Classic Albums: Giacinto Scelsi, Natura Renovatur

Of all the personal discoveries made during my multi-year quest through the Tower Records Contemporary Classical department, two composers stand out from the rest: Morton Feldman and Giacinto Scelsi. If I saw something new from either, it was mine and I’d rush back to my loft to listen. I don’t know how many CDs I own from these two creative souls but combined this mini-collection outnumbers any other from any genre.

Giacinto Scelsi (8 January 1905 – 9 August 1988) spent most of childhood living his mother’s castle in the village of Pitelli near La Spezi, Italy. After his family moved to Rome, he studied music, most notably with Walther Klein, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. Scelsi would introduce Italy to the music of Paul Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev through a series of short-lived concerts—short-lived due to the Fascists’ anti-Semitic laws preventing the performance of works by Jewish composers.

Scelsi lived in Switzerland during the war where he married. The couple returned to Italy post-war where Dorothy Kate Ramsden left Scelsi, sending him into a “profound psychological crisis.” When he came out the other side, Scelsi was a new man with new interests, namely Eastern mysticism, and a new style of composition based on improvisation.

For this second period (1952–59) of compositions, Scelsi refused to allow his image to be used in connection to his music, preferring instead to have the above image as his visual representation. For Scelsi, the creative process came from outside one’s self where the composer acts as an intermediary between a higher power and the listener.

a rare photo of Scelsi

From a review of Natura Renovatur by Tyran Grillo:

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 And then there is the dedication of Christoph Poppen, whose commitment to modern music is superseded only by his oneness with the material he conducts.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

More from Grillo:

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

Natura Renovatur contains some of Scelsi’s most beautiful compositions and I cannot recommend it more highly. The relatively brief “Ave Maria” (1966) from the Three Latin Prayers for solo cello as performed by Frances-Marie Uitti is purely transcendent. The entire collection on this recording runs just shy of an hour and I can guarantee if you give Natura Renovatur your complete attention for the duration, you will be rewarded with a look inward like to no other.

Natura Renovatur, released as part ECM’s New Series in 2006 (I purchased the CD from the greatly missed Other Music), is available on CD from the places you normally buy a CD. It is also available from Tidal and Qobuz streaming.

Listen here: