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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. [I had a camera with me when I "looked after him" for some minutes when he was attending the Almeida Festival, but didn't pluck up courage to risk a shot; no chance of avoiding images in these mobile phone/cameras days!!]
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 incapacity he believes he cured himself by endlessly repeating a single note on the clinic 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? (from Seen&Heard 2002)