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Iannis Xenakis: “Melanges” [Mixtures]

From the album Pleiades (1978)

(For A.I.K.)

The Greek-born composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) is usually mentioned in the same breath with other members of the so-called “postwar avant-garde,” a group of composers who came of age in the 1950s in Europe and quickly gained notoriety for the difficulty and perceived esotericism of their musical experiments.  The obligatory name-check of this cabal usually includes such men as Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Gyorgy Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Xenakis was distinct from most of the composers in this cadre in that he worked assiduously to integrate into his music audible patterns and structures of a kind that most members of the avant-garde actively sought to avoid. Especially in his works from the late 1970s on, Xenakis frequently based his music on the establishment and subsequent destabilization and undermining of a basic rhythmic pulse.  In the domain of pitch, he developed what he called “sieve theory" in order to construct new and elaborate scales for his music.  Unlike traditional scales such as major and minor, Xenakis’ unique scales comprise intervallic patterns that span the entire range of available notes, instead of repeating with each octave.

Although Xenakis cultivated a link with traditional modes of listening through his concern with scale and pulse, his work has little in common with the neo-traditional classical music that became fashionable in the 70s and 80s under the aegis of a family-friendly postmodernism.  Even at its most beautiful, Xenakis’ music retains a brutal immediacy that renders it stark and impersonal.

"Melanges," from Xenakis’ 1978 piece for percussion sextet, Pleiades, deploys the entire battery of instruments to create something that sounds like a collaboration between a gamelan orchestra played by escaped mental patients and a demonically inspired high school drum line.  The music’s violent swerving between order and chaos is eloquently explained by the composer:

"The sole source of this polyrhythmic composition is the idea of periodicity, repetition, duplication, faithful, pseudo-faithful, unfaithful copy.  Example: a beat repeated untiringly in the same time represents a faithful copy of a rhythmic atom.  However small variations in the time produce an internal vivacity of the rhythm without weakening the fundamental period.  Greater and more complex variations of the fundamental period create a disfigurement, a negation of the fundamental period that could lead to its immediate unrecognizability.  Still greater variations of an even greater complexity, or what often amounts to the same thing, due to the hazards of a particular stochastic distribution, lead to total arhythm, to a massy awareness of the event, to notions of clouds, nebulas, galaxies of the fragmented dust of beats organized by rhythm…."

Played 1,239 time(s).

May 15, 2009, 9:36am

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