A piece of “enormous, almost terrifying power,” according to Harry Halbreich, Okanagon goes far beyond Scelsi’s early important works (Tre canti popolari, 1958; Four Pieces on One Note, 1959), at a time when he was seeking the inclusion of special sound effects pertaining to inharmonic spectra, of which noise is an integral component. The instruments are thus played in this piece with resonators (for the harp and the tam-tam whose resonator “must produce a hoarse and low sound”), treated in an unusual way (the low notes of the harp are “taken with both hands”, hence a special position of the instrumentalist), possibly amplified for some, and sometimes used as pure percussion instruments – as was already the case in Ko-Tha (1967), for guitar. If we add the specific colors (different sticks for the tam-tam, play with the fingernail or a metal plectrum for the harp) and the very particular chords (“scordatura”) of certain strings, we obtain the strange sound “décor” of a work that Scelsi advised to consider “as a rite or, if you like, as the heartbeat of the earth”.
Okanagon has an incantatory character, and musical “time” is “both static and dynamic,” according to Tristan Murail, who describes the piece as “entirely percussive. Scelsi himself considered rhythm as the “primary impulse”: “One can conceive the absence of one or more elements in an organic life reduced to its simplest physical expression, but not the absence of rhythm, of the vital pulse. Thus, in music, rhythm also appears to a certain extent to exist independently of the other elements (the rhythm, for example, produced by a drum, a woodwind, a gong, struck repeatedly without accompaniment). The rhythmic language is then the expression of the deep rhythms arising from the vital dynamism. In Okanagon, the quality of the sound of the ensemble is closely linked to a rather slow periodicity (these “deep rhythms” of which the composer spoke), comparable to certain passages (1st and 3rd movements) of Konx-Om-Pax, where the same elements recur slightly transformed.
© Pierre Michel