by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 21, 2005.
In the beginning was the Tone. Throughout musical history, composers have commenced major works with a primordial hum, as if to suggest that the universe was audible before it became visible. Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” the first masterpiece of opera, begins with an open fifth, notes like twin pillars, over which a high trumpet plays skirling fanfares. Haydn’s “Creation” begins with monumental octave Cs, which have the weight of the word of God. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony starts softly, almost imperceptibly, with A and E gleaming in the horns and shimmering in the strings: we tune in to an eternity-in-progress. Wagner’s four-day “Ring” cycle is set in motion by a similar cosmogenic drone: an E-flat rumbles deep in the “mystic abyss,” as the orchestra pit in Bayreuth is called, and wave upon wave of consonant harmony emanates from it.
As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, majestic natural visions fell out of fashion. Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” in imitation of the “Ring,” begins with mighty triads over a fundamental, but in the next section a thick harmonic fog descends and the glory is never seen again. In early, radical works by Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, repeated tones are alarms of obsession, signals of frenzy. By the time of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” which was initially sketched during the First World War, the single note had become an instrument of terror: toward the climax of the opera, two enormous Bs are drilled into the listener’s brain. In the tragic symphonic narratives of Shostakovich’s Fourth and Vaughan Williams’s Sixth, monotone patterns seem to represent the world dying with a whimper: entropy in action.
At the end of the nineteen-fifties, Giacinto Scelsi, a self-taught Italian composer and erstwhile playboy count who had dabbled in Eastern religions and Theosophy, had the extraordinary idea of writing an entire work—the “Four Pieces” for chamber orchestra—that consisted of only single tones, one for each movement. Scelsi was not the first to hit on this concept: Elliott Carter had ventured it in his “Eight Études and a Fantasy,” in 1950. Nor is the scheme followed literally: the instruments often bend away from the parent note, shifting by microtones, semitones, or larger intervals. But, by the end of the work, a paradigm shift has taken place: the Tone is all-powerful once more. Music returns to its primitive origins, when melody formed from noise. In each of Scelsi’s subsequent works, the phenomenon is repeated. Small wonder that this obscure Roman eccentric, who considered himself a “messenger” or “medium,” has become a cult figure among younger composers: he makes the eternal new.
Scelsi would have been a hundred this year. Given his mystical propensities, it might be better to say that he is a hundred, although he was observed to have died in 1988. To mark the occasion, Miller Theatre, at Columbia University, invited the Flux Quartet to play Scelsi’s five string quartets earlier this month. Live performances of this composer’s works remain rare; Michael Tilson Thomas, in San Francisco, is the only American conductor who programs them. It is far easier to get to know the music on recordings, by way of the Accord, CPO, Kairos, and Mode labels. Many of the disks are decorated with the Zen-like symbol that the composer made his signature: a circle above a line, like a note floating free of its staff.
Scelsi was born into an old southern Italian noble family, inheriting the title Count d’Ayala Valva from his mother. He was, of course, the end of the line. At the family castle, he was schooled in “fencing, chess, and Latin,” or so he said. He flitted through European aristocratic circles and had his wedding party at Buckingham Palace. But music was his chief obsession. He quickly tilted toward the avant-garde, and when he was very young he attended Luigi Russolo’s Futurist noise concerts; his first major work was called “Printing Presses.” Later, he became interested in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, although he did not adopt it. He fell in love with Eastern philosophy and made trips to India and Nepal. After the Second World War, he suffered a breakdown and stopped composing for a few years. He spent day after day playing a single note on the piano. The casual observer might have thought that he had gone mad. He was, in fact, finding his path.
The chanting of Tibetan monks generally consists of deviations around a central tone, with bells and brass creating an ambient halo. Scelsi enacted similar rituals on the piano, then moved to the ondiola, an electronic keyboard whose dials allowed him to vary pitch and tone quality. He wasn’t sure how to write it all down, and employed a fellow-composer, Vieri Tosatti, to devise suitable notation. After Scelsi’s death, Tosatti published an article with the incendiary title “Giacinto Scelsi C’Est Moi,” asserting not only that he was the true author of the music but that it was all rubbish. Controversy ensued, and some high-minded European types dismissed Scelsi as a fraud. Robin Freeman, in an essay in the magazine Tempo, suggested the opposite: that Scelsi was able to make his imaginative leaps precisely because he was not bound by academic training. It’s something for university composition departments to ponder.
Scelsi’s methods were strange, but he had a command of narrative which no ghostwriter could have provided. Otherwise, we would be talking about the genius of Tosatti. The music is anything but monotonous; it seethes with change. In the quartets, the players use every trick in the book to transform those long tones, varying the degree of vibrato, bowing over the fingerboard or close to the bridge, adding steel mutes, scraping with maximum pressure. As the tones shift, split apart, and fan out, surprising shapes emerge. In the last part of the Fourth Quartet, a cluster of pitches creeps ever upward, and, in the process, major and minor triads materialize out of nowhere. (The spellbinding “Rain Over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains” sequence, in John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic,” uses a similar process.) Orchestral works such as the “Four Pieces,” “Aion,” and “Anahit” build to crypto-Romantic climaxes worthy of Bruckner: horns leap up an octave, winds trill on high, timpani bang out thirds, and the heavens open. In “Konx-Om-Pax,” which Mode has recorded, a chorus is added to the mix, chanting an apocalyptic “Om.”
Connoisseurs of extreme chamber music may remember that in 1999 the Flux Quartet gave the world première of the complete version of Morton Feldman’s six-hour-long Second Quartet. Scelsi’s quartets, relatively brief in span, don’t pose the same challenge of endurance, but they are taxing nevertheless, taking a toll on the bowing arm and on the emotions. Every note counts, each new one more than the last. During the performance at Miller Theatre, I sometimes wished for greater tonal purity, especially in the Fourth Quartet: the chords were hard to hear amid the haze of special effects. But I doubt that any other ensemble could have played with equal ferocity and passion. Scelsi demands imaginative collaborators, and the members of Flux — Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris, violinists; Max Mandel, violist; and Dave Eggar, cellist— did nothing by rote.
What most struck me, in my first live encounter with this music, was that the cycle becomes one towering superquartet, in arch form. The First Quartet is the rough foundation: it is couched in a largely atonal idiom, midway between Berg and Bartók. In its final movement, the First suddenly takes off into a world of eerie purity, drawing principally on the “white notes” of the C-major scale. In the Second Quartet, the “one-note” method arrives, to harsh, assaultive effect. But sonorous thirds appear in the last movement, marking Scelsi’s reassertion of consonance. The Third brings some rich, glowing major triads, ghosts of the Romantic century. The Fourth Quartet, with its searing chorale, is the zenith. The Fifth Quartet plunges back down to the world of the single note. It is F, the same on which the revolutionary “Four Pieces” began, and it comes and goes in gasping breaths, interspersed with silences.
The Fifth, transcribed in 1984, was Scelsi’s last work—at least that we know of. Scientific researchers have recently observed a musical event that employs a curiously familiar style: a black hole in the Perseus cluster of galaxies is emitting a B-flat fifty-seven octaves below middle C.