David Ryan




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Via di San Teodoro 8 – an introduction given at the Fondazione Isabella Scelsi 11th November 2010


One clue to approaching this video film project Via di San Teodoro 8, from my perspective as its maker, but maybe also for the audience, is to be found in Scelsi’s particular relationship to the space of his residence here in Rome. ‘Legend’ had it - as it was originally formulated to me in fact - that Scelsi improvised in one room, and assistants would translate these improvisations into conventional notation simultaneously in another. Even if apocryphal, this separation of the means of production – of an enunciation within the space of a binary opposition between improvisation and composition – seemed to say something about the relationship of sound to the actual space. As Gregory Reish (2006) has suggested, Scelsi,


Gradually came to understand the ‘single’ note as an infinitesimal particle of an infinite sonic force, and therefore as limitless world of sound. He began to conceive the timbral, dynamic, microtonal explorations of single notes in his works as ‘activations’: temporal, bounded projections of an atemporal, unbounded sonic reality. […] Rejecting the aesthetic premise that sounds must progress to other sounds in order to have any significance, he essentially renounced such conventional techniques as thematic development, melodic variation, contrapuntal elaboration, harmonic progression and cadential resolution.


What Reish alludes to here is the fact that composition (or the initial improvisations) for Scelsi, essentially became an act of bringing forth sounds that were already existent, “lying dormant in the universe until activated”, and that once a sound is produced, discovered, or whatever, that specifc nuances would be added, changes in vibration, admixture, etc. But fundamentally, we could also say, that the frame for Scelsi has become more important as a component – in that it is less about the rhetoric of composition, and more the allowable duration of an event, and making it manifest. This is a proposition that goes back to Aristotle – the notion that the vibrating universe is the ground of all music, which was also prevalent in the 19th century with the Romantics, but also pertinent to more recent avant-gardists, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. We might also see this as a philosophical paradox, as Jean-Francois Lyotard did in his late writings. Lyotard (1997), here, writes about general audibility and the ‘gesture’ of musical composition in relation to this field of audible sound. This is what Lyotard refers to as a “language beneath languages” whereby,


A sound, an isolable tone, an island risen up out of pathos makes itself heard. With the appearance of the audible sound, a promise is made. This sound promises that there will be other sounds. Hence there will be something rather than nothing. […] Music labours to give birth to what is audible in the inaudible breath. It strives to put it into phrases. Thus does it betray it, by giving it form, and ignore it.


Scelsi, it could be argued, strove in his late work not to betray this ‘audibility in the so-called inaudible’. In one sense, form has to be negotiated from the material rather than imposed by paying acute attention. It is wrong to suggest that Scelsi’s music is formless, rather it should be seen that it is formed from the very basic vibratory sonorities it brings into being, rather than importing pre-given notions of form. Like John Cage’s music, it might be seen as an ecological relation of sounds that is sought rather than the imposition of self-expression.


Coming to the house in Via di San Teodoro, it was sounds in fact that first struck me, despite the visual beauty of the place – ambient sounds: sounds from the street, or even form a computer hub near an archive space. It is tempting to think that one was placed amidst the milieu of sounds that Scelsi himself heard, but of course soundscapes change. The sonic environs of both Rome and the house are clearly different to, say, the 1980s even. But this close, attentive listening seemed important for this film, and to record some aspects of that in relation to the spaces was also a way of mapping the spaces. Scelsi’s concern with silence, as mentioned above, could be aligned with Cage. That old warhorse 4’33” – the so-called silent piece of Cage – could also be seen as relevant for this particular project, and for the exercise of ‘listening to the house’. Having performed 4’33” on several occasions with my students, it always struck me how this piece essentially frames listening in such a way that might befit visual art rather than music per se. In fact, the dominant experience of this piece, almost no matter what the environment, is perspectival, and extremely spatial. We become especially susceptible to a sonic depth-of-field – of sounds near, afar – drones, hums buzzes etc. It is a clear demonstration that, as Lyotard pointed out, the ‘gestures’ of conventional music-making mask and conceal the extraordinary sonic landscapes that we call ‘silence’.


This influenced not only the approach to sound recording in the film but also the approach to visualizing the shots. Static long shots were necessary to focus on the changes within the sonic environment – sometimes extremely subtle. At a basic level – the film is about these conjoined sonic and visual spaces; it moves – though not in any coherent narrative sense – through the spaces of the house, which now contain a museum, an archive, a working office and garden terrace. Each of these spaces feature with their own particular sounds. Events, which constitute what we might call ‘narrative clusters’ take place in these spaces: the plants are watered, an envelope packaged, the ondiola instruments are tested and finally played. In this sense the film moves towards its conclusion with an improvisation performed by pianist Oscar Pizzo on the two electronic ondiolas. This performance is housed within both the literal space of the house and the filmic space, moving towards it rather like through concentric circles, but not until we have witnessed the sounds that surround and precede it. The sound space is expanded: what Deleuze called the out-of-field is often in play; with certain key sounds being heard off-screen, and which are rarely ‘explained’.


In this, I find an early proponent of sound film theory still to be relevant: the particularly sensitive comments of the Hungarian writer and critic Bela Balazs. In his posthumous Theory of the Film (1949) Balazs conjures up – akin to Lyotard – a “language beneath languages’:
It is the business of the sound film to reveal for us our acoustic environment, the acoustic landscape in which we live, the speech of things and the intimate whisperings of nature; all that has speech beyond human speech, and speaks to us with the vast conversational powers of life […]


Balazs’ comments are very resonant of a new approach to film sound. One that takes the physiognomy of objects, both visually and sonically as that which ‘faces’ us, attempts to speak, not musically but, as Lyotard would have it, ‘mutically’. Sounds are not simply assembled as part of the soundtrack but rather tracked in and for themselves and represent the other side of objects or material things. The idea of a filmic poetic essay might be the most pertinent way to describe Via di san Teodoro – and that this mode can remain a space for radical reflection. By refusing narrative (or at least its standardized forms) and dialogue, by looking for a liminal space between the ‘speech of things’ and a ‘camera consciousness’ we arrive at the encounter rather than the conceptual imposition ‘of an idea for a film’ – this remains important. We search out the event, we don’t presume or dramatize its occurrence - it may even be missed. I mentioned the importance of improvisation and, like Scelsi, the relationship between improvising and composing – with structure, with the camera even - remains an important one for my own practice, and negotiates each of the above issues.