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Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001)
Pléïades (1978-79) 1. Claviers, 2. Peaux, 3. Métaux, 4. Mélanges
rec. 2018, Schweizer Radio SRF, Studio 1, Zürich GENUINGEN19633 [48:24]
Many years ago, I borrowed a boxed set (LPs) of Iannis Xenakis’s music from the York Public Library. I think (but cannot be certain) that is was Erato STU 70526/30. I really believed that I was at the cutting edge of the avant-garde. I recall little about this album save two things: I did not like the music, and I failed to begin to understand the liner notes written by the composer himself. Since that time (circa 1978) I have listened to precious few of Xenakis’s scores save where they may have appeared in a radio programme or a Proms performance. And to my surprise, despite this minimal exposure, I have become a little bit of a fan of his music. I note that I have not had the opportunity to listen to any other recording of Pléïades.
A few words about the composer to put him into context. Iannis Xenakis was born in Romania to Greek parents. After the Second World War, he took French citizenship. Music was not his only achievement. Xenakis gained a degree in Engineering and went on to have a successful career as an architect. He assisted Le Corbusier on several important projects: this included the design of the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World Exposition in 1958. Musical studies continued in Paris with Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Olivier Messiaen. Much of Xenakis’s music is surrounded by the complex theoretical imaginings that I found so impenetrable all those years ago. This embraces ideas about ‘clouds’ and ‘galaxies’ of events in sound, leading to his ‘Stochastic Music’ (based on the laws of probability) and difficult mathematic formulae in his ‘Symbolic Music.’ He has used computers to devise the theoretical structure of several pieces. Some of these theories have ‘come across’ from his work in architecture. In many cases the ‘details’ of Xenakis’s music are less-important than ‘the large-scale effect.’
Pléïades was composed during 1978-9. It was commissioned by the Opéra National du Rhin for performance by Les Six Percussions de Strasbourg, so, naturally it is written for six percussionists. The work is conceived in four movements, which (I understand) can be ordered in several different ways. At more than 45 minutes, it must be one of the longest works for this type ensemble.
The title Pléïades is deliberately ambiguous. The most obvious allusion is to the wonderful star-cluster located in the constellation of Taurus. This is also known as the Seven Sisters and embraces the mythological allusion to the Seven Daughters of the Titan Atlas who were turned into stars. The term can also be to describe a notable group of things or people, most especially if there are seven of them. I understand that it is a term sometimes used in chemistry.
Each of the four movements demands a different type of percussion. The opening ‘Claviers’ is written for instruments with defined sounds which include vibraphones, marimba, xylophone and xylorimba (a hybrid device). One each is requited for each player. ‘Peaux’ features instruments with skins, such as tom-toms, bongos and drums. The third movement, ‘Métaux’, calls for each of the instrumentalists to play on the SIXXEN. This was devised by the composer and consists of nineteen metal plates of varying pitches - they are not tuned to any diatonic or chromatic scale. In fact, all six Sixxen are tuned slightly differently to avoid any possibility of a ‘unison’ by error! The name derives from a combination of SIX [musicians] and XEN [akis]. The ‘Sixxen’ used in this recorded varies from that at the première: the liner notes suggest that they are softer and more bell-like and have a longer lasting chime. Certainly, they create an enchanted effect. In the final ‘Mélanges’ all the instruments are required. This results in a ‘mixture’ of sound that is both exhilarating and multi-faceted. The entire piece is a journey in sound, that is as enjoyable, as it is absorbing.
I was a little disappointed in the short length of this CD: was it not possible to find another work to sit alongside Pléïades? The liner notes are excellent and manage to present information about this complex work in a succinct and understandable form. There are notes about the composer, the performers and the ‘new’ Sixxen. The recording is superb and allows the listener to hear the myriad of detail presented in this score.
I worried that I would have got bored with this piece. That was a misjudgement: I was absorbed for virtually every bar. The performance of this 45-minute work is well-able to cast an ‘hypnotic spell’ on the listener. It is exemplified by the vigour and obvious self-control by the players in what is a hugely complex musical project. In Pléïades, we can travel with the composer into the farthest reaches of the galaxy. We do not really need to worry about his prolix theorising, but just sit or lie back and enjoy the music.