Giacinto Scelsi’s Kshara


Sounding Now Festival
Saturday, 13 April 2019 @ 7:30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall

Contributed by Christopher Sim (BMus2, YST)

Drawing inspiration from Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, Giacinto Scelsi’s compositions reflect a deep and intense fixation for otherwise simple ideas. Some of his most acclaimed works were written on single pitches. For instance, in his Konx-Om-Pax for orchestra, almost every instrument plays in the pitch of C, with exceptions given to trills, harmonic overtones and some glissandos. He remained relatively unknown for much of his early life up until the 1980s when many of works were first performed. Regarded by his contemporaries as a radical figure of postmodern music, Giacinto Scelsi is critically acclaimed for his revolutionary approaches to drone music.

Born in La Spezia, Italy on 8 January 1905, Giacinto Scelsi spent much of his childhood growing up in a castle learning amongst a variety of pursuits, Latin and chess. However, his music education began when his family moved to Rome where he received private lessons from Giacinto Sallustio, a student of Arnold Schoenberg. In the 1920s he began regular excursions around the world, befriending and acquainting himself with philosophers, authors and other musicians alike, including the American author Virginia Woolf.

In 1937, with the rise of fascism in Italy, Giacinto Scelsi fled to Switzerland and remained there until 1945. When Giacinto Scelsi returned to Rome after the war, his wife left him. While it is still debated to what extent his spouse leaving him affected his music, the composer went through a psychological crisis which eventually made him turn to Eastern spirituality (i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism). He also began a life of isolation.

In a complete break of his earlier works, Scelsi strove to compose through strict improvisation. His emphasis on eastern philosophy, culture and spirituality was established with this method of composition as opposed to organised musical structure which is inculcated in western (classical) music tradition. Eastern spirituality, most notably Vedic tradition, espouses the concept of reincarnation; a notion that the universe does not end, but is ever going through a cycle which could only be broken through nirvana (or ‘enlightenment’). As very few photographs of the composer exists, he is better known for his own depiction of a minimalistic circle drawn over a line. The circle not only became an icon of Scelsi, but a representation of his admiration and conviction in the concept of cycles.

Giacinto Scelsi died in 1988 at the age of 83, eight years after he was spurred to fame.

Kshara (Sanskrit: क्षार kārá) is a piece for two double basses, one of several works for double basses by Scelsi. In Sanskrit, the name Kshara describes an alkaline extract from the plant Achyranthes aspera, which is used in Ayurvedic medicine. The exact date of Kshara’s completion is not established, but it is generally agreed to be amongst his late works written around the 1970s or 80s. While a generally lesser known work, Kshara delivers the same profound intensity as with his other works. The piece is divided into three parts, the first (around 3 minutes) delivers an unrestrained entrance of energy, emphasised by microtonal trills, extreme dynamic changes, spontaneous anticipation and abruptness on the pitch of A. The second movement (around 5 minutes) is in C-sharp, and is characterised as more concentrated, meditative and reflecting, with very few octave leaps, and abrupt dynamic changes. The final movement (also around 5 minutes) delivers a dramatic side of Scelsi, enjoying a more narratorial approach on the pitch of A, with discernible phrases and highly anticipated dynamic changes and even silences.

As the Belgian musicologist, and friend of Scelsi, Harry Halbreich writes:

‘A whole chapter of recent musical history must be rewritten: the second half of this century is now unthinkable without Scelsi… He has inaugurated a completely new way of making music, hitherto unknown in the West. In the early fifties, there were few alternatives to serialism’s strait jacket that did not lead back to the past. Then, toward 1960 – 61, came the shock of the discovery of Ligeti’s Apparitions and Atmosphères. There were few people at the time who knew that Friedrich Cerha, in his orchestral cycle Spiegel, had already reached rather similar results, and nobody knew that there was a composer who had followed the same path even years before, and in a far more radical way: Giacinto Scelsi himself.’

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