Scelsi:Sound in Three Dimensions reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, May 29, Walter Hall, Toronto.

Scelsi’s music is primal, in the sense that it directs the attention to first levels of sound as expression: the cry of a baby, or its first conscious explorations of the mouth/throat apparatus; the call of greeting or seeking in the dark; ceremonial or ritual utterances, the wail of pain from grief or mishap.

In fact, two of the major ensemble pieces in the program, “I presagi”(1958), and “Yamaon” (1954-58) are ‘about’ mishaps, the destruction of a Mayan city. The five pieces for solo or two female voices are vocalises, songs without words, and tend to be organized in units around a single pitch elaborated through microtonal shadings, harmonic allusions, and variations in timbre and dynamics.

Listening to Carla Huhtanen produce the outcries of “Lilitu”, (aka. Lilith, the female storm demon reputed to have been Adam’s first wife) lifted me out of this world. The spontaneous logic of her vocal attack, without vibrato, with exaggerated vibrato (both finely honed), crying, chanting, wild and then fading to a low, dying whisper, took me back to my own primal experiences. Though it was like no other music, it made perfect sense, and was totally enjoyable.

This was followed by “Okanagon” with Sanya Eng on Harp, Ryan Scott conducting from the tam tam, and Brian Baty on double bass. The techniques of all three instruments are extended to produce a flow of other dimensional spaces filled with grating resonances of varied textures. Very engrossing and enjoyable.

“Sauh I and II” has the interplay of Huthanen’s soprano and the rich mezzo of Lynne McMurtry working out a quasi liturgical message of sound. Often the rhythmically pulsing harmonies of the live voices sound like they are coming from a synthesizer but are still somehow human, and often sad. Such performances make one feel that words are overrated.

The other vocalist of this great evening was bass-baritone Alex Dobson, working with an ensemble of bass instruments. Concert curator Wallace Halladay on baritone sax led this rumbling representation of battle, chaos, and destruction, giving it a kind of jazzy flavour. Dobson’s powerhouse song with out words was perfect jive for this setting, and I know that if Ornette Coleman had been there, he would have loved it.

The evening was presented by New Music Arts Projects, Daniel Taylor, as part of SoundaXis ’08. Gary Kulesha conducted “Yamaon”, Tony Gomez conducted “I presagi” with members of the Toronto Wind Orchestra. Andrew Staniland provided electronic realization for “Litanie”. Musicians not named in the text of this review are: Greg Bruce, alto saxophone; Lisa Griffiths, contrabassoon; Rob MacDonald, mandolin.

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