Sauh I-IV (1973) – Giacinto Scelsi

Giacinto Scelsi’s Sauh I-IV is a set of four unaccompanied vocal works, two duets and two quartets for treble voices. And here’s where easy description of Scelsi and his vocal music ends.

When we talk about Scelsi, for example, to what extent do we use the lexical framework that we use when talking about ‘composers’? Scelsi himself rejected the title of ‘composer’, rather describing his role as ‘messenger’ – a receiver of sounds from a world that exists beyond meagre human intellect. On top of that, Scelsi did not notate his own music. Scelsi recorded improvisations, and when he recorded one that he found particularly good, he handed it off to Viero Tosatti, a composer with whom he (quietly) collaborated, to notate and orchestrate his music. And what was the role of Scelsi’s performer collaborators? Many of his vocal works were written for soprano Michiko Hirayama, and given the paucity of direct instructions from Scelsi for interpreting the special notation in his scores and the fortunate existence of recordings of Hirayama’s incredibly colorful performances, it’s unclear to what extent the technical and coloristic parameters that modern performers have come to assume with regard to Scelsi’s vocal works come from his ‘messages’ or from Hirayama’s unique instrument and sense of vocalism.

For our purposes, the question is not who gets credit for Scelsi’s works. At the root of our inquiry is the desire to understand what we are trying to communicate, what experience do we hope to provide listeners in a performance of this work. In the case of Sauh, much more research and translation work needs to be done. Scelsi’s audio recordings are collected at the Fondazione Isabella Scelsi, an organization established by Scelsi and named in honor of his sister. Many recordings have been digitized and source material for some works have been uncovered, but work continues.

Sauh I and II are for two voices, while Sauh III and IV take the material from the duets and transform them into quartets. In Sauh III, for example, Voices I and II start just as they had with Sauh I, and at measure 5, voices 3 and 4 enter, also as if they are starting Sauh I. The piece then proceeds similarly to a medieval caccia, with the pairs continuing in imitation, until Voices 3 and 4 have finished. The same occurs in Sauh IV, now with the Sauh II material. The acoustic pungency of the microtonal intervals in the original duets is exploded through the inclusion of the two additional voices, each singer navigating usually only about a minor third of pitch material, made to feel decisively larger through octave displacements, microtonal parsing, and dramatic shifts of vibrato.

Sauh, like many of his vocal works, does not use ‘language’, rather a string of phonemes – o, u, rü, ta, etc., - and the title invokes Scelsi’s interest in Asian culture, particularly in Hinduism and Buddhism. The title may refer to a phoneme, alternately transliterated as ‘Sau’ or ‘Saw’, used in a basic mantra meditation called Hamsa. In Hindu and Buddhist mantras, individual phonemes may or may not be words, may or may not have meaning. What’s important is the sound, and that sound creates a resonance within its sounder that is a ‘universal resonance’. It’s easy to see how such a concept aligns with Scelsi’s view of how we are receiving music. While the Sauh is the kind of music that most would associate with meditation, perhaps the message to be received with this work is that there is more to be found in deep listening than universal harmony!

Thanks to Bishal Karna and Clouds in Water Zen Center for their assistance.

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