Total Immersion: Iannis Xenakis – 1

Xenakis
Okha
Rebonds A & B
Persephassa

Sankorfa [Michael Allen, Ruth Gomez & Scott Wilson (percussion)]

Catherine Ring (percussion)

Guildhall Percussion Ensemble [Gareth Buckland, Joley Cragg, Calie Hough, Louise Morgan, Pedro Segundo & Caz Wolfson]
Patrick Shine (click-track engineer)
Richard Benjafield


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 7 March, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

As the Barbican foyers were filled with a plurality of activity that would have not been out of place in an Arabian bazaar – complete with dressing-up, butterfly-making and much else as part of the “Do Something Different” weekend – it may have been rather incongruous to join the small, but effusive, audience in the Barbican Hall for the first of the two BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion: Iannis Xenakis concerts.

As it happened there were no BBC musicians involved at all. Instead percussionists from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama performed the 75-minute concert without interval. Each of the three pieces had separate performers, and the stage had been pre-set so there was minimum fuss (the re-siting of microphones for the yet-to-be-announced broadcast aside) between pieces. As a microcosm of Xenakis’s interest in percussion, rhythm and timbre this concert could not have been better.

With their three African djembés (but without the tall African drum listed in the programme) three-quarters of the percussion group Sankfora – now back at the Guildhall having been recently appointed ensemble-in-residence – essayed Xenakis’s study in shifting rhythm, Okho, from 1989, alert to every nuance of the different timbres that the untuned drums, whether struck (or simply patted) by palms or fingers, or with a beater. Such was the variety of sound that Okho doesn’t revel in creating a mesmeric effect, but rather your ears are attuned to every microscopic change in tempo and how that affects the overlapping of each of the players’ rhythms. And mighty impressive it was too.

Something about the collective vibe the Guildhall School creates in its percussion department could be gauged by the backstage cheers that propelled Catherine Ring onto the stage for her solo spot in Rebonds, completed the year before Okho. Here the performer has a choice which of the two parts to play first, and Ring chose strict alphabetical order, as a close read of Ivan Hewett’s programme-note eventually revealed (although a simple statement that A requires four beaters and B requires two sticks would have made it clear from the very beginning!).

With her array of seven drums (the sole battery in A) and five temple blocks (eventually appearing out of the drum textures of B), Ring – surely an apposite name for a percussionist, even when bells aren’t included – equalled the members of Sankfora in her commitment. The speed at which she turned to clatter up and down the temple blocks made her drumsticks blur!

From one percussionist to six, complete with click-track operator and conductor, for the final piece, Persephassa, composed in 1969 and first performed in the ancient ruins of Persepolis in then Persia (now Iran).

For over half the duration (that is for over quarter of an hour), the players, each with their separate stations, play only drums, until a temple bell is struck and the atmosphere changes, first with a variety of gongs and, then, with wooden instruments (including maracas), siren-like whistles and pebbles, struck together. Xenakis also created new instruments and used them here – the simantra bois (wood) and simantra metalle (steel rod), creating dense heavy sounds. I could only wonder at the skill of each participant in coming-together to form the whole, especially in the click-track-enabled rhythmic ‘sleights of ear’ as each player trod their own specific beat, where the music is created by the connections and disparities as the rhythms entwine and dissipate.

All in all, utterly exhilarating!

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