Giacinto Scelsi

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Created on: 13 May 2010
This group is homage to Italian composer, great visionary Giacinto Scelsi.

Giacinto Scelsi (Italian pronunciation: [dʒaˈtʃinto ˈʃelsi]), Count of Ayala Valva (La Spezia, January 8, 1905 – Rome, August 9, 1988) was an Italian composer who also wrote surrealist poetry in French.

He is best known for writing music based around only one pitch, altered in all manners through microtonal oscillations, harmonic allusions, and changes in timbre and dynamics, as paradigmatically exemplified in his revolutionary Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola ["Four Pieces on a single note"] (1959). His musical output, which encompassed all Western classical genres except scenic music, remained largely undiscovered even within contemporary musical circles during most of his life. A series of concerts in the mid to late 1980s finally premièred many of his pieces to great acclaim, notably his orchestral masterpieces in October 1987 in Cologne, about a quarter of a century after those works had been composed and less than a year before the composer's death -- Scelsi was able to attend the premières and personally supervised the rehearsals. The impact caused by the late discovery of Scelsi's works was described by Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich:[1]

A whole chapter of recent musical history must be rewritten: the second half of this century is now unthinkable without Scelsi ... He has inaugurated a completely new way of making music, hitherto unknown in the West. In the early fifties, there were few alternatives to serialism's strait jacket that did not lead back to the past. Then, toward 1960–61, came the shock of the discovery of Ligeti's Apparitions and Atmosphères. There were few people at the time who knew that Friedrich Cerha, in his orchestral cycle Spiegel, had already reached rather similar results, and nobody knew that there was a composer who had followed the same path even years before, and in a far more radical way: Giacinto Scelsi himself.

Dutch musicologist Henk de Velde, alluding to Adorno speaking of Alban Berg, called Scelsi "the Master of the yet smaller transition," to which Harry Halbreich added that "in fact, his music is only transition."


Born in the village of Pitelli near La Spezia, Scelsi spent most of his time in his mother's old castle where he received education from a private tutor who taught him Latin, chess and fencing. Later, his family moved to Rome and his musical talents were encouraged by private lessons with Giacinto Sallustio. In Vienna, as a disciple of Arnold Schönberg, he became the first adept of dodecaphony in Italy, although he did not continue to use this composition system. In the 1920s, Scelsi made friends with intellectuals like Jean Cocteau and Virginia Woolf, and travelled abroad extensively. In 1927, in Egypt, he first came into contact with non-European music. His first composition was Chemin du coeur (1929). Then followed Rotativa, first conducted by Pierre Monteux at Salle Pleyel, Paris, on December 20, 1931.

In 1937, he organised a series of concerts of contemporary music, introducing the music of (among others) Hindemith, Schönberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, and Prokofiev to an Italian audience for the first time. Due to the enforcement of racial laws under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, these concerts were not able to continue for long, preventing the performance of works by Jewish composers. Scelsi refused to comply, causing the composer's gradual removal from Italy. In 1940, when Italy entered the war, Scelsi was in Switzerland, where he remained until the end of the conflict, composing and improving his conception of music. He married Dorothy Kate Ramsden, a divorced Englishwoman (whose daughter from her previous marriage was Katie Boyle).

Back in Rome after the war, his wife left him (eventually inspiring Elegia per Ty), and he underwent a profound psychic crisis that eventually led him to the discovery of Eastern spirituality and also to a radical transformation of his view of music, his so called second period. He rejected the notions of composition and author in favour of sheer improvisation. These improvisations, recorded on tape, were later transcribed by collaborators under his guidance, then orchestrated and complemented by the composer's meticulous performance instructions, or adjusted from time to time in close collaboration with the performers.

Scelsi came to conceive of artistic creation as a means of communicating a higher, transcendent reality to the listener. From this point of view, the artist is considered a mere intermediary. It is for this reason that Scelsi never allowed his image to be shown in connection with his music; he preferred instead to identify himself by a line under a circle, a symbol of Eastern provenance. Some photographs of Scelsi have emerged since his death.

One of the earliest interpreters Scelsi closely worked with is the singer Michiko Hirayama, whom he met in 1957 in Rome. From 1962 to 1972 he wrote the extensive song cycle Canti del Capricorno directly for her due to her special and unique vocal range. The writing process of the piece was an example for Scelsis very personal way of working: developing pieces through improvisation, recording and then final transcription.[2]

From the late 1970s he met several leading interpreters who have promoted his music all over the world and gradually opened the gates to wider audiences, such as the Arditti String Quartet, the cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, the pianists Yvar Mikhashoff and Marianne Schroeder.

Scelsi was a friend and a mentor to Alvin Curran and other expatriate American composers such as Frederic Rzewski who lived in Rome during the 1960s (Curran, 2003, in NewMusicBox). Scelsi also collaborated with other American composers including John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown who visited him in Rome.

Alvin Curran recalled that: "Scelsi ... came to all my concerts in Rome even right up to the very last one I gave just a few days before he died. This was in the summer time, and he was such a nut about being outdoors. He was there in a fur coat and a fur hat. It was an outdoor concert. He waved from a distance, beautiful sparking eyes and smile that he always had, and that's the last time I saw him" (Ross, 2005).

Scelsi died in Rome on August 9, 1988.

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  • steted

    Hi folks, I just find out about this group and you might be interested in a compilation I've produced. It's an Homage to Giacinto Scelsi. More detail are on my web site It's a compilation of experimental music from electronic to electroacoustic. There are musicians such David Toop, Scanner, Alvin Curran, Eddie Prevost and John Butcher, KK Null, Efzeg, Lawrence English, Olivia Block, Rafael Toral and many more. The Wire magazine reviewed as an excellent cd on juneissue. thanks

    12 Jul 2010 Reply