Giacinto Scelsi: Natura Renovatur (ECM New Series 1963)

 

Giacinto Scelsi
Natura Renovatur

Frances-Marie Uitti cello
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen conductor
Recorded June 2005, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) was among the handful of composers I came to admire early on in my contemporary foraging. His galaxies opened my ears as only Gubaidulina, Ligeti, Penderecki, and Górecki could. Here was another whose ability to translate the instrumental utterance into an experience of integrity and parthenogenetic ecstasy, whose sheer reach of vision and inspiring attention to detail, shaped my impressionable mind into an open vessel. And while Scelsi’s music has been profoundly represented elsewhere (most notably on the Mode label), it was something of a momentous occasion for me to see his name fronting an ECM New Series cover at last.


Scelsi

The present recording is the result of various dedications. There is the dedication of cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, to whom the composer imparted the task of archiving and transcribing his hundreds of hours of improvisations on the ondiola, a monophonic instrument that was his mouthpiece. There is also the dedication of Scelsi himself for making those recordings in the first place, and for letting his mind open beyond the body in some audible form. And then there is the dedication of Christoph Poppen, whose commitment to modern music is superseded only by his oneness with the material he conducts. It is as if he were playing it himself.


Scelsi’s ondiola

The program consists of pieces mainly from his fruitful Third Period (1960-69), of which Ohoi (1968) for 16 strings defines the pinnacle of the larger ensemble works. On the surface, it seems to start from somewhere far beyond the earth, working its way ever so slowly toward us. Yet it doesn’t take long for us to realize that in its microscopic clusters thrums something utterly earthly. Every molecule is a building block to discreet crystals of harmony, which en masse achieve an overwhelming beauty through their collective dissonance. Voices ascend into a realm where screams become language and words are the screams that cut language into pieces.

If Ohoi is a knot, then the lyrical Ave Maria (1966) is the blinding love that unties it. Along with the Alleluja (1970) that ends the program, it comes from the Three Latin Prayers for solo cello. Both are nestled in the fur of larger beasts, picking at lice and ticks unseen. With a finely honed solemnity, they breathe with expansive power, made all the more enthralling through Uitti’s afferent performances. Prayers is by far one of the most arresting pieces ever written for the instrument, and to have two of its three sides in glorious ECM sound is a treasure. Uitti continues that brilliance in Ygghur (1965). Another trilogy for solo cello, this self-professed “autobiography in sound” compresses an orchestra’s worth of statements into a microcosm of gut and wood. With two, sometimes three, voices enhancing one another at any given time, it develops humanly. Yet it is not a conversation with the self, but rather a conversation about the self. Not unlike the throat singers of the Tuvan steppes, Uitti treats the extended techniques therein with an organic rusticity. We can wax technical all we like about microtonal double stops, but in the end we are left with handfuls of nutrient-rich soil.


Uitti

The hapless reviewer is at pains to articulate the sound-world that awaits us in Anâgâmin (1965). Written for 11 strings, it defies categorizations like “modern” and “post-modern,” is neither an example of deconstruction nor of reconstruction. It crawls on its own gelatinous legs with a gait much akin to the album’s 1967 title composition, also for 11 strings, only in the latter the infusions of micro-clusters are even deeper. It is an unbroken string of tension. Bowings grow more agitated, textures denser, and the underline of the lower strings turns gravity inward.

To call this music mysterious would be to do it a great disservice, for it is so internal that we cannot separate it from who we are. Scelsi professes nothing. In being so selfless, his work casts its light on us and us alone. Is this nature renewed, or has the renewal simply been natured? Only we, the individual listeners, can make or break such an arbitrary question. Like the circle above the horizon of Scelsi’s signature we may never know whether it is rising or setting, but we can always be sure that it is singing.

Frances-Marie Uitti / Paul Griffiths: there is still time (ECM New Series 1882)

there is still time

there is still time

Paul Griffiths speaking voice
Frances-Marie Uitti violoncello
Recorded August 2003 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“I shall th’ effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart.”
–Ophelia

Subtitled “scenes for speaking voice and cello,” the fortuitous meeting of music writer, novelist, and librettist Paul Griffiths and cellist Frances-Marie Uitti that resulted in there is still time wears no masks. Using only the 482 words available to Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Griffiths works with a vast magnetic poetry set on a refrigerator that runs on Uitti’s often-haunting improvisations. It is neither Ophelia nor Griffiths who speaks, but someone in between, a voice not so much twice removed as one once excavated and once buried. And while the backstory to this recording is fascinating in and of itself, its aural language is such that one may enter it blind and emerge from it fully sighted, if not the other way around. Griffiths treats language as a precipice from which to hang rather than as a spine from which to sprout nerves and muscle. Thus does the music’s grip deepen our mood with each weakening finger.

“I cannot remember” are the first words to awaken our senses, “when this is all over” the last before silence engulfs us: a brief life forgotten, regained at death’s door. Only the future can be held close, swaddled in opaque linens as it slips slowly from our hands into Uitti’s mournful fundaments and harmonic firmaments alike. Her reverberation becomes a stencil, and breath the paint sprayed through its glyphic wounds, where plasma congeals at the hinges of revelation. Griffiths’s intonations are fatigued, as if from the effort of articulation alone. In “think of that day,” he asks, “what should I fear?” A question that slithers thence, only here we get one of its clearest answers: what the voice fears is that “you,” the other to whom is being spoken, will say nothing. Such trepidations are thematic, hidden like Hamlet behind the curtain, stabbing at the wrong enemy. This troubled air returns for “how I wish,” over which the cello looms, a commentary on a commentary. Again, Griffiths speaks as if the very effort were much to bear, as if utterances of desire were the sole means of undoing it. The “you” remains silent, stagnant like a pool in some deserted landscape where the wind is never missed beyond perpetual cloud cover.

Griffiths doesn’t merely read his words, but comports them. If there is such a thing as method reading, then via his delivery we find an especially potent example in “call from the cold.” Its poetry draws a series of contact points between the body and the intangible, between expectation and inception, between the cello’s snowy scrapings and the listener’s suspension of disbelief. The narrative then sprouts bittersweet fruits from the buds of “touching,” skins of hope peeling away from flesh of horror. The melodious “there it was” measures the past like some vast diurnal clock compressed into the mouth before being expectorated in but a fleeting conjuration of lips, teeth, and tongue as Uitti draws whisper-screams in the air with her sobbing. Where the sunrays once frolicked at dawn, we find traces of “the bells,” no longer immortal yet still haloed by a lost cause, fading beyond every closing ear-lid. We are alone with their voices “some where,” bound by a capsule of parallel selves and places split by the prism of a single morpheme. The internality of it all is lifted once “for you” flies off the tongue with urgency. As much a question as it is a challenge, it emotes like an animal peering through the foliage at its own reflection, cello rasping, a gravelly Echo. “I did look” further slices open memory—an impossible dissection, it seems, for only more memory lies within, beating to the rhythm of an extended arco meditation, drawing out this operation to its most healing conclusion yet.

These points of contact are at once a source of expression and a denial of the self-generation implied by spoken words, such as in “my one fear.” The verb “touching” rings truest here and surfaces vividly as a means of grappling with the unknown. The nameless other is drawn in whispers and time, through which all is revealed, vulnerable and contrived. At this point, I cannot help but extend a line to King Lear, for it is speech over which the maddening patriarch harbors the deepest anxiety. Without Cordelia’s obligatory words of praise, for instance, he is but a blank page before her. (We hear this again in Lear’s deprecation: “She hath…struck me with her tongue.”) Similarly, in “the door,” the voice fears finding what it searches for: the mouth shut like a gate to possibility. In light of this, Griffiths’s final words (every detail captured by the superb engineering) are perhaps the most Ophelian. They lie in wait beneath the surface of the lake, grabbing hold of refractions baited on the cello’s fish hooks, pulled like a sheet from a sleepless bed.

Uitti’s ability to sound as if she were at once reacting to the words and birthing them is captivating, as are her wordless interludes, four of which trail-mark the program. The recitations strung between them make statements by enhancing the fallibility of statements, each utterance a fantastic implosion. Griffiths’s circadian rhythms are sometimes off center, sometimes regular to the point of apathy, and in being so speak with immediate effect. This is, perhaps, why Uitti’s art meshes so organically, for it pulls at the same frayed edges in hopes of unraveling a color, a texture, and a pattern unfamiliar to them both. Whether or not that unfamiliarity extends to us depends on our willingness to touch the text as a living sound, so that by the end we are renewed through impermanence, redrawn in monochrome by a parallel self in the here and now. What we fear is not to receive but to give and be received.

My own humble gift, then, is an offering cast from those same 482 runes:

his breath does honour to the words
his countenance more patient than a soldier’s
cold letters compos’d in noble fashion
in them I know doubt

it is not for naught
that the lady is here
the daughter of a lord
nay, of an owl

there’s a saint
larded with false affection
please, fear him not
for he hath bore it all for you

what is a courtier’s mind but a steward
held on the tongue of a king
a watchman in the closet
touching his eye with tragedy

belike the lady rises on this day
and becomes snow
on a mountain of dead flowers
as grace is deceived by remembrance

quoth she,
“steep is the way to dalliance”

a scholar’s tongue is his sword
it becomes a play
a chorus of tragedy
a shroud of charity

lock’d by his command of speech
the key to which is
something of a piteous fear
in our rich perusal

I know not where
I twice observ’d
the maid unkind and shaking
like a glass mould blasted by the night

I was lost
promis’d to another
when these eyes
wither’d in fennel perfume

down a thorny path
the music treads
long o’erthrown by horrors
young and beauteous

quoth she, “take them again
these flaxen columbines
and cast them by your deathbed
for they will keep you heavenly”

some may call it sweet
I call it an oath to memory