A Soundtrack for Radical Traditionalism
“Rome is the boundary between East and West. South of Rome, the East starts, and north of Rome, the West starts. This border-line now, runs exactly over the Forum Romanum. There’s my house, this explains my life and my music.” — Giacinto Scelsi
The music of Giacinto Scelsi is still relatively obscure, which is in keeping with the reclusive and esoteric character of the composer himself. Undoubtedly, the largest exposure his work has had come from its inclusion in the soundtrack to the Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island, where the sinister, atonal qualities of his music contribute to the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere of that terrifying movie. Otherwise, Scelsi languishes in a largely self-created niche where no one other than 20th-century avant-garde musicologists dare to tread.
This is a shame because his music, despite its imposing and chilling veneer, actually communicates its inner secrets remarkably effectively. Unlike so many post-Schoenberg compositions, Scelsi’s works are incredibly articulate and manage to carry the listener on a rich and rewarding musical journey into a sense of cosmic stillness. Despite his obscurity, Scelsi’s distinctive aesthetic may find its most receptive audience amongst Radical Traditionalists, particularly those already weaned on the likes of Nurse With Wound, early Current 93, and Boyd Rice. More generally, Scelsci is one of the few composers, along with Pärt and Ligeti, who is able to utilize late 20th-century composition in the service of a mystical, numinous approach to art, and he deserves far wider recognition.
Giacinto Scelsi was born in 1905 and grew up in a castle in the medieval town of Valva in Italy. He was the last Count of Dayala Valva, and his schooling at the castle comprised fencing, Latin, and chess. His aristocratic background may give some context to his rather aloof attitude to publicity. He refused to have his photograph taken — the only pictures on the internet are of Scelsi as a young man — and he steadfastly resisted giving any explanation of his work whatsoever. His signature incorporated a drawing of a circle with a horizontal line beneath it, a rather Zen-like sigil, perhaps signifying the Sun and Earth, or perhaps the void and manifestation. He would supply a copy of this drawing to publishers whenever he was asked to provide a photograph of himself. When he married a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, the wedding reception was held at Buckingham Palace, demonstrating that his aristocratic credentials were entirely in order.
Scelsi was initially influenced by Surrealism and Futurism, and he studied under a pupil of Schoenberg (although, like much else in Scelsi’s biography, this is not certain). His early compositions were created under the influence of the twelve tone system and are predictably unremarkable. But in 1950 Scelsi suffered a complete nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. For the next couple of years, as he sought to heal himself, he would spend long periods playing a single note repeatedly on his piano. In doing so, he began to hear the hidden potentialities lying concealed within this monotonous sound. The latent vibrational and microtonal functions of the note spoke to him and suggested an entirely new way of approaching musical composition, one which would move away from a focus on harmonics and towards an investigation into the sonic potentialities of the tone.
This happened to dovetail happily with his esoteric interests. It is significant that this new orientation towards the praxis of composition is associated with a period of healing. For Scelsi, music was fundamentally connected with therapeutic and spiritually enlightening potentialities. With this mature phase of his work, Scelsi was able to establish a unique musical vision and the results would bequeath some of the late 20th century’s more remarkable avant-garde pieces.
By this time, Scelsi had already visited India and Tibet and had become obsessed with the spiritual life that he had discovered there. He was a practitioner of yoga and was familiar with the occult works of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff. Interestingly, Gurdjieff was also interested in the spiritual effects of music and he experimented with these ideas with Thomas de Hartmann on a number of piano compositions. It has to be said that the fruits of this collaboration, whilst being interesting, are far less notable than Scelsi’s major works.
Of course, like many Westerners who find spiritual inspiration from such sources, Scelsi stands open to accusations of being a metaphysical tourist. This was very much a live issue in the 1920s, and during a 1924 press conference at which Scelsi was present, René Guénon publicly debated with Jacques Maritain about whether Ossendowsky could be reconciled with the Western Catholic tradition. Guénon thought that such syncretism could enrich the Western tradition, and Scelsi agreed with him. This Traditionalist approach to matters of religion helps to explain much about Scelsi’s work, not least the vast and often obscure range of references in the titles of his works.
When Scelsi returned to composition in the early 1950s he had discovered a new focus and a new technical and aesthetic approach. His 1959 masterpiece, Quattro Pezzi chiascuno su una nota sola (Four Pieces on a single note), showcases his mastery of this new form to perfection. Each piece lasts only for a few minutes, but they seem to arrive fully-formed and already consummated. There is little sense of linear progression; instead, Scelsi seeks to step outside the path of temporal development and to put a single note under an auditory microscope. The irony is that such an approach reveals a great deal of movement and harmony already implicit in the note. The Quattro Pezzi does not stick strictly to the one note rule, but nevertheless it provides the template for Scelsi’s mystical audio meditations that were to follow.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, Scelsi continued to produce meditative, stark, and imposing compositions, few of which were performed. He began to give his compositions strange and distinctive titles. During this period he produced works such as Xnoybis “The ability of energy to ascend to spirit.” Uaxuctum “The Legend of the Maya City which destroyed itself for religious reasons” and Konx-Om-Pax “Three aspects of sound: as the first motion of the immovable, as creative force, as the Syllable ‘om’.”
Konx-Om-Pax is one of Scelsi’s best realized works and is highly typical of his style. The title is taken from a work by Aleister Crowley and comprises the word “peace” rendered in three different languages. Composed in 1968–69, this three part work begins with a very quiet and slow introduction in the first part. The music appears as a swelling, yet distant, tidal surge, ebbing and flowing, and gradually increases in force and volume as the movement progresses. Then it drops away as the tide recedes. The second part is only two minutes long and, as the title tells us, represents creative force. It is a brief tornado of brass, strings, and percussion, but even here there is a sense of natural, cyclical flow. In the final movement the chorus is introduced chanting the sacred syllable “Om.”
This is perhaps the essence of Scelsi’s work: the distillation of creative energy, of the life-force itself, into a single sound. As is usually the case with Scelsi, the simplicity of the arrangement is deceptive. The orchestral sweeps that enhance the pulsing tone of the voices actually do quite a lot, but these are not decorative ornamentation so much as the revealing of inner functions within the sound itself; explications of the implicit.
With this sort of range of cultural references, it might be assumed that Scelsi’s oeuvre is a typically postmodern project, assimilating diverse signifiers at will and with little authenticity. Such a postmodern approach is, of course, deeply influenced by New Left thinkers who emphasize the parity of distinct cultural traditions in an attempt to dissipate a primary connection with one’s own. In his essay on Bach, Theodor Adorno attempts to argue that Bach was a sort of proto-postmodernist whose artistic instincts led him towards increasing individualism, and whose archaic and formulaic tendencies were simply contingent necessities of the time. According to Adorno, Bach’s compositional technique:
brings with it the possibility of freely choosing from all the objectively available procedures of the epoch. Bach does not feel himself blindly bound to any of them but instead always chooses that which best suits the compositional intention. Such liberty vis-à-vis the ancient however, can hardly be construed as the culmination of the tradition, which instead must prohibit just that free selection of available possibilities.
Is Scelsi cherry-picking from varied cultural sources in a postmodern way? Would Adorno have approved of his music? I think the answer to both questions is “no.” For Adorno, nostalgia is misconception; history is false consciousness. Scelsi is a composer who venerates the past and who attempts to discover the hidden esoteric essence of long dead cultures. But he is no historical re-constructionist; he does not attempt to recreate the form of other musical traditions. Instead, he seems to use his strange titles as a sort of bridge to the sound-world he is already preoccupied with. Just as religions use iconography to provide a tangible form to that which is beyond expression, so do Scelsi’s titles give a contextual touchstone to the deeper articulations of the music. Whereas for Adorno, and for the contemporary Left, tradition represents constriction and the ideological distortion of a prior essence, for Scelsi the numinous essence is everywhere, a latent energy folded within itself. His task is to reveal the essence by listening for the hidden structure within the apparently simple and singular.
Still further, Scelsi identifies music with genesis: “Yes, one might consider sound the cosmic force that is the basis of everything. There is a beautiful definition that says: ‘Sound is the first movement of the unmoveable,’ and this is the beginning of creation.” On this basis, Scelsi’s aesthetic runs entirely counter to the assumptions of postmodernity. His preoccupation with strange cultural references and occult practices is not an attempt to synthesize those ideas into a spurious unity, but to use them as stepping stones on a path that leads back to a point before history. This suggests that Scelsi perceives the numinous as being existent prior to humanity. In this he is utterly radical.
Scelsi’s best works do not readily evoke any particular cultural context and neither do they express a self-contained sense of narrative progression. Instead, there is a sense of pulsing, of tidal pull, of lunar waxing and waning, of the cold stellar throb of pulsar cycles; always circular, self-regenerating tones, never linear development and evolution. But even here there is a restive quality. The tone is never allowed to become a singular, discrete auditory item. It is seething with the sonic possibilities inherent in its manifestation, so that the music is actually busy, alive and complex. This marriage of the simple tone with its profound microtonal possibilities is the emblem of Scelsi’s genius.
Giacinto Scelsi died in 1988. According to one of his musical collaborators, the cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, he died on August 8th, 1988, although other sources seem to agree that it was actually on the 9th. Uitti’s date is influenced by the fact that Scelsi prophesied to her that he would die, “when the 8’s lined up,” i.e. 8.8.88.
Soon after his death his unusual method of compositional praxis led to controversy. In 1989, one of Scelsi’s assistants, Vieri Tosatti, gave an interview that was published with the title, “Giacinto Scelsi, c’est moi.” In this interview Tosatti claims that his own role was effectively that of composer, and that Scelsi offered only a vague idea of how the completed composition should appear. In particular, Scelsi would often make tape recordings on an ondiola which Tosatti would then transcribe. The ondiola was an early form of electronic keyboard. It allowed Scelsi to improvise with long drawn out notes, adding vibrato and changing the volume as required, extending the range of sonic possibilities from that offered by the piano. Subsequent to this, Tosatti claims, Scelsi would offer him simple drawings of geometrical shapes and invite him to transcribe music based on his understanding of them.
Tosatti’s claims are largely dismissed by music critics because the work he produced independently of Scelsi is widely judged to be massively inferior to Scelsi’s own output. Scelsi did absolutely nothing during his lifetime to prevent such controversy from arising. When he was once approached by a writer for information he declared, “Scelsi is a composer who never existed.” Certainly, the unusual method of composition is noteworthy in itself, and it seems typical of the aristocratically aloof attitude Scelsi adopted towards his artistic endeavors.
Whilst Scelsi manages to stand aside from the mainstream of 20th century composition, he also manages to anticipate some subsequent developments. Due to his isolation and the rarity of his work’s performance, Scelsi could not really be said to be influential. But it is certainly the case that he was tapping into musical techniques and formulations that would become more important as time went on. Whilst this subliminal influence extends to some of the industrial/noise output mentioned earlier, it can also be discerned in some of the ambient pieces of Brian Eno which convey a kindred sense of numinous stillness. Eno also featured on the soundtrack to Shutter Island.
But perhaps the most significant series of works to inhabit the aesthetic space cleared by Scelsi’s efforts is The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski. The Disintegration Loops came about when Basinski attempted to transfer some old tapes of music into digital format. As the tapes played in the machine they literally began to disintegrate and decay. What originally existed as a series of ambient loops becomes gradually transformed into something that takes on a life of its own, even as it is destroyed. The resulting music embodies an organic sense of chronological entropy and the inevitability of running towards death. The Disintegration Loops sound ethereal yet at the same time, as the decay begins to kick in, they are gradually overwhelmed by the harsh dissonance of mortality. It is this sense of dialectical tension, between the unitary stillness of the eternal and the restive dictates of material manifestation, that links The Disintegration Loops with Scelsi’s aesthetic. The Disintegration Loops were completed on September 10th, 2001 in New York, and the following day Basinski listened to the Loops as the towers collapsed. The work has subsequently entered into contemporary myth. Whilst Scelsi stood aside from the unfolding of postmodernity and sought the eternal note of creation, Basinski’s masterpiece, ineradicably associated with the collapse of the Empire’s towers, stands at the end of time and plays forever in a looped elegy to a dead Imperium.
When viewed in this light, Scelsi stands as a proto-ambient mystic. But there is far more to his oeuvre than this description would imply. His music expresses the darker, more unnerving aspects of mysticism that most people are uncomfortable with. It is at once beautiful and threatening. It is located on the further fringes of the avant-garde yet is immediately accessible. His best pieces are fully realized expressions of numinous art, yet they do not seem to be at home within any particular tradition. His music stands on many different borders and resists easy interpretation. It is the perfect soundtrack for the contemporary Radical Traditionalist, and I recommend it heartily.
Editor’s Note: To buy the works of Giacinto Scelsi, click here: Giacinto Scelsi at Amazon.com
1. G. I. Gurdjieff and Thomas De Hartmann, Journey to Inaccessible Places, Elan Sicroff, Piano. Editions EG, vinyl recording. [EGED 45].
2. Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1995).
3. Eric Drott, “Class, Ideology, and il caso Scelsi,” The Musical Quarterly 89 (2007): 80–120.
4. Frances-Marie Uitti, “Via San Teodoro 8,” in accompanying booklet, Giacinto Scelsi, Natura Renovatur, Frances-Marie Uitti, Münchener Kammerorchester, Christoph Poppen. ECM New Series, compact disc. [ECM 1963].
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