I spent this past summer delving into the music of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). Like many of the giants of 20th century music, Xenakis’s music is totally underrepresented in the concert life of Salt Lake City. I can’t think of a performance of his work here in town during the ten years that I’ve lived here. And actually, I don’t know what’s taken me, a lover of modern music, so long to get to him; probably the usual issue of too much great music vs. too little time.
At any rate, I originally programmed our NOVA 13/14 season opener to include three Xenakis works: the solo piano work Evryali flanked by two truly awesome solo percussion pieces, Rebonds and Psappha. Eventually I dropped the idea of Evryali in favor of a program that pitted solo violin music of Bach against the percussion works of Xenakis as a kind of prequel to the second half of the program, Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale. In some ways I am still not sure what I prefer. The original program was a very strong, intense statement that I truly believed in, but the revision better reflects what NOVA is all about at this moment in its own special history.
My time with Xenakis and Evryali has been a pleasure unlike any I have experienced with music in a long time, and I look forward to finding a venue for realizing all the work I put into the piece over the summer. I’m blown away by Xenakis’s ability to write music of such explosive emotional content, all the while exerting an intellect upon his creations that few composers can rival. One essay specifically influenced my entry into this new (to me, at least) musical world, written by our guest artist for Sunday’s concert, Steven Schick. I can’t think of a better person to introduce the NOVA audience to Xenakis, so I’ve included a couple of short excerpts from his essay “X is for Xenakis.”
When I first heard Psappha in 1977 in a concert at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York everything changed. I was, for the first time in my young musical life, truly scandalized. The music seemed to come through my pores rather than my ears. And I, in turn, got inside this music not by thinking about it but by being within it. In fact the last thing I wanted to do was think about it. The immediacy of the rhythms and the clangor of the sound world did battle directly - unmediated by reflection - with every preconception I ever had about concert music. I was used to such a physical and core emotional reaction when I listened to other kinds of music, ranging from Beethoven to the blues, but hadn’t I just forsworn those feelings and that music as the price of admission to the pantheon of contemporary music?
Or take this paragraph on mathematical applications vs. compositional intuition and irregularities:
If what some people assert about Xenakis were really true- that his musical language is driven by rational processes of mathematics and ultimately strives towards a state of pure logic- I doubt I would be very interested in his music. Not to worry. Xenakis was aware that an unfiltered application of rational principals would lead to regularity and from there quickly to banality. His reliance on the enlivening presence of the irrational in part explains the many rhythmic and notational anomalies found in the scores. Irregularities within the accent patterns of pieces from Psappha to Okho to Rebonds seem illogical until you realize that such irregularities keep the surface of the music and therefore the ear of the listener alive.
Or a subject that must always be dealt with in a discussion of Xenakis’s music, impossibility. (Reminds me of Dylan- “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all…”)
However, the stories that percussionists talk about with each other do not deal with anecdotes, but rather with the nuts and bolts of the practical performance problems. Some of the biggest of those problems - and to me the moments that most outline the “Xenakis-ness” of these pieces - involve the many impossible passages in this music… These are not simply passages of extreme difficulty – there are plenty of those also. No, in almost every piece there is a small patch that is truly physically impossible…or nearly so. And each of the impossible passages coincides with a moment of maximum impact in the composition. The impossible music defines the space where the two tangents of Xenakis meet – the center point of his “X” – where a sophisticated rational process in the form of a poly-structural compositional moment meets the maximum of unified physical and emotional energy in performance. These instances call for extreme inventiveness on the part of the performer…
Whatever the solution, the attempt to play a truly impossible passage will, by definition, fail. A reasonable question follows: why did Xenakis compose music where failure is assured in the performance of passages of music with great emotional impact and compositional importance? Part of the answer lies in what you mean by failure. Each impossible passage forces a player to deal with the unknown – to leave the secure boundaries of a score behind and find an inventive and personal solution to an intractable problem. By doing so a performer necessarily combines the real with the imagined, the feasible with the fantastical. In every performance that I know, these are the moments of transcendence: they are fleeting glimpses of expressive fragility in the midst of the irrefutable Xenakis plan… In this light these are not moments of failure, but of grace.
Excerpts from Steven Schick’s essay, “X is for Xenakis” from Performing Xenakis (2010, ed. Sharon Kanach, Pendragon Press), by permission of the author.