Tona Scherchen

Every so often one chances upon an older composer who, without being entirely forgotten, does seem to stand far off on the sidelines of contemporary musical awareness – by some fluke, given the obvious quality of the works. Such a composer is Tona Scherchen, of whose compositions there are relatively few recordings, while still less is available on the Internet. The two I have been able to find on Youtube – “Shen ()” and “Once Upon a Time” – I’ve assembled into a playlist, and should I happen to come across others, I will add them to it as appropriate.

The daughter of a Swiss conductor and a Chinese composer, Scherchen (from the information I have been able to gather, she resides in Paris) has been composing since the 1960s, and both the Western avant-⁠garde and the culture of China have obviously contributed much to the music she makes. But to set aside the musicology of influence and reference, one characteristic that’s striking about a work such as “Shen ()” is the sheer humour, whose provenance would seem to stem more from the popular environs of the circus – to name just one likely source – than from the middle-⁠ranges of opera (whether occidental or oriental), let alone from the precincts of the orchestral music that prides itself on its high seriousness. This is a music that resonates with the bustle and commotion of the common people in their cherished pleasures and pastimes, from which it’s unlikely – thank goodness – that any inducement or system will convince them to part.

On the page dedicated to the composer at Universal Edition there are a few audio excerpts from other of her works; while on one at the Institut national de l’audiovisuel website a recording of her piece “Vague T’ao” has been uploaded.

Tona Scherchen is a composer of whom and of whose works I for one should like to hear more, much more; perhaps at some point in the near future she will be rediscovered by or otherwise come into vogue amongst the music-⁠loving public throughout the world.