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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Giacinto 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)



FLUX Quartet

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 passages.  Octaves 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 ventured.

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. 



Bruce Hodges



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