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London Sinfonietta: Xenakis – Architect of Sound, London Sinfonietta and André de Ridder at the Southbank Centre’s Ether Festival

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Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis

London Sinfonietta: Xenakis – Architect of Sound

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre
April 2nd, 2011

Iannis XenakisEonta
Kottos
Phlegra
La légende d’Eer

London Sinfonietta
André de Ridder, conductor
Rolf Hind, piano
Tim Gill, cello
Sound Intermedia, sound projection

The Southbank’s annual Ether Festival, exploring innovative and multi-disciplinary approaches to contemporary music, includes this year a Xenakis weekend (perhaps timed to mark the tenth anniversary of the composer’s death), of which this concert is a part; following the Barbican’s “Total Immersion” day dedicated to him two years ago, there seems to be a bit of a vogue for Xenakis in London at the moment. I’m no aficionado, but have always been intrigued by his unique background as an architect and mathematician who applied the same structural principles to composition, and grateful that the resulting music doesn’t sound remotely as sterile as one might imagine — in fact far less so, to my mind, than what one might call the pseudo-mathematical approach of total serialism.

One aspect of Xenakis’s work that I had never realised is how influenced he was by Ancient Greek culture — not merely its music, but also its writers and myths, which between them serve as inspiration for all the pieces in this concert. The vaguest example of this, but also one of the most arresting works of the night, was Eonta (“Beings”), for brass quintet (three trombones, two trumpets) and piano, whose title is apparently a reference to the philosopher Parmenides. This piece was distinguished by its brilliantly creative use of the performing space, with the piano off to stage left opening with a virtuosic, computer-calculated solo before the brass players made their initial entries standing at the rear centre stage; over the course of the piece they also stood behind the piano (blowing across its strings while the pianist held down the sustain pedal), walked around at the front of centre stage, and sat at stage right. At certain times they would turn to face each other or different sections of the audience during their playing. As well as presumably affecting the way the harmonic overtones of the notes sounded, it presented a compelling argument for the cause of live music as being able to produce not only a stereoscopic effect very difficult for even the best home sound system to emulate, but an element of visual drama that in this case seemed somehow indivisible from the purely aural content of the piece. The music was as much the movement as the notes.

The solo cello piece Kottos was probably my favourite of the evening. Though named after a hundred-armed creature conquered by the god Zeus, it conjured up other mythological associations for me — as Tim Gill sat spotlighted on a small raised platform, a lonely figure surrounded by darkness, I envisaged a man lost in the labyrinth, crying out for help, unaware of the Minotaur’s approach. But as well as rekindling the power of half-remembered myths learnt in childhood, the variety of extended techniques in the cello writing raises another interesting consideration. As Xenakis himself said, very little is known about Ancient Greek music; nevertheless, centuries before notions of key structures, equal temperament and the like, surely the earliest musicians began by simply experimenting to see what sounds they could produce from their instruments. Considered in this context, the glissandi, harmonics, muting and whatever else constitutes the late-20th century “avant-garde” elements of the piece are in fact what makes it truly sound as though it could have been played a thousand years ago. I imagine that Xenakis would have agreed.

The third piece is named after the Phlegrean fields where, in Greek mythology, two sets of gods battled each other, but in Phlegra the conflict is between three sets of instruments – strings, woodwind and brass, totalling 11 players. Assuming this “programme” of the piece to be correct (as that’s how it’s described in the printed programme), I think it was perhaps a mistake to mix the brass and woodwind sections together, as it lessens the effect of a depiction of opposing forces. Maybe it was for this reason, as well as the sparser writing compared to Eonta, that I found Phlegra less compelling than the earlier pieces, but it was still evocative, with a late passage for repeated notes on consecutive woodwind instruments suggesting soldiers signalling to each other across a wide space.

At 50 minutes, the electroacoustic tape piece La légende d’Eer was longer than the other works put together, and therefore justifiably formed the entire second half of the concert. This time the title comes from a tale in Plato’s Republic about the departure, journey and eventual return of a soldier from the afterlife. As my first time hearing a tape piece “performed” live, it was an intriguing experience, enjoyable despite a couple of reservations. I thought the piece itself could have done with more dynamic variation in the long middle section, and perhaps, ironically enough considering what I wrote about Eonta, more shifting of individual sounds across the stereo spectrum. Also, having been told in the programme notes that it was a “multi-media work,” I kept expecting more of a visual element to the piece than the dim red and blue lights trained on the wooden pillars at the back of the stage; in the event of not being able to replicate the laser light show that formed part of the premiere at the opening of Paris’s Pompidou Centre in 1977, it would have been better to simply turn the lights off completely and allow the audience to more fully concentrate on the sounds.

That said, I found it fascinating to try to distinguish the different types of sounds being heard, to separate the straightforwardly instrumental and vocal (of which there seemed fairly few) from those timbres that had been altered or even electronically generated, like the piercing ringing that opens and closes the piece. The palpable uncertainty among the audience about when (if?) to applaud the empty stage, once all sound from the speakers appeared to have stopped but the house lights had not yet been brought up, was amusing. But most of all I was struck by the atmosphere in the air once the middle section’s barrage of low frequencies had ceased – all of a sudden I was aware of the noise of the room’s air conditioning, and many small sounds amongst the audience members, all incredibly vivid. I think there could be no more appropriate end for a concert dedicated to a man whose work so often challenges our preconceptions about the limitations of how we can experience sound, and as such demands, more than with most composers, to be heard live. With a seat as near to the middle of the auditorium as possible.

About the author

Gabriel Kellett

A music graduate of Roehampton University, London, Gabriel has over the course of the last 18 months worked as a cameraman and editor on a feature film, documentary and music video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9cQhh4hXZI), and is currently working on his first short film as writer/director.

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