Giacinto Scelsi


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This collection by the vocal group Giacinto Scelsi formed in Reims, France, is a precursor to many of the more obscure collections of music released by both well-known and nearly anonymous vocal ensembles during recent years. Scelsi is not interested in boundaries; his group, comprised of three men and three women, here take on liturgical music in monody from the Byzantine Rite circa 700 A.D., and it is so close to its Far Eastern counterparts as to be almost frightening. Yes, "amen," does sound, when echoed in drone from the two-voice chorus, like "om." As if this weren't enough, they jump nearly a century into the future, tossing in Atlanta Fugiens by the alchemist Michael Maier (who composed 50), where polyphony is represented by a two-part canon and a cantus firmus. Not so odd, really, in that Maier's work echoes the earlier pieces while being more complex melodically, if not harmonically. Then comes the truly weird and wonderful stuff: Giacinto Scelsi's choral works. Truly 20th century, but at once completely out of time, Scelsi composed vocal music that underscored his belief that the ritual echo itself was a key to the transformation of human consciousness (much like the Hindus and the Buddhists). First up are his "Three Songs of Capricorn" -- along the complex line of Eastern, near Tuvan throat singing -- in which a mandolin is used as a percussion instrument, and Thai gongs in 'F' are employed. Much of Scelsi's program is for baritone and bass singers, but there are works (such as "Le Grande Sanctuaire I & II") for tenor. Pieces such as "CKCKCC I & II" are not choral works in any conventional sense, but they do intersect on the plane of being non-Western in approach. The less experimental works, such as "Le Grande Sanctuaire" and "Three Latin Prayers," prefigure -- and perhaps even predict -- the choral work of John Tavener. These are prayers, written mystically with their only motivation for this "inner light" to be made manifest, and again, the ritual echo of the human voice being the only instrument capable of revealing it. There are passages of plainchant and Tibetan line prayer entwined with Gregorian and Byzantine monody woven through passages that are designed for their voices, and the harmonic and melodic complexity is near astonishing, considering that they're paired up to drones. Voxnova did well in presenting the Augustinian approach and Renaissance method before a program of Scelsi. It makes them seem more connected to the music of the later 20th century, and Scelsi seems not quite so weird and disaffected. In fact, Voxnova, with this excellent set, makes quite a convincing argument in the other direction.

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