Feature Review – Xenakis: Architect in Sound

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Friday 7 October-Sunday 9 October 2005

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, London

Although he died over four years ago, and his output had concluded with the ominously-titled O-Mega three years earlier, the music of Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) has been little heard in the UK over the last decade, making this South Bank retrospective the more timely. Bringing together a number of his
most significant works, several given by performers associated with Xenakis during his lifetime, it offered a representative overview of his musical strengths to what were gratifyingly large audiences.

7 October, Queen Elizabeth Hall


Sea Nymphs*; Nuits*; Shaar; Alax




Canticum sacrum

John Bowley (tenor); Stuart MacIntyre (baritone); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra

Jac van Steen

Stephen Betteridge*

The opening concert featured choral and orchestral works, the former a significant but under-explored genre from which the pieces included here could not have been more contrasted. “Sea Nymphs” (1994) is an evocative rendering – hardly a setting – of Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five” which submerges the text in translucent harmonic clusters, and out of which arises a potent musical onomatopoeia. “Nuits” (1967) is not a text so much as an assembly of verbal expressions which together ‘give voice’ to the concept of imprisonment – by turns torturous and cathartic, as befits music commemorating those who ‘disappeared’ under the aegis of totalitarianism. The BBC Singers duly gave their collective all.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra contributed two major scores from the mid-1980s. Unlike others of his contemporaries in the avant-garde, Xenakis had no qualms as to the viability of writing for strings in the post-war era (hence Metastasis (1954), his first published work). Shaar (1983) gives free rein to the antagonisms thrown up by the string orchestra, whether as a single mass or in solo and ensemble formations. Graphically descriptive the contrasting textural blocks may seem, but the precision with which every cluster and glissando is notated was audibly apparent in a performance as well-realised as this (though rough-edged but visceral accounts given two decades ago by Jerzy Maksymiuk and the BBC Scottish Symphony still resonate in the memory).

Alax (1985) marks a late return to the spatial distribution of the orchestra, here divided into three groups of ten players set at equal angles to each other. An eventful piece, though the central span is preoccupied with chord formations that fail to generate
a greater momentum – robbing the music of real expressive pungency in the ‘exchanges’ of its title.

A finely-shaped performance, even so, under Jac van Steen – making up for a rather lacklustre and poorly-balanced account of Varèse’s Intégrales in the first half. There was also a slightly tepid quality to Stravinsky’s “Canticum sacrum” which ended the evening. Neither its hieratic, Mussorgskian quality nor Webernian precision were much in evidence, though assured contributions from John Bowley and Stuart MacIntyre injected a notably human expression into this starkest of Stravinsky’s sacred works.

8 October, Purcell Room


Mists; Evryali




Palais de mari

Rolf Hind (piano)

Saturday afternoon brought an hour-long recital from Rolf Hind, thoughtfully arranged so the Xenakis pieces at either end were the more contrasted with each other and with what came in between. Mists (1981) utilises the ‘arborescences’ principle informing Xenakis’s music from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (Xenakis’s richest period in terms of the intrinsic quality and innate variety of his compositions), and pursues a complex formal trajectory which Hind was evidently at pains to articulate. He was similarly impressive in the hammered repetition and brazen sonority of Evryali (1973) – a propulsive toccata whose ‘maximalist’ take on Minimalism still scintillates with all the qualities of a latter-day classic.

Hind could perhaps have brought those elements comprising the deceptively collage-like construction of Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ into a more coherent overall alignment, though there was no doubting his definition of its individual episodes. And the sensitivity of touch in Morton Feldman’s Palais de mari was such as to effortlessly sustain attention over its 25 minutes of incremental repetition: outwardly – a very different proposition from the Xenakis pieces, but equally uncompromising in its searing quietude.

8 October, Queen Elizabeth Hall


Tetora; ST/4; Kottos; Akea; Dikhthas; Ikhoor; Tetras

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Arditti Quartet [Irvine Arditti & Ashot Sarkissjan (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Rohan de Saram (cello)]

Saturday evening’s chamber concert featured the redoubtable Arditti Quartet in a programme that, in part, demonstrated Xenakis’s revitalising of what might seem essentially nineteenth-century media. Thus the ‘piano quintet’ gets a bracing overhaul in Akea (1986), with piano and strings engaging in a headlong but surprisingly deft dialogue which finds its not overly tranquil resting-point in a subdued coda. Nicolas Hodges’s quick-fire interplay was a constant delight, and he went some way to infusing the often angular rhetoric of Dikhthas (1979) with a modicum of subtlety – which is not to decry the commitment of Irvine Arditti in a piece he has long made his own. More convincing is the way in which Xenakis rethinks the difficult string trio line-up in Ikhoor (1978), so that each instrument becomes an interdependent layer of a genuine three-way discourse – one simmering and explosive by turns.

Otherwise, the concert provided a welcome chance for Rohan de Saram to exercise his authority in Kottas (1977), whose compendious technical demands have made it a contemporary cello ‘showpiece’ bar none, and a welcome opportunity to hear Xenakis’s three major works for string quartet – which in themselves are a compact overview of his musical evolution. The partially computer-derived content of ST/4 (1962) is a brilliant mosaic of sonic happenings, which yet lack underlying inevitability in their continuity, and a cumulative intensity in their progress. Conversely, the sustained chordal linearity (!) of Tetora (1990) freezes not only the quartet’s dynamic movement, but also its expressive gestures into a static and somehow futile polyphony. By contrast, Tetras (1983) remains one of Xenakis’s most vital statements in any medium. Few composers can have so painstakingly calculated randomness so that it not only makes sense, but does so with such lack of inhibition – resulting in a piece which entertains as surely as it rivets the attention, especially when played with the dedication of the Arditti Quartet.

9 October, Queen Elizabeth Hall


Waarg; A l’île de Gorée; Jalons; ST/10; Akanthos; Eonta

Claire Booth (soprano)

Elisabeth Chojnacka (harpsichord)

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

London Sinfonietta

Diego Masson

Sunday featured the London Sinfonietta in a varied miscellany that surveyed the sheer range of Xenakis’s music. The third and also least impressive of his three commissions from the Sinfonietta, Waarg (1988) is a stretch of abstraction whose almost thematically-conceived strands promise more in the way of cumulative resolution than they provide. Much more involving is A l’île de Gorée (1986), mirroring the heroism of liberated African slaves in music whose translucency is an ideal context for the subtly attenuated harpsichord part – given with grace and agility by Elisabeth Chojnacka – capped by a solo postlude which crystallises the inward intensity of the piece. Rougher in texture and manner, Jalons (1986) is Xenakis’s one commission from the Ensemble Intercontemporain – a fact that might explain it as being the most Varèse-ian of any of the composer’s mature works.

After the interval, another of the computer-assisted works in which Xenakis re-focussed his music at the turn of the 1960s. ST/10 (1962) is the most immediately diverting of these, its aural outlining of geometric planes and volumes engaging in a rather laconic way – at least until the lunging gestures of the final minute. Very different is Akanthos (1977) – one of several works that incorporates an element of vocalise into the musical fabric, and in which Claire Booth’s elegant timbre seemed almost a misjudgement, neither pointing up nor integrating into the overall timbre of what is among Xenakis’s more understated scores.

A description hardly applicable to Eonta (1963), the most infamous of his earlier works and which made a suitably explosive impact here. With Nicolas Hodges in control of what one might term the ‘transcendental continuo’ of the piano part, trios of trumpets and trombones were left to stalk the platform in a ritualistic choreography as visually arresting as it was sonically visceral. It ensured that this most wide-ranging of the concerts ended on a resounding high.

9 October, Queen Elizabeth Hall


La légende d’Eer

Sound Intermedia [Ian Dearden & David Sheppard]

To round off the weekend, Xenakis’s most impressive electro-acoustic piece – La légende d’Eer (1978). Although created for two different diatopes (created sound spaces) at Bochum and Paris, this is electronic music able to withstand close scrutiny in any environment. This traversal, expertly prepared for the QEH acoustic by Sound Intermedia, featured a lighting component that complemented the sound without impeding its progress – enabling it to convey its proper impact. The legend in question – of the Ancient Greek soldier Eer, and his twelve-day sojourn on the ‘other side’ before his miraculous return to life – clearly excited Xenakis’s aural imagination so that the seven parallel layers of sound evolve in a continuous structure of Classical proportion – atmospheric and pulverising by turns. Few electronic works can match this in ambition: a tribute to Xenakis’s belief in the medium such that it transcends the essence of the legend that inspired it.

The weekend also included a round-table discussion between the concerts on Saturday – and, on Sunday afternoon, a showing of Mark Kidel’s documentary on the life and (or should that be ‘in’?) music of Xenakis, featuring some memorable footage of the composer on one of the periodic visits he made later in life to Greece. Prior to the showing, Kidel explained that it would be near-impossible to secure the funding to make such a film today. By the same token, it would be a tragedy were retrospectives such as this weekend no longer to take place – though, given the evident impact that Xenakis’s music had on the consistently large and enthusiastic audiences, this seems rather less likely to happen.

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