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Scelsi Revisited
Michael PELZEL (b. 1978)
Sculture Di Suono (in memoriam Giacinto Scelsi) (2014) [15:25]
Michel ROTH (b. 1976)
MOI (2012) [15:23]
Tristan MURAIL (b. 1947)
Un Sogno, for ensemble and electronics (2014) [18:36]
Georg Friedrich HAAS (b. 1953)
Introduktion Und Transsonation (2012) [17:13]
Nicola SANI (b. 1961)
Gimme Scelsi (2012) [10:10]
Uli FUSSENEGGER (b. 1966)
San Teodoro 8 [42:11]
Fabien LÉVY (b. 1968)
à tue-tête (2015) [14:34]
Ragnhild BERSTAD (b. 1956)
cardinem (2014) [12:22]
Klangforum Wien
Emilio Pomàrico, Sian Edwards, Johannes Kalitzke, Sylvain Cambreling (conductors)
rec. live, 2013-15, Germany, Italy and Norway
KAIROS 0015030KAI [66:37 + 79:17]

For my money Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) is up there with Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Boulez, Cage and Reich one of the key harbingers of revolution in twentieth century art music. Not that he had any awareness of this during his life. I was planning on opening this review with something to the effect that Kairos are possibly getting ahead of themselves calling this beautifully produced twofer ‘Scelsi Revisited’, simply because depending on which particular magazines or academic books one reads or radio stations one listens to the late Italian tends to be relegated to the margins (or the footnotes) at best or non-existence at worst. Given the number of Scelsi discs that slip through the nets of the major critical organs and websites it is gratifying indeed to see so many reviews on Musicweb. For those readers yet to take the plunge perhaps the Italian’s ‘USP’ can be summarised thus: if Schoenberg sought to revolutionise music by imposing equality on each of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, and Cage contended that the real significance of sound was to be found among the extraneous materials lurking in the silences between the notes, Scelsi ultimately developed a style which depended on the vibrations, inner harmonies and contiguities of the single note. If that sounds dull or forbidding it’s neither (although decades ago I did once get a massive rollicking for putting on his Quattro Pezzi while working in the classical department of a particular HMV megastore – it was swiftly replaced by a Vanessa Mae’s debut album). In fact it was Scelsi’s music which more or less singlehandedly forced me to develop what one might describe as ‘active listening’ skills.

By far the best introduction to Scelsi’s work is the Accord box containing the major choral and orchestral works – It seems to be out of print at present but second hand copies can still be found – Rob Barnett absolutely ‘gets’ this music and he hit the nail squarely on the head in his magisterial review back in 2004 – it includes the Wyttenbach recording of the Quattro Pezzi that got me into bother all those years ago.

Scelsi’s importance has become more blindingly obvious with the rise of spectralism– some of its most fervent adherents feature on this new issue. He was certainly a man of some mystery; quite apart from his aristocratic bearing and his reluctance to be photographed his reputation was somewhat compromised soon after his death in 1988 when his erstwhile assistant, Vieri Tosatti published an essay entitled ‘Scelsi, c’est moi’ claiming that Scelsi merely made recordings of his later music on a primitive synthesiser known as an ondiola and it was he who painstakingly transcribed and arranged these efforts into the instrumental, chamber and orchestral scores we know today. Scelsi’s followers and family were most protective of these tapes, yet in 2009 interested parties were given access to them via the archive of the Isabella Scelsi Foundation in Rome. Subsequently Klangforum Wien instigated this Scelsi Revisited project, whereby seven major contemporary composers were commissioned to create new ensemble pieces based upon (or as a response to) some of these original tapes. An eighth composer, the Austrian double-bass player Uli Fussenegger organised the distribution of the various bundles of tape material allotted to each composer – at the same time he remixed some of this ondiola content and melded it with live improvisation in an extended composition called San Teodoro 8 which exists in multiple versions, one of which is included here. To my ears, alas, it proves to be the one experience on this otherwise immersive document which rather outstays its welcome.

Michael Pelzel’s Sculture di Suono (Sound Sculpture) opens the proceedings on the first disc. Pelzel here eschews the exoticism that characterised many of the pieces on his fine Kairos portrait disc (review) in favour of a slower, more tightly focused movement whose weird solemnity proves unexpectedly moving. The complex chord which emerges at its outset seems to expand from within via minute manipulations of textural articulation. Overall impressions imperceptibly change; low chugging strings, bleak cries from solo winds and brass, eerie ghostlike voices guffawing in a howling gale, slow glissandi and increasingly wide vibrati, all of these are intricately woven betwixt and between recurring and fierce little brassy sequences, waypoints which reassure rather than bemuse or bore. The tension implicit in the work’s architecture is pulled back from the brink of seemingly inevitable catastrophe by Pelzel’s skilful sonic management. This ‘sculpture’ dissipates as if it was smoke, or steam, and throughout its duration projects siren creepiness. Pelzel’s title is about right; the whole exudes a sinuous, elusive roughness contained for the most part within a smooth surface.

The title of Michel Roth’s MOI alludes both to Tosatti’s (in)famous quote and obscure cultures of the same name to be found in Africa and Asia. In the booklet note Roth explains that has used the Scelsi ondiola tape as a tabula (non) rasa on which to project his own instrumental canvas. This work sounds at once more stereotypically Scelsian than Pelzel’s, the stasis at its core is both mysterious and sustained. Colouration is even more gradually varied, with the exception of some isolated, pointed instrumental gestures. The pulse is more concentrated, sometimes implicit rather than actual and utterly dependent upon the individual listener’s focus. In due course the stasis at the core of MOI slowly yields to agitation – the accumulating urgency towards the end of the piece is riveting and superbly realised by Klangforum, led here by Sian Edwards. I’d never heard a note by Michel Roth before receiving this release– I was most impressed by MOI.

Tristan Murail actually plays in one of the works in the Scelsi boxset I recommended earlier (he performs the Ondes Martenot part in the extraordinary choral work Uaxuctum). Known as one of the pioneers of spectralism, his brilliant Un Sogno (A Dream) at once renders the overlaps between spectral music and Scelsi’s art most obvious. Having cleaned them up, Murail deploys the original ondiola tapes as the basis for digitalised renewal; the entire edifice of Un Sogno seems to derive from its the opening sound, a monolithic , graceful, (synthetic?) stroke of the tam-tam. Murail’s inspired and seamless marriage of acoustic and synthetic sound takes full advantage of technology Scelsi would surely have loved playing around with. Of all the pieces in this set, Un Sogno perhaps is the most convincing in affording us a glimpse of what the noble Count might have realised had such machinery been available to him. It is utterly immersive and extraordinarily beautiful. It revels in an unashamedly Gallic sensuousness. Murail’s contribution does exactly what it says on the tin.

Georg Friedrich Haas, the composer of Introduktion Und Transsonation contributes a brilliantly argued essay in the booklet in which he discusses the expressive limitations of scripted music (ie finished printed manuscripts), before going on to celebrate the utter pragmatism and credibility of Scelsi’s chosen method (the ondiola recordings) and asserting its absolute equivalence to Beethoven’s sketchbooks. As he tells us nothing about his own piece, it is left to the brief, uncredited introduction to the Revisited project as a whole (entitled Scelsi, c’est nous) to inform us that Introduktion Und Transsonation incorporates ‘an almost empty score to allow the musicians of Klangforum Wien to react directly to a tape fragment without any notational constraints’. Interesting then that despite this the piece sounds characteristically Haasian, replete with microtonally drenched oscillations in brass, winds and strings that are pitted against yet simultaneously bound to each other, the key features of a relentless apocalyptic soundscape which occasionally gives way to the other worldly sounds of Scelsi’s ondiola. Those who appreciate Haas’s distinctive flavours (and I most certainly do) will find much to enjoy (or reflect upon) in a piece which paradoxically seems simultaneously spontaneous and monumental; the overlaps with Scelsi’s aesthetic have always seemed abundantly clear in this composer’s work.


Nicola Sani is the only compatriot of Scelsi’s featured here; – he admits to a fleeting acquaintance with the older composer during his student years in the 1970s and the punning title of his piece implies a whiff of nostalgia for his experience of that period when both rock music and the avant-garde provided impulses for Sani’s future direction. Gimme Scelsi evolves from a whispered opening, where distant warped multiphonic cries seem to meld with trills of reed and quiet oscillations of breathed sound. The reed lines become more complex and gather themselves into arcs of strange melody. The sounds that emerge seem carefully controlled rather than freeform. An ominous increase in volume at about 4:20 suggests imminent mayhem, an explosion perhaps, a feeling which intensifies with hints of urban siren. The landscape becomes even busier; reed tones are replaced by odd flute flutterings, while dampened brass chorales emerge and fade in the distance. To me this music uncannily evokes the final sequence of Fellini’s magnificent homage Roma when a convoy of motorcyclists depart the darkened city. The Scelsian element in Sani’s piece is crystallised by the single pitches which dominate it. To my ears Gimme Scelsi succeeds in communicating an atmosphere of uneasy social and urban restlessness. It is utterly compelling.

Fabien Lévy’s gnomically titled à tue-tête (translated in the booklet variously as ‘at the top of one’s voice’ or ‘head-killing’) is scored for nine wind and brass ‘distributed in space’ (specifically single oboe, saxophone and trumpet and pairs of clarinets, horns and trombones). The distant B flat that floats from a distant clarinet into the sound image provides an omnipresent anchoring pitch. Another constant is the presence (or implication) of a semi-quaver pulse. The beats that drive the piece evoke the Edgard Varèse of Ecuatorial or Nocturnal – Lévy namechecks him in the intro. Brass instruments spit and snarl, while clarinets shiver and rasp. The lack of percussion does not prevent A tue-tête being the most percussive of all the works here. The paired instruments joust and gossip across the space, like exotic birds warning and wooing each other in the jungle. The spatial aspect of this entertaining piece is perhaps rather lost in the stereo mix but ultimately it sounds like great fun to play and projects unexpected charm.

Notwithstanding all these delights to my ears the best piece of all comes last in the shape of the Norwegian Ragnhild Berstad’s cardinem for large ensemble. I wonder just how many listeners will get to hear this shimmering, intricate, woodland marvel of a piece. I am blessed to live close to a wonderful, extensive wood-cum-forest - my family and I have explored it on a regular basis for over thirty years and yet every visit still seems different. Ms Berstild seems to capture this infinite variety in cardinem (translated from the Latin as ‘turning-point’) The key note-sequence in the work is seemingly based upon the song of the robin – there seems to be some electro-acoustic element at play but its not specifically described. The extraordinary colours Berstild procures from high reeds, a seismic double- bass (stunningly realised by Uli Fussenegger) and everything between decorate a soundscape that teems with delightful life. It’s how I imagine the sound of the forest, presumably accidental and random, yet in cardinem it’s palpably designed and deliberate. This piece is a miracle of Scelsian detail – a rich seam of surprise and discovery that absolutely repays close listening. Its topographical spirit constitutes a polar opposite to Sani’s piece.

I was more than happy to namecheck Uli Fussenegger in my discussion of cardinem – he has clearly been a prime mover in this project as one of its main organisers, as well as a key performer and composer. Unfortunately my personal response to his 42 minute work San Teodoro 8 is one of bemusement and incomprehension. To quote him directly from the booklet note: ‘Scelsi’s original ondiola material is firstly processed by me into a 31 minute tape composition;, and then processed in real time by four musicians multi-perspectively over a crossfade’ (for the record the four musicians play electric guitar, saxophone, cello and double-bass). What firstly sounds like an ornamented spiralling, baroque violin flourish frets and turns in on itself, descending into strange synthetic oscillations and halos in a high register with some feedback-drenched but dampened electric guitar, whose sounds seemingly refract this opening material. In due course the guitar comes more into view, riffing over the ondiola-derived halo. After six or so minutes I found the sound becoming rapidly wearying and grating – it yields few inner beauties or surprises. A grinding, grungy section from 10:00 seems to revel in its own ugliness –it’s not an effect I believe Scelsi sought at any stage of his career. A wailing sax from about 15.00 hints at strangulated free jazz, thereafter I’m afraid the rather unvarying sonic landscape got the better of my concentration. If Fussenegger’s piece (San Teodoro 8 exists in multiple versions – another occupies a different Kairos issue) provides the ultimate test of one’s focused listening strategies I’m afraid I failed it all ends up. As a shop-window for grubby 60’s ondiola noise perhaps it has its place but for me it outstayed its welcome bigtime.

But in the final analysis even San Teodoro 8 cannot prevent my most enthusiastic recommendation for this terrific package. I doubt if I have ever encountered a compilation of seven substantial new ensemble works in which every piece provided one with such sustained and recurring delight. The stature of the music is reinforced by the excellence and commitment of Klangforum Wien’s performances, whilst the Kairos sonics are most spectacular in the levels of detail they convey; given the varied provenance of the performances the consistency the engineers have realised is remarkable. And for those who know no Scelsi – may I gently but enthusiastically encourage you to sample his remarkable oeuvre.

Richard Hanlon
 



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