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S & H International Concert Review

Composer Portrait: Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988): Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York City, February 26, 2004 (BH)

Kya (1959)
Khoom – Seven episodes of an unwritten story of love and death in a distant land (1962)
Okanagon (1968)
Ko-Tha – Three Dances of Shiva (1967)
Anahit – A Lyric Poem dedicated to Venus (1965)

Michael Lowenstern, clarinet
Elizabeth Farnum, soprano
Curtis Macomber, violin
Paul Hostetter, conductor



Never has William Blake’s line To see a world in a grain of sand seemed more appropriate than for this wildly original voice. Born an Italian aristocrat, Giacinto Scelsi studied composition with a student of Schoenberg in 1935-36, but suffered a mental breakdown in the 1940’s, and as part of his recovery began to play a single note on the piano over and over again, examining its properties and ultimately finding spiritual nuance in this microscopic universe. In perhaps Scelsi’s best-known work, Quattro Pezzi from 1959, each of the four pieces asks an entire orchestra to contemplate a single pitch – respectively F, B, A-flat and A – and one of music’s most radical experiments.

Clarinetist Michael Lowenstern caught the spirit of the evening perfectly in the opening Kya (also from 1959), and expertly conducted by Paul Hostetter. Imagine a sort of zoned-out klezmer soloist slowly lowered into a room with Tibetan monks chanting and you might – just might – have a sliver of the flavor of what is going on here. As with all of Sequitur’s outstanding performers, Lowenstern can only be commended for his exacting concentration in music that gives new meaning to the word "focus."

Each of Khoom’s seven sections uses unusual instrumentation, such as in the second, in which the voice is combined with bongos and French horn. In an extraordinarily controlled performance that drew loud ovations at the end, soprano Elizabeth Farnum often held a pitch at rock-steadiness, while the musicians circled around her only a microtone away. Those familiar with Charles Ives’ song Like a sick eagle will grasp the problems inherent in tackling this kind of music, and Farnum can only be praised to the skies for her eerie, shimmering work, her voice circling through the hall like some kind of unearthly airplane.

Ideally the spare Okanagon is intended to be performed behind a curtain, so that the audience is unable to discern which of its three musicians is producing a particular sound. While no screen was used here, it was equally fascinating watching Eduardo Leandro on tam-tam and harpist June Han (who appeared to be striking the strings with an orange-handled tuning fork) plunge into Scelsi’s obsessive territory, with Roger Wagner on bass making the serenely throbbing result sound almost like some sort of stripped-down jazz.

In an interesting counterpoint to Ko-Tha, the entire back wall of the theater was flooded with a projection of what looked like white corpuscles – globules floating in a sky-blue pool. When Matthew Gold came out a friend whispered, "I didn’t know he could play the guitar!" and it quickly became evident that this keenly thoughtful percussionist indeed had not necessarily learned to play the instrument. As elsewhere, Scelsi deploys the guitar precisely for its timbral effects, virtually ignoring pitch entirely. Sitting on a cushioned platform with his legs crossed and the guitar resting across his knees Japanese koto-style, Gold used a variety of techniques: knocking with his knuckles, tapping with fingertips, slapping with the palm of his hand, strumming the open strings singly or in groups, and occasionally venturing high up the guitar neck next to the tuning pegs to make soft tinkling sounds.

The evening closed with Anahit, for solo violin and 18 instruments, with Curtis Macomber’s expertly controlled tone floating above a texture constantly pulsating like a swarm of bees. On paper, the violin part by itself probably looks almost inconsequential, but when combined with the rest of the ensemble the composer’s intentions become clear. Beginning in low registers, the instrumentalists diverge and reassemble in minute pitch gradations, methodically ascending to higher ones over the course of about fifteen minutes, hovering about each other and the soloist. At times I felt like my brain was being slowly stretched out of shape, with my ears constantly recalibrating themselves to adjust to Scelsi’s tiny demands. Again, Hostetter’s calm imagination knew just how to drive this piece, and frankly, it is not overstatement to say that many conductors would find this music completely bewildering.

It should be said that Scelsi in general requires a good deal of concentration, or at least a willingness to temporarily abandon all expectations of what music is "about" and have the composer lead you into his unorthodox world. The perhaps surprising thing is how absorbing these explorations actually are: just ask the some 500 people packed in to Miller Theatre.

Bruce Hodges

Readers interested in Scelsi might like to refer to the following review written by Peter Woolf, one of the first British writers to bring the composer to widespread notice.




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