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Concert Sun May 31 2009

Xenakis in concert -- no, really, XENAKIS...IN...CONCERT

WEB_ICE balcony.jpg
Above: The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)

It's worth repeating, in case you're thinking that you read that wrong: this Thursday, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) will present five short pieces by legendary composer Iannis Xenakis, as performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), an up-and-coming group dedicated to performing modern and classic works of the avant-garde and, in their words, "advancing the music of our time." Xenakis' structurally difficult works require virtuosos who not only possess outstanding chops, but excellent instincts and problem-solving abilities, as the pieces often demand something beyond perfection from its performers, requiring them to make sounds not easily coaxed from their instruments, and to play them perfectly each time. As a result, the ground-breaking Greek composer's works are seldom performed, and even more rarely by an ensemble so dedicated to making them EXACTLY RIGHT, making this event a rare and essential musical event.

ICE will perform five of Xenakis' pieces (roughly a 75 minute performance, with intermission) in the MCA's auditorium. Tickets are $25, and the performance starts at 7:30 p.m.

The ICE has pulled out all the stops to make Xenakis' music accessible to first-time listeners, offering a monthly podcast that may help to clarify some of the composer's more obscure concepts (his compositions were based as much in architectural concepts and ancient/mystical/shamanic wisdom as Western notions of melody, harmony, and instrumentation), as well as a blog dedicated to many facets of the man's music and life. (The most recent post contains an interview with the composer's widow, Françoise Xenakis.)

I dug up past recordings of the five pieces to be performed on Thursday (they are 'Psappha' (1975), 'Échange' (1989), 'Akanthos' (1977), 'Palimpsest' (1979), and his final composition, 'O-Mega' (1997), which will see its first Chicago performance at this performance) and was struck not just by the sonic audacity of the compositions (which are based on both architectural concepts and elements of mystic/shamanic thought), but by the brilliant sequencing of the whole program.

'Psappha,' a percussion piece, is a thunderous, primal work that brings to mind early 20th century works for percussion (such as John Cage's "First Construction (In Metal)") but is even more stripped-down and ritualistic. Far from the chattering polyrhythms and emphasis on virtuosity-for-its-own-sake typifying many percussion recitals, 'Psappha' uses space and silence like a aural sword of Damocles, each momentary calm only heightening the tension until the next attack. Like Ligeti's works, Xenakis carves out strong, unpretentious tones, his every note and nuance based in resistance to existing rules and expectations -- a middle finger in the face of both authority and mediocrity.

'Echange' adds orchestra strings, and works in long lines, constructing unbroken strings of melody that radiate at odd angles from the low brass drones anchoring the piece. Xenakis requires the performers to be carefully attuned to the tone and texture of the instruments, with little alterations causing the piece to vacillate between dissonance and relative harmony. I hear elements of Edgard Varese's concepts of composition as sonic building blocks, but 'Echange' leaves behind much of Varese's jumpiness and histrionics to emphasize micro-tonal play between instruments, which are no doubt taken to the limit of the ways they can be played to create the effects needed in the score.

(The podcast notes as much, saying that Xenakis had a skill at requiring notes that were impossibly to play on the given instrument, but not absurdly impossible -- for example, a piano needing to play a note one octave higher than its highest note, but not, say, SEVEN octaves higher. This causes the performer to struggle for practical solutions to difficult problems, rather than throwing up his or her hands and saying "I guess that can't be done.")

'Akanthos' is the most emotionally wrenching piece in the program, with the orchestra accompanying a nearly wordless female vocal of extraordinary power and abstraction -- while not conventionally "pretty," it carries weight and emotional impact, a point in the line drawn between Brecht/Weill's art-song and Ilhan Mimaroglu's difficult musical polemic "String Quartet No. 4 ("Like There's No Tomorrow")." The piece is girded by a thunderous piano part that builds a fortress of melody that fans of Cecil Taylor with no doubt recognize. (I have to imagine Taylor being influenced by many of these works, and perhaps vice-versa.)

The decision to sequence 'Palimpsest' after the previous three pieces is inspired, as it feels like a consolidation and synthesis of concepts introduced in the previous three selections. Long string parts, a chorus of staccato female voices, and a huge piano sound lead off the piece, stirring all of Xenakis' strengths into one potent brew.

The four-minute finale, 'O-Mega,' starts out dangerously sparse, but turns into another percussion-heavy piece that lurches to and fro with a controlled chaos and an inner logic that's nearly impossible to crack upon its initial listening. As his final work, 'O-Mega' may well contain the genetic material that helps to quantify the organizing principle in all of his other works, moving fully away from even the erratic pulse and meter at work in comparatively conventional pieces like 'Psappha,' into completely new realms of structure and sound.

And seriously, what on EARTH could you possibly be planning on doing this Thursday that's more exciting than that? (Helpfully, the members of ICE will host a Q&A discussion following the concert if you'd like to know more.)

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Dan the Music Master / June 1, 2009 11:50 AM

Thanks for the insight with respect to the composer Iannis Xenakis. I'm getting the impression that the works of this composer are fairly intense.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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