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S&H Article

Cutting Edge European Music 1960-2001 (PGW)

Giacinto SCELSI
Natura Renovatur, Elohim, Anagamin, Viertes Streichquartett,
Maknongan Klangforum Wien, Hans Zender
CD 0012162KAI

Rebecca SAUNDERS Into The Blue, Quartet, Molly's Song 3, Dichroic 17
Musikfabrik. Stefan Asbury
CD 0012182KAI

Peter ABLINGER "Der Regen,Das Glas,Das Lachen", Ohne Titel,Quadrature N.Iv
Klangforum Wien. Sylvain Cambreling
CD 0012192KAI

Helmut LACHENMANN Kontrakadenz - Klangschatten - Fassade
SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, NDR Sinfonieorchester, SWR
Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Michael Gielen
CD 0012232KAI


Vampyrotheone, Hooloomooloo, 3instrumental-Inseln Aus "Bählamms Fest"

Klangforum Wien, Sylvain Cambreling, Ernesto Molinari, Burkhard Stangl,
CD 0012242KAI

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-88) has featured prominently in my music writing life for a decade and a half, ever since I wrote Discovering Scelsi on my first computer for Piano Journal (Oct. 1986), one of the first UK articles about this fascinating and elusive composer. There are particular reasons why the Scelsi CD in the latest, indispensable batch from Kairos prompted a trawl of my files. Scelsi applauded my analysis of his piano music and we had a cordial correspondence, after which I met him twice at his home overlooking the Forum in Rome, where he gave me rare copies of his privately published essays and poems. This programme of music for strings is a good introduction to a composer who can become addictive. The concise fourth string quartet is one of his best. The masterly Natura Renovatur for string orchestra is in the safe hands of one of Scelsi's most important champions, the composer/conductor Hans Zender who was in charge of historic premieres of his major works for large orchestra in Cologne (Zender sent me reel-to-reel tapes of those 1987 performances; I thought them possibly better than the Accord recordings, and they ought to be made available on CD).

The booklet is important for placing Scelsi in the third millennium as well as in the 1960s. For an excellent reason, it boasts some of the worst photography you will ever see on a CD production, blurred images from Cologne in 1987, one of them with John Cage. The following year he died and in my Obituary (The Independent, 17 August 1988) I recounted how Nouritza Matossian, the biographer of Xenakis, had taken a photographer with her to interview him but was warned "If you take a photograph of me you will not leave this house alive; I am a Sicilian". Apart from a photo of the young Scelsi on the cover of the miniature score of his first string quartet, those are the only ones I have ever seen.

Scelsi's wilful self mystification, and the resistance by his beneficiaries to making the controversial original manuscripts freely available for study, contributed to vitiating attempts to broker a first book in English with Harry Halbreich, whose liner notes for the Accord CDs probably still constitute the best published analyses of his music. This saga of secrecy and deliberate disinformation has contributed to polarisation of opinion and the 'Scelsi phenomenon', as it is characterised by Bern Odo Polzer's illuminating notes for Kairos, 'Work on Myth'. Even more welcome is a five-page selection from Scelsi's own writings, including an expansion of what he demonstrated to me, how during a period of psychiatric illness he believes he cured himself by endlessly repeating a single note on the piano until he discovered 'the entire universe in this one sound'. From this developed his unique late style of the 1960s & '70s, with few notes explored in all timbral and microtonal possibilities; he had abandoned composing for the piano before I met him, and he showed me a primitive quarter-tone keyboard with which he was working.

Scelsi can no longer be ignored and recordings of his music are proliferating. I have no hesitation in recommending this important CD, of music which is relatively easy on open ears, as a first choice for an aural explorer, even though worlds away from mainstream music of the mid-20th century. I find his writing for strings extremely sensual and beautiful; maybe you will too?

The other composers (full track listings and information on the Kairos website) are more problematic and London born Rebecca Saunders (b.1967), whose career has flourished in Germany as did that of Ferneyhough, discounts the possibility of succeeding in 'any attempt to describe or pin down the essence of a piece of music' in words. Her music is hard-edged, objective and indeed abrasive, never 'expressive' in the usual sense. Often her 'sound objects' are interspersed with carefully measured periods of silence. Try to sample her dichroic seventeen at a record store with a good contemporary section (dichroic - the property of having a different colour when viewed from a different direction). Peter Ablinger (b.1959) works with noise as a component of his music (as did Cage) and explores questions of 'repetition and monotony, reduction and redundancy, density and entropy'. His music for Squarings IV Self portrait with Berlin has the excellent Klangforum Wien musicians heard against the random input to six microphones distributed around the city. Helmut Lachenmann (b.1935) is a senior anarchist, an influential composer and perhaps the least rarely heard in UK of this group, a compelling lecturer, thoughtful destroyer and recreator of everything that is taken for granted, turning expectations upon their head as he 'seeks what has never been heard before in each of his pieces' (Edgar Reitz). His CD has two crack symphony orchestras, which are comfortable with the newest music. Track 3 Fassade is the one to try first. Olga Neuwirth (b.1968) is the youngest of these composers and her music here the most recent. The Long Rain made a strong impression last summer at the Almeida Opera Festival (Classical London (archive) - #63 August 2001). She is definitely a force to be reckoned with in the new century and in the increasingly dominant field of live electronics; this is a 'rich and strange' brew of music which displays enormous imagination and consummate technical control of complex forces. The Instrumental Islands from her opera are poetic and Vampyrotheone and Hooloomooloo more dramatic.

There are of course comparable composing movements in the UK, and several avant-garde performing groups dedicated to promoting composers who have not forsaken complexity, but their audiences are often small and financial constraints play a part in limiting the music's wider exposure. The recent Cardew celebration in London has reminded us that there have always been those prepared to test the boundaries. Collectively, these CDs offer a window onto a world which might not often impinge upon British music lovers without making some effort, and even though they may reject the aesthetics adopted by some of the composers, they would be the poorer for not knowing what is going on abroad, and we should all be grateful that a complicated network of essential sponsorship still makes it possible for firms like Kairos, ECM and col legno to make challenging and esoteric European music generally available to a wider home listening public.

This series is impeccably presented in attractively distinctive card cases, well documented (though some of the substantial texts are not easy to comprehend - often best to let the music speak for itself). The performances by top German orchestras and ensembles are, so far as one can judge, carefully prepared and well engineered. I found a lot to enjoy on hearing and rehearing each of the CDs. For those without the opportunity to sample before purchase, I would recommend as first choices the Scelsi and the Neuwirth. Listener reactions would be welcomed.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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