Editor: Marc Bridle

Regional Editor:Bill Kenny


Webmaster: Len Mullenger





WWW MusicWeb

Search Music Web with FreeFind

Any Review or Article



Seen and Heard Festival Review


Xenakis – 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’ music?

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 jangle.

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 computer piece.

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.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff


Back to the Top     Back to the Index Page





Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)