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Iannis Xenakis - Total Immersion  

Mark Kidel: film Something Rich and Strange

Okho; Rebonds; Persephassa
Catherine Ring solo percussion
Guildhall Percussion Ensemble/Richard Benjafield director

Tracees; Sea Nymphs; Mists; nuits; Troorkh; Antikhthon
BBC Symphony Orchestra & BBC Singers
Martin Brabbins & Stephen Betteridge conductors
Christian Lindberg trombone
Rolf Hind piano

The Barbican, London, 7 February 2009


Of the three Total Immersion Days at the Barbican this year, this was both the most demanding and the most satisfying, because it meant “thinking outside the box”; architecture people connecting to music, music people connecting to architecture. 

It connected with the on-going Le Corbusier exhibitions at the Barbican and RIBA. Xenakis didn’t give up architecture for music. Both architecture and music were, for him, different aspects of creative expression. Just as architecture is a way of enclosing space, music is a way of ordering sound.  


Xenakis Day began with Mark Kidel’s film Something Rich and Strange. It was made in 1991, and Xenakis himself features. As in all good film, some of the most revealing moments are impromptu. Xenakis and his wife visit his old school. She’s thrilled. Until that time, Xenakis had been a political exile : Greece was a part of his life she’d not known. He’s more sanguine. “It’s all in the past”, he says. He was pragmatic, a man who sought solutions.


Hence Anastenaria, from 1953, when Xenakis was still working full time with Le Corbusier. The first part, Procession aux eaux claires refers to ancient Thracian mysteries. The male voices represent the Anasthenarides, priests, who lead the populace to sacred waters. The music evokes chant but made abstract, angular layers of sound building up to density. The second part, Sacrifice, employs slow glissandi which will become one of the composer’s trademark. 


But it’s the third section, Metastaseis, where the interface with architecture is most apparent. This was the piece which made Xenakis’s reputation. It was used to “introduce” audiences to Varèse’s Poème Électronique as they entered the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.  The Pavilion went even beyond Le Corbusier’s ideas about free form buildings. It was conceived as a unit of three surfaces, curved, rather than flat, which enclosed the space within in a womb-like embrace. Xenakis was less poetic, describing the concept as “cow’s stomachs”. The surfaces weren’t even solid but composed of small panels individually pieced together. What shocking sci-fi it must have seemed to people used to buildings as rectangular boxes !    


And so Metastaseis grows from simple sustained pitch, from straight line to curve, long arcing glissando stretching and bending, like the planes of the Philips Pavilion.


It’s a relatively straightforward miniature, though, so Tracées, from 1987, opened the evening concert where Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Tracées employs ninety-five musicians, yet is tightly constructed.  Brabbins understands why, conducting with discipline. Here, the woodwinds imitate glissandi, although they aren’t designed for such things. Without good performers of this calibre, these sections would collapse into mush. Congratulations are due to the musicians involved – this took expertise and Brabbins let them do it without fuss. 


In the Marc Kindel film, Xenakis stands in his old school and recites from memory, apparently spontaneously, Ariel’s song from The Tempest, “Full fathom five, thy father lies….”. Perhaps he had been meditating on the poem, for he set it in 1994 for the BBC Singers as Sea-Nymphs. They’ve performed this often, and with Stephen Betteridge conducting it was nicely polished.  Less polish, though, would have been preferable in Nuits, which Xenakis dedicated to political prisoners from antiquity to the present. It’s a horrific protest, written from personal experience. The words are tortured like the prisoners are, yet when they can, fragments leap out like vocal glissandi, before subsiding into the complex polyphony, intensified by non verbal sounds like whistles and low hums. Exaudi, which has performed Nuits several times in the past few years, has a more acute feel for the tense anguish of the piece.


It was good to separate Sea Nymphs from Nuits with Mists for solo piano, for it made a bracing interlude, throwing the different techniques into high relief.  In the programme notes, Ivan Hewitt describes the mathematical theories behind the work. I can’t explain them nearly so well, but simply enjoyed the clean, uncluttered lines and clusters of notes which Rolf Hind played with rapid-fire tempi.


In Troorkh, Xenakis explores “extreme glissando”.  Hewitt’s notes describe it so well that they’re worth quoting. Xenakis, he says “treats the trombone as a kind of superhuman Homeric bard, recounting some tempestuous tale in wordless song”. The technical and physical demands are such that even Christian Lindberg, for whose skills the piece was written, collapses visibly from exertion after each of the two most demanding passages.  It is an elegaic piece, as expressive as Greek tragedy. Lindberg's instrument (only one trombone !) is supported by a group of brass, written with character. The trombones in the orchestra, who cannot possibly hope to match the virtuosity of the solo part, respond in simpler mode. The tuba part is expressive : it can’t match the trombone’s stretching slides, but its tone is darker and profound.


Antikhthon again demands a huge orchestra. One of its characteristics is a long, shrill chord, like an air raid siren, or perhaps the drone of an aircraft taking off. It doesn’t matter, the effect is eerie, menacing, out of this world. If the chord is mega-glissando, it’s balanced with clouds of densely layered pointillist sound. There’s so much disparate activity it’s hard to make  individuals out clearly, like finding a single insect in a swarm of locusts. Pithoprakta springs to mind. Like the multiple panels on the planes of the Philips Pavilion, the different units function together. Sometimes the cloud clears, to reveal details, like the first violin (Andrew Haveron) tapping staccato on wood, before the orchestra wells up again. Brabbins’s strategy of keeping textures clean and clear paid off well. Like good architecture, an elegant structure doesn’t need fussy curlicues.

This was a magnificent concert, and would be quite an event at the Proms. Like the South Bank Xenakis series some years ago, audience numbers were healthy. Total Immersion Days aren’t just about blockbusters, though. Not all Xenakis is mind bendingly difficult.


Earlier in the day there was a special Guildhall School of Music & Drama concert of Xenakis’s works for percussion ensemble. It was good to hear these musicians and these pieces because they reveal how Xenakis’s more elaborate works grew from “simple”, direct roots. Sanforta, a versatile ex-GSMD specialist percussion ensemble, played Okho for three djembas. In Africa, these drums really can “speak” as they’re played with much improvisation. Notated music is never going to be quite so fluid. Catherine Ring, still in her final year at the Guildhall, plans a dual career as both pianist and percussionist. She impressed greatly as soloist in Rebonds, cheered along by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble who then gave a spectacular performance of Persephassa.


Anne Ozorio  


R3 broadcast 10 March 2009    


Photo: Xenakis lecturing 1985