Scelsi, 100th Birthday Celebration:
FLUX Quartet, Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York
City, 4.11.2005 (BH)
String Quartet No. 1 (1944)
String Quartet No. 2 (1961)
String Quartet No. 3 (1963)
String Quartet No. 4 (1964)
String Quartet No. 5 (1984)
Tom Chiu, violin
Conrad Harris, violin
Max Mandel, viola
Dave Eggar, cello
In the ghostly, sole surviving photograph of Giacinto
Scelsi (1905-1988), the composer is pale as a vampire, looking
straight at the camera with the gaze of a hypnotist. The picture might be an unwitting metaphor
for his esthetic, since these five quartets have more than
their share of hypnotic moments, and during this riveting
evening the FLUX Quartet made the most of them.
(Even if, as on this occasion, the hall’s heating system
was working overtime, creating a sweatbox that tested one’s
ability to concentrate, and the music requires it.) As a group, the quartets span forty years and
are a remarkable document of a unique mind.
The outstanding FLUX players – Tom Chiu, Conrad Harris,
Max Mandel and Dave Eggar – can only be praised to the skies
for giving this evening their assiduous best.
Scelsi’s ultra-narrow focus is singular; in the 1940s
he recovered from a mental breakdown by playing a single note
on the piano, over and over – and over again.
This intensity is brought to bear on virtually every
work of his I’ve heard, and certainly shows up here.
The dense, opening buzzing of the First quartet
– unusually marked con esaltazione esasperata – is
the closest that any of these ever come to comparison with
other composers, perhaps Bartók, and the piece has a somewhat
conventional four movement form.
But the timbral explorations begin almost immediately,
with microtones taking over at every opportunity.
The second molto lento seems like some kind
of static lens, amplifying solitude.
I can’t imagine what a 1961 audience might have made
of the Second, which carries the buzzing of the First
into an even more grinding extreme.
Using specially designed copper mutes, the players
scrape and scratch their way through the five movements, wending
their way through forests of spiccato and tremolo
burst at their seams into showers of overtones and harmonics. Melodic lines creep up by half-steps, or even
smaller increments. The
final section feels as if it’s going to become a chorale,
but then stops just short.
The sweetly screeching Third quartet begins
“with great tenderness,” and employs unisons that subtly diverge
and converge, occasionally breaking out into an actual chord.
The Fourth is in some ways the pinnacle: barely
ten minutes long, it is packed with microtones that now and
then decide to converge into a single tone, say an F or an
E-flat, before reaching a central “chorale” section and then
decimating itself. Combined
with a gradual drift upward, its gently flickering, sustained
intensity is akin to gazing into the center of a small sun,
growing brighter and brighter.
The striking final Fifth quartet was written
twenty years after the Fourth, and is dedicated to
Belgian poet Henri Michaux, one of Scelsi’s friends.
It is short, just six minutes, and built from a recurring
motif for all four players: a fierce, single pizzicato
burst, followed immediately by a patch of scratching dissonance
that resolves into a unison note – all within six seconds.
This obsessive little phrase repeats, again and again
until the final murmurings die out. Written just four years before his death, when
he was about 79, it is hard not to view this piece as a glimpse
into some eternal place beyond, a fanatical last gasp as the
composer clings to that with which he is most familiar.
It is a bit of madness, brilliance and foreshadowing
all rolled into a tightly coiled spring.
The packed house – some 400 people – roared and whooped
their approval as the four FLUX guys returned to the stage
again and again. (No
encore, but then, I can’t imagine what kind of piece could
follow these – in this context a Haydn movement would seem
like music from outer space.) To say that these artists did a great job seems
slightly inadequate – they’re more like intrepid spelunkers,
doing aural research into a subject area into which few have
For what it’s worth, Elliott Carter was once in attendance
during a performance of the Second in Rome, and proclaimed
Scelsi a genius. I
can’t really defend the composer to those who say they just
don’t find pleasure in these pieces – Scelsi had a unique
interest in “sound as an object,” and for many listeners,
the unanticipated task of confronting and deciphering this
language will be more than they choose to tackle.
But for those who do, an amazing world will be revealed,
by a strange and creative mind unlike any other.