we hear the cellist playing odd chorded figures, followed by more unusual pitch distortions within rapid passages. Muvh of the first piece in the third section, titled “Igghur: Alter,” consists for the most part of these wavering tones in a sequence where the underlying rhythm is constantly in flux. The strange “buzzing” sound in the second piece, “Igghur: Erinnerung,” is a constant feature, around which the cellist apparently taps the body of his or her instrument as it goes along.

The two-movement Voyages, dating from 1974, uses similar techniques such as disembodied harmonies and his patented slow, microtonal glissandi. This is especially apparent in the second movement, which almost sounds like someone playing Indian music on a sitar, with its quick wavers played like fluttering tones. Although it’s always difficult to say how much such feelings can be conveyed in music, if one knows these associations it is not difficult to hear them in the playing of Marco Simonacci. His astounding technique and full tone give these works, originally written for Scelsi’s good friend Frances-Marie Uitti, their full measure of both emotional and musical values.

Scelsi did not “develop” his music along conventional classical lines, but rather used a continually changing timbre and density of sound to make his points. Thus the average classical aficionado will undoubtedly feel lost listening to these works, but I urge you to give them a try. They may not be to your taste, but they will certainly open up your mind if you give them half a chance.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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