Tag Archives: Iannis Xenakis

2016BIFEM: Peter de Jager, Marathon (1)

Review by Bec Scully

Greek mathematical geniuses are no stranger to history: Euclid of the distance and Pythagoras of the triangle, to start with. Using his own 20th-Century mathematical genius to create musical structures of a completely other aesthetic dimension, Iannis Xenakis, expanded the rhythmic and musical conceptual capacities of countless musicians. He consolidated hitherto untethered art processes of music and architecture, allowing composers to see that they may follow the same conceptual paths as mathematicians.

But Xenakis was famously fired as a student by Honegger for his creations which he claimed ‘weren’t music’. A prodigious architect for Le Corbusier, Xenakis entered the post-WWII scene of Paris music with his power to realise majestic physical structures of beauty, and sheer will to apply these musically foreign processes to sound structures. The great Messiaen saw something quite different in Xenakis’ untrained potential, and in what has to be the most hilarious doctoral thesis defence ever given, instead of grilling Xenakis on the canon, Messiaen began by insisting Xenakis himself was a giant figure in music for creating a new system while Xenakis sincerely attempted to defend a position of modesty.

Xenakis saw beauty in line and not just in the simplistic pitch/time functions of the original Cartesian planes we call staves. He took our parameters of slow-fast, soft-loud, short-long and high-pitch-low-pitch and brought to our equal attention those we tend not to think of in such explicit terms: disorder-order, resonance-decay, density (musical events per second)-emptiness until musical events become complex multi-dimensional systems normally only comfortably contemplated by physicists. But today Xenakis’ multidimensional musical algorithms are the mental test for contemporary musicians.

The parameter of disorder-to-order is the most pertinent in this music as it reflects Xenakis’ deep sense of cultural and social responsibility in his art. He believed that artistic forms created environments for political structures, and that without allowances for random events and aggregations, if the standard deviation is too low in music, could amount to an expression of totalitarianism. Therefore the keyboard works build upon scaffolds of unpredictability, in places literally unplayable in all prescribed dimensions meaning that the performer’s choice as to how best realise the ideal is integral to the works. In 2008 Daniel Grossman realised these same works that de Jager explores but used computer MIDI programming and so missed Xenakis’ concept entirely in terms of both political ideals, closing off the potential for Xenakis’ intended transformation of the performer.

Peter de Jager’s choice to perform these 5 works shows artistic integrity, mental might, and chops, chops, chops. He played 2 marathon concerts of the same program and I, like others in the audience, attended the first and returned for the second. In Evryali, de Jager’s Dous, lasseir lines were fluid and sweeping, a complete other world to the chopping, rhythmic play of the opening, leading to the most beautiful execution of the sparse, pointillistic 7 bars, each note created with unique astral intensity and placement. De Jager creates uncannily clear contrapuntal journeys via the expansive block chords, remaining true to close, lower-register voicing, eliciting the most captivatingly secure and organically transfigured syncopations.

De Jager’s Khoaï is high drama for the left hand, with digital beep codes in the upper register for the right, both conveyed without tainting and impressively unreactive to each other. The thumping of the harpsichord’s pedals lends the piece the quality of a censored organ’s foot manual, determined to be heard regardless. The expansions of register with increasingly drastic changes of tone were spine-tingling. Wild polyrhythms with both dynamic and timbral short leashes made de Jager a musical lion tamer. After the landmark bar’s silence, the sextuplets, quintuplet and nested triplets and duplets are hair-raisingly energised. A spectacularly expectation-thwarting ending of an exponential-like reduction of musical density and energy drops seemingly towards silence only to be interrupted by a final shattering resonance. Returning to the piano timbre for Mists brings us back to the expansive resonances that evoke the title of the piece. Beginning with a juicy B-flat bass line repeated only twice, enough for de Jager to convey a moment of the jazz idiom with weight and placement for our ears to sink into. The first phrase ends with a tense resonant cluster, and in the second the resonance-structure seemingly hovers over the piano, vividly realised with angelic tone-colour.

Naama, far from the nebula of Mists, hits out with clear lines of time marking and a gradual increase in intensity, tempered by skipping rhythms. The insistent metallic power chords lead from a controlled robotic waltz, to ironic anthem, and then return. De Jager pounds the low register to the limit and gives serious anchorage to frenetic rhythms. This motif then leads to cascading right hand passages.

For the final work, the epic Herma, de Jager uses a sensitive touch and a tempo that allows the space to breathe. He employs formal rigour and thematic pitch sets, with weighted meaningful legato contrasting with the stamping resonances of the final grandly integrated super-pitch-set. De Jager chokes the final chord and springs away from the keyboard so abruptly that these musical models keep pounding away in the listeners’ minds long after the rounds and rounds of standing ovations and cheers and whoops subside.

Alternating between piano and harpsichord was perhaps a kindness to the marathan-related-risk of audience timbral saturation, and the instrument swap every piece is testament to Peter de Jager’s physical dexterity and adaptability. The symmetrical programming of the works seemed a little classically formed but I guess a stochastic method could still result in this same form. But this wouldn’t bother Messiaen… I happily promulgate the event of the local bird-life resonantly chirping accompaniment to de Jager’s performance of Mists as a cheeky, symbolic nod of approval from Messiaen.

Peter de Jager
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Trades Hall
3 September 2016
Iannis Xenakis, Evryali, Khoaï, Mists, Naama, Herma

BIFEM: Phoebe Green, Iti Ke Mi

Phoebe Green. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Phoebe Green. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Review by Matthew Lorenzon

The intimate solo recitals at the Old Fire Station have become a BIFEM tradition. The prestigious afternoon and late-night slots are a recognition of a performer’s unique contribution to new music in Australia. Violist Phoebe Green has been commissioning new work from some of the most distinctive voices in Australian music since 2005. She marked a decade of commitment to new music with a dynamic program of new works and modern masterpieces for her instrument.

Violists also have a way of adding an extra dimension to their performances, whether it’s Alexina Hawkins performing an arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in her recent ANAM recital or, in this case, performing one of Iannis Xenakis’s athletic works while eight-and-a-half months pregnant. The extra dimension in question here has heard every moment of Green’s concert preparation, from the whispering bows of Luke Paulding’s Repose and Vertigo in Diluvial Light to the metallic churning of Pierluigi Billone’s Iti Ke Mi. Green is definitely the queen of multitasking.

The Melbourne-based composer Luke Paulding is known for his complexly sensuous palette. It was therefore surprising to hear the stripped-back second outing of his viola work Repose and Vertigo in Diluvial Light. The work’s electronic part has been removed, leaving only the viola’s breath-like muted bowing and vertiginous harmonics. Variations of bow pressure save the piece from being entirely schematic. The performer must still lean in to certain delicious tones, like a distant memory of human feeling after the flood. The piece is a hushed song at the end of the world, a faulty remembrance of things past.

Standing imperious, proud, and definitely pregnant, Green launched into the muscular double-stops of Xenakis’ Embellie. Embellie is a unique work within Xenakis’ output, being his only solo viola work and his last solo piece. Embellie also exhibits the folksong-like quality of parts of his later works. Green brought out the lyricism of Xenakis’ bespoke microtonal mode, a difficult feat given the work’s proliferation of double-stops and leaps.

Dialling Xenakis’ elemental energy down a notch, Green was joined on stage by percussionist Leah Scholes for the première of Juliana Hodkinson’s touching and humorous Harriet’s Song. The piece seems to be a musico-theatrical meditation on familial relationships. Scholes and Green play ethereal, almost inaudible tones on vibraphone and viola. Then suddenly, Scholes darts out a pair of scissors at one of the many objects dangling by fishing wire from a microphone stand. A bell clashes to the ground, or a feather lightly floats away. At one point Scholes sharpens a knife and cuts three objects off at once. One’s eye lingers expectantly on the small glass hanging precariously from the fishing wire. The process could continue until all of the objects have shattered on the ground, but Green saves us from this antagonistic fate. Green detaches a music box from the stand and starts humming along to its tune. The piece concludes with Scholes gently accompanying the lullaby on the vibraphone and the rest of the hanging objects.

Green swapped violas for Pierluigi Billone’s Iti Ke Mi. Played with sweeping circular bows that pass from the fingerboard, past the bridge, and onto the tailpiece, the piece therefore requires a tailpiece without fine tuners. Green conjured incredible, shifting tones out of the viola. The wood of the bow on the fingerboard sounds metallic, while the tailpiece emits a deep groan. These sounds are not clearly delineated, but swept up in a whirling timbral vortex. Making broad circles with her arm across the whole instrument and sliding her left hand up and down the fingerboard, the piece begins completely fluidly. There are no static pitches or timbres, only movement. As the piece progresses, the performer’s movements slowly become tighter. Very slowly. The piece is extremely long and I fail to see the waypoints that justify it being so. Eventually the sounds occasionally stop “in the throat” of the instrument and about ten minutes later the piece ends with a whimper.

I am a viola convert. With its larger dimensions and deeper range, the viola is an ideal instrument for extended techniques. Creaks, scratches, and harmonics resonate that little bit longer and are that little bit richer than the violin. After Green’s recital I questioned why anyone would ever again write an extended-techniques work for the violin.

Phoebe Green
Iti Ke Mi
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
The Old Fire Station
6 September 2015
Matthew Lorenzon