Scelsi was in many ways the unknown X factor, the odd-man-out of Italian music in the 20th century. An aristocrat (Count d’Alaya Valva), he was a well-travelled, well-connected dilettante of considerable accomplishment before World War II. After it he experienced a severe mental illness with a prolonged recovery, and moved into a reclusive, countervailing position as a sort of mystic, channeling rather than composing music as he considered it, and bridging East and West.
“Rome is the boundary between East and West,” Scelsi claimed, living in a Roman apartment that overlooked the Forum. “South of Rome the East begins, and north of Rome the West begins. This borderline runs exactly over the Forum Romanum. It runs right here, through my drawing room.”
Anahit (1965), a “Lyric Poem Dedicated to Venus,” is a beautiful example in every sense. (Anahit was the goddess of fertility and healing, wisdom and water in Armenian mythology.) Looked at from a Western view, it is a violin concerto in three movements, as bigger, more complicated sections frame a rapt solo cadenza. It even has a tonal orientation, given the solo violin’s retuning to the pitches of a G-major chord.
But that orientation is severely challenged from the East by microtonal inflections, and its slow developments are timbral, not thematic. (Although it might be better to say that timbre and sonority are thematic here.) Scelsi’s compositions emerged through improvisations, his own or a visitor’s, which were recorded and later transcribed into scores by his longtime collaborator, composer Vieri Tosatti (1920-1999). This process included much thought and refinement after the initial improvisation; Scelsi could even turn the same improvisation into two very different pieces.
In Anahit, this results in a sort of ruffled serenity, as glowing tones generate their own sonic momentum. After the cadenza, Scelsi gathers material from the first section and lets pulsing waves move the music to a final crest.