The Art of Song of Giacinto Scelsi
Marianne Schuppe, voice
Songs and settings of works by Giacinto Scelsi, one of the most individual voices in the history of music. His music stands outside the schools that responded to world events and exists as a monument to itself – utterly honest and almost indescribable, reminiscent of a stature in Rome but in his case it is a statue of the imagination.
'Songs without lachrymose, sentimental lyricisms, being instead "phonetic gestures", cries, screams, exhalations; pantings, whisperings, cascades of syllables, a carpet of ornaments in sound; lines curling round each other and repeating each other in circles, similar to each other, but not the same; that is why this music is nature-like, why it moves us and moves itself'. Shortly after the death of Giacinto Scelsi in 1988, Jürg Wyttenbach recorded these impressions—impressions that he had received at a performance of Taiagarù and other works by the singer Michiko Hirayama in 1976 (see dissonanz / dissonance No. 18, November 1988, p. 12). Wyttenbach's description includes a word that is astonishing, for Scelsi's hagiographers would like best of all to see it banned from discussion of his work: 'Lieder' ('Songs'). The West German discovery of Scelsi in the 1980s was an event of Messianic character that was welcomed in a choice of vocabulary that was correspondingly devoid of inhibitions. He was celebrated as a manifestation that was far removed from the framework of Eurocentric descriptions of music history, in order to be used as a figure of identification by the adherents of a numinous poetics. The ennoblement of Scelsi's technique as 'incommensurable composing' (Heinz-Klaus Metzger) remains the measuring rod used by many today. His music is still regarded as 'impossible to analyse' (see, for example, the article on him in the dictionary Komponisten der Gegenwart — Contemporary Composers), which opinion has received dubious confirmation in a furore of ever-growing numbers of musicological investigations of his work—not least as a defence against campaigns waged by certain of his transcribers in an effort to trivialize him.
In this atmosphere, a word such as that used by Wyttenbach has a cathartic effect. Neither Scelsi nor his music came down to us from heaven. Of course, these pieces for voice are not 'songs' after the manner of the Western systematisation of different genres, nor are they beholden in any manifest way to any song tradition. But there are characteristics that can support Wyttenbach's sacrilegious definition, whether it be the unity of the musical character of many of the solo vocal works, their 'songlike', often diatonic or pentatonic vocabulary (many of the pieces unfold out of the circling around a simple, 'analysable' intervallic core, as for example Hô II or Taiagar IV), the virulence of figuration-like topoi, or the latent presence of simple song forms. It must also be considered, however, that Wyttenbach was perhaps not even thinking primarily of the 'art-song' in his remarks, but possibly rather of the 'chanson' or other 'simple' musical forms of expression.
This does not mean that there is nothing unusual about these songs. Oddly enough, their unusual qualities lie in their instrumental aspect. If one believes the legends (probably true, as it happens), then they are transcriptions of improvised instrumental music (Giacinto Scelsi, Count of Ayala Valve, played, taped what he played, and then had it 'transcribed') — though the concept of 'transcription' should perhaps be termed more precisely 'transcomposition', to use a word coined by the composer Christoph Delz (1950-1993). In a recently published article ('The Amateur and the Professionals — Giacinto Scelsi, Vieri Tosatti & Co.' in MusikTexte No. 104, February 2005, p. 27ff.), Friedrich Jaecker argues quite convincingly that the 'transcribers' of Scelsi's tapes did not just have to listen to and notate the undoubtedly 'musical' layers (i.e. not just the 'normal' instrumental sounds), but also — quite specifically — the unintentional sounds on the recording (the crackling of the magnetic tape, the noises of turning on and off, doors slamming, car horns in the background, and other everyday sonic emissions). This is a convincing indication that it was not just a matter of transcribing tape recordings as faithfully as possible (in which case one could have just left the music as recorded on the tapes), but rather of treating the transformation of the recorded improvisation into another medium itself as an aesthetic process (for which reason I draw the somewhat daring comparison with Christoph Delz, who 'transcomposed' into music concrete sounds such as the noise of building sites and the jungle).
This observation is more than a mere matter of musicological nitpicking. For it shows the compositional product in the light of a process of production that one can without doubt describe as an interpretation of sound events — and this is, not least, an observation that can be valuable to the performers of the score. Marianne Schuppe's singing corresponds thoroughly to the idea of an 'interpretative transcomposition' of what is notated, and she was expressly encouraged in this by Michiko Hirayama, with whom Scelsi himself worked closely. As Hirayama has said, Scelsi made clear to his interpreters that a high degree of fidelity to the text was not the most important thing, regarding the manner of phonetizising his music, as developed by him and Hirayama together, as not the one and only valid solution, but rather just one of many possibilities of making his music 'speak'.
Some of the pieces on this CD are revisions — interpretations — of concrete instrumental solo pieces. The first song of Hô, for example, is a new version of the fourth of the Four Pieces for Trumpet (1956), while the fourth song of Taiagarù (1962) is a vocal version of the third of the Four Pieces for Horn (1956). A piece such as that for trumpet mentioned above is an excellent example of Scelsi's manner of realizing complexly articulated music on the basis of only a few notes (his famous 'one-note style'). In other words, the music is not articulated by constant changes of pitch, but in the multifarious changes of articulation itself, and the smallest possible fluctuations of pitch, as for example by often using a mute ('usare sordina variabile').
In his subtle differentiation of solo wind notes, Scelsi came upon certain technical hurdles at the close of the 1950s. He soon profited from the possibilities of articulation offered by the human voice, which allows for a fundamentally greater differentiation in the production of sounds. In Hô I, Scelsi, however, does not just succeed in achieving a technical differentiation from an instrumental sound. More fundamental is the shift into the realm of language, in which the chains of sounds cannot simply be reduced to their purely articulatory function. A vocal vibrato possesses a different emotional impact from that of a trumpet, while vowels and consonants and composed-out phonetic structures are not just a matter of tone colour, but have a semantic import. Hô I is the compositional expression of the origin of linguistic sounds and sound connections (an early cantata by Scelsi in fact bears the title The birth of the word). It is an expression of 'shifting movements of the organs of articulation' (thus Hans Rudolf Zeller) that is the basis — though in very different ways — of all the pieces gathered on this CD. The eloquent character of these processes does not lie simply 'hidden' on the micro-level of the music, but is also brought to expression in the most varied ways — the emotional, affective spectrum ranges from the most intimate, introverted sounds to wild, extrovert gestures, and it is a spectrum that is used to the full in Taiagarù.
Sauh presents a reduction of the figurative riches of the earlier cycles. The two Sauh 'liturgies' here are given with solo voice and tape. This is the first time that they have been recorded in two- and four-part versions; using third relationships, the characteristics of a single voice are here given in a stretto with themselves (by means of duplication on tape). This is a matter of the composing-out of many changes of articulation that itself multiplies the possibilities of a specific voice (with its own individual sound profile). This is thus by no means 'choral music', but the expansion of a solo voice into a whole band of sound. The possibilities that Scelsi found he could create with a simple solo voice are here simultaneously expanded, are made more flexible. The result is a polyphony, not of the voices, but of their means of articulation and the changes thereof. It is not a dialogue, but an immense differentiation and unfolding of sound transformations that can be perceived intensely, thanks to the reduced scope of the tonal space involved.
Genre descriptions such as 'liturgy' or 'evocations' betray the fact that Scelsi did not regard his songs just as an instrumentally motivated microscope in sound, but accords to them a real 'function'. Although he eschews 'comprehensible' words, he nevertheless — in his songs as in his instrumental music — wants to give linguistic expression to something. Peter Niklas Wilson is quite right when he describes Scelsi as an 'Expressionist', as a 'conversationalist' in sound, whose rhetoric begins with the very character of sound itself — these remarks being made specifically with regard to the Four Pieces for Orchestra (1959). The 'inner' sound that is so often and so extensively conjured up is not celebrated ominously, but relinquished. In her interpretations here, Marianne Schuppe is careful to express the 'direct speech' of Scelsi's music — and this succeeds clearly, for example, in the parlando passages of Taiagarù. The introspective, meditative side of Scelsi's music is clearly overestimated. It is this thoroughly hedonistic speech-character, which defies popular desubjectivization rituals, that finds a real 'voice' in Scelsi's music.
(English translation Chris Walton)
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