Music: Giacinto Scelsi - Konx-Om-Pax 1 and 2 - Buddhist inspiration - Two notes by Todd M. McComb - Links to more GS - Recommended

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Giacinto Scelsi 

Giacinto Scelsi - Konx-Om-Pax  1

Scelsi: Konx-Om-Pax

GIACINTO SCELSI was born into an old family of Italian aristocracy on 8 January 1905 in La Spezia and died in Rome on 9 August 1988. Konx-Om-Pax, perhaps the most straight-forward of his six mature orchestral works, was set to full score in 1968 & 1969. Scelsi's ascendance from obscurity occurred in the mid-1980s, and was consummated in October 1987 at the SIMC International Festival in Cologne where his symphonic music was featured to great acclaim. Like many of his works, Konx-Om-Pax was premiered in the months leading up to the Festival, on 6 February 1986 in Frankfurt by the Hessian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jürg Wyttenbach. [Note: It appears that this information is incorrect, and that Konx-Om-Pax was premiered in Venice on 10 September 1970.] This is the North American premiere, and a followup to the San Francisco Symphony's successful performance of Aion on 12 June 1997, also under Michael Tilson Thomas. That concert was the North American debut for Scelsi's orchestral music as a whole. Konx-Om-Pax is scored for chorus and large orchestra, including full strings, but without flutes and including an organ part.

His personal eccentricity and the unusual route of his rise to prominence have combined to produce wildly differing impressions of Scelsi the man and the composer. His aristocratic position and resulting means lent a dilettantish quality to his early background, in spite of a conspicuous study of the major musical trends of the time. In 1935-36, after he had already written several large-scale works, Scelsi studied the Viennese style with Walter Klein, a student of Schoenberg, and went on to declare an allegiance to Berg's version of tonal dodecaphony. He next studied Scriabin's harmonic vocabulary with Egon Koehler in Geneva, and the resulting combination of mystical & chordal thinking clearly marks the remainder of his career. He continued to compose, in a mostly conventional style which attained something of a personal character apart from these influences. For instance, although it was written prior to the "break" in his career, Scelsi's String Quartet No. 1 is a work of considerable quality, and one of the few from this period which he continued to embrace. To escape World War II, Scelsi abandoned his family's Neapolitan estate for the safety of Switzerland, and wrote two articles there on music aesthetics. These are his last public remarks on the subject. The dense French prose is sometimes insightful and sometimes contradictory, a combination which Scelsi's later poetic aphorisms take to extremes of concision.

Scelsi's life story becomes more mysterious after this period, a situation he maintained intentionally. He resisted any attempt to analyze his music, refused to be photographed, and generally removed himself from public view. All of these decisions followed quickly in the wake of his mental breakdown in the late 1940s, a crisis from which he apparently recovered only very slowly. According to later reports, the only therapy which helped him was sitting and striking a single piano key again & again, listening for the slight differences in each individual sound. This is also how he reinvented himself as a composer, finally reappearing in an old house overlooking the Roman Forum in 1951, ready to compose in a completely new idiom. Scelsi's gentility did not suffer as a result of his ordeal, or along with his retreat from public view. He entertained regular visitors, principally musicians, and was described uniformly as impeccably polite, yet with probing bright blue eyes. Scelsi's working arrangements during the period of his artistic maturity were also unusual, although not unprecedented. His music was scored in several steps, beginning with frequently improvised performances by himself onto audio tape which were transcribed by paid assistants, and then scored according to his instructions. His partially cataloged musical output consists of more than one hundred items, including the six mature orchestral works, five string quartets, several works for larger chamber ensembles, and a substantial body of solo & duo pieces. Scelsi frequently made use of the human voice, often treated instrumentally, and published four volumes of French poetry.

Although many of his works are for solo instruments, and his chamber music is often detailed enough in its demands that it places unusually high emphasis on individual musicianship, Konx-Om-Pax is perhaps Scelsi's prototypical large-scale expression and an ideal introduction to his oeuvre. It also includes one of his most discursive subtitles: "Three aspects of Sound: as the first motion of the immutable; as creative force; as the syllable Om (the Buddhists' sacred syllable)." Taken together, the title & subtitle serve to indicate most of Scelsi's principal influences, as well as the frequently muddled way he referred to them. Fascination with ancient mythology and other cultures around the world is often expressed in Scelsi's titles. In this case, the title is straight-forward: It consists of three words arguably translating to "peace" in Assyrian, Sanskrit, and Latin, respectively. It also shows a dilettantish approach to scholarship, despite what is an evident erudition, in e.g. the attribution of the Hindu syllable "Om" to the Buddhists. Perhaps even more illustratively, Konx-Om-Pax is the title of a 1907 neo-hermetic text by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), in this case subtitled "Essays in light." Crowley is best known for the commandment "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" and in fact the alternative religion he founded, Thelema, continues to have a loyal following. Like Crowley's, one can view Scelsi's use of muddled & tangled references to various & sundry historical ideas and cultures as allusions designed to merely indicate what are more unified underlying truths. Like Crowley, Scelsi rarely "argues" as such -- he indicates.

Scelsi adopted the non-rationalist position enthusiastically, describing himself not as a composer, but as a messenger. The conspicuous examples of correlative & lateral thinking which abound in Scelsi's allusions are characteristic of creativity at many levels, and consequently no indication that his actual artistic production suffers from a similar pastiche. Indeed, Scelsi's mature music is highly unified in gesture, direct & coherent in approach, making for perhaps its greatest contradiction. While reasonably straight-forward on its own terms, it does demand from listeners the suspension of many pre-conceived ideas on music, constructed as it is in a radically different manner. Although long considered baffling & unprecedented, in retrospect, Scelsi's fundamental concerns were actually fairly typical of the 1960s. His interest in world music, and especially Eastern mysticism, was very much in the air and was reflected in both the classical & popular spheres. More technically, his approach to sound and timbre are realistic answers to the questions posed by the avant-garde of that era, specifically in such poles as Stockhausen's "timbre-music" and Cage's abdication of compositional control. In Scelsi's case, the former is especially prominent, as timbre shifts frequently serve as the primary dynamic around which individual movements are constructed. Inspired by the repeated striking of the piano from his clinical recovery, Scelsi erected entire forms around single notes, articulated in various octaves by various instruments. The timbre of the note-complex is varied by shifts in orchestration, as well as by microtonal slurs which serve to inject a dynamism into what might otherwise be a static sound. Scelsi's human concerns are also evident, as he rarely used any electronic devices to break down timbre in this way, instead giving it a formal role through a kind of organic motion which Stockhausen's superformulæ never seem to fully realize. Likewise, although Scelsi's work leaves little to chance and contains little silence, his concerns regarding our connection to a universal consciousness expressed through the always-changing sound of a single note mirror Cage's in some ways. Scelsi's resolution of these issues appeared on the public scene only in the 1980s, lending his musical ideas an exoticism they may not have had otherwise.

A discussion of Scelsi's artistic concerns and the demands he makes on listeners overstates the actual difficulty of his music. Although there is frequently a mental "leap" required, advanced musical training or erudition are not prerequisites. Indeed, experience suggests that Scelsi's music may be easier to grasp initially for someone with only modest experience in contemporary music and few pre-conceived notions. It is not elitist music at all. Scelsi is sometimes described as a minimalist, and in that he could be seen as a forefather of the minimalist movement, yet his music is packed with activity. Although it may involve only one note for extended periods, that note will be restated in parallel intervals, slurred, or varied in orchestration in a continuous way throughout the piece. Indeed, there is a classical balance of activity in Scelsi's music which serves to give it a density of ideas very comparable to Mozart's. What Scelsi does, however, is place that activity into directions orthogonal to the usual course of musical argument. The fundamental motion in Scelsi's music is interior, as one note mutates into another note through a process beginning with shifts in timbre. Within that idiom, once grasped, the ideas are expressed succinctly and cogently.

In the case of Konx-Om-Pax, the subtitle provides a clear orientation for the music. In the first movement, an opening C becomes larger & larger, until it is slowly destabilized by what begin as timbral and then quarter-tone variations, only to reassert itself. Although unified in gesture, the movement has an unsettling quality arising from the motion driven by microtones. It is a fine example of Scelsi's ability to let a small inflection drive a larger form. The overall sonority and articulation style, reminiscent of a bell, are also vintage Scelsi. The brief second movement starts slowly on a main pitch of F, only to become increasingly animated and even violent. It is a sudden explosion of dissonance which ends just as one grasps what has happened. As in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the chorus enters only in the last movement. In Scelsi's case, it brings a quintessential evocation of peace by repeatedly chanting the syllable "Om" on a main pitch of A. The chorus is surrounded by various destabilizing musical gestures which it nonetheless succeeds in unifying. Both of the larger outer movements have a relatively simple bipartite form, building to an initial climax which is followed by a central calm and then a reassertion of the original musical dynamic. Despite a relatively simple general description, the range of harmonic material swirling around the central "Om" of the last movement resists a naïve interpretation, as does the overarching tonal sequence (C-F-A) of the symphony as a whole. Whereas Crowley used light as the central metaphor of his text, Scelsi's cosmology-in-sound yields a very real, haunting sound. When it ends, the return to silence is palpable.

Todd M. McComb
21 January 2000


Konx-Om-Pax 2

[This section was not commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony for their program notes, but is nonetheless some discussion I wanted to add. As it turned out, most of the first paragraph below was actually included as part of an introduction to the program. Beyond that, this full article would have been both longer than they wanted, as well as more speculative than might have been appropriate. This part takes up immediately upon the conclusion of the previous part, to form one longer essay.]

Konx-Om-Pax is typical of Scelsi's work in its mythological character, and in the almost universal force with which it seems to will itself out of silence. It is elemental in sonority, like an unstoppable force of nature. Nonetheless, especially given the programmatic subtitle, it is tempting to perceive a more personal narrative. It opens with the self-confident C, asserting itself boldly and almost naïvely with no sense of consequence. The action of the C itself, the forces inherent to its nature, eventually overcome its confidence and destabilize it. Next comes an influx of powerful creative energy in the dynamic second movement. We can view it as Scelsi's own transfiguration as a composer. In the last movement, the "Om" chorus repeats itself, unperturbed by the surrounding musical motion, except as regards loudness and phrasing. It remains rock solid on its A and consequently on its intent, and so despite the myriad activity and forces of the world around it, maintains a state of inner peace. This is a relatively simple interpretation, but one to which Konx-Om-Pax lends itself. Ultimately, however, it is a work which expresses these ideas very powerfully, and so finds its ultimate success in that power.

Not only does it contain some of his most prototypical & potent gestures, but Konx-Om-Pax occupies a clearly privileged position within Scelsi's musical output as a whole. It concludes what I have called the third period of his musical production, and does so convincingly. After the more conventional first period, and the more unsettled experimentation of the second period, the third period contains much of Scelsi's best (or at least most expansive) music. The works are of uniformly high quality and clear expression. By the fourth period, Scelsi had retreated even more into the truncated world of aphorism, and at times his works from the 1970s can be too polished. A fine example of this phenomenon is the next & final choral-orchestral piece: Pfhat, written in 1974. Here a similar sequence of illustrations is employed: Mundane reality destabilizes itself, there is a creative injection, and then mystical revelation. Pfhat is even more concise & severe than Konx-Om-Pax, not to mention somewhat derivative, and so therefore clearly the lesser work. Its impression rests more on "shock" value in the last movement than on the deliberate exposition of Konx-Om-Pax. The finely chiseled expression of Scelsi's fourth period can, however, be quite effective in its own right. In particular, the small string pieces continue to project a luminous quality, one which may even be intensified by their economy. Scelsi moved rather decisively from the orchestral idiom in his late work, marking Konx-Om-Pax as at least one climax to his oeuvre.

Unlike Aion, Konx-Om-Pax does not attempt a truly symphonic argument, at least not from the perspective of rhetoric and dialectic. However, it is not a wholly post-impressionist work either, as are so many of Scelsi's small-scale fourth period works. Konx-Om-Pax illustrates something, to be sure, but it does so in a more directly evocative way. It does so in an indicative way, and the intent is clearly to lead the listener along a path already traveled by the composer toward a specific mystical revelation. In that sense, it does not fulfill the impressionist ideal of an illustrated scene, and so consequently one can suggest that Konx-Om-Pax makes a modified form of symphonic argument, although a unitary one. Similar remarks hold for some other significant works by Scelsi, such as his String Quartet No. 4. The existence of the very terse "program" does not really interfere with the symphonic idea, because the program does not interfere with the directness of the abstract expression. Of course, the underlying point to be illuminated is also an abstract one, and so perhaps we have impressionist music in the end, but a sort of modified "universal" or meta-impressionism. Regardless, Konx-Om-Pax is not pretty, it is ominous.

Scelsi takes heat in the press both for his situation with regard to paid assistants transcribing his music, as well as for the frequently clichéd quality of his Eastern mysticism. However, the underlying counter-argument to these dismissive claims is the integrity of the music itself. Scelsi projects a personal vision throughout his oeuvre, and does so in music which is never pastiche. Likewise, when it comes to material, Scelsi is effective. Once his idiom is grasped, his music can be absolutely compelling in its evocations and even devastating in its emotional impact. One cannot take such facts lightly. As indicated, then, it is Scelsi's "surrounding haze" of allusions which is dilettantish, and not his music itself. From the technical perspective, what Scelsi's music provides in terms of a coherent structural role for timbre is epochal. This is precisely a topic probed by the avant-garde, a topic which received considerable but mostly unsatisfying attention, and a topic which suddenly had a particularly personal resolution burst from obscurity in the 1980s with the "discovery" of Scelsi. From somewhat before that time until his death shortly afterward, well-known musicians such as Michael Tilson Thomas and Irvine Arditti, musicians whose professional stature is unimpeachable, went to learn Scelsi's music directly from him. That they came away with fully positive impressions seals his stature, even leaving aside Scelsi's impact on the noted avant-garde musicians of own circle: France-Marie Uitti, Joëlle Léandre, Alvin Curran, and many others.... Scelsi was no crank.

When one of Scelsi's sounds begins, there is almost always a sense that it is inhuman. The music has a raw, elemental sonority which is part of what makes it so original. Simply put, it can make one tremble, often for inexplicable reasons. The same was true of Scelsi the man, as cellist France-Marie Uitti (famous for her two-bow technique) recalls nearly fainting when she met him. For me, as someone who has somehow become connected to Scelsi after his death, if only in the sense of writing program notes for his premieres, there is something forceful and persuasive about his expression which cannot readily be described. When writing these notes, predictably enough, I took out the recording on Accord to listen while I wrote. I knew the piece... every sound... so it was not something done to refresh my memory, but just to have some appropriate background music. Nonetheless, before it was over, I found myself shaking. Maybe this is a trick of memory, an accident of hearing Konx-Om-Pax when my own mind was supplying the subtext, and then identifying the response with the music and reminding myself of that response by listening again? How can an individual deny such explanations? One cannot get outside of oneself to do so. Yet when multiple people independently report similar responses, how can one deny that? Is Scelsi's music simply something which speaks to some people and not others, never others? I cannot answer this question either. What I do know is that when Scelsi talks of reaching behind the veil of mundane existence and plucking what is inside for all to hear, I do hear it.

In works such as Konx-Om-Pax, Scelsi makes many of his more eccentric and abstract ideas very concrete. While the solo string works demand concentrated listening and attention to which notes are played on which individual strings -- an innovation in notation which was also part of a trend in the 1950s & 1960s -- the more expansive orchestral works allow one to wallow in the larger sound-compexes, if desired. Konx-Om-Pax does repay close attention to the means by which sounds are transformed, or in the case of the last movement not transformed, but it also allows for easier appreciation of its general contours. It makes a direct impression through its grandeur and its large-scale sonority. In short, it is concert hall music. Whereas Scelsi's elemental sound world frequently seems to be extracted from Tibet or Tuva, his use of forms is frequently rather Western. His movements are clearly defined and his musical phrases cadence in regular, if oblique, ways. In works such as Konx-Om-Pax, not to mention the string quartets or piano sonatas, he also utilized the standard Western ensembles in relatively straight-forward ways. Scelsi's grammar was mostly Western, even if his material was mostly Eastern. Or were they?

Scelsi's act of fusion was at such a fundamental level that it can be difficult to say which part is which. His music is never a simple case of "foreign tunes" being put into sonata form, as it were, and that one often cannot distinguish Eastern from Western influences is one of its most profound strengths. Scelsi's works use Western instruments almost exclusively. His titles are frequently Eastern in some way. His sense of tonal interplay reflects Eastern philosophy, but is usually expressed with a Western sense of development. Despite some "evocations" noted by others, even his late works do not follow e.g. a raga from a grammatical perspective. I insist that the grammar is Western, but that it is expressed in an oblique domain of tonal fluidity which is the most striking feature of its canvas. Scelsi's improvisational working methods were at least Eastern-inspired. The sonorities of his music, in spite of the instruments, are frequently Eastern. These aspects are all found in Konx-Om-Pax, but as usual, they are closely intermingled. The idea of mutating a single note through timbral & microtonal shifts was decisively Scelsi's own, however, and here it is expressed most clearly in the first movement. That basic dynamic was the inspiration for his recovery, and it became the fount for his act of fusion, allowing the Western rhetorical dynamic to be subverted into a space small enough for Eastern ideas to unfold. Ultimately, it is in the elegance and mutual cogency with which the two musical worlds are wed that Scelsi's greatest artistic contribution lies.

Todd M. McComb
27 January 2000

Music: Giacinto Scelsi - Konx-Om-Pax 1 and 2 - Buddhist inspiration - Two notes by Todd M. McComb - Links to more GS - Recommended 

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