Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Playboy of the Western World

April 03, 2010


Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to make of a rarity. There are some performances that are so unrelated to everything around them that it’s hard to know what to make of them. Or at least that’s the feeling that came back to me on Friday when REDCAT presented Canti del Capricorno, a 20-song cycle composed by Giacinto Scelsi for Japanese soprano Michiko Hirayama. Scelsi's music is not commonly heard in the U.S., and this performance was all the more unusual in that Hirayama, now in her 80s, performed the 90 minute cycle written expressly for her between 1962-1972. Scelsi had a pedigree and a disposition made for controversy in the music world. Largely self-trained, Scelsi was born into the aristocracy in Italy in the early 20th century. He developed a reputation as a playboy in addition to one for his love of music. He did not like to talk about his music or give interviews, although he developed many admirers in the later half of the century, including Ligeti, and was influential on later spectralist composers like Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail.

Scelsi was interested in microtonal music and in some ways was the original one-note Charlie. Many of his compositions were notable for their use of single notes only rarely moving in small steps away from the central tone. His music relies more on timbre and dynamics as a source of variation as his musicians plays the same note again and again. Scelsi found a muse for his vocal writing in Hirayama for whom he wrote multiple pieces including Canti del Capricorno. Hirayama performs these songs with very little accompaniment; three of the songs use percussion, one a bass, and one a saxophone. Otherwise she is left on her own in these wordless pieces that can vary from chant to wailing to barking at the moon. They are not pretty and the vocal writing is not meant to be. There is something more primitive about the pieces and Scelsi's focus on very restricted ranges of tone is clearly related to a much earlier period of Western music including chant. Hirayama has these songs in her blood and in her 80s the Canti take on a whole new life. She has the voice of an elderly woman, but the unsteadiness and variability that comes with a normally aging voice seem custom made for this context where the music is not about perfectly hitting a variety of notes as much as the sound that is produced in the natural variance of always trying to hit the same one. For a taste of what I mean see the video above taken at the 2008 Ravenna Festival. Friday's appearance at REDCAT was fascinating. And while I'm not sure Scelsi's Canti is great music, it certainly was memorable in its own way.


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