Giacinto Scelsi´s palm tree, Rudolf Steiner and the interior of the tone

“I have had this Steinerian intuition. That means for example to identify with the force that growths in a flower, in nature. This is one of the Steinerian meditations: to become one with the force that lets nature grow. I practice this often with my palm tree which stands over there, opposite my house. When one meditates, and enters a state of self-sublation [Selbstaufhebung], then it befalls one as with the tone: one expands. Like with the palm; it comes closer and closer, and at a certain point one unites with it. Then one takes this power of the palm, which is very strong, into oneself. By the way this exercise one needs to do with many different things, not only with a palm tree, but also with pictures.” [MusikTexte, page 68f]

Scelsi´s palm tree, printed in Die Magies des Klang, 2

The “Steinerian meditations” that the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi refers to in this quote is about a whole new way of relating to growth and decay, to life and death in nature. This meditative approach to nature involves paying attention to subtle feelings and impulses that are there whenever one perceives nature, but which are normally completely suppressed by our occupation with ourselves. In every perception of growth and budding life, or in its decay and withering away, there are sensations connected to these life-processes that Steiner suggests one pays attention to and enhances so that they will become active conscious thoughtful feelings – and eventually also real forces of perception. Not only should one meditate on the life-force in the full-grown plant, but also in the seed with its hidden potential for becoming a new plant – and further also the difference between plants and animals, living and inanimate nature, and desire as it expresses itself in the human being. These meditations are presented in the second chapter of the book How to attain knowledge of higher worlds, and a paragraph that may be related to Scelsi´s statement goes as follows:

“Let the student place before him a plant which has attained the stage of full development. Now let him fill his mind with the thought that the time will come when this plant will wither and die. “Nothing will be left of what I now see before me. But this plant will have developed seeds which, in their turn, will develop to new plants. I again become aware that in what I see, something lies hidden which I cannot see. I fill my mind entirely with the thought: this plant with its form and colors, will in time be no more. But the reflection that it produces seeds teaches me that it will not disappear into nothing. I cannot at present see with my eyes that which guards it from disappearance, any more than I previously could discern the plant in the grain of seed. Thus there is something in the plant which my eyes cannot see. If I let this thought live within me, and if the corresponding feeling be coupled with it, then, in due time, there will again develop in my soul a force which will ripen into a new perception.”

In the quote Giacinto Scelsi says that with the plant it happens to him as with the tone. Consciousness becomes one with an expanding perception of the force, and this can happen also with a single tone. Scelsi claimed that this was a fundamental experience for him that determined his thinking and practice as a composer (a label which he did not accept by the way as he did not consider himself as someone who composed or constructed tones together – he rather delivered them through inspiration). Entering the sound, he tried to bring back and expose a dimension of listening and tone that we normally don´t hear. To take this seriously would mean a rather radical renewal of the conception of listening as a way of relating to the world, and the tone as a fold of forces.

“When one plays a tone for a long time it becomes bigger. It becomes so big that one hears many more harmonies, and it becomes bigger and bigger inside. The tone envelops one. I assure you that is something quite different. In the tone one discovers a whole universe, with overtones one can otherwise never hear. The tone fills the space in which one is, it embraces one, one swims in it. … When one enters a tone, it surrounds you. One becomes a part of this tone. Little by little one is engulfed [verschlungen] by this tone, and one needs no more tones. Music today becomes a pleasant spiritual procrastination [zeitvertried]; connecting one tone to the other and so on. But this is not at all necessary. Everything is inside, already in this tone the whole cosmos which fills space. All possible sounds are already part of it.” [MusikTexte 69]

Scelsi´s experience and the ideas of Rudolf Steiner

In the literature on Scelsi his ideas about music created out of the interior life of a single tone has often been brought in connection with statements by Daniel Rudhyar and Rudolf Steiner. Scelsi obviously knew works of both men and referred to them in several occations. In his article Una Nota Sola: Giacinto Scelsi and the Genesis of Music on a Single Note Gregory Reish shows how Scelsi even reproduces ideas from Rudhyar almost verbatim in a conversation, something which shows to how high degree he had incorporated and made his own Rudhyar´s presentation of Hindu cosmology and thinking on music. [Reish 154] But just as important are indications that Scelsi took from Rudolf Steiner. Reish writes

Of particular interest is Steiner’s lecture of September 29, 1920, the first in which he put forward the idea of music on a single note. The lecture’s initial publication, in the 1952 edition of the Blätter für Anthroposophie, coincided with Scelsi’s return to composition that same year and may have been a catalyst for Scelsi’s radical stylistic and aesthetic departure. [Reisch, page 151]

The “lecture” Reish refers to was a public conversation Steiner had with the audience at a conference, after the lecture of another participant, Paul Baumann. Now this was not the first time Steiner mentioned the possibility to enter into the single tone, but the first time he elaborated upon it. Steiner had opened for questions, and was asked about his views concerning the tonal system and its potential expansion and transformation into new turning systems. In the literature on Scelsi the relation to Steiner has often been mentioned, but as yet there has not been much close reading of Steiner´s remarks. It is therefore in place to compile some quotes from Steiner to see how his remarks could have affected Scelsi.

Steiner says he wishes to bring the question about the expansion of the tonal system (Tonsysteme) in relation to another one, namely that of the experience of the single tone, which he suggests is undergoing a transformation in his time. He asks his audience whether they can relate to the claim that it is possible to enter into the tone and experience deeper aspects of it

One can, I believe, clearly observe that today there is a tendency among people who are musically inclined [musically experiencing people] so to speak to go deeper into the tone. One can stay more on the surface or go deeper into the tone, right? And now I would ask the persons with whom we have discussed earlier if they can connect any idea with this: the experience of music today goes more and more in the direction of splitting the apprehension of the singel tone, and so to speak to ask of the singel tone to what degree it already is a melody or not?

Man kann nämlich, glaube ich, deutlich wahrnehmen, daß heute die Tendenz besteht, gerade bei dem musikalisch erlebenden Menschen, gewissermaßen in den Ton tiefer hineinzugehen. Nicht wahr, man kann bei einem Ton mehr an der Oberfläche bleiben, oder tiefer in den Ton hineingehen. Und da frage ich nun die Persönlichkeiten, die früher mitdiskutiert haben, ob sie irgendeine Vorstellung damit verbinden können, wenn ich sage: Das musikalische Erleben der Gegenwart geht immer mehr und mehr dahin, den einzelnen Ton zu spalten in der Auffassung, und den einzelnen Ton gewissermaßen zu befragen, inwiefern er selbst schon eine Melodie ist, oder nicht eine Melodie ist? [29 September 1920, GA 283]

The next day Steiner brings up the same issue again because, as he says, he noticed his comments were misunderstood. He stresses again that what he means is not the synthesis of many tones into one sound, but that what has until now been experienced as one tone can become a multitude of tones by means of a deepened experience, in which the unity of the tone can be split or decomposed and so revealed to be a multiplicity. From this experience one can then draw out new tones and synthesize them to create a new variation of the main tone:

I did not mean that in the succession of time tones still present sound together and then become apprehended as one tone. This is not meant, rather, what is meant it that today one begins – this has to do with the development of humanity – in relation to what until our time in history many people experienced as one tone now to experience as a grouping, to split the tone itself, so that one goes in the direction of going deeper into the tone, into and down below the tone and above the tone, so to speak beyond to another tone. And one can then – this I meant – when one has these thereby metamorphosed original tones with the two tones in the sides, which one has developed, when one has these three tones, then one can express the main tone as variation. It is then a different tone.

Ich habe nicht gemeint, daß da in der Zeitfolge Töne noch vorhanden sind, die etwa zusammenklingen und dann als ein Ton aufgefaßt werden. Dies ist nicht gemeint, sondern gemeint ist, daß man heute beginnt – das hängt einfach mit der Entwickelung der Mensch- heit zusammen -, gegenüber dem, was bis in unsere Weltenzeit herein einfach von vielen Menschen als ein Ton erlebt worden ist, als von einer Gliederung zu sprechen, den Ton in sich zu spalten, so daß man gewissermaßen darauf hinsteuert, in den Ton tiefer hineinzugehen, unter den Ton hinunter und über den Ton darüber gewissermaßen hinausgeht zu einem anderen Ton. Und man kann dann, meinte ich, wenn man die dadurch abgeänderten eigentlichen Töne hat mit den zwei Nebentönen, die man sich eigentlich herausgebildet hat, wenn man diese drei Töne hat, so kann man den variierten Hauptton ausdrücken. Er ist dann ein etwas anderer Ton. [GA 283, 30 September 1920]

Steiner suggests that it is such a deepened experience of the tone which will be the source of a new music. For this the tuning system will have to be accommodated and thus bring about the need for an expansion of the tonal system:

And the new emerging tones, that so to speak make out a small melody, with these one will discover that the one must be pushed down below, the other upwards. Then, when one displaces these tones, one does not encounter our usual tones, but then one encounters tones that our normal tuning system does not encompass. And in this way, I believe, will the expansion of our tonal system indeed have to emerge.

Und die neu entstehenden Töne, die gewissermaßen eine kleine Melodie geben, bei denen wird man bemerken, daß man den einen nach unten, den anderen nach oben abschieben muß. Da trifft man aber dann, wenn man die abschiebt, nicht auf unsere gebräuchlichen Töne, sondern da trifft man auf Töne, die eben unsere heutigen Tonsysteme nicht haben. Und auf diese Weise, glaube ich, wird eine Erweiterung unseres Tonsystemes allerdings entstehen müssen. [GA 283, 30 September 1920]

Steiner then mentions Claude Debussy as an example of this tendency to enter into the tone. This development is foreshadowed by his music, in which there comes to expression a new feeling for music

Either I do not understand Debussy at all, or I can only understand him in such a way that he anticipated some of this living into the tone. There is a completely different form of musical feeling in Debussy from for example even Wagner. Right, that one can say. So this is what I really meant, that one finds a kind of melody out of the single tone, which one then stretches out in time. One can construct this melody only if one has a different tonal system. This is what I meant.

Entweder verstehe ich Debussy gar nicht, oder ich kann ihn nur so verstehen, daß er etwas von diesem Hineinleben in den Ton vorausahnte. Es ist doch eine ganz andere Art des musikalischen Empfindens durch Debussy als zum Beispiel selbst noch bei Wagner. Nicht wahr, das kann man schon sagen. Also das ist es, was ich eigentlich gemeint habe, daß man aus dem einzelnen Ton heraus eine Art Melodie finde, die man dann nur verbreitet in der Zeit. Man kriegt aber diese Melodie nur zustande, wenn man ein anderes Tonsystem hat. Das ist das, was ich gemeint habe.

Now there are many interesting parallels to Scelsi´s approach to composition in these statements. The most obvious is of course the claim that one can enter into the single tone and by means of such a deepened and transformed experience come to hear otherwise inaudible sounds and tones. Entering into the tone is of course at the same time entering into the depth of the apprehending consciousness such that the external difference between listener and tone disappears. The tone is for Steiner a spiritual being which can be encountered, but that requires that one enters into its depth, that one “goes deeper into it” as he says. It is also interesting to note that this transformation of listening is connected to a transformation of the tonal system. The future music that Steiner envisions to be created out of the deepened experience of the tone will need a new tonal system, since the present one does not have the possibility to express these new tonal variations.  Now one cannot of course project backwards Scelsi´s music, and suggest that this is what Steiner was envisioning. However, it is still the case that the way Scelsi proceeds bears striking similarities to Steiner´s descriptions. Scelsi claims to have had a deepened spiritual experience of the tone, and that his compositions are attempts to bring this reality into audible sound. Between 1952 and 1959 Scelsi gradually abandoned the piano and increasingly wrote for instruments with variable pitch intonation, such as wind and string instruments. Scelsi thereby moved into a more microtonal music, exploiting the pitch-space between semitones.

Giacinto Scelsi

This makes an interesting parallel between musical development in the 20th Century and the spiritual approach to sound and listening presented by Rudolf Steiner. Many have taken up the way Scelsi treated sound from a compositional point of view, but as yet there are not many (any?) who have embarked on the corresponding inner expansion of consciousness that goes with the depth of tone. Pointing out this possibility of expanding the inner horizon, and the methodological apparatus that exists to initiate such a metamorphosis with tones and palm-trees could perhaps be of interest, also for the future development of music…?