Iannis Xenakis - Electroacoustic Works Music Album Reviews

Iannis Xenakis - Electroacoustic Works Music Album Reviews
The composer’s electronic music dates back to the 1950s yet still sounds radical today. This five-disc box set illustrates the spirit of possibility animating even his most forbidding pieces.

As a composer, Iannis Xenakis had a fraught relationship with emotion. Blame childhood trauma: His mother died when he was five, and the memories tied up with the Romani folk songs he heard as a boy were too much to bear. As an adult he would burst into tears upon hearing sentimental melodies, then begrudge his own response: “Music shouldn’t be listened to in this way,” he would admonish himself. He viewed such mawkish reactions as a response to “subjective coloring”: the frames of reference that alter music’s effect on each person, be it their cultural upbringing or the century in which they lived. He wanted timelessness, universality. “Something that remains in the past,” he once declared, “is dead.”

For the late Greek-French artist, the beauty he sought in art couldn’t be attained via religion, emotion, nor tradition. His path to understanding this was arduous. After his mother’s death, he was sent to boarding school on the Greek island Spetses. He was miserable, bullied by classmates and considered stupid, so in his loneliness he turned to books, learning about astronomy. At 16 he moved to Athens for bigger dreams, eager to attend the Polytechnic School. He loved math and physics so prepared for the entrance exam, but also studied harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration under the composer Aristotle Koundourov; these ostensibly disparate fields were always of simultaneous interest. Xenakis’ innovative compositions, ranging from chamber works to computer music, would be based on game theory, apply stochastic processes, and look to inspiration from concepts such as the kinetic molecular theory.

The day Xenakis learned of his passing test result, the university closed: Italian forces had invaded the country, prompting him to join the Greek Resistance in 1941 and then the Communist Party. While he obtained a civil engineering degree in 1947, he could no longer stay in Greece—his country’s government was sending Communists to concentration camps. The ideals Xenakis fought for had been, in his words, “senselessly, hopelessly defeated.” He relocated to France, but doing so became a tremendous source of guilt—some of his friends who stayed behind were imprisoned, and others died—and felt an excruciating need to do something important with his life. He could never be content with heartstring-tugging ditties; at the very least, his music needed to capture the entire sweep of the cosmos.

Listening to the five-disc box set Electroacoustic Works, it’s clear that Xenakis succeeded. These 13 compositions date from between 1957 and 1994 but could easily shock audiences today—their sonorities are strange for the unacquainted and immensely energized compared to similar works today. (There are discrepancies in the dating of Xenakis’ pieces; Bandcamp and the compilation’s liner notes offer competing years. The dates in this review come from Conversations with Iannis Xenakis, by Bálint András Varga.) Xenakis wasn’t interested in mere provocation, though; he wanted a listener to “los[e] his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous, and perfect.” In other words: ekstasis. Take Orient-Occident (1960), a two-channel tape-music piece that soundtracked Enrico Fulchignoni’s short film of the same name. As sonic accompaniment, the work is diluted by the images and voiceover, but heard alone, its intensity is palpable. Fulchignoni’s project compared art from different countries and centuries; Xenakis’ piece makes more elusive connections. There are meditative drones and bowed strings, animal roars and percussive bursts, all manipulated in nuanced fashion. Despite its straightforward structure, Orient-Occident uses juxtapositions to help these sounds transcend specific cultures and eras; every noise extends beyond easy representation, and invites listeners to dig deeper.

In France, Xenakis found a job at Le Corbusier’s architecture studio, working his way from computation to advising to design. All his free time, though, was devoted to music. His first masterpiece came with Metastasis (1953-1954), an orchestral work for 61 players. Though not included on Electroacoustic Works, for obvious reasons, it’s a crucial inflection point in Xenakis’ career, as it inspired his contributions to the Philips Pavilion; Xenakis saw a relationship between the composition’s striking glissandi and the building’s hyperbolic-paraboloid shells. Xenakis had been motivated; he found a way to bridge art and science at an impressively large scale. Now, he had the experience and vision to pursue what he called polytopes—site-specific multimedia works that utilized light, sound, and architecture.

One such example took place in the ruins of Mycenae, a Bronze Age acropolis. Mycenae Alpha (1978), the audio component for the presentation, has the ferocity of a power saw piercing your skull, though it occasionally rests on silence and simpler tones. Its most breathtaking moment is subtle: After six minutes of whirlwinding noise, electronic blips arrive and nearly vaporize, their ascending melody dragging you into the ether. The audio was the first of his completely digital pieces, produced by a computer music system he devised called Unité Polyagogique Informatique CEMAMu (UPIC). It requires an electromagnetic ballpoint pen for drawing compositions onto a tablet, the shapes then translated into digital waveforms. In the score, those escalating notes look like a plain curved line; the conversion from graphic notation to sound is an uncanny marvel.

Regarding his orchestral work, Xenakis described brass and string sections as being “controlled like clouds” or herded like animals, and UPIC was another way for Xenakis to take command of his materials. This was, after all, the same person who stated, “This is my definition of an artist, or of a man: to control.” With lights and ritualistic performances, his Mycenae polytope featured reenactments of Greek mythology. Xenakis had felt he was born two millennia too late, but he knew that music and the natural sciences—for him, the links between past and present—were worthy of lifelong devotion. As such, this installation served as a meditation on his own understanding of Greece. Xenakis hadn’t been back to the country in decades, so here was a recollection of his experiences there: constant unrest and catastrophic violence.

The war’s most consequential impact on Xenakis happened in 1945: The shell of a British M4 Sherman tank left his left eye blinded, his cheekbone destroyed, and his hearing irreparably damaged. “I don’t live in reality,” he explained years later. “Because of my weakened senses I can’t immediately grasp the surrounding world.” One can imagine his larger works as being self-created worlds unto themselves, the kind that could transport Xenakis into a zone of heightened perception. Persepolis (1971) is a 55-minute, 8-track tape-music piece that was part of a massive polytope involving laser beams, 59 loudspeakers, and groups of children carrying torches. The music is incredibly dense: There are clarinets and timpani rolls, ceramic windchimes and string harmonics. It’s monolithic and inescapable, channeling the apocalyptic terror of a locust swarm—even the composition’s initial moments sound like petrified screeching. One can acclimate to the noise, but its rapturous churn maintains an atmosphere of forlorn dread, like trudging aimlessly through a dust storm.

Xenakis followed Persepolis with a polytope in Paris, a city where many young people considered him a lodestar. Restive French students had previously invoked his name in demonstrations, declaring “Xenakis not Gounod”—a reference to Charles Gounod, a 19th century French composer whose influential works, such as his Faust and Roméo et Juliette operas, they deemed hopelessly fusty. Xenakis’ concerts would sell out and zealous fans would defy security guards to witness his radical art, one they felt channeled a welcome freedom from tradition and nationalism; to them, his work telegraphed crises ensnaring the entire world. Polytope de Cluny (1972), more sparse than Persepolis but equally as charged, was housed in the historical thermal baths of its namesake. Xenakis used lasers and flashbulbs, but also 400 mirrors whose changing orientations could allow for evocative interplay between the densities of each aural and visual element. The 8-track tape contained seven tracks with music and one with 43,200,000 binary commands to control his different tools. Just as lasers, largely associated with weaponry at the time, held new meaning and form in this polytope and ancient site, Cluny’s abrasive strings and whimsical mbira felt strangely alien.

The most awe-inspiring composition on Electroacoustic Works is La Légende d’Eer (1977), a 46-minute epic whose title draws from Plato’s Republic. It begins with an alternation of high-pitched tones and silence, the former dotting the piece in a delightfully speckled array. As it progresses, it offers a suggestion of the universe being birthed, with electronics circling the listener and expanding outwards. Much credit should be given to sound engineer Martin Wurmnest and mastering engineer Rashad Becker, whose work across the box set, and especially on this track, captures crucial dynamic range surpassing that of older editions—one senses real gravitational pull here. There are incredible bursts of noise and bubbles of synthesized murk, and the atmosphere Xenakis conjures is glorious. Xenakis, who “found God” at 13 but was a staunch atheist later on, once said that art could “lead to realms that religion still occupies for some people.” If there’s any track in his oeuvre that’ll convert non-believers, it’s La Légende d’Eer.

It’s humbling to hear Electroacoustic Music because Xenakis’ music is never about simple novelty; these pieces instill hope in unimagined possibility. Such arresting inventiveness is there in his earliest tape-music experiments: Diamorphoses (1957) crafts haunted soundscapes out of trains, a jet engine, and an earthquake, whereas Concret PH (1958) transforms smoldering charcoal into playful, metallic plinks. Even his later electroacoustic pieces show no signs of complacency: The UPIC composition Voyage absolu des Unari vers Andromède (1989) has one passage that sounds like hazy, crackled techno, while Gendy 3 (1991) and S.709 (1994) are the strikingly different products of dynamic stochastic synthesis. Whatever Xenakis was attempting, it was out of insatiable desire for the next step, the highest possible height. When asked if he felt closeness to his past art, he responded, “I try to avoid any strong emotional ties with older works because I need to concentrate all my energies on the one being written.” He added, “Otherwise I’d be imitating myself.” Xenakis didn’t allow himself to be stuck in the past—neither his artistic triumphs nor his many tragedies. That’s why, even decades after his death, his music lives on.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Iannis Xenakis - Electroacoustic Works Music Album Reviews Iannis Xenakis - Electroacoustic Works Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on February 16, 2022 Rating: 5


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