24 January 2007

Xenakis Listening Notes

What follows are various listening notes for works by Xenakis. This takes the notes up to their current state. New notes will be added as necessary. I have listened to all the previous pieces, but have not taken notes. This may change.

Noomena (1974): I found this piece not particularly memorable save for a few moments. One feeling I felt with this and with a Nono piece I also listened to is that these composers are tending to write the same piece over and over. In this case it was a lot of scratching and glissandi in the winds and the strings but without any real sense of comprehensible form that can be found in some of the other works, I'm thinking of Synaphai with its great ending. One nice thing was the foghorn like effect about 5 minutes into the piece. I'd be interested to see how that comes about.

Erikhthon (1974):Erikhthon is a powerful massive work for piano and orchestra. Like glaciers crashing or worlds being moved. It is unstoppable, massive and calamatous. This is said to be the best example of the use of arborescences laid out in vaguely organ-like orchestration. Where these really work is in the larger scale glissandis and in this case some of the harmonies developed, where they don't work is in the chromatic scales that can whip across and seem so dull and devoid of tension. This piece is full of tension and it works magnificently.

Psappha (1975): Psappha for solo percussion. Xenakis eschews traditional notation for a Feldman-esque box. That doesn't stop him from being rhythmic - this is one of his most rhythmic pieces I've heard. One can hear some glorious polyrhythms - and no doubt Xenakis was aware of some traditional drumming. I'm also quite impressed by the use of sonorities and the way that he brings them in at specific moments. One could easily not do such a thing. Seems like a challenging work and would likely benfit from being taken out of the non-traditional notation and into traditional. I don't think it would lose very much.

N'Shima (1975):N'shima for two peasant style voices, horns and a cello. In regular strophes - a formal pattern that Xenakis likes with his "antique" pieces - consider the choral work "A Colone" The cello has an almost mystical esoteric function capping the ends of each section with a wide erase of the musical space. The voices keen around small notes and the horns also. Memorable moments include when we finally hear a solid harmony and the overall effect. Details don't remain from this piece rather the overall. we can also hear well the arborescences. Other moments the move toward machine gunning at the end. Xenakis likes to give something new near the end of the piece. This one is no exception.

Empreintes (1975): A striking, enigmatic and ultimately somewhat sad piece for orchestra. Essentially there are three ideas - the first unison treble G for nearly 5 minutes we can hear the delightful overtones as the ful complement of brass play it in the beginning. Overlaid on this at times are varied glissandos in the strings which eventuly take over the entire ensemble reminiscent of early Xenakis - e.g. Metastasis. This eventually splits into a more chaotic section until we end with a series of morse code like gestures from various choirs over clusters. The work ends with the sound of the low Bb on the Contrabassoon. I'm not sure how to react. Technically Xenakis has learned how to better handle glissandi on the brass which sound much les coarse when the are used to fill out certain points in the curve rather than all points in the curve. This also provides a harmonic gambit as well. I come out feeling like there has been a narrative and that the world was shattered and we are left with these tiny phrases trying to peek through. Xenakis himself talks of the imprints left after the setting of the sun - comparing the opening detuning of the G to the sunset.

Theraps (1975): Solo bass piece full of sliding around. Apparently a major step in the repertoire for solo bass, which honestly isn't saying much if you consider the competition. Bottesini anyone?

Khoai (1976): Work for solo harpsichord that makes the noisyness of the harpsichord particularly apparent. It also makes good use of octave particularly in the beginning. I have to say I don't think octave Fs have ever sounded so good as when Chojnaka plays them. Another piece in which the arborescences work. What is a real benefit about this piec eis the way that it completely reinvigorates the harpsichord in a way that perhaps would't happen again until Ligeti's Continuum. In both these works the harpsichord is viewed as an almost electronic instrument - consider also the way both composers view the organ - completely denatured of human expression (why did Stravisnky never write for the organ?) Xenakis was quite busy at this time. I'm convicned there was something in composing with arborescences that made it easy for him to be prolific.

Mikka "S" (1976): The second of Xenakis' double gliss pieces for solo violin and perhaps somewhat more effective. This one seems to have more contrary motion than Mikka. It seems a trifle, if perhaps an important trifle in developing this technique, which seems to me to be a way to make the glissandos work on a smaller scale. at this point glissandos have been scientificized once again into arborescences. Consider the small arborescence works against something large like Erikhtohon which is massive and moving - the same massiveness cannot be found in the smaller works and a new direction must be found.

Dmaathen (1976): Classic work for oboe and percussion. Can hear a real pitch centeredness that moves out and a real sense of the multiphonic possibilities of the oboe. What is strange is that no one has remarked on the similarity to Muay Thai music, the only traditional music I'm aware of that makes use of the combination. The opening is almost uncannily like the sound of Muay Thai and I have no doubt that the influence is there. Consider also in Nuits, the choral work, there is no mention of the almost near duplication of the famous Monkey dance from Bali which shows up notated in Xenakis. I don't believe that I can accept the notion that all these things are purely scientific, rather I'd suggest that the sounds that he was aware of become filtered through his scientific frame and his own language. I'm not aware of earlier instances (before Nuits) of the rat-a-tat style that would become more prominent - tough no doubt one could include machine gun fire in the influence pool.

Epei (1976): horn, english horn, clarinet, 2 trom, db. Strange strange ensemble, strange title - it means "since" and stranger piece. A keening Xenakis. It begins with this strange degraded version of a motive - could this be Xenakis referring to Grisey's classic use of the degraded harmonic series - I think these were written at the same time - that eventually alls into a keening of all the instruments that lasts quite some time an is in the end effective and memorable. though I have to say, I'm afraid I may be confusing it with Akanthos whose ensemble is similar.

Windungen (1976): I was only able to listen to the first minute of this and then continue by looking a the score of this work for 12 cellists. It appears to be a strong piece with some of the classic large cello nsemble gesture - cf Messagesquisse - of lots of cellos playing the same melody that gets brokn up. The idea is that the cellists are arranged in a circle which Xenakis takes full advantage of - a large portion of the work seems to involve motion of glissandi around the circle which would no doubt sound really good if one were in the middle of the circle. There is also a rather dramatic moment when we are left with just one cello playing low C#. I'd be interested to hear a performance.

Kottos (1977): Excellent work for solo cello. The proportions are right on this. Particular favorite moments are when the cello is in a constant use of all of its registers. The melodies - quasi-Greek sometimes are also sometimes Baroque though up in a completely crazy register - consider the end when there is the movement round an E center at the top of the treble staff. Also nice how Xenakis uses noise in the work having the noise of the bridge open up into melodies.

Legende d'Eer (1977): Electronics. A have a hard time with these large Xeankis electronic pieces as I tend to do with most electronic pieces, I'm never quite sure how to grasp them though I do hear larger sweeps I get lost in the details. This work seems to me to be more of a soundscape than something like Kraanerg or Persepolis which if memory serves me make more use of the repeating note idea. This also uses repeating notes but way up in the highest ranges at the beginning of the work. Ultimately, I hear this similar to something like Conrete PH with its burning sounds - it is full of seemingly natural sounds, whether like cicadas, or tectonics or an overall dinosaur type sound. This is a piece that creates another world and one that for the most part isn't entirely unpleasant. - I'd rather be here than in Kraanerg. I hear an overall descent in range then an ascent curve, but would need many repeated listenings to get details.

Akanthos (1977): Slightly larger ensemble - fl, cl, piano, soprano, string quintet. Needs a fabulous soprano who doesn't seem foolish sining nonsense phonemes. This, if I rememebr right was a work wose arborescences seemed forced, too much chromaticism.

A Helene (1977): For two part choir - can be transposed at will. A syllabic setting of some ancient Greek play - Harley says from Euripides' Helen of Troy. Set in almost constant eighth notes and homophonically. At the end a dramatic shift happens in the tonality. I think about the use of rhythm here and how, likely, at least from what I remember, ancient Greek theories of rhythm had a different sense of versification, though I could be confusing it with Latin verse. Also, I'm reminded of the almost arbitrariness of the note hoice, which seems in some ways fitting wth a stochastic idea. Not nearly as good as A Colone.

A Colone (1977): I'm very much enthused by this choral work in the ancient Greek modes, though in some senses itfeels like Xenakis moved toward the Syntonic diatonic of Ptolemy. One can see how he would be excited by the Aristoxenan genera and there is always the idea of authenticity - notice that the work is scored for men's voices in falsetto as ancient Greek drama was said to be sung. There are the strophe-antistophe pattern in structure. Also the instrumentation, trombone, horn and doublebass is spectacular and add an air of modernity and antiquty. The trombone part is quite high. Challenging, but I would not say too much so.

Jonchaies (1977): Large orchestra work, extremely violent. Up there I would say with Ameriques and the end of the Rite as some of the more overall intense primitive sounding scores. This is a war piece for me - conflict, perhaps is better put and is almost impressionistic, if it ould be used to describe such scenes, the sirens in the high winds, the keening of the brass, the incessant percussion and the machinistic rhythms of the full orchestra. The ending bomb blasts, reminiscent as well of the end of Terretekhtorh. It ends with the morse-code in the piccolos which are used also in the opening of the Legende and the ending of Empreintes. Commentators tend to focus on the new uses of sieves to a) make a scale that doesn't replicate at the octave, and b) to determine the rhythmic content. I find these far less interesting than the overall formal content which is continually powerful and constant. According to Harley: "jonchaies" = "rushes, reeds" I'm also reminded of the out-Lutoslawski-ing in the opening modal sieve moving from the highest registers down to the subbasement.Harley also dwells on the connection between the pitch sieve and the pelog scale of interlocking fourths (C-G, B-F#) detecting an Indonesian flavor in the work because of a similar lack of certian intervals in the Jonchaies sieve, to which I ask, is he listening to the same piece. There is nothing, repeat, nothing gamelan in this work. I think the idea of the sieve is not to create scales but rather in fact to pick out parts of a glissandi contour for harmonic purposes. Harley seems to be hearing what he wants in this piece. He speaks of Xenakis "emulating such a sonority" He also hears the winds rushing through the reeds, I think rather it i ironic, after all this torture of sound we are left with the desolation of the wind rushing through reeds - symbolized with the high piccolos.

Ikhoor (1978): String trio that seems to take all of the Xenakis ideas and put them in as if he is freely compsoing with them. In this way Xenakis is an experiementor - building up his bag of tricks and then with his language compsing. I think there is an effective use of the pelog scale with the Lutoslawski heterophony. But overall I don't think its all that compeling of a piece, though I imagine the physical act of seeing all these players sawing away would be rather interesting. "Ikhoor" is what runs through the veins of the Gods. Opening consists of a rite of spring-esque chord that quickly falls into challenging rhythmic strata. Unfortunately the melodic material doesn't really match with the tension generatred from the rhythms.

Dikhthas (1979): Violin and Piano - arborescences in both parts enlived at times with stochastic texture - there is a particularly memorable moment in th epiano part which is well nigh unplayable and that basically gives the sense of one throwing one's fingers around the keyboard. It is interesting to see how the various techniques are coming together in the pieces, in this case the specifically violin textures from Mikka and Mikka "S" along with the arborescences. I think sme of the most effective moments are when things stp completely and we have just a single note, in this case an open D that is sounded thoughout the piano and then violin - getting dirtier through the addition of surrounding tones, what is a simple thing for a composer to do when they are shot on ideas becomes a great idea when put in this context. The wave motion of the violin throughout its range can become a bit too much and one can see how it could be a hackneyed crutch.

Pleiades (1978): I listened to this over the course of two days. It seems to me that this is a piece that ayone writing or percussion ensemble needs to reckon with. Four sections each devoted to a specific sonority and each exploiting the characteristics of that sonority. In all the movements there seems to be a dichotomy between highly structured rhythms and "Clouds" of sound - the highly organized random sounds that evoke distant rumbles and explosions with the drums, an island of church bells with the metals (beautiful by the way) and so forth. The movement for pitched percussion (vibes, etc) seems at times to fall into the academic statemtn of arpeggios in the Jonchaies scale, but also fals into lovely clouds of sine-like pitches. I had the realization while looking at the extremely complex score, both of how one might go about learning the rhythms with its multiple tempo modulations happening at the same time and how those rhythms are in a way related completely to the gridlike scaffolding that controls scores of the new complexity period. In some ways Xenakis can take the characteristics and outward appearances of these schools of music and reflect them in a quasi-scientific way of thinking. So the rhythmic bonds of complexity become rhythmic sieves, a liking of African polyrhythm is similarly reinterpreted and, pelog scales become pitch sieves.

Palimpsest (1979): This is a work for larger ensemble: oboe, cl, bsn, hn, pno, perc, and string quintet. Mainly filled with arborescences, which sometimes seem to fall into Czerny style. For some time these are drawn upon one another - as I see the palimpsest of the title- and filtered through rhythmic sieves to create polyrhythms. The work ends with a spectacular passage in which tempered tones become untempered by their layout. see m.106 on. I wonder if this is a function of the recording - the otherwise abyssmal Ianissimo II album, I believe - or is actualy in the music itself. Nonetheless it is amazing, it seems almost that Xenakis is oneupping the spectralists.

Ais (1979): Ritualistic enactment of fragments from Homer and Sappho pertaining to death for baritone and orchestra. Striking work with its rich use of percussion in Xenakis style - the percussion is relatively regualr and provides an air of authenticity. Also "authentic" is the free use of the falsetto register for the baritone soloist. The opening is quite beautiful the brass on C above middle C in an antiphonal texture leading into the baritone's main gesture a tritone descent from soprano F to B on I-U-A-I with a Monteverdi trill coming as it does aftera long scatter of "Gu" This stylized horse-like wailing recurs continually throughout the piece especially at the end after the bones are ripped from the body and brought to Hades. The entire chromatic space is saturated the percussion goes wild and the stylized cry comes out. One can only think here of Xenakis the romantic as this is a particularly lovely and wellused but romantic gesture. Perhaps this is why this music speaks to me so much, There is a good deal of emotion and it seems to me that the emotional content becomes subsumed in the prevailing mathematical dialogue that was so important for composers at the time. Xenakis needed to couch his romanticism in math for him to be accepted. In this way he was good at marketing. He also is keen to play with our connections. Modal melodies are used at tender moments and these become couched in sieves. (Harley says the cry comes from a Corsican seabird)

Embellie (1981): Solo viola - "the calm in the storm" Said to be more freely composed - as if the other pieces aren't - one o his least satisfying solo works. Quasi-modal flavor which I think must be related to the "rustic"-ness of the viola. Falls into runs of the pelog sieve halfway thoghuout and then gestures reminiscent of Kottos. Ends with a harmonic gliss, perhaps its best moment. Disappointing. But then again, the other solo string works, with the exception of Kottos (Mikka, Mikka S, Theraps for instance) are also rather dull. Studies for larger works perhaps, or pointing toward limitations of the techniques when applied to solo instruments.

Mists (1981): Piano solo - rather disappointing. Here we have some random walks in arborescent fields coupled with some more random cloud-like structures, the "mists" of the title. These use a new technique for Xenakis - basically setting out a grid of sixteenth notes with the pitch rhythms spread out apart from the structure - this alows for a freer rhythmic sense and likely contributes to the effect Xenakis is looking for. I feel that this piece is an overall effect and the details are not quite well thought out - harmonically its dull. I almost get the feeling of a dull "Open Music" composed score that hasn't been adequately polsihed off.

Komboi (1981): Harpsichord and Percussion, Greek word for "knots" Formulaic (that's a word I would rarely use for Xenakis, but here it seems appropriate) piece it seems. There is some of the random note approach involved as well as some of the more rhythmic moments. There is also a much better integration of the scale (it sounds like the Jonchaies scale, but Harley says it is different) than in parts of Pleides - it is used harmonically. I find ever much that the use of harmony is so imprtnat for a work to not feel random and when it is eschewed it is becuase Xenais is trying to acheive the efect of randomness. Now, I'm torn as to whether or not random-ness is to be desired in a piece of music, and as to what the difference between something like randomness and somehting like arbitrariness is. I will think on this and save it for later.

Serment (1981): Choral work, written for of al tings, a cardio-vascular congress and setting parts of the Hippocratic Oath "Serment" = "oath" Begins with a setting out of a scale similar to the Jonchaies scale - which by now starts to sound more Javanese especially when presented melodically. Some formulaic use of the scale alternating with moments of brilliance - the piercing cries and use of Monteverdi trills. At the end of the work some heavy breathing alternating with glissandi, finally ending with what looks like Xenakis having some fun with Augenmusik - chords that build up and sustain with time intervals between pich entries at something like the thirty-second note. I remain deeply impressed with Xenakis' idiomatic, yet non-traditional use of the choir as ritual body perhaps. This likely developing from the notion of choir as in a Greek tragedy.

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