– Architect in Sound: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, October 2005 (TJH)
There are only a handful of composers who can be relied
upon to pack out a concert hall all by themselves, whose appeal
is widespread enough to guarantee a crowd no matter what else
is on the programme. Mozart
is one, obviously; Beethoven and Tchaikovsky are too, and
Mahler increasingly so. But – even though it is a relatively small venue
– I cannot imagine that any of the organisers of last weekend’s
Iannis Xenakis mini-festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall foresaw
five sold-out concerts in a row.
“Returns only” is simply not a phrase one generally
associates with contemporary music.
So what is it about Xenakis that sets him apart from
other composers of his era?
Born in Romania in 1922 to Greek parents, he had already
had an enormously eventful life by the time he finally came
to music in 1954. As an architect, he had worked with the great
Le Corbusier, and it was this association that gave the festival
its subtitle, “Architect in Sound.”
His involvement with what he called ‘stochastic mathematics’,
but better known today as ‘chaos mathematics’, is equally
well-known. It is perhaps
the sense of ordered chaos this brought to his music that
so appeals to the modern ear: more than any other composer,
Xenakis marries the complexity of human thought with the complexity
of human life. Though on the surface his music may sound difficult
or overly-cerebral, it is hard not to be carried away by the
teeming multitude of interwoven ideas, the blunt and often
brutal dialectic, and the seemingly unflappable self-belief
behind it. As his biographer
Nouritza Matossian notes in her introduction to the lovingly
produced festival booklet, “he looked like a classical statue
of an athlete with an imperious eye and a striking face, smashed
on one side.” What better metaphor could there be for Xenakis’
A laudable endeavour, then, and the sales receipts must
have been heartening to the South Bank Centre: such brave
programming does not always pay off, though it is certainly
to be encouraged. Unfortunately, however, that programming did
display the odd lapse of judgement, with the result that the
composer was not always shown in the best possible light.
For an avant-garde composer, Xenakis was unusually
prolific, producing over 150 works from the 1950s until his
death in 2001; and like so many prolific composers, not all
of his oeuvre rewards repeated visitation. In particular, his work from the mid-1980s onwards
tended to be increasingly repetitive, with long, immovable
stretches of overbearing rhythms which lacked the imaginative
brilliance of his earlier music.
Unfortunately, these pieces were rather overrepresented
in the weekend’s line-up, meaning some of his greatest achievements
were sidelined in favour of inferior work.
The first piece in Friday night’s concert was a case
in point: Sea Nymphs (1994) was a relatively uninspired
setting of Ariel’s “Full fathom five” song from Shakespeare’s
The Tempest. The BBC Singers, with Stephen Betteridge conducting,
sang unaccompanied in a piece dominated by tightly-bound clusters
– a chorister’s nightmare – and featuring a text broken up
and redistributed as disassociated syllables around the 24-strong
choir. The singing was superlative, of course, but
the piece was compelling neither musically nor textually,
rendering Shakespeare’s vivid poem rather colourless.
In sharp contrast was Nuits (1967), again for
unaccompanied choir and again sung with great verve by the
BBC Singers. A freedom fighter for the Greek resistance in
his youth – whence he sustained the injuries that “smashed
his face on one side” – Xenakis nevertheless wrote very few
overtly political pieces, with Nuits standing out as
a notable exception. Dedicated
to “unknown political prisoners” and using only half the number
of singers as Sea Nymphs, Xenakis conjours a writhing,
unearthly mass of sound through the use of complex polyrhythms
and microtonal harmonies.
His vocal writing here was enormously inventive, ranging
from dense glissandi and swirling polyphony reminiscent of
Ligeti’s Requiem, to colouristic effects such as speaking,
shouting or whistling. At
the back of it all was a mournful, keening quality that placed
injustice and human suffering squarely at the work’s centre,
while simultaneously deploying ancient Persian and Sumerian
phonemes to dispel any hint of specificity. The BBC Singers more than did the piece justice,
and it came across as a powerful, universal lament from an
utterly unique composer.
But only one other piece really stood out on that first
evening. Shaar (1983),
from the Hebrew word for ‘gate’, was a tour de force for 60
string players, heroically crammed onto the tiny QEH stage.
The score – which stood about two feet tall on conductor Jan
van Steen’s music stand – contained separate parts for each
player in its busier moments, but the thrill of the work was
the way they operated as a single, gigantic instrument.
It was an instrument capable of sounds harsh, quirky
or ethereal, with every conceivable textural possibility contained
within the work’s 14-minute span, ranging from the unison
melody at the beginning to the 60-note chord at its end.
Divided into a series of distinct sections, it made
me think of a giant, constructivist ballet, to be danced by
giant, indomitable robots; it was to the orchestra’s and conductor’s
credit that none of them tripped up mid-pirouette.
Less engaging was Alax (1986), in which thirty
musicians were divided into three groups and placed around
the auditorium in an equilateral triangle – at least in theory.
In practice, however, the small size of the QEH proved
prohibitive and the ensembles were mostly indistinguishable
from one another, which did nothing to enliven the obsessive,
repetitive rhythms that bogged down the work’s midsection.
Although there were some memorable moments, including
a cataclysm at the end that was underpinned by a furiously
oscillating timpani glissando, the piece simply did not have
enough strong material to justify its 22-minute running time.
In contrast to the often monumental scale of these works,
Saturday evening’s concert featured at most five instrumentalists
– and as few as one. Like
Bach, Xenakis proved as skilful in writing complex polyphony
for a solo cello as for a sixty-strong orchestra.
In fact, Kottos (1977) for cello was the first
Xenakis piece I ever heard, back in the days when – as a music
school freshman – I would make pained facial contortions at
the merest hint of dissonance.
The noise with which Kottos begins, made by
dragging the bow heavily against the bridge of the instrument,
was the sort of thing that used to inspire heated arguments
about how music had lost its way since the turn of the 20th
Century. But it was
certainly memorable, and it was a small thrill to finally
hear it played live, years after that first, uncertain encounter
in a Composition tutorial. The performer was Rohan de Saram, cellist of
the rather inevitable Arditti Quartet, and it was the members
of this inimitable ensemble who shepherded us through the
evening’s long programme.
Unlike Friday’s patchwork of quality, Saturday’s concert
charted a steady trajectory from the uninspired to the indescribable.
Tetora (1990) was the composer’s third, final
and longest string quartet, but its appearance in the programme
here can only have been for the sake of completeness. This was as unremitting and unappealing a work
as Xenakis ever wrote, a 17-minute exercise in unchanging
textures and frequently harsh string tones.
By contrast, ST/4’s textures were in flux too
often to make much musical sense.
Composed from 1956-1962 with the help of an IBM 7090
computer, his first quartet (properly known by the catchy
title ST/4 – 1,080262) was a mathematically-configured
succession of glissandi, pizzicati, col legni and tremoli,
as abstract as you might expect any piece derived from a computer
print-out to be. Its surface textures were certainly more varied
than Tetora’s, but the limitations of this technique
were readily apparent, a fact Xenakis himself later acknowledged. Indeed, by the time he came to write his piano
quintet Akea in 1986, his approach was far more intuitive,
with mathematics used solely to work out the finer details. The quartet writing in this piece even had a
faintly diatonic edge, against which Nicolas Hodges’ piano
part provided atmosphere and textural contrast.
Although Xenakis once again resorted to the “non-octave
scales” and insistent rhythms so omnipresent in his later
music, it proved a far more satisfying piece, if still far
from his finest work.
Happily, though, the rather weak first half of this concert
was totally eclipsed by the second, which featured three works
by Xenakis at his most explosively extrovert.
With Dikhthas (1979) for violin and piano, Irvine
Arditti and Nicolas Hodges did fierce battle on a grand scale,
each presenting sharply contrasted material that coincided
only occasionally, coalescing nevertheless into a convincing,
and utterly thrilling whole.
Ikhoor (1978), on the other hand, was more singular
in intent, a string trio of disturbing intensity, replete
with pounding rhythms and shifting, microtonal harmonies.
But the highlight of the evening was Xenakis’ undoubted
chamber masterpiece, his second quartet Tetras (1983).
I last heard the Ardittis perform this spectacular
piece at the Wigmore Hall a few months ago, and it remains
a great showpiece for their unique qualities as an ensemble.
From the layered glissandi that begin the piece to
the squalling sirens at its climax, it is a work that seems
to explode with a hundred voices rather than just four. The Ardittis’ playing was even better this time
round, presenting a more coherent and well-played account
than they had at the Wigmore, and consequently provoking a
rapturous response from the audience.
The London Sinfonietta, with conductor Diego Masson,
were next to pay their respects, playing to yet another packed
house on Sunday night. Unfortunately,
their programme was once again marred by the inclusion of
so many of Xenakis’ lesser works, starting with 1988’s Waarg
– a piece whose most memorable feature was its title.
Scored for 13 instruments, it boasted an opening whose
obsession with a single sustained note and its microtonal
variants brought to mind the music of Scelsi. And although much of the instrumental colouration
was delicately balanced, even rather attractive in places,
the piece seemed to lack purpose.
Jalons (1986), for fifteen instruments, suffered
much the same problem, although in this case there was something
quite impressive about its unflinching monumentality.
But neither work had the character of A l’îsle de
Gorée, a concerto for amplified harpsichord and ensemble.
The piece, named for a slave-trading port off the coast
of Senegal, was written for the harpsichord virtuoso Elisabeth
Chojnacka, and she was on hand to play the difficult solo
part on Sunday. Relating
somehow to the victims of South African apartheid, the work
is another of Xenakis’ handful of ‘political’ works, but shares
with Nuits a certain intangibility that blurs any specific
message. The harpsichord
was dominant throughout – itself a novelty – and the piece
began and ended with same poignant phrase, the other instruments
adding resonance and commentary to the harpsichord’s skeletal
The second half was once again a mixed-bag, opening with
ST/10 (1956-62), a cousin to ST/4 but this time
featuring – as hinted by the title – an ensemble of ten.
As with ST/4, it felt very much of its time,
belonging to that era when computers seemed capable of solving
most of the world’s problems, including those of modern music.
In this case, it sounded very much as though the basic
elements of Xenakis’ style had been exploded, reconfigured
along “stochastic” lines, and then put back together in essentially
random order. The problem
was that they sounded no better in this order than they would
have in any other order, making the music itself rather anonymous,
a collection of gestures held together by no more than an
undetectable mathematical series. Rather than sounding like
a computer-aided Xenakis piece, it came across as a Xenakis-aided
But injecting a welcome dose of humanity into proceedings
were the last two works on the programme, Akanthos
and Eonta. In the former, from 1977, the textures were
enriched by a wordless soprano part, whose twists and turns
were fearlessly negotiated by Claire Booth.
Xenakis wrote for voice much as he wrote for any instrument,
exploiting extremes of register and incorporating all manner
of effects; but, despite the welcome respite of a quieter
overall dynamic, this did not stand out as a particularly
important work. Eonta
(1963), on the other hand, was not just important: it was
an earth-shattering, ear-shattering masterpiece.
Nicolas Hodges was once again on hand to tackle the
nightmarishly complex piano part, a part so elemental in its
ferocity that five barking brass instruments were unable to
contain it. Two trumpets
and three trombones moved from one end of the stage to another,
occasionally playing violent outbursts directly into the open
piano and releasing a flood of resonance; at other times,
the players – whose parts were almost as virtuosic as Hodges’
– walked around independently, like some kind of many-headed
hydra, the sound twisting in all directions.
But they were ultimately vanquished by the Herculean
efforts of Hodges’ protagonist, in a suitably grandiose battle
of mythological proportions. It was all Diego Masson could do to stop the
audience from wildly applauding in an ill-timed moment of
silence a few seconds from the end.
Mythology also lay at the heart of the last concert in
the series. (Another
concert, by the pianist Rolf Hind, was apparently very well-received,
but sadly not attended by this journal.)
A vast forty-five minute work for 8-track tape, La
Légende d’Eer (1977-78) told the story of Eer, a soldier
who fell in battle but was miraculously resurrected days later,
having glimpsed Hades in all its gruesome glory. The piece was originally composed as part of
a sound-and-light spectacular to be held in a curved pavilion
(called Le Diatope) that Xenakis himself designed for
the opening of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Utilising 1,680 lights, 400 mirrors and four laser-beams,
one can only imagine the visual component must have been more
impressive in its original conception than the rather half-hearted
attempt by Sound Intermedia at the QEH, which essentially
consisted of a series of red lights coming on and off. The tape itself made for a difficult listen,
bursting with overlapping layers of white noise at its climax
and offering little respite for the central half-hour.
But it was a cogent reminder that Xenakis’ influence
spread beyond the walls of the contemporary concert hall:
the audience for this final concert were mostly in their early
and mid-20s, their interest in Xenakis in no small part fuelled
by his deification by the exponents of so-called “electronica”.
I only saw one person get up to leave, during one of
the particularly ear-splitting moments; he returned a few
minutes later, presumably much relieved.
No composer was quite like Xenakis; in fact, such was
the singularity of his voice that it seems to have had few,
if any, precedents. Perhaps
this was because he was largely self-taught as a composer;
perhaps because he never quite fitted into the avant-garde
movement, whose fulmination in the 1950s mirrored his own
personal development but rarely influenced it.
In truth, Xenakis saw himself as heir to the traditions
of Ancient Greece, his music an extension of the mathematical
and architectural principles that so fascinated him.
If his true antecedents were Pythagoras, Fourier and
Le Corbusier, he will nevertheless remain a titanic figure
in the history of modern music, an inspiration to countless
generations of composers and listeners to come.