scelsi's two-ondiola setup
what mythical, impossible and obscure recordings would i like to listen to, given the chance?
the big bang
the shriek of medusa
j. s. bach's improvisations *
the telepathic thought of animals converted to human language
giacinto scelsi's improvisations
this last thing does exist, apparently hundreds of tapes' worth. scelsi was an odd figure, also peculiar in his musical process, which involved his ondiola (an electric musical instrument, pictured above) and the use of the tape recorder as a musical/sonic sketchpad. this improvisation/musing would give form to his music and by all accounts be fascinating listening in its own right, coupling his musical sensibility with the instrument, the freedom of improvisation, ambient sounds, hiss, noise, and his voice. frances-marie uitti, scelsi's cellist/muse, was asked to sort out his stuff following his death in 1988.
the mammoth scale of the task is seen in this passage from frances-marie's website +
There was a growing concern for the conservation of the more than seven hundred tapes that had been stored in that notoriously overheated apartment for many decades. No-one could guess in what condition they would be found. It was decided that, if possible, the original improvisations should be copied onto digital format for preservation. But where should that take place?. If they were removed from the premises, one risked loss or inadvertent damage during transport. Yet to permit this long work to be done in the Foundation at via San Teodoro 8 meant that one of the members would have to be ever present. There was also the fear that a technician unfamiliar with Scelsi's work would not be able to distinguish his original works from other recorded pieces that Scelsi had collected. Because of my extensive knowledge of Scelsi's music the Foundation contacted me to oversee the conservation of these tapes. This was enormous responsibility and would demand a great deal of time. Because of my heavy concert schedule, the Foundation agreed that the work could be done intermittently between tours. Indeed, it cost 18 months to complete the project. Along with a highly respected restorer of old tapes, Barry van der Sluis, I flew to Rome. We carefully examined hundreds of tapes that had been pre-catalogued by the foundation. To our mutual amazement, the majority of tapes were found to be in excellent condition. I discovered over three hundred tapes containing original material.
We rented a Studer recorder which had a delicate start-stop mechanism that minimizes possible damage to the tapes. We decided to make two DAT copies for each original tape, keeping one in the bank and one in the Foundation. Next, we devised a cataloguing system to identify each tape and give pertinent information about each work. Listed were the conditions of the tapes, the quality of the original recording, speed and track indications, beginnings and endings of each work, the instrument played, suitability for future CDs, and a commentary that described the musical grammar of the works
on the musical nature of the tapes
The great majority of the works averaged between three to five minutes in length and were played on the piano, ondiola, guitar, and various percussion instruments. These short pieces were often grouped into suites or movements of larger forms.
The piano pieces were often highly virtuosic, incorporating trills, arpeggiated figures, clusters, and scalar fragments -- all at high speed -- often with extreme dynamics as principal material. Frequently Scelsi would begin with short figures that would develop into majestic structures. The early piano works used a free chromatic palette, and what he described as a "romantic" expressivity which was underlined through the warmth of the middle register in slow movements. He experimented with serialistic ideas in a few of the studies and used clusters as the basis for others. The intensely dramatic nature of much of the piano music is contrasted by a more me'ditative simplicity found in some of the later works. Chiming chords in the upper register reveal a stark beauty that replace the lush tones of earlier works. In one of the last piano pieces he experimented further, using a microphone to distort and prolong the tones of the instrument.
The ondiola, however, was a tool for far more radical musical thought. One finds a remarkable variety of techniques. Here Scelsi explored the limits of extreme velocity, dynamics, range, and duration. Many improvisations were centred on sudden variations in the dynamic texture, giving a sense of great power and vitality. There were also a number of monodic works, some highly ornamented around a basic melodic line. Others used extreme speeds of oscillating repeated figures, and still others incorporated dramatically pulsating dynamics in the low register. He used glissandi of various speeds as well as quartertones. Two and three equally important voices were simultaneously explored, at times using microtones and at other times glissandi in slow durations.
a final quote from ms. uitti, from the ecm scelsi profile +
I now remember one particular tape I heard while transferring Scelsi’s analogue ondiola improvisations to DAT. Being a monodic instrument, several improvisations were superimposed. The quality of these acoustic tapes was at times very grainy, and it seemed that there was also a version of the same superimposed in retrograde, building a thick massive tonal centre of hoary sound. Rough, chordal, powerful. When I attended the recordings of the Munich Chamber Orchestra in the Sendling church, I re-experienced that same ‘spreading’ and transparency of sound. Giacinto often said that his music should be played in a church, and it seems he embedded that vision in the tapes.
scelsi tape box
as i understand it, ca. 2006 the isabella scelsi foundation began to digitize the tapes, a process that either stalled or still under way, and that is described in this pdf +
Yes, strange as it may seem, even the rolling direction and speed of tapes was very often difficult to assess and deceiving. Ondiolas may play synthetic waveforms with slow attacks and very long tones in mid ranges, thus providing no clue related to tape speed and direction. And the recording quality is so bad, and the music so peculiar and experimental, that even piano sounds can often be deceiving in assessing the recording conditions. After tape speed and direction information, which is needed for proper digital transfer, other information could prove to be very useful. Any information on the date of recording, for one, could provide valuable insight in comparison with the date of composition of the second half of Scelsi’s production to say the least. Unfortunately, this information is almost completely absent in explicit form. Information concerning the mapping between tape materials and scores is essential to understand in full the actual compositional process of Scelsi’s music – assigning proper roles to the composer himself, his copyists, the post–writing editing work, etc. The retrieval of this information constitutes an even more complicated and (so far) ill–defined problem (cf.Sec.4).
so there you have it, a promised land of sound almost within reach, but not. it seems to me (assuming this is ongoing) that they are thinking the process through too much, in particular regarding the imperfection of the material. let the recordings hiss and be what they are, dump everything online, uncut and tagged, leave the selection and treatment for commercial release to someone with a musical and sound texture sensibility. i have read about this for so long it almost seems imaginary, but i see now the issues behind a process like this are complex. in any case i wrote the foundation as i cobbled together this post, i'll report back if i receive an answer.
according to percy schole's oxford companion to music, bach 'was the greatest organ and clavier player that ever lived'. 'as might be expected this reputation brought him many invitations to test new organs or advise on new ones. if the instrument pleased him he would extemporize at length on a theme, ending with an elaborate fugue, and thus show off the full resources of the instrument'.