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IDFA 2018

Review: Giacinto Scelsi. The First Movement of the Immovable

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- The mystical title of Sebastiano d’Ayala Valva’s film is the right fit for its subject, a classical music composer who claimed his music came from Hindu deities

Review: Giacinto Scelsi. The First Movement of the Immovable

Italian filmmaker Sebastiano d’Ayala Valva is a cousin of the composer Giacinto Scelsi, who died in 1988. After some brief success in 1950s, he was side-lined due to the modern classical music world’s hostility towards him, especially in his home country. D'Ayala Valva decided to research and find out what was so special about his cousin, resulting in Giacinto Scelsi. The First Movement of the Immovable [+see also:
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, which won the IDFA Award for Best First Appearance.

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Scelsi believed his music was coming from Hindu deities, known as the Devas, and that he was a medium through whom said music was sent to this world. The director learns this from his memoirs, which the composer recorded on tape in 1973. These tapes play a big role in the film, representing the closest thing to interviews with the long-gone subject. 

D'Ayala Valva interviews some of Scelsi's former collaborators and performers, including a Japanese soprano, a French double bass player, and an American clarinettist. They all find it hard to describe Scelsi's work, and maybe the best outline of his philosophy is given by himself. Scelsi was primarily interested in sound, not so much the way various notes are put together.

"Sound is force," Scelsi explains on one of the tapes. "Sound is the first movement of the immovable." 

A German-speaking expert (none of the protagonists are directly identified by name nor function) expands on this, explaining analytically how sound is capable of giving form. But this still feels very obscure to casual viewers – even when the filmmaker tries to "give form" by placing pieces of styrofoam on a plate that is connected to a sound system, with the vibrations actually creating a shape reminiscent of an MRI recording of the brain.

The filmmaker also includes a radio interview with another Italian musician who claims that he was the one who composed all of Scelsi's music, via Scelsi's fairly vague-sounding instructions. But he does not take this further, neither confirming nor rebuking the claim.

Throughout the film we hear snippets of Scelsi's atonal music, in which it is indeed sound itself that seems to count the most. He lets instruments timber and vibrate, looking for that one special quality – indefinable by words, of course – that can transport the listener to another, unknown place, as opposed to organising these sounds into compositions with harmony and melody. 

Giacinto Scelsi. The First Movement of the Immovable is a competently made documentary about a mystical figure whose character, which landed him in a psychiatric clinic at one point, was even more puzzling than his work. But frankly, what of his music we get to hear sounds like the minor works of Stravinsky and Webern.

The theory of sound and the ages-old idea that an artist is just a conduit for gods or muses are there - but the director does not expand on them much. The final sequence, in which an orchestra performs for the first time one of Scelsi's last pieces, only confirms that he is at best a footnote in music history - and this film, while it does shed light on a forgotten artist, seems to do so half-heartedly and will hardly help change the fact.

Giacinto Scelsi. The First Movement of the Immovable is a co-production by Italy's Ideacinema and France's Les Films de la Butte, with the participation of Radio France and ARTE.

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