Xenakis: Recorded Music
“It tears apart the psychological and auditive curtain that separates the listener from the musician placed far from him on a stage pedestal …[and places him] in the midst of a tempest that will enter from all around, or on a frail raft lowered on the high seas, or in a universe dotted about with little stars of sound, moving in compact nebulae or isolated…”
This quote from the book Formalized Music [p 237] refers to the orchestral piece Terretektorth, which places the orchestra in the audience, and is in many ways a defining statement in Xenakis’ conception of the musician-listener paradigm. His pioneering efforts to generate sonic environments where a “ showering of hail or a murmuring of pine forests can encompass each listener” [Formalized Music p. 237] has left us a treasure of potential sonic universes waiting to be manifest.
Though it is widely known that Xenakis’ music is uniquely defined by a synthesis of timbre, color, texture, and the mathematical formulae that form its architectural framework, not all record producers take this into consideration. This is further complicated by the fact that the equipment necessary to record such sound is considerable, and not usually viable for independent record labels. To further complicate the matter, major labels have ignored the work of Xenakis, making the role of the independent label even more critical. What we end up with is a great deal of poor recordings of great music, and a few highly subsidized European, particularly French, recordings of great sound quality though not always the most vital of performances.
This selection of currently available releases presents a large array of works, produced with variable sound quality, and consequent levels of aural success and are the closest a listener can get (aside from being in the orchestra) to a virtual-reality of the Xenakis sound world.
Iannis Xenakis - Erato 2292-45770-2 (1992)
Phlegra (1975) - mixed ensemble (11) (Ensemble InterContemporain, Michel Tabachnik - cond.); Jalons (1986) - mixed ensemble (15) (EIC, Pierre Boulez - cond.); Keren (1986) - trombone solo (Benny Sluchin - trombone); Nomos Alpha (1966) - cello solo (Pierre Strauch - cello); Thalleïn (1984) - mixed ensemble (14) (EIC, Michel Tabachnik - cond.)
The renowned Ensemble InterContemporain present this collection of solo and chamber works with style, sensitivity, as well as a uniquely French approach to the performances. If there is one instrumental Xenakis album to own, this is it. The composer supervised the recordings and all of the ensemble selections are amply rehearsed, meticulously rendered, and pristinely recorded & mixed.
Phlegra for chamber orchestra is a battleground between Titans and the new gods of Mount Olympus, and is one of Xenakis’ most abrasive scores. This work demands immense virtuosity from the players and is exemplary of the composer’s use of textural counterpoint, where instrumental groups restricted in color or articulation oppose each other.
Jalons is scored for a miniature orchestra of 15 players, and in many ways is representative of Xenakis’ compositional thinking. The textures are complex, and the sounds harsh and violent, with the strings always playing sans vibrato, and the woodwinds saturated and cracked. The work is highly polyrhythmic, with special Harp interludes that break up the sections. It is masterfully conducted by Pierre Boulez, who gave the work its premiere in January of 1987.
Keren for solo trombone is here masterfully performed by Benny Sluchin for whom it was composed. The work, which takes its title from the Hebrew word for “horn”, starts off with a simple and beautiful melody, and gradually evolves through ever increasing complexity of dynamics, extremes of tessitura, timbre, and microintervalic density. The piece is continually destabilized until culminating in a descent into the lowest reaches of the instrument.
Nomos Alpha is one of this century’s most important works for solo cello is here performed by the great cellist Pierre Strauch. Strauch deftly brings out the polyphonic aspects of the piece through amazing dynamic and microtonal control. His execution of the final sequence, where two scales–one ascending and the other descending–unfold simultaneously at different speeds and at opposite extremes of the dynamic range, is astonishing.
Thalleïn bursts open with an enormous gong strike, accompanied by a dense cluster chord from the ensemble, and develops various elements new to Xenakis’ music including dance and march rhythms, invented folk music, and Stravinsky-esque tutti chords which burst out irregularly. This is the most refined and detailed recording of this work, though it lacks the violence and electricity of the ST-X version on Vandenburg.
Xenakis: Electronic Music - Electronic Music Foundation EMF CD 003 (1997) Diamorphoses (1957) - electroacoustic tape; Concret PH (1958) - electroacoustic tape; Orient-Occident (1960) - electroacoustic tape; Bohor (1962) - electroacoustic tape; Hibiki-Hana-Ma (1970) - electroacoustic tape; S.709 (1994) - electroacoustic tape
Although the number of Xenakis electronic compositions represent a small percentage of his output, their historical importance is uncontested. Released by the Electronic Music Foundation, this is a critical addition to any electronic music collection.
Diamorphoses, Concret PH, and Orient-Occident are three of the most important electro-acoustic works composed at the Paris GRM (Group de Recherches Musicales) [1957-1962] studio which was run by noted electronic music pioneer, Pierre Schaeffer. The key to Xenakis music from this period lies in the concept of gradual transformation within a cloud of events. He would start with a complex sound and make it change imperceptibly, growing, and developing until an entirely new sound resulted. Xenakis likened this to “the onset of madness, when a person suddenly realizes that the an environment that had seemed familiar to him has now become altered in a profound threatening sense.”
Also on this disc is Hibiki-Hana-Ma (Reverberation-Flower-Interval) from the polytopes, and S.709 from Xenakis’ work at CEMMAMu. Hibiki-Hana-Ma was written for the 1970 Osaka Worlds Fair, and was one of Xenakis’ first attempts to create a synthesis of the arts, also known as the polytopes. The work is based solely on instrumental sounds, with an orchestra, a biwa and a snare drum having been recorded and reworked on analog tape.
S.709 dates from 1994 and is one of two compositions rendered with the program GENDYN which Xenakis developed to explore stochastic timbre. Xenakis refers to the process in these works as “dynamic stochastic synthesis”, and they are the culmination of Xenakis’ goal to create a unification of micro and macro composition by means of a “black box” which would realize an entire musical work on the basis of a few given parameters.
Xenakis Choral Music – Hyperion CDA 66980 (1998)
À Colone (1977) - male choir, horn, trombone, double bass; Medea (1967) - male choir, mixed ensemble (5) (New London Chamber Choir, Critical Band, James Wood - cond.); Nuits (1967) - mixed choir; Serment (1981) - mixed choir; Knephas (1990) - mixed choir (New London Chamber Choir, James Wood - cond.)
No Xenakis collection would be complete without some sampling of his works with voice. Xenakis’ great love of ancient theater, Greek philosophy and his mother tongue define the aesthetic for much of his vocal oeuvre. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the choral works are usually less abrasive than the instrumental works, making this a great introduction to Xenakis.
The works presented here fall into three categories: the first uses the voice without text as an orchestral instrument (Nuits and Knephas); the second uses a dramatic context and text as in Classical Theater (Medea); the third sets entire vocal texts in the original language and is sung by soloists (A Cologne and Serment). A Colone is a particularly powerful yet beautiful work with text from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Xenakis stated that ‘the melodic lines unite with the speech modulation of the fifth century B.C. while respecting the long and short values.’
There is not much that can be said about this album since it is flawless. Hyperion is a fine British label, known for impeccable production, and this disc will not let you down, the album is perfectly performed and recorded, and features extensive program notes in a 24 page booklet.
Here is a sampling of the critical acclaim this disc has received:
‘Nothing short of phenomenal. Here is one of the 20th century’s most important musical voices, and this recording does that voice full justice’ (Gramophone)
‘Staggering virtuosity. A likely disc of the year’ (The Sunday Times)
‘Achingly beautiful as well as aesthetically satisfying. I can’t imagine a better representation of the vocal work both in program and performance. This is an absolute Must Have for everyone’ (Fanfare, USA)
Iannis Xenakis - Accord 205652 (1996)
Anaktoria (1969) - mixed ensemble (8) (Octuor de Paris); Oophaa (1989) - harpsichord, percussion (Elisabeth Chojnacka, Sylvio Gualda); Charisma (1971) - clarinet, cello (Alain Damiens, Pierre Strauch); Mists (1981) - piano solo (Claude Helffer); Mikka (1971), Mikka ‘S’ (1976) - violin solo (Maryvonne Le Dizès - violin); Morsima-Amorsima (1962) - violin, cello, double bass, piano (Jacqueline Mefano - piano, members of the Octuor de Paris)
Many of the musicians performing on this record are closely associated with the composer and the first work on the album Anaktoria is performed here by Octour de Paris for whom the work was written. The group has played the piece over 150 times, and this performance is exceptional.
Oophaa is typical of Xenakis’ small-scale works, with a more rhetorical than textural approach, though this combination of instruments in itself presents new sound possibilities for textural antiphony. The work slowly builds from delicate symmetrical interplay to a heated debate with the percussion growing in size and volume, and the harpsichord ever denser until the percussion takes over at the piece’s golden mean.
Charisma is finely performed by Alain Damiens and Pierre Strauch, both long time champions of Xenakis and players who are not afraid to get in your face. Strauch is the ideal cellist for this piece, having recorded the cello solo Nomos Alpha, his command over the extended techniques required for this music is stupefying.
Also special on this record is Claude Helffer’s performance of the piano solo Mists and the two violin solos Mikka and Mikka ‹‹S››, performed by Maryvonne Le Dizès.
This album has a very warm sound, is perfectly recorded, and benefits from presenting mostly small-scale works whose details are easier to represent on a CD.
Iannis Xenakis: Kraanerg - Asphodel-Sombient 0975 (1997)
Kraanerg (1969) - mixed ensemble (23), electroacoustic tape (ST/X Ensemble, Charles Zachary Bornstein - cond., Paul D. Miller - diffusion)
This is an essential album for Xenakis fans. Kraanerg (Kraan for accomplishment, erg for energy) is a 74 minute work which in its subtext is a “biological revolution” between the younger and older generations, predicted in the wake of the European youth movements that occurred in Paris in 1968.
This version is a live recording of a concert given in Cooper Union on November 12, 1996, and for anyone who was there it was a momentous occasion, with such luminaries present in the audience as Borbeto-Magus, Sonic Youth, and Xenakis himself.
There are now two versions of this work out now, the other being by the Alpha Centauri Ensemble, on Etcetera Records, but this version is light years better for many reasons. The recording is crisp and highly detailed enabling the brilliance of ST-X to shine through.
Iannis Xenakis 2 - Auvidis Montaigne MO 782058 (1995)
La légende d’Eer (1977) - electroacoustic tape
This album presents the entire 46 minute electronic work La légende d’Eer, a work which was premiered in 1978 at the Centre Pompidou, with an 11-loudspeaker system, laser columns and 1600 strobe lights. The work takes the listener on a 46-minute voyage beginning with the opening ear-test’ sounds to a landscape both ancient and futuristic punctuated by stellar signals and cicadas, and underworlds populated by demons and Furies.
Realized with an early incarnation of the UPIC system, the work incorporates the recorded sounds of African and Japanese instruments, and a variety of noises which were processed at the studios of WDR Cologne.
Pléïades / Psappha - BIS CD 482 (1991)
Pléïades (1978) - percussion ensemble (6) (Kroumata Percussion Ensemble)
Pléiades is a percussion sextet, and was commissioned by the ensemble Les Six Percussions de Strasbourg. The work has four movements and three of these derive their sounds from the instruments used. The first movement, Metaux features the performers playing an instrument invented by Xenakis called a SIXXEN. It consists of 19 metal plates of irregular pitch, using alternate 1/3 and 1/4-tone intervals. The second movement, Claviers is written for vibraphones, marimba, xylophone, and xylorimba. Peaux is for instruments with skin and Mélanges mixes all of these elements.
Psappha, written in 1976 and dedicated to Sylvio Gualda, is a strong rhythmical piece with timbre used only for clarity in voicing. The music is written out on three to nine staves and uses fifteen different instruments, at one point ten at once.
Though these works are available elsewhere, there is a certain celestial quality about Kroumata’s versions in their synthesis of great performances, enormous recording spaces, and fine BIS production.
Xenakis: Ensemble Music 2 - Mode MOD 56 (1996)
Échange (1989) - bass clarinet, mixed ensemble (13) (Michael Lowenstern - bass clarinet, ST/X Ensemble); Okho (1989) - percussion trio (Pablo Rieppi, Robert McEwan, David Rozenblatt) XAS (1987) - saxophone quartet (Susan Cook, John Engebretson, Shawn Tracy, Mathew Cashman); Akrata (1965) - wind ensemble (16) A la Mémorie de Witold Lutoslawski (1994) - trumpets (2), horns (2); (ST/X Ensemble, Charles Zachary Bornstein - cond.)
ST-X Ensemble is dedicated exclusively to performing Xenakis and the level of playing and dedication to the music is unmatched. The ensemble was formed in 1994 by Charles Zacharie Bornstein after learning that out of 700-800 performances annually of Xenakis’ work, only 3 or 4 were coming from the United States. Bornstein has amassed some of the best and brightest musicians around to form the group, and they have earned recognition as the premier ensemble for performing the music of Xenakis.
At the recent Xenakis festival in Lisbon, Portugal, I had the opportunity to hear ST-X perform several of the works on this album, including Échange, the seventeen minute Bass Clarinet concerto. Soloist Michael Lowenstern presents an informed and emotionally charged interpretation of this work, which is perhaps one of Xenakis’ darkest pieces. Having had a heart attack while composing the work, the work deals intensely with his feelings on mortality.
Ohko was composed in 1989 for the Trio Le Cercle. This 14-minute work, written for three players each playing an African Djembe drum, begins with a rhythmically simple opening and develops into complex stochastically dense polyrhythm. The recording is crisp and detailed, and makes this disc worth the price of admission.
Also notable is the first recording of A la Mémorie de Witold Lutoslawski for 2 trumpets and 2 horns which features a strong performance by members of the Manhattan Brass Quintet Gregory Evans and Wayne DuMaine, the premiere interpreters of Xenakis’ music for Brass.
Xenakis - Varèse - Mode MOD 58 (1997)
Dämmerschein (1994) – orchestra; Persephassa (1969) - percussion ensemble (6) (La Déesse Athéna (1992) - baritone, percussion, ensemble (10), Philip Larson - baritone, Timothy Adams - percussion, Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic, Juan Pablo Izquierdo - cond.)
This is a nice addition to the collection for the voluminous Dämmerschein (1994) for large orchestra, the percussion work Persephassa (1969) and La Déesse Athéna (1992) for baritone, percussion and ensemble. Baritone Philip Larsen is flawless and the orchestral and ensemble performances are admirable. As is expected from Mode, the sound quality is cold, harsh, undetailed, and impoverished. [If you must listen to this album, try putting your CD player through a tube EQ, or other vinylizer filtering.]
Iannissimo! - Vandenburg VAN 0003 (1997)
Waarg (1988) - mixed ensemble (13); Charisma (1971) - clarinet, cello (Michiyo Suzuki - clarinet, Dan Barrett - cello); Analogiques A + B (1958) - string ensemble (9), electroacoustic tape (Paul D. Miller - diffusion); Thalleïn (1984) - mixed ensemble (14); Herma (1961) - piano solo (Justin Rubin - piano); Palimpsest (1979) - mixed ensemble (11) (ST/X Ensemble, Charles Zachary Bornstein - cond.)
Ianissimo! is a collection of small-scale works spanning a large section of Xenakis’ career (1958-1988).
The performances are rich and discriminating as has been the case with all the ST-X Ensemble releases, and Charles Zacharie Bornstein glues it together with a quasi-Frankensteinian obsession.
The album presents a wealth of varied material, from the piano solo Herma, the Clarinet/Cello duet Charisma, to the ensemble works, Waarg, Analogiques A+B, Thalleïn, and the Piano concerto Palimpsest.
Waarg, which is ancient Greek for ‘work’, has been called by C.Z. Bornstein “an absolutely stunning étude of elegant primitivism.” The work exploits a repeated Byzantine microtonal scale, which is clustered and scattered at different convergences.
Analogiques A+B is actually two pieces, one for nine strings and one for electronic tape, which have been synchronized and merged. The two works yield a fascinating layered sonority, though the mixing between the two leaves much to be desired. This version features Paul Miller/DJ Spooky hitting the start button on an ADAT for the electronic interludes, and is highlighted by the fact that this is the only currently available version of this classic piece.
Charisma subtly explores the timbral qualities of clarinet and cello, juxtaposing their similarities and distinctions simultaneously. It is often hard to distinguish between the two, and the performance by Dan Barrett and Michiyo Suzuki is graceful and deafening.
Thalleïn gets off to an utterly paralyzing first chord blast but loses rhythmic inertia due to acoustical problems, dynamic imbalances between the brass and strings, and lack of definition in the piano. (Listeners are advised to check out the Erato version under Michel Tabachnik, which features a tighter, though more French, performance and a far superior recording.
Xenakis: Ensemble Music 1 - Mode MOD 53 (1996)
Plektó (1993) - mixed ensemble (6); Eonta (1963) - piano, brass ensemble (5) (Justin Rubin - piano); Akanthos (1977) - soprano, mixed ensemble (8) (Susan May - soprano); Rebonds (1988) - percussion solo (Robert McEwan - percussion); N-Shima (1975) - female voices (2), mixed ensemble (5) (Catherine Aks, April Lindevald - voices, ST/X Ensemble, Charles Zachary Bornstein - cond.)
This album was recorded live at the Thread Waxing Space, New York City in June of 1995, and features a varied set of works dating from 1962-1993. The inherent “livens” of the album is not a problem, but the ambience and sub-standard recording techniques are.
All of the works whose rhetorical language is indebted to sonic elements here ill represented. The vast complexities and sonic tidal waves that manifest in works such as Eonta or Plékto are indiscernible through muck-filled recordings, which are further hindered through incomplete mastering. This is especially apparent in Eonta, whose cascading piano washes sound more like dark splashes from New York’s East River.
Both vocal works, N’Shima, and Akanthos use the voice texturally, and thus also suffer from distorted representation.
The most appealing work on the album is the percussion solo Rebonds a & b, brilliantly executed by percussionist Robert McEwan. The recording still lacks low-end, but is clearer sounding than the rest of this album.
Though ST-X does an excellent job with the music, such poor recordings more often than not short-circuit the compositional-sonic intent, and leave the listener bewildered and dissatisfied. It is clear that Mode underestimated the technological demands for capturing Xenakis in recording, and as is evident from their other releases in this series, they aren’t rising to the challenge. We can only credit Mode for making these works available to hear as semblances of a far richer universe only to be experienced directly.
Xenakis: Live in New York - Vandenburg VAN 0001 (1997)
Phlegra (1975) - mixed ensemble (11); Kuïlenn (1995) - wind ensemble (9); Kaï (1995) - mixed ensemble (9); Epicycles (1989) - cello, mixed ensemble (12) (Dan Barrett - cello, ST/X Ensemble, Charles Zacharie Bornstein - cond.)
Xenakis: Live in New York presents a fresh and energetic approach to this compilation of ensemble works. The harsh and abrasive Phlegra, a standard in the ST-X repertoire, is expressed with elegant verve and excitement not found elsewhere. Although the recordings lack detail, sonic warmth, low-end presence and balance, the performance’s relentless rhythmic intensity and inertial tempos do justice to the material.
ST-X is known especially for their elite brass and woodwind players, and Kuilenn for wind ensemble, the newest of Xenakis ensemble works, emerges as the highlight of this album.
Epicycles, a quasi cello concerto, features a sensitive and beautifully voiced performance by cellist Dan Barrett with the ensemble providing virtuosic support, including amazing performances by Oboist Jacqueline Leclair and flautist Paula Landry. Also on this album is an interesting live post-performance interview with Xenakis.
Iannis Xenakis - Neuma 450-86 (1994)
Aïs (1980) - baritone, percussion, orchestra (Philip Larson - baritone, Steven Schick - percussion, La Jolla Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Nee - cond.); Gendy3 (1991) - electroacoustic tape; Taurhiphanie (1987) - electroacoustic tape; Thalleïn (1984) - mixed ensemble (14) (SONOR Ensemble, Rand Steiger - cond.)
This disc presents two of Xenakis’ most important electronic works, Gendy3 and Taurhiphanie. Gendy3, which stands for “general dynamic stochastic synthesis”, was entirely produced by a computer program written by the composer in 1991, and is one of the composer’s most thoroughly stochastic works (both the macrostructure and the sonic materials are stochastically generated.)
Taurhiphanie is a work whose sound materials are based on recordings of bellowing bulls. Digitized waveforms derived from these established the work’s sound palette.
The non-computer-generated works on this album are an abomination. If you need to hear Aïs, this version does feature the wonderful Philip Larson who does a magnificent job with the baritone solo, but is otherwise marred by poor orchestral performances, and poor sound quality. I advise the listener to absolutely not bother listening to this version of Thalleïn except to delight in the sheer novelty of hearing the opening be ruined by a mysterious error in which the introduction of Aïs is played while the dramatic bursting opening chord of Thalleïn is buried, thus rendering this track USELESS. This is just one more blatant example of the complete lack of quality that has infected the American classical record scene.
Xenakis- Candide CE 31060 (1970) (LP only, out of print)
Terretektorh (1965/66) Nomos Gamma (1969)
This is a hard to find LP from 1970, and is included here because it is so far the only recording I know of where the orchestra is actually seated in the audience, and because these two very important works are not included on any current CD release. The recording is analog and is mixed well, in wide stereo, with a wealth of motion, which attempts to represent Xenakis’ “sonotron”, or “accelerator of sonorous particles.”
This article originally appeared in the journal Sound Collector, which was a project of Laris Kreslins, Volume 5, September, 2000