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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL CONCERT REVIEW
Xenakis : Pléïades (1979)
Xenakis : Persephassa (1969)
Les Percussions de Strasbourg
Jean-Paul Bernard, Artistic Director
It's not every day that you encounter a new instrument in the concert hall, but in their tribute to Iannis Xenakis at the Tully Scope Festival, Les Percussions de Strasbourg introduced many of us to the "six-xen," used in "Métaux," the first section of Pléïades. At first I couldn't quite see what was making the unusual sound—a metallic hybrid of small cowbells, crossed with the behemoth you might find in a church bell tower, but the instrument is laid out like a keyboard, played with sticks. The stage had a front row of mallet instruments (for "Claviers"), a middle row of six-xen's, and a back rank of various types of drums (for "Peaux"). The first section, "Mélanges," uses all of these.
Pléïades is all about rhythm and repetition, and the complex patterns that result when the same sequence is played at different tempos. Although listeners will be reminded of both Balinese gamelan and of some of the works of Steve Reich, the sonorities Xenakis elicits are denser, throbbing with complexity. The Strasbourg musicians gave the work its premiere, and their collaborative spirit was as entertaining as the music they produced. Intricate choreography meant one player would run forward to turn the page for another, or dart back to pick up a musical line on a completely different instrument. Yes, there's a recording, but it's an entirely different experience to watch these virtuosos in person.
For Persephassa, the group returned to the surround-sound layout used for the previous night's performance of Gérard Grisey's Le noir de l'étoile. Like Grisey's cosmic masterwork, Xenakis plays with space, and how the mind perceives sounds traveling around the room and vaulting across it. From an opening of spare drum strokes, the dialogue escalates into a shower of bells, chimes, wood blocks, maracas, rattles, slide whistles, thunder sheets, cymbals and gongs, completely immersing the audience in walls of sound—yet filled with rich detail, thanks to this sextet's brilliance. (At one point during the climactic uproar, I had to cough, yet the normally audible distraction was drowned out entirely.)
One more ironic factoid is worth mentioning: Although Xenakis was also known for his efforts bringing freedom to Greece, this piece—his first for percussion—was commissioned by the Shah of Iran.