Monday, 25 April 2016

Giacinto Scelsi - Quattro Pezzi Per Orchestra / Anahit / Uaxuctum (1959-69, rec. 1989)

The first few times I listened to the music of Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), I felt dizzy and nauseous.  Whether this was a direct result of plunging unaware into a disorenting, gradually shifting world of monochordal, microtonal sound, or just shaking off a virus that same week (more likely, but I like to think it was fully the former!), the sheer strangeness of this music had me hooked.

A period of personal upheval in the post-WW2 years saw Scelsi's music begin to take the direction that he's best known for - writing around a single, unwavering pitch with the kind of microtones heretofore best known in Indian classical music, and subtle shifts in harmony and timbre.  Sounds like pretty minimal stuff, and it is - but to call both Philip Glass and Giacinto Scelsi minimalist composers is akin to calling Stephen King and Thomas Ligotti horror writers.  In both of the latter cases, you can frequently feel yourself teetering on the edge of some vast, unknowable void - but the deeper you look, the more unearthly artistic beauty unveils itself.

Quattro Pezzi per orchestra, ciascuno su una nota sola (Four Pieces for orchestra, each on a single note), (1959), is one of Scelsi's best known works, and as good a statement of intent as any for the rest of his career.  If these four pieces are largely flavoured by brass and thundering percussion, the next work on this disc, Anahit, Lyric poem for Venus (1965), makes the most of a bewitching solo violin part.  Anahit is probably my Scelsi of choice, rising and falling over its 13 minutes to brilliant dramatic effect.

Lastly on this disc comes Uaxuctum (1969), subtitled 'The legend of the Maya city, destroyed by themselves for religious reasons'.  The city in question is most commonly spelled Uaxactun, and the music, eerie chorale, ondes martenot and all, is perfectly descriptive.  The beginning of this work reminds me a little of the 'Nosferatu' opening to Popol Vuh's Brüder des Schattens - Söhne des Lichts, with both sounding like they've been beamed in directly from ancient history.  With Uaxuctum however, there's no resolution into a happy place - only darkness.

Quattro Pezzi Per Orchestra / Anahit / Uaxuctum

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