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Review: 1990 Xenakis Festival at University of California, San Diego

March 18, 2011


What happens if I press this button?

Iannis Xenakis mans the faders for a performance of La Legende D'Eer in San Diego, Apr. 1990

In 1990, the UC San Diego Music Dept. sponsored a week-long festival of music, discussions, and presentations by and about Iannis Xenakis. It was the most memorable festival the Music Dept. presented during my time there.

I had been a freelance reviewer for all of 6 weeks when I wrote this roundup of the festival, but I hope the snapshot of this historical event outweighs the banality of my prose at the time.

At the time, I was using the pseudonym of Adam Prasser for my reviews, a tactic I thought necessary to allow me to speak with candor about the colleagues, professors, and people controlling my grad school funding. (It worked for a while).  An even graver journalistic sin was reviewing a performance in which I took part (Ais). You can occasionally hear my piano playing rising above the walls of sound from that performance on this CD.

My editor at the La Jolla/University City Light was always generous in providing me column space, but I crossed the line with this review, and found my words cut. Below I have restored the original copy submitted to my editor. The photo above accompanied my story in the Light.

Xenakis Brings Musical Genius to UCSD
University City Light, Apr. 19, 1990

Iannis Xenakis, the distinguished European avant-garde composer, was in residence at UCSD from April 3-9. Made possible primarily through the support of local arts patron Muriel Gluck, the residency was noteworthy in two ways.

As part of his residency, Xenakis coached musicians in performances of his music; the concert schedule was purportedly the largest program ever devoted entirely to Xenakis’ works. Most of the works performed were local premieres; several of them had never been performed (or heard, as they have not been recorded) in this country before.

The presence of Xenakis himself throughout the entire festival provided San Diegans a personal glimpse of a musical genius. In two informal talks presented during the two main concerts at Mandeville Auditorium on April 4 and 7, and moderated by Roger Reynolds, the festival’s organizer, Xenakis revealed himself to be a committed, hard-working composer, an honest craftsman who builds impressive edifices of sound. He also seemed surprisingly modest for someone who has been a perceived leader of the European avant-garde since the 1950’s.

Although Xenakis is best known for his application of mathematical models to his music, these talks revealed him as a humanist as well. Citing writers as diverse as Plato, Shelley, and Pascal in his discussions, Xenakis emphasized the necessity for music to capture emotional and intuitional truths. Most of the music heard on these two concerts seemed to do exactly that.

The April 4 concert began with a performance of two violin solos, Mikka (1971) and Mikka S (1976). In much of his string writing since the ’60’s, Xenakis has developed a new style of playing which emphasizes glissandi and a clear, vibratoless tone. Janos Negyesy performed these works admirably, although an overhead camera picking up his hand movements and projecting them on a large screen at the back of the stage seemed more distracting than enlightening, making an otherwise wonderful performance redolent of rock concert glitz.

Last month I raved about  Thallein (1984), premiered by SONOR. A second hearing confirmed my belief that this is a contemporary chamber orchestra masterpiece. SONOR provided an extremely tight and powerful rendition of the work, obviously being more comfortable with it now that they had had several opportunities to perform it.

Heather Buchman, principal trombonist with the San Diego Symphony, was on hand for the U.S. premiere of a solo trombone piece, Keren (1986). This work revealed a surprisingly lyrical facet to Xenakis, but was couched in virtuosic writing, requiring Buchman to quietly leap back and forth between two and sometimes three different registers of her instrument. Buchman also performed mute changes by inserting the bell of her trombone into one of two mutes mounted on mike stands. Despite the virtuosity, novelty, and unexpected lyricism, Keren struck this critic as an ultimately uninvolving piece which overstayed its initial welcome.

After a slide show (unaccompanied by music or narration) of architectural projects Xenakis had designed or co-designed, the UCSD Men’s Chorus, conducted by Philip Larson, presented the American premiere of A Colone (1977). Accompanied by three trombones, three horns, three cellos, and two contrabasses, the chorus delivered the fifth-century Attic text in a declamatory fashion. The rhythms of the vocal line were apparently based on the text’s inherent speech rhythms, so the meter was consequently asymmetrical and shifting. The brass mainly played dramatic sustained tones in unison. The overall effect of the work was that of a contemporary revision of an ancient subject, but one in which all of the nobility and grandeur of the original was captured in its retelling. For a composer whose reputation was built on the use of “sound masses” in his composition, Keren and A Colone were unexpectedly melodic, and even, (dare I say?) traditional-sounding.

The next concert on Sat. Apr. 7, revealed more of the avant-garde side of Xenakis. The concert opened with a highly engaging performance of Psappha (1975) by solo percussionist Steven Schick. In Psappha, there are no melodies, and since the dynamic level is consistently fortissimo throughout, Xenakis relies entirely on rhythm and tone color as his compositional building blocks. The work is full of driving, relentless streams of notes; Schick maintained the high energy level throughout the piece, even during an extended kick drum solo before the climactic ending. Psappha was to rock drumming what James Joyce is to Danielle Steele.

The next work was Mycenes Alpha (1978), an electronic composition composed on a computer device designed by Xenakis that enables images drawn on a screen to be converted into sound. As the work was performed, slides of the score itself were displayed on a screen, allowing the audience to “see” the music they were hearing. As the images themselves were frequently complex networks of branches, or arrays of gradually changing lines, so too did the music reflect this. It often consisted of broad, sweeping gestures, paralleling the curves formed by dozens of lines in the score. It was a work which revealed new vistas in sound, a defiantly Modern piece, proud of its abrasiveness, and yet ultimately uplifting if you were willing to follow Xenakis’ sonic landscapes.

The first half concluded with a performance of N’Shima (1975), for two altos, two horns, two trombones, and cello, ably conducted by Keith Humble. Constance Lawthers and Ann Chase sang their demanding parts with authority and panache. The title is a Hebrew word meaning “exhalation,” and towards the end of the piece, the altos are literally exhaling in rhythm. An obsessive pulse underlies the music as the different pairs engage in otherworldly two-part counterpoint. At times these pairs collide with each other, forming four- and six-part textures. According to the program notes, all of these melodies were derived from a model based on the Brownian motion of particles, and they did reflect this model. An individual melody would deviate from a starting note, but would return after wandering around this note. The cello mainly performed by itself during interludes with a sliding, vibrato-less style reminiscent of Mikka; Ron Robboy was an earnest cellist, sensitive to the new technical demands Xenakis placed upon him. N’Shima was a compelling, ear-opening work.

The second half of the concert opened with two small gems, Pour Maurice, (1982) zestfully performed by Philip Larson, baritone, and Alan Feinberg, piano, and a r. (Hommage a Ravel), (1978) a dazzling virtuosic occasional piece played by Feinberg. The highlight of the evening was the concluding work on the concert, Ais.

Ais is a musical descent into hell. In this work for orchestra, percussion solo, and baritone, Xenakis conveys the agony and grief of the damned with unflinching accuracy. Philip Larson, the vocal soloist, performed his difficult part with the requisite underscoring of pain and suffering, alternating between falsetto howls and dark, sombre funereal chanting. Steven Schick, solo percussionist, provided a mad, obsessive counterpoint to Larson’s lamentations and the orchestra’s shrieks and growls. Underpinning most of Ais is a relentless, propulsive momentum which culminates after nearly 20 minutes of extreme intensity in a low, rumbling wash of sound which gradually subsides. Once again, Tom Nee and the La Jolla Civic/University Symphony Orchestra have successfully tackled a difficult piece which most professional orchestras in this country would not touch. Ais was a gripping, dramatic piece, and the audience wildly applauded the soloists, orchestra, and the composer.

A third concert took place on the lawn outside the Salk Institute at 5 PM on Sunday, April 8. The first work was the American premiere of Voyage Absolu des Unari Vers Andromede (1989) for electronic sounds and kites. Against a cloud-spotted sky, with hang-gliders hovering in the distance, three sets of kites were launched. One remained fairly stationary throughout most of the piece, but the other two traced spirals above the audience’s heads in an improvised choreography to the swoops and trajectories of the tape part. Many of the sounds were similar to those used in Mycenes Alpha; both works were realized on the same computer system. In a brief program note, Xenakis wrote that “the piece is about cosmic travel in a distant future toward the galaxy of Andromeda.” While the tape part did not seem all that extraordinary if it would have been presented by itself, the combination of electronic sounds, dancing kites, and the unusual concert venue was novel and infectiously magic.

When the tape part was over, the kites sharply landed, and after a brief pause, Steven Schick launched into a performance of Rebonds a and b (1987-89). Unlike Psappha, Rebonds had a wide dynamic range, and one could hear actual rhythmic motives which were developed in a more traditional fashion (although the idea of a solo percussion piece is undoubtedly untraditional to many). The percussion set-up was amplified, and different instruments were panned to different speakers surrounding the audience. As Schick demonstrated the previous evening, he is an engaging performer who uses his entire body when performing in a sort of graceful choreography. It is a credit to Xenakis’ genius that he could fill twelve minutes worth of time with such delightful writing for non-pitched percussion.

After a break for a picnic dinner on the lawn, the audience reconvened for a performance of La Legende D’ Eer. Xenakis sat at the mixing console, manipulating the faders as seven channels of electronic sounds dispersed from a circle of speakers enveloped the audience. This work was inspired by a brief episode from Plato’s Republic in which a soldier, Eer, describes how he was taken from the land of the living and shown the supernatural world, only to be returned.

The music reflected this program in its beginning, with its long, sustained sine-wave-like tones gradually transmuting into something sounding like cicadas chirping; at the work’s end, the cicada-like chirps become the long, sustained tones. The core of the work, however, is a forty-minute long exposition through the “supernatural world,” represented here by sounds ranging from bricks being struck together to African musical instruments, all of which are frequently distorted to the point where the listener can just barely make out the original sound source. This supernatural world is filled with gradual transitions from certain families of sounds to others. It is a work that demanded patience, for the changes were slow; however, there was enough rich detail in the more static sections of the piece to reward the listener willing to concentrate on them.

As the piece progressed, the sun gradually set, and it became darker and colder, these changes occurring on the slow, gradual time scale of the work itself. These were fitting changes to accompany Xenakis’ musical journey through another reality. Audience members got out of their chairs and walked about to hear different channels. Many were smiling in wonder of the sonic journey they were taking.

La Legende D’ Eer was in many ways the most challenging work presented on the festival. Its abandoning of such musical devices as melody, harmony, and discernable rhythms would not seem like music to many people. But the audience at this concert was a specialized one, appreciative of Xenakis’ innovations and eager to follow him, like Eer, into new worlds. When the work was over, the audience, many of whom were shivering from the cold, savored the silence for a minute or so. Then they burst into enthusiastic applause, a lengthy applause which seemed to embarrass Xenakis, who humbly accepted his heart-felt accolades with a shy flip of the wrist and nod of the head.

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