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Towards a Grammatical Analysis of Scelsi's Late Music

Dickson, Ian

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Giacinto Scelsi (1905–1988) is a problematic figure for musical analysis on account of his extreme anti‐rationalism and devaluing of the score. By the 1950s he was creating music through improvisation and delegating to assistants the task of transcribing the results. The idiom he evolved was novel not only in its extreme economy of means, usually consisting of subtle inflections of continuous sounds, but also in its apparent rejection of any rational organisation. Analysts of Scelsi's work have tended to concentrate on large‐scale musical architecture, neglecting the apparently redundant, non‐developmental gestures from which, nonetheless, this architecture must be built up. Many of Scelsi's advocates have encouraged this by insisting on the music's irreducibility and exceptional rapport with sound. Such an argument stems from the composer's own mysticism: he attributed the automaticity of his improvisations to the cosmic power of sound, rather than to the long hours that he spent creating them. This article explores the idea that Scelsi's music is conditioned, if not by an explicit grammar (traditional or avant‐garde), then by the ‘model’ of the original improvisations, and that his manipulation of nuance can be considered as a kind of syntax. It argues that a grammatical analysis accounts for the persuasiveness and variety of the improvisations more plausibly than statistical analysis or metaphysical formulations involving sound ‘itself’.

Journal Article Type Article
Online Publication Date Nov 12, 2012
Publication Date 2012-11
Deposit Date Oct 12, 2018
Publicly Available Date Feb 18, 2021
Journal Music Analysis
Print ISSN 0262-5245
Electronic ISSN 1468-2249
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 31
Issue 2
Public URL


Accepted Journal Article (709 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This is the pre-peer reviewed version of the following article: Dickson, I. (2012), Towards a Grammatical Analysis of Scelsi's Late Music. Music Analysis, 31: 216-241, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions.

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