Perspective: Xenakis—48 Hours In a Surreal Soundscape

Little did I know that the Baylor Percussion Group’s performance of Peaux at Fast Forward Austin last month would be but a glimpse of things to come. Curated by Matthew Teodori, the recent festival Perspective: Xenakis featured local, national, and international performers and scholars plying their wares around Austin. A festival of the music of Xenakis might at first blush seem to be better presented in the rocky and otherworldly terrain around Phoenix, or perhaps one could just double down and hold it on the moon. Ben Watson’s description of Xenakis’s work as “…a music of truly majestic otherness…an alien shard, glimmering in the heart of the West” fits glove-like this strange, visceral, and largely explosive music. Held at three venues over two days, the festival was dedicated to the chamber works of the composer and architect.

Pleiades performance at the Floating House - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Pleiades performance at the Floating House - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The Floating Box House, from which one could see downtown Austin framed by gently rolling hills, was a pretty rarified venue for the opening concert of the festival. Located on a sizeable parcel of land in the woodsy area of Westlake, the remote location had both an expansive and intimate feeling which nicely mirrored the ensemble percussion of the evening. The Meehan/Perkins Duo was joined by line upon line percussion and Timothy Briones to perform Persephassa and Pléïades. The six percussionists surrounded the audience on the tree filled front lawn of the property, an invitation to look around as Persephassa opened with a slow pulse that developed into polyrhythms. This material slipped and slammed through timpani glissandos and unison floor toms, building to a head before screeching to a halt; a significant pause which was filled uncannily with breeze and spare birdcalls. Real wind and real birds. It was the kind of moment that would have seemed contrived in a film but was breathtaking in the real world. Rejoining the avian conversation were gongs, woodblocks, and wooden simantras that mimicked woodpeckers. Delicate tremolo built to violent attacks which in turn dwindled to sotto voce muttering among the instruments, interrupted by short bursts. The 6.1 Surround Sound effect that was created, part of Xenakis’s work in spatialization, was palpable as lines spun around the audience in swelling crescendos, complemented with thundersheets and whistles which, when all was said and done, left the audience in silence, all except for a few crickets who checked in as the birds made their way out. Following a brief intermission and set change, the percussionists set up in front of the house in a more conventional configuration for Pléïades. As dusk settled in, the sixxen, sounding every bit a mini-carillon, lent a solemn air to the first movement. Overtones piled up in layers and provided a bit of respite from the onslaught of the first piece. The second movement, “Claviers featured vibes and marimba, magical textures conjured in the center of the musicians and chased by delicate, childlike runs across the space. Of course, the following movements, “Peaux and “Melanges,” put an end to childish things, the final movement combining the instruments of the previous three and bringing the work to a dramatic, athletic close.

Michael Zell - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Michael Zell - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

St. Elias Eastern Orthodox Church was the site for the solo portions of the festival. Performances of Rebonds and Psappha by percussionist Michael Zell bookended trombonist Steve Parker’s performance of Keren, Xenakis’s only wind solo. Pianist Michelle Schumann, an eminently physical performer, was unrelenting in her performances of Evryali and Herma. These performances were preceded by a showing of Something Rich and Strange, a BBC2 documentary film made by Dennis Marks and one of the festival scholars Nouritza Matossian. Matossian was joined by Benoit Gibson after each performance for a Q&A session, as well as more formal presentations at the Butler School as part of the festival.

JACK Quartet - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

JACK Quartet - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The term “surreal” has lost much of its currency through both mis- and overuse. Often used casually to indicate something that is simply weird, it’s worth remembering that the hallucinatory and dreamlike qualities it should indicate are most sharply experienced through juxtaposition. Watching the JACK Quartet playing the complete string quartets of Xenakis in front of a fireplace with a widescreen TV mounted above it in a very lovely but decidedly suburban home (I live in one of these, it should be noted) was, for me, surreal. Watching violinist Ari Streisfeld negotiate some of the most challenging music ever written for anything while sitting before to a curio cabinet was surreal. Experiencing some of the few moments of quiet and delicacy in these pieces while some insane person emptied chips into a bowl (did I mention that this was one of those open concept kitchen/living room arrangements?) was actually more surreal than infuriating, though the latter was definitely a close second. Challenging music for a challenging venue, no doubt, but JACK simply tore everyone’s face off. Truly, hearing this much Xenakis in a 48-hour period does a number on your wiring, but it was really amazing to experience the relativity of dissonance, to see what your ears can handle if thrown in the deep end and asked to swim [1]. From the big chunky chords of Ergma, bristling and metallic, almost like distortion, to the special-effects bonanza of Tetras, JACK pulled everyone into the alien landscape, and while there were a few folks initially who were not sure if they arrived at the right house, I can tell you that the standing ovation (granted, many of us stood the whole time, but anyway…) went on for some time, and that the Q&A with JACK had to be cut short even though there were several hands in the air at the end.

The plan is to do one of these Perspective festivals every three years, and given the level of performance and coordination on display, I can understand why Teodori might want to take a bit of a break before launching into another. Having said that, I’m really quite interested in seeing who and what is coming down the pike. It’s wonderful to hear a work or two by a given composer, but to spend several days steeped in a particular language, especially one as esoteric and distinct as Xenakis’s, is a different thing altogether. In some ways, it felt a bit like the shared experience of going to a rock concert. You know the tunes, you know the group, and for the most part you’re around people who are on the same page. As we approach mid-year, I still haven’t tired of the Cage retrospectives and I’m more than looking forward to the Rite of Spring centennial, which I imagine will generate more than a few satellite concerts of Stravinsky’s other works. These focused events are just the ticket in a world of hyperdistraction, where if you’re not careful, a few clicks and a few hours later you’ve YouTubed your evening away. It was fantastic to unplug for a while and hang out with Xenakis, and I’m looking forward to catching up with other old friends in a few years.

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1. Dude, that is surreal.

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  1. Pingback: Perspective: Xenakis « a n d r e w s i g l e r

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