Giacinto Scelsi's Works (in a Nutshell)

     Giacinto Scelsi is a 20th Century composer who wrote works for a great variety of instrumental forces.  He is mainly known for his "one-note" works, whose basic idea is to base all of the pitches of a work on a single tone and create drama through microtonal glissandi, timbral development and various layering techniques.  His earlier works are more Bartokian (to me at least), and his larger orchestral works have a very dramatic "epic" feel to them.

     One of the most interesting aspects of Scelsi is that he composed by recording onto tape an "improvisation" on an ondiola (an electronic keyboard-like device, with pitch-bend, etc...), and eventually an assistants would transcribe these tape recordings.  Works for non-solo ensembles were recorded one part at a time, and fitted into a full score.  His improvisations seem to be quite different from the kind found in jazz, however.  From most appearances, these sessions came from long periods of conceptualization, and only after some time were the parts recorded "extemporaneously".  After the tapes were transcribed, Scelsi went over the scores and made additional changes to further refine them in order to get the sounds that he was looking for.  Much more information can be found on Todd McComb and Frances-Marie Uitti's sites.

     Todd M. McComb has written very thoroughly about Scelsi and describes his 4 "periods" as follows:
  1. Somewhat more "conventional" works.
  2. Works immediately following his crisis/breakthrough, most of which have a "searching" sort of quality to them, and a more improvisational feel featuring wide motion.
  3. Scelsi's most characteristic music, expansive & elegant, following on the landmark exploration of single notes in the Quattro pezzi. Here is the real structural role for timbre, with a more minimalist orientation in other areas.
  4. A time during which Scelsi's music became more severe and ascetic, so that many of these works are very short. They can also be more melodic in some sense, and represent something of a return to the improvisational style of the 2nd Period, but from within the new timbral perspective.
     Below is a table of most of Scelsi's works available on CD.  This list was created by copying McComb's list and then cutting out the works which I could not find a recording of.  After that, I listened to each piece and tried to write a short blurb which would quickly characterize the basic nature of each work.  This was only to help me find my way around Scelsi's music, since, despite his reputation as a "one-note" composer, there's actually quite a large spectrum of ideas here (as one can see).

     In the descriptions below, I coined the word "monotonal" to mean that the work is based on "one-note".  In reality, these "monotonal" works are actually closer to the idea of "bandwidth" in electronic music, in that a cluster of pitch frequencies may fill the space between upper and lower limit frequencies.  Monotonal harmony means that there are multiple "bandwidths" (or central pitches) being manipulated.  These short "nutshell" descriptions below are obviously biased by my own musical tastes and impressions (and yes, criminally brief), but I think it may be useful to someone else who may be interested in Scelsi, at least as a starting point to find their own journey of appreciating Scelsi's works.

     Interestingly enough, in 1960 Stockhausen was working on a piece called "Monophonie" (also based on a single note and exploring timbral development), but it was eventually abandoned.  One wonders if he might have heard the Scelsi String Trio (1958) and become inspired, but after Scelsi himself completed his first 1-note orchestral works (1959), he decided it was no longer necessary.

1st Period: 
These are the more "conventional" works before Scelsi went through his crisis and radically altered his compositional stance.
Year Title Instrumentation Musical Texture/Basic Impression
1929 Rotativa Symphonic poem w 3 pianos, winds and percussion
version for 2 pianos and percussion 1938
rhythmic, almost Gershwin-esque, repeated rising, building phrases (inspired by Futurism)
1930 /34 Suite No. 2 
"The Twelve Minor Prophets" 
piano Late Romantic, Scriabin
1930 -40 40 Preludes  piano Everything from Bartokian explorations to 12-tone (excellent liner notes)
1933 Tre canti di primavera  voice and piano Late romantic
1934 Poemi (4 Poems) piano Late Romantic, improvisatory
1934 Sonata  violin and piano little bit like Ravel
1935 Suite No. 5 
"Il Circo" 
piano 10 rhythmic "dances", between Debussy and Bartok
1936 /40 24 Preludes  piano Everything from Bartokian explorations to 12-tone (excellent liner notes)
1938 /39 Suite No. 6 
"I Capricci di Ty" 
piano 15 parts, Rhythmic phrases in irregular bursts, more usage of tremolo, circular forms, generally darker than previous Suite
1939 Hispania (Triptych) piano Some monotonal elements, but with influence of Debussy and Bartok
1939 Sonata No. 2  piano post-Romantic, some Bartok, Prokofiev
1939 Sonata No. 3  piano some Debussy, some Bartok, Schoenberg
1941 Sonata No. 4  piano post-Romantic, some Bartok, chromaticism but rhythmic
1943/45 Ballata  cello and piano
(or orchestra)
Like Bartok (Bluebeard…) or Berg
1944 String Quartet No. 1 string quartet
version for string orchestra 1962/72
Motivic, early 20th C. (Bartok, Grieg, Shosty, etc..)
1946 /48 La Nascita del Verbo  Cantata mixed choir and orchestra dramatic, filmic, gothic
1950 Trio  vibraphone, marimba and percussion starts rhythmic, colorful, later section becomes more polyrhythmic

 
2nd Period: 
These are the works immediately following on the crisis, most of which have a "searching" sort of quality to them, and a more improvisational feel featuring wide motion.
Year Title Instrumentation Musical Texture/Basic Impression
1952 Suite No. 8 "Bot-Ba"
(Evocation of Tibet with its monasteries on high mountain summits: Tibetan rituals, prayers and dances)
piano ornamentation, ostinati around limited pitches, slow harmonic movement
1953 Cinque incantesimi  piano late romantic but much more chromatic
1953 Piccola suite (Suite for Flute & Bb Clarinet) flute and clarinet Playful dialogue/duet, similar language to Stockhausen's Amour
1953 Quattro Illustrazioni
("Four illustrations of the metamorphoses of Vishnu")
piano ornamental and rhythmic around tonal centers, M2 infl. By futurism
1953 Quays  alto flute long held pedal tones are ornamented in different registers (somewhat Asiatic)
1953 Suite No. 9 "Ttai"
(A succession of episodes which alternatively express time -- or more precisely, time in motion and man as symbolized by cathedrals or monasteries, with the sound of the sacred 'Om') 
piano ornamentation, ostinati around limited pitches, slow harmonic movement
1954 Preghiera per un ombra ("Prayer for a shadow") Bb clarinet playful, lots of register leaping
1954 Pwyll  flute central tones w different tails, trills, ornamentation
1954 Suite No. 10 
"Ka" 
piano circular examinations on short motives, Bartokian
1954 Tre Pezzi 
(Three studies)
Eb clarinet I: central tones w different tails, tremolo octave leaps, ornamentation
II: wailing w microtones
III: looping arpeggios with variations, tremolo octave leaps
1954 -58 Yamaon  bass voice and alto sax, baritone sax, contra-basoon, double bass, percussion 3 parts, rhythmic and polyphonic, ornamentation around central tones w tremoli, etc…nonsense syllables/slow recitative/rhythmic, jazzy, less polyphonic, dramatic
1955 Action Music  piano monotonal but sometimes circular, clusters, driving and percussive
1955 Coelocanth (I-III) viola changing tonal centers with ornamentation, somewhat religious feel in I and II
1955 Divertimento No. 3  violin melodic, sometimes ethnic (Gypsy), sometimes religious
1955 Divertimento No. 4  violin melodic, virtuosic, sometimes ethnic (Gypsy)
1955 Hyxos  alto flute in G, 2 gongs and cow-bell lyrical, ritualistic, pastoral
1956 Quattro Pezzi 
for Trumpet alone
trumpet melodic, nostalgic
1956 Ixor  reed Bb clarinet, oboe, saxophone playful, patient, tremoli and ornaments around central tones
1956 Suite No. 11  piano circular examinations on short motives, Bartokian
1956 Three Studies  viola changing tonal centers with ornamentation, somewhat Hungarian, some ferocious moments in II and III
1956 Tre Pezzi (Three Pieces) sopr. saxophone or bass trumpet lyrical, virtuosic, based on thematic elements but also central tones
1957 Rucke di guck  piccolo and oboe playful dialogue, sometimes like bird calls, III is somewhat triumphant
1957 Tre Pezzi (Three Pieces) trombone variations on single notes, but with rhythmic and melodic ornamentation, II has mute, III has most melodic ornamentation
1957 /65 Trilogy:
"Triphon, Dithome, Ygghur" 
cello These use special resonators attached to the bridges.
Triphon - virtuosic, microtonal,
Dithome - more central tones,
Ygghur - more monotonal w gliss, almost ethnic
1958 I presagi 
("The Omens")
9 brass instruments and percussion (or 11 instruments) fanfare of polyphonic ornamentation around a central harmony/slow, monotonal swells/ominous trilling fanfares w perc.
1958 String Trio string trio slow, monotonal, contrapuntal microtonality, textural
1958 Tre canti popolari  4-voice mixed choir  ornamentation around limited pitches, semi-polyphonic long tones
1958 Tre canti sacri  8-voice mixed choir  ornamentation around limited pitches, semi-polyphonic long tones, bending harmonies
1958 /66 Elegia per Ty  viola and cello slow, monotonal, contrapuntal microtonality, textural
1959 Kya  Bb clarinet (or saxophone) and seven instruments ornamentation around a center tone, then monotonal, then lyrical but around a central tone

 
3rd Period: 
This is Scelsi's most characteristic music, expansive & elegant, following on the landmark exploration of single notes in the Quattro pezzi. Here is the real structural role for timbre with a more minimalist orientation in other areas.
Year Title Instrumentation Musical Texture/Basic Impression
1959 Quattro pezzi su una nota sola
("Four pieces each on a single note")
chamber orchestra monotonal harmony, glissandi, intermittent climaxes of different textures
1960 Hô: "Five Songs"  soprano voice ornamentation around limited pitches, octave leaps, various dialectical styles
1960 Hurqualia
("A Different Realm") 
large orchestra, with amplified instruments slow harmonies but with driving rhythms and fanfares, epic, foreboding, violent
1960 Wo-Ma  bass voice ornamentation around limited pitches, moderate tempo
1961 Aiôn (Aion): 
"Four Episodes in One Day of Brahma" 
orchestra slow, epic, ancient, regal, mystical, massive, monotonal harmony, some microtonal cluster harmonies and percussion bursts
1961 String Quartet No. 2 string quartet monotonal harmony, rising pitch center, staccato elements
1962 Khoom
"Seven episodes of an unwritten tale of love and death in a distant land" 
soprano voice, horn, string quartet & percussion wide vibrato, microtonal voice w drone brass/strings, perc accents, sometimes fiery, pizz rhythms, each episode a different arrangement
1962 Lilitu  female voice dynamic vibrato, siren-like
1962 Riti
("Ritual March")
version for Achilles (3 or 4 percussionists)
version for Alessandro Magno (Alexander the Great) (tuba, double bass, contra-bassoon, electric organ & percussion 1963)
version for Carlo Magno (Charlemagne) (also ver for cello and 2 percussionists 1967) 
ritualistic
1962 Taiagarù 
("Five Invocations") 
soprano voice melodic, dialogue, sometimes like a game
1963 Chukrum  string orchestra slow, sustained clusters and chords w microtonal glissandi, changing central tones, some foreground staccato bowing, pizz, etc…
1963 Hymnos  organ and 2 orchestras slow, sustained w microtonal glissandi, changing central tones, big chords, quiet middle section w reduced voices, huge, gothic ending
1963 String Quartet No. 3 string quartet monotonal harmony, clusters, glissandi
1964 String Quartet No. 4 string quartet monotonal harmony, often tremolo, a few plucks, changing register shapes
1964 Xnoybis  violin monotonal w pizz., double-voicing, microtones, octaves, etc…(qrtr tone trills)
1964 Yliam  female choir monotonal held harmonies, with individual solo noises surfacing, creepy like Ligeti
1965 Anagamin  12 strings monotonal, mostly sustained harmonies/harmonics, w over-bowing textures, low swells
1965 Anahit:
"Lyric Poem on the name of Venus" 
violin concerto (1 + 18) monotonal harmonies (sometimes diatonic), changing central tones (more than usual), microtonal violin solo, various trilling, etc...
1965 Duo (2 movements) violin and cello
version for violin and double bass 1977
monotonal duo, tremolo, harmonics, etc…
1965 /67 Elohim  10 strings low swells alternating with high sustained harmonies, middle section monotonal, later wall of harmonics
1966 Ko-Lho I & II flute and clarinet held microtonal harmonies, interrupted by brief melodic excursions
1966 Ohoi:
("The Creative Principles")
16 strings held microtonal harmonies, glissandi, different rates of tremoli, 1st half quiet, then more dynamic
1966 Uaxuctum:
"The Legend of the Maya City which destroyed itself for religious reasons" 
4 vocal soloists, ondes martenot solo, mixed choir and orchestra slow, epic, ancient, primal, mystical, massive
1967 CKCKC (2 parts) voice and mandolin semi-rhythmic mandolin attacks on an open chord with knocks, whispering, string slapping, chanting, vaguely American Indian-like
1967 Ko-Tha:
"Three Dances of Shiva" 
guitar
version double bass 1972
version six-string cello 1978
attacks on an open chord with knocks, string slapping, etc…
bass version dramatically rearranged, features bowing, prepared strings also
1967 Manto I, II, III  viola and voice microtonal double-voicing, harmonics, tandem voice in III, generally lamenting feel
1967 Natura renovatur  11 strings, adapted from String Quartet 4 monotonal harmony, often tremolo, a few plucks, changing register shapes
1968 Okanagon  harp, tam-tam & double bass prepared harp strings (rattling), slow even attacks, increasing in pulsations, "knocking" dialogues
1968 TKRDG  6-voice male choir, electric guitar and 2 percussionists polyrhythmic, ritualistic, based on a central chord shape, sometimes Morricone-western-like, sometimes African, 3rd part is irregular rhythms, octaves, polyphonic
1969 Konx-Om-Pax  mixed choir, and orchestra somewhat similar in mood to Uaxuctum , monotonal, tight sliding harmonies, quiet layer of high pizz in I, dramatic climax in II, chorus in III with short "OM" pulses, a few isolated  percussive attacks, intense ending

 
4th Period: 
This is a time during which Scelsi's music became more severe and ascetic, so that many of these works are very short. They can also be more melodic in some sense, and represent something of a return to the improvisational style of the Second Period, but from within the new timbral perspective.
Year Title Instrumentation Musical Texture/Basic Impression
1962 - 72 Canti del Capricorno (20) soprano "jagged chant-like monody that resembles glossolalia (speaking in tongues)", w perc. Overtone singing, sax, perc., etc., folk melodies
1970 Antifona "on the name of Jesus"  male choir slow and even melodic refrains, call and response
1970 Le grand sanctuaire:
"Il est grand temps" & "Même si je voyais" 
2 pieces tenor voice patient, melodic
1970 Three Latin Prayers:
"Ave Maria, Pater noster, Alleluia" 
voice or choir
also for clarinet solo
slow and even melodic refrains
1972 Pranam I
("In memory of the tragic losses of Jani and Sia Christou")
soprano voice, 12 instruments & tape monotonal, sustained microtonal (sometimes sliding intervals), gong-like percussion hits
1972 /1977 Nuits:
"C'est bien la nuit" & "Le Réveil profond"
double bass monotonal sustained on 1 chord 
1973 Arc-en-ciel  two violins monotonal, sustained microtonal 
1973 L'ame ailee  violin monotonal, sustained microtonal (sometimes sliding intervals)
1973 L'ame ouverte  violin monotonal, sustained microtonal (sometimes sliding intervals, performer counts note beating)
1973 Pranam II  nine instruments sustained polyphonic layers based on a central harmony
1973 Sauh I & II 
("Liturgy")
two female voices ornamentation around limited pitches, semi-polyphonic long tones, sometimes w vibrato
1973 Sauh III & IV  four female voices ornamentation around limited pitches, semi-polyphonic long tones, sometimes w vibrato
1974 Aitsi  electronically prepared piano isolated clusters with different resonance decays, some single tones intruding
1974 Et maintenant c'est à vous de jouer  cello and double bass monotonal, sustained microtonal, dramatic and sometimes fiery
1974 In Nomine Lucis  electric organ, 2 pieces sustained polyphonic layers based on a central harmony, harmony becomes more complex, generally epic and profound
1974 Manto "per quattro"  voice, flute, trombone and cello siren-like, wailing, enigmatic vocal over static monotonal harmony
1974 Pfhat:
"A flash... and the sky opened!" 
mixed choir and large orchestra sustained tones and clusters, ethereal ending
1974 To the master  cello and piano melodic, Asian scales, yearning but with abrupt tonal changes
1975 Dharana  cello and double bass monotonal sustained harmony
1975 Kshara  two doubles basses monotonal sustained harmony, sudden dynamic shifts in I, tight microtones in II, harmonics in III
1976 Maknongan  low-voice instrument: double bass, contra-bassoon, contrabass clarinet, etc. ornamentation around a pedal tone
1962
/76
Riti  I Funeral di Carlo Magno (Charlemagne) for cello and percussion monotonal sustained harmony, rolling background thunder
1978 /88 Un Adieu  piano slow gong-like chords with melody like Debussy
1985 String Quartet No. 5 string quartet adapted from Aitsi, monotonal sustained harmonies fading from plucked attacks
1986 Krishna and Rada (Radha)
"Improvisation with Carin Levine" 
flute and piano rolling piano harmonies with leaping, active flute
1987 Mantram  double bass ethnic folk melody

Links
Wiki Entry
Todd McComb's Scelsi Reference Site
Frances-Marie Uitti (cellist and Scelsi expert)
"Bringing a Reclusive Composer to Light" (Paul Griffiths)
"UNA NOTA SOLA: GIACINTO SCELSI AND THE GENESIS OF MUSIC ON A SINGLE NOTE" (Gregory N. Reish)
"Scelsi's Approach to the Third Dimension of Sound" (Elezovic)
"Scelsi, De-composer" (Tristan Murail)

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