Tag Archives: 20TH CENTURY MUSIC

GIACINTO SCELSI :: ANAHIT, for violin & 18 instruments

Scelsi subtitled this splendid work “Lyrical Poem on the Name of Venus,” “Anahit” being the ancient Egyptian name for the goddess Venus. The piece is a major work of Scelsi’s and among the most important works of the 1960s. It is basically a chamber-sized violin concerto, although the relationship of the soloist to the ensemble is anything but the one expected in a concerto. Instead of a dialogue between orchestra and soloist, every instrument is washed into an ever-shifting, incandescent color field. Each instrumental part is extremely difficult, the violin part is only more so because it plays through more of the 13-minute duration of the piece than the rest. Making the soloist’s life still more difficult, the instrument is re-tuned to G-G-B-D to give it a more intense and ethereally plaintive sound. Scelsi also notated the violin part in a special tablature, string by string, treating each string as a separate sound-making entity. Conversely, the entire ensemble is treated like a single instrument that Scelsi plays upon like some heavenly synthesizer. Throughout the piece, he has the violin tensely slide about in microtones, moving along a gradually ascending path, and nothing more. This severe restriction of material means that tremendous concentration is required of he soloist and the terrific tension involved in just holding on to the part comes through in performance. Around this core of diamond-thread, Scelsi pours the tremendous oceanic noise of the rest of the ensemble. The “solo” violin is quite often submerged in the sound, disappearing with the rest of the instrumental voices into the slow, wide-angle shriek of changing sound. Frequent cadential effects, usually underlined with orchestrational changes like an outburst of brass or shrill statements from the flutes, provide a sense of ebb and flow and a tasteful degree of formal definition. At around the eight-minute mark, there is a cadenza for violin solo that slyly creeps in while the supporting instruments gradually evaporate, a process that is repeated less fully in the very last passage. Anahit develops itself with an ascetic’s patience and doesn’t ever arrive at any kind of explosive climax. Instead, it hovers on the tentative edge of crisis, like a photograph of something hateful endlessly developing, out of which no clear image ever emerges. The pseudoscientific word “liminal” comes to mind: of or relating to a sensory threshold, barely perceptible, on the cusp of response. The beautiful tension of Anahit is partly the tension of a half-formed premonition and similar to the tension of having a lost word “on the tip of the tongue,” that slightly panicked mental grasping for something sensed and present, but unreachable. Unlike almost all of Scelsi’s music, some of which was not performed publicly until 30 years after its creation, Anahit was performed with Devy Erlih on violin a year after it was composed.  -DONATO MANCINI