“Scelsi was obsessed with a certain sonoral quality and knew exactly what he wished musically... I think he intuited a sensitivity and propensity for losing myself in sound, an advantage for playing his particular music. After all those years of rehearsing and perfecting the Trilogy, he encouraged me to abandon technical considerations and let the works fly in freedom.”
- Frances-Marie Uitti
Natura Renovatur (Nature Renewed), the first ECM New Series recording entirely devoted to the revelatory music of Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), is a voyage into the very heart of the composer’s work. Scelsi, who spoke about a third sonic dimension, beyond pitch and duration, a dimension of sculptural depth, is a particularly apt subject for an ECM production, as both the performances and the recording itself shed light upon his fascination with the inner life of tones, with the overtone spectrum, with microtonal harmonic movement and with timbral gradations.
There is no one else who plays Scelsi with the insight and authority of Frances-Marie Uitti. The American cellist (now a Dutch citizen) was living in Rome in 1975 and rehearsing music of Anton Webern, when Scelsi first approached her. He invited Uitti to visit him in his apartment on the Via San Teodoro, where he showed her three works-in-progress for cello, pieces which were to become his “autobiography in sound”, his Trilogy. “Ygghur”, heard here, was amongst those pieces. This initial meeting with Scelsi led to thirteen years of collaboration, until Scelsi’s death in 1988. They worked intensively together on the Trilogy and transcribed for cello other works including the Three Latin Prayers (to which “Ave Maria” and “Alleluja” belong), originally written for solo voice.
Years later, Uitti archived the hundreds of tapes Scelsi left behind (many of them featuring the improvisations which had provided compositional source material) for the Isabella Scelsi Foundation. After the ECM recording session, she reflected on this work: “I now remember one particular tape I heard while transferring Scelsi’s analogue ondiola improvisations to DAT. Being a monodic instrument, several improvisations were superimposed. The quality of these acoustic tapes was at times very grainy, and it seemed that there was also a version of the same superimposed in retrograde, building a thick massive tonal centre of hoary sound. Rough, chordal, powerful. When I attended the recordings of the Munich Chamber Orchestra in the Sendling church, I re-experienced that same ‘spreading’ and transparency of sound. Giacinto often said that his music should be played in a church, and it seems he embedded that vision in the tapes.
“It was this experience with the MKO, just preceding my own recording, that inspired me to unleash ‘Ygghur’, to let it to soar through the space as a performance, uninhibited by the score, the microphones, fingers or strings- as I had done in so many rehearsals with Giacinto...”
The Munich Chamber Orchestra, under Christoph Poppen’s adventurous direction, had been giving arresting performances of Scelsi in the 2004/5 season. With Frances-Marie Uitti joining their rehearsals, they were able to go still further into the material.
“I was eager to work with Christoph,” Uitti says, “and also to impart some of that special sonoral world that was the subject of many working hours with Giacinto... The MKO is a remarkable group; they are chamber musicians with a string quartet mentality... I felt we could rehearse the most demanding details without tiring the players. On the contrary, they became more involved in the difficulties as the work progressed. Scelsi would often concentrate on high tessitura passages pushing them to almost unbearable tensile stretching, only to break in with a flood of basses; a rush of warmth and depth - his revelation of the third dimension in sound.”
Amongst 20th century composers, Scelsi stands out as a unique figure, his music in a world of its own, his biography surely amongst the strangest. Born into the Italian aristocracy as Count Giacinto Scelsi D’Ayala Valva, he grew up in his family’s ancestral castle, and as a young man moved in rarefied high society circles. His British wife Dorothy was a cousin of the Queen of England; their wedding reception was held in Buckingham Palace. In the art world, Scelsi’s friends included Salvador Dali, Henri Michaux, Paul Eluard. Independently wealthy, he was never obliged to earn a living with his music.
His compositional endeavour divides itself into two periods. There is a rupture between the music of his First Period and the Second Period, which begins around 1950. The earlier work, of which the First String Quartet is the piece most often played today, has its points of contact, critics have claimed, to the music of, for instance, Berg, Stravinsky, Sorabji, Messiaen. In the Second Period, however, Scelsi’s composing cut itself loose from all Western musical conventions, even progressive ones. Simultaneously, he turned his back on his old way of life, the socialite becoming almost a recluse. After World War II, which the Scelsis had spent in Switzerland, his wife returned to Britain, and had no further contact with him. Henceforth Giacinto Scelsi lived alone, usually in his tiny Rome apartment, developing his musical ideas in isolation. Morton Feldman famously called Scelsi “the Charles Ives of Italy”, in reference to the way in which he developed an idiom of his own entirely outside the traditions.
Deeply interested in matters of the spirit, Scelsi studied Gurdjieff’s philosophy - as well as that of Blavatsky, Sri Aurobindo and other mystics. Also like Gurdjieff, he travelled to the Middle East and Asia on musical-spiritual study trips, and details of his itinerary are similarly sketchy and rumour-shrouded. Did Scelsi really visit Tibet in the 1950s? The rough grained texture of his writing for strings suggests affinities with Buddhist chant... The emphasis on drones and the way in which Scelsi wrests every shade of meaning from a single tone anticipates the coming of the minimalists in general and La Monte Young in particular.
Uitti says Scelsi believed in “transparency as the Way. Sound became the grammatical focus of his later works.” Scelsi saw himself as the “receiver” of his pieces rather than their creator. Snaring his ideas on the ondiola, his improvisations were subsequently transcribed.
Of the musicians who played a role in Scelsi’s rediscovery it is notable that several were new music players or composers (or both) who have, additionally, a connection to improvisation. This is true of interpreter/improviser/composer Frances-Marie Uitti and it is also true of Alvin Curran, Fernando Grillo, and Joelle Leandre who also became part of Scelsi’s circle in Rome, and have also cited him as a mentor. Scelsi’s feeling for the tactile nature of sound, for its sculptural qualities, make his work of compelling interest also to followers of improvised music. For Scelsi’s compositions do not exist to illustrate a theory. They start with sound and lead us, ever deeper, into it.
Frances-Marie Uitti was born in Chicago to Finnish parents, and lives today in Amsterdam. She is the dedicatee of Giancinto Scelsi’s “Trilogy”.
A revolutionary instrumentalist, Uitti’s playing, including the developing of her two bows technique, has opened up new horizons for the cello. She has worked closely with many of the great modern composers – including John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, György Kurtág, Elliott Carter and Luigi Nono, as well as Scelsi.
Her first ECM recording was There is still time subtitled “Scenes for speaking voice and cello”, a collaboration with writer Paul Griffiths, released in 2004.
Frances-Marie Uitti appears in a special Scelsi festival at Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica on May 16th.
Detailed information about her wide-ranging musical activities can be found on her web site www.uitti.org
Natura Renovatur is the sixth ECM CD to feature The Munich Chamber Orchestra, following recordings with the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Sofia Gubaidulina, Bach/Webern (Ricercar), Tigran Mansurian (Monodia), and Barry Guy (Folio). The orchestra’s persuasive live performances of Scelsi under Christoph Poppen’s direction paved the way for this recording.
In addition to directing the Munich Chamber Orchestra, Poppen is a violinist of distinction, and he has toured the world playing in the Morimur Bach project with the Hilliard Ensemble.
Other New Series discs with music of Giacinto Scelsi are Eduard Brunner’s clarinet recital Dal niente (ECM 1599), which incorporates “Preghiera per un’ombra” and Werner Bärtschi’s piano disc Mozart/Scelsi/Pärt/Busoni/Bärtschi, with “Four illustrations of the metamorphoses of Vishnu” (ECM 1377).
CD package includes three language booklet with liner notes by Herbert Henck and a Scelsi memoir by Frances-Marie Uitti, plus rare early photos of the composer.