Southbank Centre’s Ether – Iannis Xenakis

La légende d’Eer

Rolf Hind (piano)

Tim Gill (cello)

Sound Intermedia

London Sinfonietta
André de Ridder

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 2 April, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Iannis Xenakis in his studio in Paris, c1970. Photograph: Michèle DanielFew figures from the mid-century heyday of the European avant-garde fulfilled the image of the composer-as-scientist as did Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), the Greek architect and musician. Xenakis’s duel fixation on engineering and composition produced buildings of previously unseen fluidity and music constructed with formulae and computer programs. This model of composers engaged in a kind of scientific discovery seems curiously quaint now and perhaps the overbearing severity of the 50-minute tape piece La légende d’Eer, which ended this concert, renders it a relic of this largely redundant era. But, as at least two works in this line-up confirmed, Xenakis’s music has endured where others have faded. At its best, Xenakis’s musical imagination produced staggering and gripping adventures in sound which transcend the sterility of his methods.

Falling under the umbrella of the Southbank Centre’s eclectic Ether festival, this concert, given by the London Sinfonietta, also coincided with the weekend-long Iannis Xenakis International Conference. The works presented covered a 15-year period, during which Xenakis’s music was most concerned with stochastic theory, which introduced calculations of probability into the compositional process. Eonta (1963), for piano and five brass instruments, begins with a superficially chaotic (though in fact totally logical) cascade of notes for the piano, devised by Xenakis with an IBM computer and a host of calculations. But the human element in Xenakis’s process was always his own ultimate distinction between interesting results and uninteresting ones and Eonta is certainly the former. The piano’s fierce ramblings disrupt the initial unity of the brass ensemble, infecting its music with seemingly random figurations, but finally the piano is silent and the brasses retreat, once more united. The players move around the stage, twice congregating around the piano to blow their instruments into its sound-box and also walking aimlessly around the platform. Above all, the music demonstrates that, for Xenakis, the stochastic process was only a means to an end: Eonta displays an attention to timbre and a dramatic flair not calculable.

In Kottos (1977) Xenakis mines a wealth of alternative techniques for the cello. Tim Gill gave a mesmerising performance of this athletic score, rarely producing the clear, pitched and beautiful sounds which a classical musician is trained to strive for. Xenakis asks the cellist to grind out pitch-less noise and to skate around conventional notions of tuning, often carrying on a taxing polyphonic dialogue. It could so easily be a dutiful compendium of noises, but Xenakis’s flair for theatricality holds the attention and the final sound is a light glissando high on the cello’s lower strings, as though all that has been must evaporate into nothing.

Phlegra (1975), for a mixed ensemble, demonstrates another of Xenakis’s structural principles. Strands of melody branch out and move around the ensemble and engage in battles redolent of the conflict between the mythological Titans and the Olympian gods. The progress of these strands is clear on a first hearing, as is the way in which they are altered as they pass between instruments, but it lacks the intensity or concern with contrast so central to Eonta and Kottos. Each of these works received outstanding performances from the London Sinfonietta in its various configurations.

It was to an empty stage that the audience returned after the interval, with only the members of Sound Intermedia remaining at their desks in the centre of the auditorium. Xenakis’s electro-acoustic La légende d’Eer was soon working the QEH’s sound-system hard, through presumably to an audience less perplexed by its aggressive weirdness than that to which it played as an instillation at Paris’s Pompidou Centre in 1977. Then, it was accompanied by a laser display; we only got a vacant platform to consider for little short of an hour. Xenakis’s slowly transforming parade of almost-liquid sound is a virtuoso display of tape splicing, but it’s an unsatisfying concert experience, particularly with nothing to look at, and rather than being cumulatively powerful, the oppressive violence of it pumped out at full volume is quickly desensitising. It’s hard to blame Xenakis for this, though, who envisaged a quite different setting for this massive work.

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