Skrayyp of chairs.
We are in an acoustically designed space, open wooden floored, and wall panels.
“I think I’m getting feedback from putting this on the table”.
Shuffles and snuffles as the audience enters.
Male voice, “It’s great”.
Female voice, “You have to imagine we’ve come on to tremendous applause”.
Mattosian introduces de Saram and begins the story of Xenakis and his traumatic life, which is, for her as a biographer, key to understanding his work. She describes Xenakis as an outsider, a role he felt natural with, and in many ways, he adopted this persona. She sees Xenakis as both a scientist and an artist investigating the world and sonorising the results. He composed in a very systematic way, but balanced this with a great deal of intuition and gave himself the freedom to change his compositions if a more effective solution presented itself to him, that did not fit with his compositional strategy.
Xenakis grew up in Greece, and as a young man was very influenced by Plato and Marx. Following Mussolini’s invasion of his homeland and the subsequent occupation by Nazi forces, he was part of the communist resistance. The social chaos he experienced during this period, was to crop up again and again in his creative works, and this dynamic between continuity and discontinuity is apparent in many of his compositions. Following the defeat of the Axis forces, Churchill attacked and bombed Athens in an effort to drive out leftist forces from positions of influence. Xenakis himself was directly affected by this, he lost an eye from an explosion of shrapnel and was dragged out from a pile of dead bodies by his father.
He went into a long period of depression, and was forced into hiding as the right came into power. His father secured him a false passport and Xenakis was able to leave to France where he begin working for the architect Le Corbusier.
He was quickly recognised as a very capable young man, and by 195x had been trusted by Le Corbusier to design the façade of _________, a musically inspired screen of glass.
At the same time he composed a new piece which used the same principles, namely a modular approach based on the Fibonacci series. Here we see his profound sense of continuity, in this case, a highly original connectivity between architectural and musical composition. He was always inspired by nature, and more specifically the mathematics underlying the continuum of natural order to disorder.
The piece of music which is now to be presented to us is an example of Xenakis’ systematic mathematical approach towards composition. ‘Nomos Alpha’, a piece for solo cello is based upon the rotation of a cube. The piece is in 24 sections, 8 movements in each section, each one being unique.
The piece uses glissandi and microtonal beatings in a manner specific to string instrument, as well as extended bow techniques (for example using the back of the bow).
Slight feedback from rear speakers.
“This is Nomos Alpha”.
Unamplified solo cello.
A switching of instruments as the piece requires the lowest string to be detuned an octave. This is an unusual solution.
A second switch of instruments.
Creak of floorboards.
Footsteps approaching returning the detuned cello.
The sound of the cello scraping the floor as the assistant sits down as quietly as he can.
Little cough from a bald man in the row in front of me.
Someone clears their throat behind me.
de Saram tightens the lowest string. CHunnnNk.
Unanticipated electronic beep from my mobile which gains unwanted attention. It makes me nervous and I almost blush. The man next to me takes off his spectacles in a show of pointed annoyance.
Applause. Slightly more than polite.
She then provides a biographers’ analysis of the work. He argument follows that systematic compositional gridding provided a framework for Xenakis to work through his traumatic experience of wartime Greece. She tells us an anecdote from much earlier in Xenakis’ life which remained close to his heart; an occasion when he was in a tent at night hearing sounds from all around him. She argues that his creative work is a psychological outward projection, recreating a damaged internal universe experienced in a synaesthetic nightmare of sound and light. She goes further to describe Xenakis’ conception of ‘l’effect combine’ and his love of creating son et lumiere spectacles, and his early effort to establish a centre for computer music with an especial emphasis on spatialised sound, as more or less directly related to the personal trauma he experienced during the Allied bombing of his hometown.
Her argument is alluring directly following the intense and fractured experience of hearing Nomos Alpha. Discontinuity is evident, the effect of the work is violent, and providing a vision of an ancient city being bombed by a supposed ally, does give a greater sense of Xenakis’ aims. Listening to this work, not in terms of formalistic musical composition, (harmonic progression, chordal structure etc), but instead as a psycho-mathematical creative engagement by an extraordinary man with the specifics of an extraordinary multi-sensory violence, indicates commonalities with such other real-world elements of sound art discourse as musique concrete, and Cageian ‘all sound’.
The next piece to be presented is ‘Kotos’, a work from 195x inspired by the concept of ‘l’effect combine’
The solo cello piece begins.
There is intense listening happening in the room. Some eyes are closed. Heads are bent, almost in prayer. Hands on mouths, stifling speech perhaps. The speech of oneself, and that of others. All silenced in front of such a troubled life, half a face destroyed by Churchill.
Someone’s stomach gurgles at the end of the piece.
“We will have a ten minute break”.
I go outside to get some air. The wind is fierce and refreshing.
Returning into the space, a 12 piece orchestra is warming up. A fantastic sound of chaos. Not so dissimilar to the last piece we heard.
People take their seats.
Dok A microphone is tapped. She begins to speak about the last period of his life.
Female voice, “…is this working…?”
“…Bah…I never have lunch…”
In this period Xenakis established an automated music centre where children could draw and hear resultant sound almost immediately.
Slight feedback from clip mic.
“…it’s up to you to figure out how this all fits together at the end of the night.”
Orchestra tunes up.
The performance begins.
This is wonderful sound. Spatialised, rich, co-ordinated, contradictory. Atonal. Acoustic.
Someone’s stomach gurgles during a dramatic pause.
Warm brass swells accompanying scratchy solo violin.
Flutes, gentle over the top.
Warm brass swells with woodwind.
Syncopated flutes and clarinets.
Angular solo cello scratches at the notes.
It is rare for me to see such co-ordinated sound making.
Listening seems easy for the audience, me included.
The cellist’s intonation seems slightly off. Can I trust my ears?
Is it intended?
I am fascinated by the jerky broken toy actions of the conductor, and I do not understand how his actions relate to the sounds I am hearing.
Male voice, “She will be signing copies of the Xenakis biography in the foyer.”
Female voice, “She should write a biography of Rohan. A fascinating life.”
Chat and shuffling as people leave.
Present in the room are Jonty Harrison, Thor Magnusson, Keith Rowe, Christina Kubisch, members of the Sonic Arts Network, various composers, sound artists and students. Sound art discourse as embodied experience.