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Giacinto Scelsi

Aion (1961)

Scelsi's next great orchestral masterpiece after Hurqualia is Aion. As opposed to the epic nature of Hurqualia, Aion corresponds even more closely to the classical idea of the symphony. It is also in four movements, and totals slightly over twenty minutes in length. This work is one of Scelsi's most profound even among the other masterpieces - it is also his first major composition which I heard, one of the most powerful musical experiences in my life, and initiated this review project in early 1990. The scoring is quintessential for Scelsi and consists of: woodwinds by threes excluding flutes, six horns, three trumpets, four trombones, four tubas, timpani, six percussionists (whose instruments include a two-hundred liter metal can rubbed violently across its lateral grooves), harp, viola, four cellos and four double basses. The brass is almost always in the foreground, sometimes giving way to the other winds; the strings are rarely independently audible. Scelsi's use of percussion is rather complex and sometimes ingenious (the huge can is found also in Uaxuctum); there is never a glittering or crystal sound in his percussion section as one might find in other modern symphonic works which make a heavy use of percussion, rather there is a dark background muttering which is sometimes violent and other times subdued.

Aion is the name of the personification of eternity in Ancient Greek mythology, and this work is Scelsi's most effective portrayal of immense lapses of time. It is subtitled "Four Episodes of a Day of Brahma," making explicit reference to Indian mythology (as in the Quattro Illustrazioni for piano; in fact Aion corresponds to Scelsi's perfection of the symphony in the same way as that work marks his conclusion in the genre of piano sonata) - a day of Brahma is a very long time, and in fact contains an entire cycle of existence for our world. It is unclear exactly how much Indian classical music Scelsi knew, and he never makes explicit reference to it, however as in Hurqualia there is a rhythmic sophistication about this piece (and really more so here) that is comparable only to the most complex Indian music - but of course extended to a truly polyphonic idiom. It is also unclear what the 'episodes' of the subtitle are: the sequence of movements corresponds closely to a symphonic form.

The first movement is a passacaglia establishing interval relationships, and complete with intense percussive outbursts; it is the longest of the four and an extremely intense introduction to Aion, ending with a mysterious coda initiated by the harp. The second movement is a sort of scherzo in ABABA form: the brutal discordant outbursts in quarter tones of the B sections are framed by more quiet melodic sections. The slow third movement is the most eternal of the set (despite being the shortest). As with the Quattro Pezzi, it seems to emerge out of itself in the smallest harmonic space and moves by microtonal fluctuations through quarter tones developing into loud climaxes in the brass, ending on the interval of a minor second. It provides one with a mystical look at eternity. The last movement is a sort of rondo, complete with dramatic cadences leading into an extended climactic episode in E-major harmony which dissolves away to the opening rondo theme in the slow quiet ending. Aion is undoubtedly one of the greatest orchestral masterpieces of this century, and marks Scelsi's total command of his new style.

Edited from materials originally posted to the Internet in 1992 by Todd McComb
Copyright © 1992-2000, Todd Michel McComb.

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