A blog on gigs, music, art and London.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

London Sinfonietta: Xenakis – Architect Of Sound, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Saturday 2nd April 2011

In ‘The Rest Is Noise’, his wonderful book on classical music in the twentieth century, music critic Alex Ross includes a comment from Iannis Xenakis about his music.

“The listener must be gripped and – whether he likes it or not – drawn into the flight path of the sounds, without a special training being necessary. The sensual shock must be just as forceful as when one hears a clap of thunder or looks into a bottomless abyss.”

The physicality hinted at in the above quotation was on full display in the concert by the London Sinfonietta on Saturday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which attempted to show the influence that architecture played in the music of Xenakis. His avant-garde, unashamedly intellectual music can be heard frequently in the concert halls of London and is still an undeniably relevant force in the musical landscape of today. The Southbank Centre dedicated two days of their current Ether Festival to the work of this visionary musical figure.

This concert focused on three of his chamber pieces and one of his electroacoustic compositions. The first piece played was ‘Eonta’ for piano and brass quintet. It began with pianist Rolf Hind playing irregular, complex patterns on the piano, his hands darting back and forth across the keys as he tried to recreate the challenging lines that had originally been created by Xenakis on a computer during the 1960s (this compositional technique demonstrated Xenakis’s interest in the mathematical theory of stochasticism, which revolves around probabilities and randomness).

Some moments later the brass quintet supplied a dissonant, jarring backdrop to the piano. Throughout the piece the quintet moved their positions on stage on five occasions. By the end all five were playing whilst walking individually around the stage, the seemingly random directions they chose coming across as a visual representation of Xenakis’s interest in stochasticism. The polarised blocks of sound gradually began to overlap and intertwine, before ultimately merging together.

The second piece was ‘Kottos’ for solo cello, performed tonight by Tim Gill. He began by playing a series of deep, grinding, abrasive notes. As the piece unfolded, the sound became more contorted and stretched. In some ways it seemed to resemble a cello sonata that had been left to corrode and disintegrate over a long period of time.

The final chamber piece performed this evening was ‘Phlegra’ for small ensemble, arguably being the best example of Xenakis’s meticulous sonic constructions. Sharp, sliding strings were aggregated with exacting, stringent brass. As with a lot of his musical compositions this was heavily inspired by Greek mythology. The programme notes spoke of the “melodic arborescence” of the piece.

After the dense, pressurised, smaller compositions of the first half the second half contained one extended piece, La Légende d'Eer’ for electroacoustic tape. The stage was empty, lit only with an unchanging crimson/orange light. It began with a simple fluctuating frequency, suggesting a kind of microtonal, electronic birdsong (in some ways recalling the music of Xenakis’s teacher, Olivier Messiaen). It then grew into a sprawling, pulsating sea of electronic sound that resonated around the hall. Industrial, mechanical noises were integrated alongside esoteric, abstract disturbances to absorbing effect. By the close, the music had returned to how it started, minimalistic high frequencies, then silence.

Ostensibly La Légende d'Eer’ sounded more ‘contemporary’ compared to the earlier chamber compositions. Yet, paradoxically it was maybe not as radical as these chamber pieces, due to the familiarity and preponderance of dark ambient/drone/experimental music released by labels such as Miasmah, Touch and Type

However, the showcasing of both styles, brilliantly performed by the London Sinfonietta and conducted by André de Ridder, proved that the brutal, visceral music of Xenakis should not just be listened to but should be felt and experienced in full.

Back in 2009 I also saw the BBC Symphony Orchestra play a programme of music by Xenakis at the Barbican. You can read my post on that concert here.

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