Xenakis – Architect of Sound

Xenakis – Architect of Sound: Rolf Hind (piano); Tim Gill (cello); London Sinfonietta/André de Ridder. Sound Intermedia. Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2.4. 2011 (CC)

Eonta for piano and brass quintet
Kottos for solo cello
Phlegra for ensemble
La Légende d’Eer for electroacoustic tape

The music of Iannis Xenakis is nothing if not fiercely uncompromising, both in terms of its language and in its demands on the players. Xenakis’ work as an architect (in particular, his association with Le Corbusier) and his mathematical approach to composition rub vehemently against the visceral effect of his works. Eonta (1963) is actually a homage to Parenides, the ancient Greek philosopher and poet. Xenakis derives his materials from theories of probabilities and logistics. The piano part is cripplingly difficult. Rolf Hind not only took all the challenges on his chin, but succeeded in giving the most musical performance I have heard of this piece – some passages seemed actually reminiscent of Debussy. The brass were mobile, moving sometimes as a unit and sometimes wandering around the stage randomly. Quiet plateaux stood in high relief from the post-Lutoslawski barrages. It was a remarkable and thought-provoking performance.

If anything, Tim Gill took on even greater challenges in Kottos (1977), the test piece of the 1977 Rostropovich International Cello Competition. The title comes from the hundred-headed titan that Zeus slaughtered. The crushing, dissonant, low opening was presumably the composer’s idea of “noise”. Contrasts came in the form of pliant whimpers; one passage sounded like a search for a lost consonance, a plea for resolution that went firmly unanswered. Virtuoso in extremis, Gill held the audience in his grip for the entire eight minute duration.

The work for ensemble, Phlegra (1975), again takes inspiration from ancient Greek history: the Phlegrian fields were the scene of the clash between the Olympic Gods and the Titans. Xenakis uses the technique of melodic arborescence (the tree analogy of lines branching out from a single source) in tandem with aleatorism (chance) and rhythmic formulae. The piece is scored for eleven instruments – initially, the impression is that there will be a concertante bassoon part. This was probably the weakest part of the first half, however – at times, the music seemed to be running out of steam.

The idea of electronic music in a concert hall with the audience staring at a bare stage took me back to the Stockhausen festival at the Barbican in the 1980s. If only the music had had the same effect. Stockhausen’s electronic works are shot through with genius, whereas Xenakis’ fifty-minute La Légende d’Eer, composed in 1977/78 for the opening of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, seemed overlong. Natural sounds are used, and come in and out of focus. There is a feeling of space being filled as the work progresses. There are intersection points with Stockhausen, however; it is clear that Xenakis understands the expressive potentials of sounds, including white noise. Huge, monumental aggregations of sound vie with sounds that circle round the auditorium. Yet the piece failed to suck the listener into its strange world. All credit to Sound Intermedia for the presentation, though.

Colin Clarke