A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Track #27 on Thommy Ford’s Playlist
“What’s that noise?” This was my boss at the record store I used to work for, looking up at the overhead speakers warily.
He wasn’t taking the bait. “Is this one of your German jazz guys?”
I once played Peter Brötzmann’s album Machine Gun overhead and my boss had never recovered. Every irritating sound ever made must be German jazz. “No it’s an Italian composer named Scelsi.”
He wasn’t going to ask, so I just started to lecture. “It’s a whole orchestra that’s only playing F. Different octaves and some micro-tonal like um… Bends, I guess. But they’re all just playing on one note right now. Basically. Oh yeah, there’s some percussion in there too, I think.”
It wasn’t a very good lecture. “Uh-huh. Why?”
I said I didn’t know why, and I guess I still don’t, but that hasn’t stopped my appreciation of Giacinto Scelsi. It’s easy to get used to the idea that music should try to please us. The vast majority of the music we hear over the course of the day attempts to be immediately accessible or catchy. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Not unless we forget that, just like great books, great music can sometimes require a serious effort on our part. What makes Scelsi’s “Quattro Pezzi (su una nota sola),” or “Four Pieces on a Single Note,” either magnificent music or an irritating noise is the amount of attention and imagination we bring to it. Does that make it appropriate overhead play in a record store? Absolutely not, but you wouldn’t have caught me admitting that a decade ago.
Each of these four pieces focuses on a single tone, F, B, Ab, and A. They add up to about 17 minutes of music, and I tend to listen to them in one go, like they’re a single song. The pieces are so minimal in tone that what we really get is an exploration of the orchestra’s timbre and rhythm. Sometimes the music will just quietly hum or buzz for a few moments, but there is never a lack of movement. In fact, the pieces are probably best described as restless. New timbres and moods are constantly rising up out of the music. Likewise, the orchestra seems to just float around the central tone of each piece, never exactly resting on it. Sure, occasionally we get a clear, loud note, usually from the wind instruments, but as quickly as it appears it’s broken up. Maybe the strings will start to play quick choppy bursts under it, twisting them just slightly off note, and suddenly the clarion call becomes a strident screech or rough growl before dropping into silence. Sometimes this swelling, shiftless music is moving, sometimes calming, and sometimes downright terrifying. Altogether the pieces show a surprising amount of mutability. Who knew such diverse sounds and unexpected emotions could be coaxed from just four notes played in succession over 17 minutes?
Give it a chance. Stop by the library and check out Scelsi: Orchestral Works 2. Then find a good pair of headphones and a quarter of an hour to yourself.
Review by Matthew