The only proper word for the music of the self-taught Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi is “sublime.” Not in the common sense of the word, which comes to something like “very good”—but in the sense that Moses Mendelssohn understood it, that is, something that is frightening and overwhelming and pleasing and painful and immense and transcendent all at once. Scelsi considered himself to be nothing more than a messenger, a conduit for sounds from another plane, and his music can sound otherworldly, like a kind of an ancient awakening; it derives its sublimity from the primordial. The primordiality of Scelsi’s music makes it other, terrifyingly other. (It’s no accident that one of the most common horror film tropes is the return of the ancient as a harbinger of the apocalypse). Yet it is also undeniably modern both chronologically and in method. Scelsi employed extended techniques for strings, microtonal harmonies, electronics, prepared pianos, all in service of sound. For him, the single tone was infinite—not a prison, but a universe in and of itself.

Giacinto Scelsi – String Quartet No. 4; Klangforum Wien String Quartet

After a mental breakdown sometime during World War II, Scelsi stopped composing for a few years. During his convalescence, he could be found playing a single note at the piano over and over again. Scelsi had been composing for a number of years before the break, but the shift in his compositions to the almost monomaniacal focus on a single note, on its timbre, its overtones, the microtones lurking on the periphery, all stemmed directly from this period of convalescence. Though the String Quartet No. 4 was written roughly 20 years after his breakdown, it is here, as opposed to the more famous but slightly less interesting “Quattro Pezzi (su una nota sola),” that the one note technique reaches its highest aspiration. The quartet, which was notated for individual strings, and is therefore truly comprised of 16 parts as opposed to four, slowly rises, almost imperceptibly, from a C to an A. We hear the ghosts of microtones and overtones swirling around the central note, itself haunted by the preceding tones somehow still present despite their disappearance. Even in A, we hear a C and a D and an Eb. The upward shift is so gradual, so subtle, that by the end of the piece it becomes difficult to say whether it even truly occurred. Scelsi’s Quartet sounds static while in motion, but it does move—less like an upward climb than an incessant bubbling.

Benjamin Stewart – “Tanpura Demonstration”

Scelsi’s one note therapy was not sui generis, but rather rooted in Asian and Indian music. Before the war, the composer had visited Nepal and India and became enamored with Eastern philosophy and music. Scelsi’s one note compositions find their closest analogue in the sound of the Tanpura, a string instrument from India. Its four strings are rhythmically plucked to create a drone of shimmering overtones. The sound is three dimensional, that is, in one sound there are many.

Field Recording, Tibet – “Lament for the Dead: Chant”

Scelsi’s music also shows an affinity for the chanting of Tibetan monks. This field recording from the Smithsonian “Music of the World’s Peoples” series, captures, according to the liner notes, “Lamas chanting in unison with percussion and bells accompaniment.” The deeply resonant baritone voices, combined with the barely audible, overtone-rich bells, create an almost unbearably chilling sound. This is a lament for the dead by the living, but the sound seems more to emanate from somewhere beneath the earth—from the dead themselves.

Giacinto Scelsi – “Konx-Om-Pax”; Jürg Wyttenbach (conductor), the Polish Radio Orchestra and Chorus of Krakow

Scelsi’s “Konx-Om-Pax” refers to the three aspects of sound: as the first motion of the immovable; as the sacred syllable Om; as a creative force. The third movement is eerily similar to the Tibetan Lament for the Dead—though Selsci would later make explicit reference to the chants of Tibetan monks in his 1952 piece “Bot-Ba,” it is here that the influence is manifested most effectively. A chorus of low voices chants the “sacred syllable” on A, while the orchestra fills in chromatic clusters, overtones, and microtones. The chorus crescendos slowly until a jarring percussion hit breaks the composition in half. Then the piece resumes its crescendo, this time propelled primarily by the orchestra instead of the chorus. The chorus reenters and the music gets increasingly more intense, more unnerving, more awful, in the archaic sense of the word: “Inspiring reverential wonder or fear.” As in the Tibetan chant, the boundary between life and death is blurred, and when the chorus intones its final Om, the syllable has taken on an ineffable power.

Giacinto Sclesi – “Yamaon: I”; Roland Hermann (Baritone), Hans Zender (Conductor), Klangforum Wien

Link to full album

The human voice became an instrument of keen interest for Scelsi as his concern for pure sound advanced. Though the meditative and single tone possibilities of the human voice find their more fleshed out exploration in later pieces like “Khoom” or “Ho,” “Yamaon,” one of his earlier compositions for a single vocalist, is perhaps his most exciting. The piece, which derives its name from Yama, the Hindu god of the dead, features a baritone singing nonsense syllables of Scelsi’s own invention. Scelsi’s orchestration here is at its most theatrical, and is at times downright playful. Scelsi composed by improvising his pieces and recording them on tape, and the improvisatory nature and radical freedom with which he composed is on full display in “Yamaon,” particularly in the intense, frisky first movement. (In fact, Scelsi was averse to actually notating his own music. He enlisted the help of composer Vieri Tosatti to score his improvisations. After Scelsi’s death in 1988, Tosatti would claim ownership over all of Scelsi’s music in an article entitled “Giacinto Scelsi C’Est Moi.” The veracity and philosophical stakes of the claim were hotly debated at the time).

Luigi & Antonio Russolo – “Awakening of a City”

Growing up in Italy, the young Scelsi attended the performances of Futurist noise orchestras. Luigi Russolo, the pioneering force behind these orchestras, sought to bring the mechanized noise of the city into the sphere of music. In order to realize his vision, Russolo and his brother Antonio constructed noise-making instruments called “Intonarumori.” In this recording, which is also an aural manifesto of sorts, we hear a “buzzer,” a “gurgler,” a “crackler,” a “hooter,” and possibly others: a rumbling like a truck over poorly paved road, a jackhammer at work, a plane taking flight. In Russolo’s noise music, we can hear the early seeds of Scelsi’s intense consideration of sound in all its possibilities.

Giacinto Scelsi – “Suite No. 6 ‘I capricci di Ty’: III.”; Anna D’Errico (Piano)

Link to full album

This is one of Scelsi’s earlier pieces, composed in 1938-39, before his breakdown. It shows the kernel of his concern for the single tone. In the third part, a single staccato note in the piano’s upper register is manically repeated, punctuated by longer middle register notes. The two sounds are then demolished and subsumed by powerful lower register attacks. It’s as if Scelsi is searching for the right compliment to the single repeated upper register note, only to abandon his search in a fit of left-handed frustration. He repeats the process a few times unsuccessfully. But by the end of the third part, something in the lower register has caught his attention, and we fade out on a slowly repeated low note. For a moment, at least, he found the right tone. ¶