What is not music? Giacinto Scelsi and the Orient

by Martina Seeber

This text is music journalist Martina Seeber’s contribution to a series of essays, commissioned by REMAIIN (Radical European Music and its Intercultural Nature) , a project that investigates non-European cultural influences on the experimental, avant-garde and innovative music of the present and the past. It is co-funded by the „Creative Europe” programme of the European Union. 

The text is accompanied by a musical homage to Scelsi by saxophonist Andre Vida and composer Augustin Maurs. It is Vida’s interpretation of the piece “Toast to Scelsi’s A Flat”, composed by Augustin Maurs.

The Italian nobleman Giacinto Scelsi always asserted that he was not a composer. The idea of composition has its origins in the occidental idea of musicianship and handicraft, where a piece of music is composed according to the rules of art from individual tones, to which the Latin verb “componere” refers. Instead of putting things together, the offspring of a rich family, who never had to earn a living, often asked: What is music anyway? A fugue by Bach? An Arabic litany? The chorus of old pygmy women? Scelsi, who was born in 1905, grew up at a time when professors and musicologists still considered non-European music as underdeveloped, insufficiently complex and, therefore, as an inferior cultural accomplishment. In his autobiography entitled Il Sogno 101,Giacinto Scelsi asks: “You want me to tell you what music is and what music is not? I can only say that instead of music one should rather speak of organized sounds, and sounds are organized in very different ways, from the Incas, the Tuaregs or the Chinese to electronic sounds that are recorded on eight magnetic tracks. So one should speak of different organization of the sound. That is all.” To offer just one example: Giacinto Scelsi was not a music ethnologist, although he – and his partner at the time, Frances McCann – were in December 1958 the first to invite the still unknown Ravi Shankar to Italy. As a young dandy, Giacinto Scelsi divided his time between Paris, the Côte d’Azur, London and St. Moritz. He never studied composition at any academy. Instead, he was influenced by Far Eastern philosophy, yoga masters, Sufi experts, visual artists, an early trip to the Middle East, countless visits to doctors who explored alternative, often oriental healing methods, and indeed some Western composers. Perhaps closest to him was John Cage, who was often among his guests when he stayed in Rome. On the surface, their music hardly connects anything. However, all the more similar is their basic philosophical understanding of artistic action, influenced by eastern philosophy.
“There is nothing that cannot be achieved through inaction,” says Scelsi quoting a principle of Taoism, which could also be quoted by Cage. As an artist he considers himself as a medium, receiving sounding messages from a spiritual world. Although he also composed Christian prayers, he finds his spiritual world outside Europe. “Initiation, enlightenment did and does not happen in the occident, but in Egypt, in India.”

An early trip took him to the Near East in 1929. He was 24, when he travelled to Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Greece, discovering Sufi rituals and traditional music. Giacinto Scelsi mostly spent the Second World War in Switzerland, where he stayed in different hospitals, searching for a cure for his nervous spinal disease. He finally found healing not through a medical cure, but through sound. Sitting in front of a piano in a Swiss hospital he just hit one key again and again and listened to the sound of the attack and the reverberation. This, he said, was the beginning of his healing process. And it was a turning point in his attitude towards music. Instead of understanding music as a system of related pitches and intervals he started to explore the sound itself, a quality which had long been neglected by Western composers. A case in point: whereas western flute players work hard to eliminate every sound of air and aim for a sound free from any noise, the aesthetic ideal of eastern flutists includes all grades of noise. While experimenting with electronic devices, Giacinto Scelsi developed a special taste for all kinds of distortions which found their way into his instrumental music.

After the war, the count settled in Rome. His apartment in the city centre next to the Forum Romanum became an important gathering place for musicians, composers, philosophers and visual artists from Rome, Italy and countries all over the world. And he frequented other salons as a member the circle around Dr. Roberto Assagioli, one of the pioneers of psychology and psychotherapy. At his house Scelsi interchanged ideas about eastern philosophy and theosophy. “There began my strong curiosity and interest in the sciences und philosophies of the Orient and especially in yoga, which to me reunites science and other more important knowledge.”

He began to meditate and to practise yoga, with evident effects on his musical practise. Meditation and yoga put him in the right mood to receive “the sounding messages from a spiritual world”. He tried to eliminate any obstacles between messages received and notated music. Notating music is a long process which includes the risk of losing the connection to the moment of inspiration. Giacinto Scelsi decided to concentrate on the moment. After meditation and yoga he improvised and recorded the improvisations on tape. He played the piano, as well as an early electronic instrument, the Ondiola. He bought the instrument in 1957, one year before it was presented at the World Exhibition in Brussels. The Ondiola had a keyboard, but could only be played one note a time. It did not allow harmonies or polyphony. But it had a little wheel to control the pitch. Scelsi made extensive use of this device, exploring subtle pitch changes and glissando processes. He chose the best improvisations, sometimes he edited them and doubled voices with the help of a second tape recorder, before he gave the master tapes to transcribers. Vieri Tossatti, his most important assistant, but also Riccardo Fillippini and some other collaborators, had to notate what they heard and to transcribe the originals into works for string quartets, but also orchestral works with or without organ or choir.

This working process is not only close to early conceptual art, but also rooted in the Chinese principle of “wu wei”, which signifies acting through not acting. This provided Scelsi with an intuitive process without thinking during the improvisations. He tried to act unintentionally and to free himself from any kind of planning.

The act of composing should not be an act anymore, but a magic moment as in Zen painting or calligraphy. The artist has to prepare himself and to capture the right moment. “An inspired Zen painter can fill a large surface in a few moments. For a composer, the situation is completely different. A score, even if it is only intended for piano, consists of thousands of characters: notes, slurs, information on timbre, expression, without having to spend the necessary time that would have to be considered, coordinating the rhythms and notes of the various voices” (Scelsi, Les anges sont ailleurs, 175)

It is interesting to note that Scelsi was also friends with the French painter and author Henri Michaux, who experimented with mescaline, wrote books about the effects of the drug and published a series of mescaline drawings.

“I could say a lot about the right sound. It is by no means the correct tone in relation to any tonal or atonal European, African or Asian system, but rather the essence of sound itself. Sound is energy and this can have very negative and harmful effects if used incorrectly.” With his search for – in his view – the lost magic of sound, Giacinto Scelsi opened up the world of smallest fluctuations in tone beyond familiar Western scales. He did not seek legitimacy in composing methods like formulas and tables, in dialectics or in any idea of progress, but in the physical and spiritual power of the sound and the intensity of the performance. When his works became known late in his life, they split the music world into two camps. Some condemned the improvisational yoga student as a “charlatan”, but to others his spirituality and expeditions into the sound opened up a new world.

Martina Seeber was born in 1967 in Wattenscheid/Germany. After a stay in Paris, she studied musicology, Romance philology and philosophy in Cologne, followed by a training as a journalist at the German Radio Academy in Dortmund. Today she works as a freelance writer and presenter for the public radios stations. She presents live concerts, hosts radio programs, writes for print media and produces features about contemporary music.