Giacinto Scelsi: Konx-Om-Pax

Giacinto Scelsi, Count of Ayala Valva (La Spezia, 8 January 1905 – Rome, 9 August 1988) was an Italian composer who also wrote surrealist poetry in French.

He is best known for writing music based around only one pitch, altered in all manners through microtonal oscillations, harmonic allusions, and changes in timbre and dynamics, as paradigmatically exemplified in his revolutionary Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola [„Four Pieces on a single note“] (1959). His musical output, which encompassed all Western classical genres except scenic music, remained largely undiscovered even within contemporary musical circles during most of his life.

Konx-Om-Pax, perhaps the most straight-forward of his six mature orchestral works, was set to full score in 1968 & 1969. Scelsi’s ascendance from obscurity occurred in the mid-1980s, and was consummated in October 1987 at the SIMC International Festival in Cologne where his symphonic music was featured to great acclaim. Like many of his works, Konx-Om-Pax was premiered in Venice on 10 September 1970.

Konx-Om-Pax is the title of a 1907 neo-hermetic text by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), in this case subtitled „Essays in light.“ Crowley is best known for the commandment „Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law“ and in fact the alternative religion he founded, Thelema, continues to have a loyal following. Like Crowley’s, one can view Scelsi’s use of muddled & tangled references to various & sundry historical ideas and cultures as allusions designed to merely indicate what are more unified underlying truths. Like Crowley, Scelsi rarely „argues“ as such – he indicates.

In the case of Konx-Om-Pax, the subtitle provides a clear orientation for the music. In the first movement, an opening C becomes larger & larger, until it is slowly destabilized by what begin as timbral and then quarter-tone variations, only to reassert itself. Although unified in gesture, the movement has an unsettling quality arising from the motion driven by microtones. It is a fine example of Scelsi’s ability to let a small inflection drive a larger form. The overall sonority and articulation style, reminiscent of a bell, are also vintage Scelsi. The brief second movement starts slowly on a main pitch of F, only to become increasingly animated and even violent. It is a sudden explosion of dissonance which ends just as one grasps what has happened. As in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the chorus enters only in the last movement. In Scelsi’s case, it brings a quintessential evocation of peace by repeatedly chanting the syllable „Om“ on a main pitch of A. The chorus is surrounded by various destabilizing musical gestures which it nonetheless succeeds in unifying. Both of the larger outer movements have a relatively simple bipartite form, building to an initial climax which is followed by a central calm and then a reassertion of the original musical dynamic. Despite a relatively simple general description, the range of harmonic material swirling around the central „Om“ of the last movement resists a naïve interpretation, as does the overarching tonal sequence (C-F-A) of the symphony as a whole. Whereas Crowley used light as the central metaphor of his text, Scelsi’s cosmology-in-sound yields a very real, haunting sound. When it ends, the return to silence is palpable.