Bringing a Reclusive Composer to Light
by Paul Griffiths
"The New York Times"
16 February 1997
This is a story of persistence rewarded. In 1975 the American cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, then living in Rome, was rehearsing music by Anton Webern in a cold, underground little hall, Beat 72. "In shuffles this man under a mountain of fur, with a little cap, and you saw a nose and these blue eyes that just pierced your body," Ms. Uitti said recently. "He came very close to me while I was playing, peered into my eyes and said, 'Do you play well?'"
That was her introduction to Giacinto Scelsi, a composer who, though 70 by then and with more than 100 scores stored away, was virtually unknown. A few works had been performed here and there, a string quartet had once been released on record, and that was about it.
"He invited me to his house," Ms. Uitti said of the composer, who died in 1988. "He lived alone in a very small apartment on the Via San Teodoro, with an unbelievable view out onto the Forum from the salon, which was full of Tibetan and Buddhist artifacts, and instruments from all over the world. And he pulled out these three cello pieces, which had never been heard. He also played tapes of other works for me: Devy Erlih, a wonderful violinist, had played some pieces, and Pierre Monteux had conducted a performance. I was knocked out; it was like nothing I'd ever encountered before."
Ms. Uitti worked on the three pieces with Scelsi for two or three years. "They weren't originally planned to be together," she said, "but he came to realize that they formed a kind of musical autobiography; going from a very energetic, dark style into something more reflective, until the very end, which is totally dematerialized."
She is now preparing to present this autobiography, "Trilogia," as part of a Scelsi retrospective, which she has planned and which opens on Saturday evening with an orchestral concert by Klangforum Wien at Merkin Concert Hall (129 West 67th Street).
The program will begin with a Scelsi classic from 1959, the "Quattro Pezzi." Each piece is based on just one note, but a note on which the tuning gets bent and the instrumental color alters. In Scelsi (pronounced SHELL-see), a static idea--the single note--becomes robustly dynamic. His own term, the "sphericity" of sound, aptly describes the effect, which is of an invisible object turning to reveal new parts of itself in a slow, gradual, effortful process of staying the same.
Scelsi's own development as an artist seems also to have been slow, gradual and effortful, though because he said very little about himself, not much is known for sure. (He never let himself be photographed, either.) Even Ms. Uitti, who was close to him for 13 years, is vague about his earlier life.
"In the '40's he was living in Switzerland, and he had a complete breakdown," she said. "I think that was when he got divorced from his wife, and she went back to Britain, or something. He was in Egypt a lot. I don't know if he went to India and Tibet. Certainly he had tapes of music from there, and books about mystic practices."
Before the war Scelsi had studied with one of Schoenberg's pupils; afterward, and after whatever contacts he had with Asian culture, he found his way by playing just one note on the piano, over and over.
"When pianists came to his house, they'd come with one of his pieces, ready to play tons of notes and impress him," Ms. Uitti said. "And he'd ask them, with his little mischievous smile, to play G with as many different expressions as possible. Or A. That was what he'd done. It was a feeling of exploration into what one note could be."
Two scores of one-note music, the "Quattro Pezzi" and a string trio written a year earlier, in 1958, afforded his breakthrough. Later pieces tend to work instead with slowly drifting pitch or, in vocal music, with melodies that might resemble plainsong. In either case, they emerged through improvisation.
"He left closetfuls of taped improvisations on the ondiolina, which was an early kind of electronic keyboard, on piano, on percussion instruments," Ms. Uitti said. "He was an incredible improviser. He would sit down, turn on the tape recorder and start, and it would build to an incredible proportion, and just stop, and be a complete form. You would never have the feeling, as you do with nearly all improvisers, that the musician is looking for material, searching. He knew what he wanted to do. Then the improvisations were the basis for the pieces."
Scelsi was something of a hypochondriac, Ms Uitti recalled. In particular, he had a lot of trouble with his eyes. After the 1950's he didn't read much, and he didn't write down his own music but relied on his amanuensis, Vieri Tosati, to transcribe his tapes.
"On the ondiolina he could make a glissando or a vibrato, and it had about six or seven octaves and could play quarter-tones," Ms. Uitti said. "So he could have total mastery over a line in a string quartet, for example. That way he didn't labor over the page. I think weeks, months, went by without his having any musical activity, and then suddenly the piece was there, with terrific intensity. If it was an orchestral work, it would be built up layer by layer, and he would tell Tosati exactly what he wanted in terms of instrumentation--some of it very bizarre, like using mutes for the strings that would rattle. He never had access to an orchestra until the 1980's, and he was worried about whether the pieces would sound as he wanted. Then finally he did hear them, and they worked fine."
Those opportunities came during the last few years before Scelsi's death. "I was playing the music, and other people were, and gradually the word got about," Ms. Uitti said. "He also had a lot of support from other composers, such as Morton Feldman and John Cage, who both admired his work. Then Frans van Rossum put together a four-hour Scelsi program for Dutch radio at the end of the 1970's, and after that the German radio stations came in and performed the orchestral pieces."
But what, since we lack any photographic evidence, was it like to meet Scelsi, to be with him?
"You would never notice him," Ms. Uitti said. "A charming little old man: that's what you'd think. With a bit of a devilish grin. And he spoke slowly. He would work in the afternoons and evenings. In the mornings, no. He wouldn't see anyone, and he wouldn't answer the telephone, In the mornings I don't know what he did."