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Electronic Music by Xenakis

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    The number of works of electronic music produced by Iannis Xenakis represents only a slight percentage of his overall output (roughly one-ninth including mixed-media works coupling live instruments with tape). Nevertheless, their historical importance in this relatively new realm of music remains uncontested, They can be catalogued into four groups, each corresponding as well to a spedfic period: those composed in the Paris GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales) studio (1957 - 5962); works intended for multi-media productions, namely the famous Polytopes (1969 - 1977); pieces conceived and composed with the help of UPIC 1 (1978 -1989); and finally, compositions based on the computer program GENDYN (since 1991). This CD includes the main works from the first period, one from the second period, and one from the last.

    In 1954. when Xenakis first entered the GRM studIo, it was run by Pierre Schaeffer, the inventor of the expression “musique concrete.” There, he composed Diamorphoses (1957), Concret PH (1958), the tape of Analogique (Analogique B, 1959), Orient-Occident (1960), and Bohor (1962). These first electronic works were in phase with his instrumental works from the same period - except for,perhaps, Orient-Occident - and this is why they can be radically distinguished from the electronic works composed during the same period by his contemporaries who also worked In the GRM studio (Schaeffer himself, Pierre Henry, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen...). In the same manner,X enakis’ first instrumental music immediately distinguished itself from the ambient serialism of the then musical avant-garde.

    Diamorphoses provided an opportunity for Olivier Messiaen to render tribute to his former student: “The preliminary calculations of these huge spider-webs are transformed into a musical delight of the utmost poetic nature.” (2) Messiaen was certaintly thinking of the passage of glissandi between 6:oo and 6:16, but in essence, his comment could be applied to the entire piece. Diamorphoses is, in fact, based on a specific formal preoccupation: a sort of study of white noise and its graduations through the process of densification. (3) However, the musical result is far from the genre of an “etude” due perhaps to its ternary form - not unlike many of Xenakis’ instrumental works - which gives a certain ‘dramatic’ effect. In another connection, the listener can easily distinguish the origins of certain sound sources used: earthquakes, a plane taking off, or bells.

    The World Fair took place in Brussels in 1958. At the time. Xenakis was working as an engineer and architect for Le Corbusier, and conceived the extremely original Philips Pavilion for the event. Concret PH (“PH” for the Hyperbolic Paraboloids which characterize the Pavilion’s architecture) was played between two performances of Varese’s Poeme Electronique. Both works were performed via 400 speakers inside of the structure. This very short work is a sound continuum without a single break. Xenakis pre-recorded crackling embers from which he extracted very brief (one second) sound elements. Then he assembled them in huge quantities, varying their density each time. This work can be compared to his instrumental preoccupations concerning "clouds of sound" during the same period.

    One of the first histories of electronic music ever written (4) already refers to Orient-Occident as a major masterpiece for tape. And it is worth pointing out that it happens to be one of Xenakis’ "easier works" probably due to the narrative project behind its composition. Orient-Occident was conceived as a music for a film by Enrico Fulchignoni commissioned by UNESCO. It traces The film’s development which relates the passage from one civilization to another from prehistoric times to Alexander the Great. Although it is certain that Xenakis did not compose an “illustrative” music, some of his chosen sonorities are quite suggestive. For example, the highly reverberated atmosphere toward the end (beginning at 8:oo) seems to evoke the later civilizations of Antiquity marked by a special sensuality.

    Bohor is dedicated to Pierre Schaeffer who, however, didn’t appreciate it at all. “Bohor was in the worst case (I do mean, best) the wood fires of his beginnings. No longer were we dealing with the crackling of small embers (Concret PH), but with a huge firecracker, an offensive accumulation of whacks of a scalpel in your ears at the highest level on the potentiometer.”(5) he declared with his usual sense of humor ... It is true that Xenakis’ “Fauvism” here achieves new limits that only a few later instrumental works such as Persephassa dare to surpass: an extraordinary and deafening sound continuum where the listener is invited, in a figurative sense, to hear bells chime while standing inside them! Will we ever know how Bohor, which follows no formal principle ever elucidated by Xenakis himself nor his critics, was composed?

    At the end of the 1960s, Xenakis attempted a synthesis of the arts; the result: his fomous 'polytopes'. Since these implied repeated performances, it was only natural that the sound source be on tape. However, Hibiki-Hana-Ma is based solely on instrumental sounds. Xenakis recorded and reworked sequesces played by an orchestra, a 'biwa', and a snare drum but never rendered them unrecognizable. Distributed over 12 tracks (and later reduced to 8), the work’s sonorities were elaborated in function of a highly pronounced spatialisation. The title of this piece, which was written For the Osaka World Fair in 1970, means “reverberation - flower -interval.”

    The GENDYN program, which Xenakis began working on in 1991 at CEMAMu completes the project he began in his instrumental works of the 1950s: how to create a “black box” which could realise an entire musical work on the basis of a few givens (of course, the composer is able to intervene and eliminate any chosen sequence). Generally speaking,the computer generates both the sound synthesis and the composition process itself without any breach between the two levels. Xenakis here manages to unify micro- and macrocomposition. The program consists of an algorithm which explores stochastic timbre more thoroughly than ever before, resulting in a waveform which then evolves constantly through the introduction of “polygonal variations” with the help of probability procedures. This is what Xenakis calls the process of “dynamic stochastic synthesis” (6) To date Xenakis has realised two works with this program: Gendy 3 (1991) and S.709 (1994. S.709 was premiered in Paris in December 1994 and is a marvelaus illustration of the GENDYN program’s capacities. Both the sounds produced in the piece as well as the global evolu-tion of the composition are literally unheard of: despite the abstract nature of the processes involved and their mechanical nature, the Xenakis sound world is immediately recognizable!

    (1) The UPIC is the musical “drawing board” developed by Xenakis and his team at the CEMAMu reseaich center in Paris, beginning in 1975.
    (2) Olivier Messiaen, “Preface”, in Revue Musicale no 244 1959, p.5.
    (3) Cf. Nouritza Matossian, Iannis Xenakis. Paris, Fayard 1981, p.148 and Baunt A. Varga, Conversations with Iannis Xenakis. London, Faber and Faber Ltd. p.110
    (4) Herbert Ruscol,The Liberation of Sound: An Introduction to Electronic Music, U.S.A. Prentice Hall, 1972, p.235
    (5) Pierre Schaeffer, "Chroniques xenakiennes", in Regards sur Iannis Xenakis, Paris, Stock, 1981 p.85
    (6) For a further description of "dynamic stochastic synthesis", cf. Iannis Xenakis, Formalised Music, 1992 edition with new texts compiled and edited by Sharon Kanach, Pendragon Press, pp. 289-293

    by Mark Solomis
    translated by Sharon Kanach
    Track Listings:
    1 Diamorphoses 6:53
    2 Concret PH 2:42
    3 Orient-Occident 10:56
    4 Bohor 21:36
    5 Hibiki-Hana-Ma 17:39
    6 S.709 7:03
    Total Time: 67:02
    Artist Name(s):
    Joel Chadabe, William Blakeney
    Release Year: 1997
    Album Type:
    Compact Disc
    Cover & Packge Design:
    A Man Called Wrycraft, Iannis Xenakis
    Mastering: Robin Aube
    Label / Publishing
    Label Name:
    Electronic Music Foundation, Ltd.
    Catalog Number(s):
    EMF CD 003
    Albany, New York USA
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