born on 8 January 1905 in the little village of Pitelli on the outskirts of Arcola (today, part of the city of La Spezia). As a child, he spent most of his time in the family’s old Castello d’Ayala Valva in Campania, where a private tutor taught him Latin, chess, and fencing. He spent hours “improvising” on an old piano. Later, his family moved to Rome and his musical talents were encouraged by private lessons with Giacinto Sallustio. He never went to university or pursued formal musical training. During the 1920s, amidst his native aristocratic and cosmopolitan milieu, he also began frequenting various artistic, musical, and literary circles. His first encounters with Jean Cocteau, Norman Douglas, Mimi Franchetti, and Virginia Woolf, among others, date back to this period, and he was introduced to the latest cultural currents of the time. Also during this time, he made several trips abroad. A journey to Egypt in 1927 was decisive for him, when he was for the first time exposed to non-Western music. Premiered at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on 20 December 1931 under Pierre Monteux, Rotativa put Scelsi in the limelight of the international musical scene. In 1937, he organised (at his own expense) four concerts of contemporary music at the Capizucchi Hall, where works by young Italian and international composers were performed, including Kodály, Meyerowitz, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Nielsen, Janáček, and Ibert—most of whom were totally unknown in Italy at that time. Scelsi was helped in the organisation by Goffredo Petrassi, which represented the beginning of their long friendship. However, the concerts were soon suspended due to the enforcement of racial laws in Italy, preventing the performance of works by Jewish composers. Scelsi refused to comply and this led to his further detachment from Italy.
When Italy entered World War II in 1940, Scelsi was in Switzerland and remained there for the duration of the conflict. His interest in new compositional methods can be traced back to this period, including serialism, which he studied under one of Schoenberg’s students, the Viennese composer Walter Klein, and Scriabin’s theories, which he was introduced to by Egon Koehler, under whose care he was for a certain time. He pursued an intense cultural life both as a poet and composer and began developing the theoretical basis of his future musical works. During this imposed confinement, he did hear some performances of his music, notably several piano works performed by Nikita Magaloff.
At the end of the war, he returned to Italy and settled in Rome. He subsequently underwent a profound metaphysical and creative crisis, which however did not prevent him from completing several works. Highly tormented years were to follow that led him to find refuge in poetry and the visual arts, and develop an interest in oriental mysticism and esotericism. He published three volumes of poetry in Paris. He was hospitalised for a short time in a Swiss clinic specializing in nervous disorders. is coincided with his active embracement of Oriental philosophies, Zen doctrines, and yoga practices. His deep friendship with Henri Michaux also stimulated his research on what he always considered to be of the most vital importance: music. At the same time, new realms of musical research and experimentation began.
Instrumentation determined by chance methods, improvisation using traditional instruments in unorthodox ways, new instruments such as the ondioline capable of reproducing microintervals (1/4 and 1/8 tones), but especially his way of improvising in a state of trance, were responsible for some of his most powerful works.
Being physically and psychologically incapable of executing the tedious work of transcribing his improvisations that he regularly recorded on tape, he hired transcribers whose only prerequisite was to have perfect pitch. The work was not complete with just the transcription of the notes of the recorded music; extremely precise instructions for performance were specified in order to transmit his inner intentions; he designed special mutes in order to obtain certain effects on string instruments and used filters to distort sounds of wind instruments. His most original process used a method of orchestration whereby instruments of the same family are tuned a quartertone apart, producing mysterious and unpredictable vibrations and an audible beat. This final stage of work on his scores, often in collaboration with specific performers, is of great importance.
Only a few highly talented musicians were prepared to study his music and several spent long periods in his home in Rome. Some of the musicians who were able to live this extraordinary experience include Devy Erlih, Michiko Hirayama, Frances-Marie Uitti, Ferdinando Grillo, Geneviève Renon, Alina Piechowska, Carlo Porta, Joëlle Léandre, Massimo Coen, Carol Robinson, Carine Levine, Marianne Schroeder, and Stefano Scodanibbio.
In the end, Scelsi developed a musical universe that corresponded to his deepest convictions and at the same time, he condemned his early works that he considered too academic. is new phase was marked by the performance of his Quattro pezzi su una nota sola at the Théâtre National Populaire de Paris in December 1961, conducted by Maurice Le Roux.
His entirely original manner of composing exposed him to criticism and a certain hostility that never ceased, even after his death; on the contrary, it was renewed with vehemence. His music certainly contributed to upsetting the official academic world in Italy that was becoming increasingly hostile to him, exasperated by the success and recognition his works were receiving abroad. Nevertheless, he had some fervent supporters in Italy too, especially the composer Franco Evangelisti, to whom we owed the rare performances of Scelsi’s works, heard almost exclusively at the prestigious Nuova Consonanza festival.
Abridged version of an essay by Luciano Martinis, translated by Sharon Kanach
Selected works: Rotativa for two pianos (1930), Ballade for cello and piano (1943), La nascita del Verbo for mixed choir and orchestra (1948), Suite n. 8 (Bot-Ba) for piano (1952), Suite for flute and piano (1953), Pwyll for flute (1954), Preghiera per un’ombra for clarinet (1954), Three Studies for clarinet in E (1954), Yamaon for bass and ensemble (1954–58), Ixor for clarinet (1956), Rucke di Guck for piccolo and oboe (1957), Tre canti popolari for four mixed voices (1958), Tre canti sacri for eight mixed voices (1958), Elegia per Ty for viola and cello (1958), I presagi for 11 instruments (1958), Quattro pezzi (su una nota sola) for orchestra (1959), Kya for clarinet and seven instruments (1959), Hô, five songs for soprano (1960), Hurqualiafor four percussions and orchestra (1960), Wo-Ma for bass (1960), Aiônfor six percussions and orchestra (1961), Lilitu for female voice (1962), Taiagarù, five evocations for soprano (1962), Riti: I funerali d’Alessandro Magno for five instrumentalists (1962), Riti: I funerali d’Achille for percussion quartet (1962), Canti del capricorno for voice and instruments (1962–72), Khoom for soprano and ensemble (1962), Hymnos for organ and two orchestras (1963), Chukrum for orchestra (1963), Xnoybis for violin (1964), Yliam for female choir (1964), Anagamin for 11 strings (1965), Anahit for violin and 18 instruments (1965), Uaxuctumfor seven percussions, choir and orchestra of 23 players with ondes Martenot (1966), KoLho for flute and clarinet (1966), Ohoi for 16 strings (1966), KoTha, three dances of Shiva for guitar treated as percussion (1967), CKCKC for voice and mandolin (1967), Natura renovatur for 11 strings (1967), Okanagon for harp, tam-tam and double bass (1968), Konx-om-pax for mixed choir and orchestra of 75 players (1968), TKRDG for six male voices, amplified guitar and three percussions (1968), Ogloudoglou for voice and percussion (1969), Le grand sanctuaire (Il est grand temps; Même si je voyais) for tenor to words by Grégoire de Nazaire and anonymous (1970), Antifona (sul nome Gesú) for tenor and male choir (1970), Three Latin Prayers for voice or unisono chorus (1970), Pranam I for contralto, 12 instrumentalists and tape (1972), Pranam II for nine instruments (1973), Arcen-ciel for two violins (1973), Sauh I–II (Liturgy) for two female voices or voice and magnetic tape (1973), Sauh III–IV for four female voices (1973), Pfhatfor choir, organ and orchestra of 54 players (1974), Manto per quattro for soprano, flute, trombone and cello (1974), Et maintenant, c’est à vous de jouer for cello and double bass (1974), In nomine lucis, alla memoriadi Franco Evangelisti for organ (1974), Aitsi for amplified piano (1974), Dharana for cello and double bass (1975), Kshara for two double basses (1975), Litania for two unisono female voices or voice with tape (1975), Maknongan for bass or bass instrument (1976), five string quartets (1944, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1984).