scelsi's improvisation tapes


est malade

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'.
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Pregnant with mandrakes
This is indeed a fascinating story, and I would like to thank you for bringing together the strands here.

On the other hand, I am more and more frequently reminded that sometimes the greatest musical experiences are "hiding in plain sight" as it were, just waiting for the right level of focus and attention to activate them, or even just a sympathetic confluence of time and place.

Which is why I strongly recommend the soft rock thread.


est malade
i think the sublime can be found in anything, the non-polished stuff attracts me but the perfectly formed has its charms, too. i think slightly less than perfect and not completely messed up is what i like the most, and a sense of pace and narrative, one can get that from something lavish or simple.


est malade
and i do agree with you that a musical experience can be hiding in plain sight in the sense that perhaps you're not attuned to it at one moment, but acknowledge it exists, and wake up to it in another. this happens so frequently i never dismiss something completely out of hand, knowing that i may have to eat my words later.


Pregnant with mandrakes
The overavailability of music and other information makes the sublime even harder to discern, I have found.

For example, recently the entire Alan Lomax audio archive was made available to stream for free (at ). There is no delivery method right now that could provoke me to bring the appropriate level of attention to "get in the room" with any quantity of these sounds. Clicking one track after the other on a terminal with 1 million distractions available just isn't it. That said, I did give Jimmy Shand some time. =)


est malade
i think it's pointless (but tempting) to want to absorb everything, in my experience it leads to numbing rather than enlightenment or whatever. the point of opening doors is not to open all of them but to arrive to a place on the other side, or to open in a way that is meaningful, at least that's the way i see it.


est malade
the typical example is wine or excellent food that if you repeat too often loses its charm, the same applies to music i think.


Pregnant with mandrakes
the point of opening doors is not to open all of them but to arrive to a place on the other side, or to open in a way that is meaningful, at least that's the way i see it.

I am perpetually falling into this trap. Thanks for that metaphor: I've never looked at it that way and it might help me a lot.


est malade
thank you.

i have to say that more than obscurity what i like is the 'one man and his instrument' approach to music, it feels intimate and expansive in the best cases. there are many examples, off the top of my head that record by john frusciante (i forget the name) and hans-joachim roedelius' selbstportrait both seem more rewarding to me than what they do in their respective groups. there is also an interesting ground between this and rough sketches, which is why i'm interested in the scelsi recordings ultimately.
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est malade
and i'm not sure about this ondiola, but the description of the sound matches that of an old electric keyboard lent to my brother which i remember had an electric hum and odd change in sound when a key was pressed, it was fascinating because the instrument seemed to breathe with life.


est malade
it turns out the ondiola is the italian version of the clavioline with some modifications. the sound should be similar, and is described here +

As for the sound itself, the valve oscillator in the Clavioline produced a harmonically rich, buzzy waveform similar to a square wave. You can hear this by setting all the stops to 'off', whereupon the unmodified tone can be heard. At least one recommended patch, the Trumpet, was based on this sound, modified with just vibrato and, of course, articulated using the knee lever. Other sounds were derived from the basic timbre by the application of high-pass and low-pass filtering. Although I have never come across an explanation of the actions of each of the filter stops, and I am far too lazy to reverse-engineer the circuits, the actions of some are quite obvious. Others one learns to use through trial and error.

Although the filtering was remarkable for its era, it was the vibrato that was to become the defining factor in the Clavioline sound. This was true vibrato: in other words, modulation of frequency, rather than the tremolo or amplitude modulation that was sometimes, and inaccurately, called vibrato elsewhere. Three speeds were selected using the I, II and III switches, and two depths were available, determined by whether the Amplitude switch was on or off. This means that six vibrato settings were available, but it was the fastest and deeper of these that became the instrument's trademark.

Nevertheless, none of this explains why the Clavioline had such a recognisable character, nor why it has proved so difficult to imitate, even with today's sophisticated synthesizers. The secret to this lay in its amplifier. To quote Selmer's service manual, "The Amplifier is an unusual type insofar as a large amount of distortion is deliberately obtained. This distortion is used to further modify the signal and contributes in no small measure toward the construction of the authentic tone. The Amplifier is, therefore, an integral part of the instrument..."

some clavioline images from that page







est malade
i enquired by email and received this:

Dear Mr Bruno,

I would like to inform you that there isn't any plan of commercial or public release of the tapes by Giacinto Scelsi.
These documents are only available for study and research purposes.

Best regards,
Fabienne Vicari
Fondazione Isabella Scelsi
Segreteria e Comunicazione
Via di San Teodoro, 8 00186 Roma
Tel. +39/06/69920344 - Fax. +39/06/69920404
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Pregnant with mandrakes
I thought of a nice holy grail for this thread:

Recordings of Philip K Dick's classical music program on KSMO Radio (1947).


est malade
good one. perhaps the aliens have it.

one thing that does exist, but in ridiculous quantities, is the voyager golden record. i would love to have a facsimile, if not an original of this. someone fetch me a voyager probe, please.

Quote: The record is constructed of gold-plated copper. The record's cover is aluminum and electroplated upon it is an ultra-pure sample of the isotope uranium-238. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years. It is possible that a civilization that encounters the record will be able to use the ratio of remaining uranium to daughter elements to determine the age of the record.
The records also had the sentence "To the makers of music — all worlds, all times" handwritten on them. Since this was not in the original disc specification, it almost caused their rejection.

since the book/cd is out of print, and i've obscured the link (squint!), i've decided to share a facsimile made from the cd and files on the website, including images. everything is properly tagged. you may find the file here.


the structure is as follows:

A01 Kurt Waldheim - Greetings From The Secretary General Of The UN.mp3
A02 Greetings from Earth - Greetings In 55 Languages.mp3
A03 Greetings from Earth - UN Greetings, Whale Greetings.mp3
A04 Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 In F, First Movement.mp3
A05 Puspawarna (Java) - Kinds Of Flowers.mp3
A06 Charles Duvelle (Senegal) - Tchenhoukoumen.mp3
A07 Colin TurnBull (Zaire) - Pygmy Girls' Initiation Song.mp3
A08 Sandra LeBrun Holmes (Australia) - Morning Star And Devil Bird.mp3
A09 Lorenzo Barcelata And The Mariachi Mexico (Mexico) - El Cascabel.mp3
A10 Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode.mp3
A11 Robert Maclennan (New Guinea) - Men's House Song.mp3
A12 Goro Yamaguchi (Japan, shakuhachi) - Tsuru No Sugomori - Cranes In Their Nest.mp3
A13 Bach - Gavotte En Rondeaux From The Partita No. 3 In E Major For VI.mp3
A14 Mozart - The Magic Flute, Queen Of The Night Aria, No. 14.mp3
A15 Georgian S.S.R Chorus - Tchakrulo.mp3
A16 Casa de la Cultura, Lima (Peru) - Panpipes And Drum Song.mp3
A17 Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven - Melancholy Blues.mp3
A18 Radio Moscow (Azerbaijan S.S.R) - Ugam.mp3
A19 Igor Stravinsky - Rite Of Spring, Sacrificial Dance.mp3
A20 Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude And Fugue In C, No. 1 - Glenn Gould.mp3
A21 Beethoven - Symphony No. 5 In C Minor, First Movement.mp3
A22 Valya Balkanska (Bulgaria) - Izlel Je Delyo Hagdutin.mp3
A23 Navajo - Navajo Night Chant.mp3
A24 Holborne - Fairie Round from Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs.mp3
A25 Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service (Solomon Islands) - Melanesian Panpipes.mp3
A26 John Cohen (Peru) - Wedding Song.mp3
A27 Kuan P'ing-hu (China) - Flowing Streams.mp3
A28 Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar (India) - Jaat Kahan Ho.mp3
A29 Blind Willie Johnson - Dark Was The Night.mp3
A30 Beethoven - String Quartet No. 13 In B Flat, Opus 130, Cavatina.mp3
A31 31-51 The Sounds Of Earth.mp3
A31 Music of the Spheres.wav
A32 Wind, Rain, Surf.wav
A33 Chimpanzee.wav
A34 Fire, Speech.wav
A35 Herding Sheep, Blacksmith, Sawing.wav
A36 Horse and Cart.wav
A37 F-111 Flyby, Saturn 5 Lift-off.wav
A38 Volcanoes, Earthquake, Thunder.wav
A39 Crickets, Frogs.wav
A40 Wild Dog.wav
A41 The First Tools.wav
A42 Tractor, Riveter.wav
A43 Train.wav
A44 Kiss, Mother and Child.wav
A45 Mud Pots.wav
A46 Birds, Hyena, Elephant.wav
A47 Footsteps, Heartbeat, Laughter.wav
A48 Tame Dog.wav
A49 Morse Code, Ships.wav
A51 Life Signs, Pulsar.wav
A52 Data Track/
A53 Discogs files/
A53 Murmurs of Earth cd files/
A54 NASA files/


is not like other people
Pannonica de Koenigswater

Monk's friend / patron

Her cats proliferated and the jam sessions continued, often captured on her Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder. It is easy to sympathize with the desire of her family, who disinherited her, to avoid publicity, but incomprehensible that they refuse all access to the 400 hours of home recordings that she made. Here is a tantalizing glimpse: “Reel 14: Coltrane Learns ‘Monk’s Mood’ at Algonquin, April, 1957”.