This selection is not only because Iannis Xenakis, a Greek born in Romania and long based in France, was such a compelling and fascinating composer exploring the boundaries of music, but becaise one of these compositions, "Jalons," was dedicated in part to the conductor of the piece, performed by the Ensemble InterContemporain--this being Pierre Boulez, the great composer and conductor, who died last week at 90.
Xenakis began his work, in the early 1950s, as Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and other composers were working to change so-called "classical music" from its orthodoxy in harmony, melody, time and other aspects to what has often been referred to as "avant-garde music." His training as an engineer and architect led him to develop a mechanism for adopting mathematics into his composition, including some of the earliest uses of computer programming for scores.
As a trained engineer and architect, however, Xenakis did not utilize the formal training of even some of the most modern of composers, such as Boulez, who was critical of Xenakis' lack of technical knowledge and expertise, and it was about a decade before the latter conducted a work of the former that he commissioned.
Xenakis once said that his musical outlook was directly related to the horrible experiences of his days in Greece during World War II and the revolutionary aftermath in that country, during which he lost an eye fighting during the civil war. Much of his output, to this untrained listener, is atonal, dissonant, dark and riven with tension, though it was assumed this was more about the intellectual and aesthetic aspects of the boundary-pushing efforts the composer pursued.
This 1992 release of material recorded by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and soloists from two years prior has a fine sound, complementing challenging and rewarding material from Xenakis and tremendous performances from the group and its soloists.
"Phlegra", written in 1976, is fascinating with its shifting harmonies among eleven instuments in a chamber orchestral setting, reflecting a sort of abrasive order among chaos. There is a fascinating, undulating beauty, though, in the crests and descents of the score and energetic use of polyphony and the musicians of the Ensemble Intercontemporain do a fantastic job with this complex, layered and mesmerizing work, which has to do with fighting between the Titans and the gods of Olympus from Greek mythology.
"Jalons" was commissioned in 1986 and whatever conflicts had existed between Boulez and Xenakis seemed to have dissipated somewhat by then. The complexity of "Phlegra" is very much present, but there is a richer, broader sound to this untutored ear, due probably to the larger ensemble size of fifteen musicians. Shifting masses of sound distributed throughout the instruments of this "mini orchestra" are always interesting and, like in "Phlegra" there is no soloing--this is all about the wonders of ensemble interplay.
By contrast, "Keren" (Hebew for "horn") is dedicated to a solo for one of the instrumnets that so rarely is spotlighted in that format: the trombone. Last June's post on Luciano Berio's Sequenza series brings to mind that one of the fourteen works in that set was also for trombone. Benny Sluchin does a superlative job of demonstrating the range of what the instrument can do as conceived by Xenakis, including guttural sounds, glissando and all kinds of expressive dynamics, as well as melodic lines. After the intensity of the first two pieces, "Keren" is a nice break, even though it is characteristically experimental and searching in its development.
1965's "Nomos Alpha" moves into another solo spotlight, this being for Pierre Strauch's wonderful cello, as worked out in mathematical formulas that take the cello beyond its typical use into stunning displays of dynamics, including a "doubling" effect that is really something to behold. Like the trombone, the cello is not usually thought of as having a wide range of application in sound, though it is a foundation of string quartets. In the hands of Xenakis and Strauch's enormous efforts, the cello becomes as expressive an instrument as any.
In 1984, Xenakis wrote "Thalleïn" ("to burgeon" in Greek) and here is another exercise in employing masses of sound, complex displays of polyphony, but with the difference from other pieces in this set in using some percussion, such as a gong early on and then maracas later along with more standard percussive elements. There is also piano throughout, though the work really is about the dense intreplay of woodwind and brass instruments. The variety of tonal, rhythmic, harmonic and melodic resources do, in fact, give a sense of "burgeoning" as the title notes. The Ensemble Intercontemporain again is extraordinary in this piece, as in the others.
Pierre Boulez's reputation now is mainly as a conductor, but his earliest work especially is part of the important development of music in the post-World War II era. While he was critical of Xenakis' lack of formal training in music, the latter became more renowned in the composing side. Boulez eventually worked with Xenakis' compositions on occasion as part of his rich legacy of conducting and "Jalons" is a great example of this.