Melody that flirts with madness

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Giacinto Scelsi could spend hours playing a single note over and over again on the piano. Perhaps it was this which led to his extended stay in a Swiss sanatorium. On the other hand, he was also convinced that he had first been born in Mesopotamia in 2,637 BC, and that he had helped compose the funeral music for Alexander the Great.

Madness or eccentricity? Now, nearly two decades after the Italian aristocrat’s death, his music is taken seriously enough to be the subject of an entire concert series at the Salzburg Festival. And his weirdness is taken seriously enough to have led Festival director Jürgen Flimm to engage Christoph Marthaler, arch-eccentric of European stage directors, to devise a piece around it.

Sauser aus Italien – eine Urheberei (New wine from Italy – an Act of Copyright) has moved on from Salzburg to Flimm’s other festival, the Ruhr-Triennale, for an airing in the suitably whacky setting of Gladbeck’s industrial-ruin-turned-performance-venue at the heritage-listed Zeche. The decaying glory of the vast hall is just right for Duri Bischoff’s scurrilous set, a loving reconstruction of all that is hideous about concrete functionalist Italian holiday architecture.

Bischoff has provided Marthaler with a multi-level space which is part music library, part budget hotel breakfast room, part apartment block, part terrace, and wholly outrageous. Marthaler peoples it with his usual assortment of lost souls.

What has all this got to do with Scelsi’s music?

Not much. Except that the music is the main event of this 130-minute excursion into a world of understated insanity.

Ten of Scelsi’s works have been assembled for the evening and entrusted to the extremely capable musicians of Klanforum Wien. They range in scope from the sweetly ingenuous Mantram – Canto Anonimo for solo double bass to the spectacular “Poème Lyrique” Anahit for solo violin and 18 instruments, a shimmering panorama of dark melancholy. There are two compact, intense string quartets and two fragmented pieces for a virtuosic pianist. Then there is a melodious duet for violin and cello, the light-hearted Quattro Pezzi for solo trumpet, the strangely hypnotic Okanagon for harp, double bass and tam-tam, and the bizarre From Ko-Tha – Three Dances of Shiva for a guitar fastened to a table with a vice and struck in a variety of ways.

Of course, it is a dreadful simplification to call these Scelsi’s works. There are no autograph Scelsi scores, because Scelsi never wrote down his own music. He preferred improvisation and recording, and left the menial chore of notation, where unavoidable, to students. He also refused to be photographed and submitted a Zen line and circle whenever a portrait was required by concert organisers. All the expected controversies resulted, including the declaration by former collaborator Vieri Tosatti that he was the person who had written Scelsi’s music. On the other hand, Homer did not write the great Homeric epics, and we tend to give him the credit in any case.

Marthaler only alludes to these matters in passing. For the
most part, he lets his eight peculiar characters get on with their slow-motion lives, lingering over their obscure breakfasts, staring into mid-air, or making the occasional strange statement (“In a world without melancholy, the nightingales would start to burp”; “For 2,000 years, Jesus Christ has been punishing us for the fact that he did not die on a sofa”). Above all, what they do is listen – enraptured, outraged,
amused or transported – to Scelsi’s music, performed with loving attention to detail by the Klangforum musicians, each of them also costumed and assigned an odd character.

“Puccini, Resphighi, Scelsi!” declares the Marthaler-waiter, and Klangorum adds a piece by the first two composers to confirm the irrefutable succession. It is just a gag. At the end of the evening, Scelsi remains a rugged loner, a maverick with a fascination for overtones and his own peculiar universe.

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