When I interviewed him in his Rome studio nearly 20 years ago, Ennio Morricone was generous in praise of his heroes, declaring his undying love for John Cage, Burt Bacharach and the AS Roma striker Francesco Totti. He also mentioned a more obscure idol: an Italian composer called Giacinto Scelsi. “I learned from him that a single note can be beautiful and shocking,” he told me. “And that, by repeating that note, in slightly different ways, you can do more than playing something complicated.”
An eccentric aristocrat, Scelsi (1905-1988) was born in a palatial estate outside Naples, where he was schooled in fencing, chess and Latin. He also wrote surrealist poetry in French, immersed himself in eastern philosophy, hobnobbed with European royalty and had his wedding party at Buckingham Palace. He started out writing in Bach-style counterpoint but soon tired of it; he studied 12-tone serialism but never practised it, and he never really got on board with the Italian futurists such as Luigi Russolo. Instead, his compositions explored a prototype form of minimalism – where musicians linger on a single note for the duration of an extended piece, slightly bending away from the original pitch using microtonal shadings, harmonics and microscopic variations in timbre.
Among the hip young things who’ve been inspired by him are several members of the reliably experimental London Contemporary Orchestra, including violinist Galya Bisengalieva, who have recorded Scelsi’s particularly obscure String Trio from 1958. The slowly mutating drones recall the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, the occasional pizzicato plink the equivalent of a ringing bell, the drones slowly deviate to create fractional dissonances. For such a seemingly slight composition, it’s a truly immersive – and borderline mystical – experience.
Also out this month
The central theme of Max Richter’s Voices (Deutsche Grammophon) is slightly tiresome – various voices repeating extracts from the UN Declaration of Human Rights, in multiple languages. But, when the string drones, wordless voices and touches of virtuosity finally intrude, it can be deliciously poignant. Richter employs what he describes as a “negative orchestra”, where the cellos and double basses are unusually prominent, creating a full-bodied, low-register throb that gives the work some gravitas. Call to Prayer (released 14 August on Fuga Libre) sees Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali and Austrian viola da gamba virtuoso Romina Lischka drawing connections between classical Arab maqams, Indian ragas and the European baroque. On tracks such as Nouh Al Hamam and Raga Yaman, the interplay between figured bass, metrical viol and melismatic, swooping vocals is quite startling. Duval Timothy’s album Help (Carrying Colour) is his most ambitious yet. There are some swerves into drowsy vaporwave and fidgety electronica, and some skittish appearances from guest vocalists, but the most compelling moments are his piano and synth instrumentals – geometrically precise miniatures pitched somewhere between Michael Nyman and Keith Jarrett.