The London Sinfonietta opened their 2003/4 season with ‘Xenakis: Designer
in Sound’ - a tribute to that radical explorer and creator of sounds,
who died in 2001. With the Sinfonietta also celebrating the 20th
year of its education programme dedicated to bringing contemporary music
to a wider audience, 300 young pupils were invited to this concert as
part of their Xenakis Project.
The concert opened with Ohko,
for three djembes, the composer’s fifth and last major percussion piece.
The pulse and rhythm of West African drumming become transmogrified
into a conflict between time and space, through the varying degrees
of tension and density of sound, sometimes loud, sometimes soft. The
three players constitute a unified body of sound one moment and then
suddenly become conflicting forces, varying their attacks through intensity
of sound; even in the quietest moments the tension of the piece remains.
The playing itself had great magnetic intensity, invested with a kind
of raw, nervous animal sexuality. The three drummers acquitted themselves
Next came Something Rich and
Strange, a ten-minute film clip from film director Mark Kidel’s
50-minute documentary on the composer produced by the BBC in 1991. We
see images of Xenakis juxtaposed with rather kitsch Greek Tourist Board
images of goats and hillsides bathed in an aura of hazy light which
seemed to run counter to extracts of the composer’s music. With Echange
(1989) Xenakis moves away from the mathematical and architectonic –
his trade marks – to the more lyrical and organic. Here the soundworld
is one of violently contrasting textures with the woodwind sounding
like razor sharp knives cutting through the silky textures of the other
Eonta (1963) could well
be described as a choreographic poem for piano and brass. As a form
of musical promenade theatre the brass players move around the platform
as they play and on a couple of occasions they played into the piano
itself. Xenakis makes the brass play in a very intense, distorted manner,
taking their instruments to extremes in pitch, making extraordinary
sounds, often appearing as if they were in conversation with each other.
Some times, it seemed reminiscent of Giovanni Gabrieli and at others
more like crowds of shouting people.
In part two we had a second excerpt
from Kidel’s documentary Something Rich and Strange which focused
on the composer’s war years, with violent but beautiful imagery of anti-aircraft
search lights and gun fire and rioting students being fired upon by
Germans, all of which influenced his music. Xenakis also recalls how
he was wounded while attacking British tanks during the ‘liberation’
of Athens by the Allies, and how his brush with death led him to exile.
Here the imagery and music worked much better together than in the earlier
N’Shima (1975) - meaning
breath or exhalation – is taken from a parable by Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlaw
called The Emperor’s Daughter and the King’s Son (strikingly
similar to Romeo and Juliet). However, Xenakis did not render the text
literally and the two mezzo sopranos did not sing words but, as instructed,
produced earthy, animal-like sounds, grunting and groaning complementing
the more masculine sounding snarls and moans from the wailing horns.
However I felt that the textures the women produced seemed rather pallid,
with Linda Hirst especially having problems with articulation and projection.
Somehow the writing for the voices sounded contrived and just did not
come off, sounding far closer to Beckett’s theatre world. In the closing
passage, the solo ‘cello of Sally Pendlebury had an extraordinary grainy
quality, giving the sensation of a distant wind whirling round the female
The concert concluded with Thallein
(1984) - scored for sixteen instrumentalists - an exercise in the interweaving
of complex and multiple sound-space structures and multi-layered strata
and textures. Here it seemed as if the composer was using the spiralling
architecture of shells and landscapes translated into sounds. The constant
thuds from the piano seemed to serve as a skeletal structure about which
the strings glide, slide and whirl in imploding vortices.
Throughout the entire concert,
the conducting of Diego Masson was exemplary, a study in economy of
gesture and total command of a fiendishly difficult programme. However,
this inspired evening of musical theatre by the versatile London Sinfonietta
would have been more appropriate in The Union Chapel or the Round House
- the QEH acoustic was often too hard and dry for such intricate and
intense sounds to emerge unscathed.
This concert will be broadcast
on BBC Radio 3 in the near future.