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Cosmogony in Sound: Iannis Xenakis’ “The Legend of Er”


Released on DVD by Mode Records (2005)

The Pompidou Center in Paris: a monument to modernism erected at the historical moment of that movement’s decline.  It was here, at the inauguration of the Pompidou in 1978, that the composer and architect Iannis Xenakis presented his “gesture of light and sound” known as Le Diatope

Made of red vinyl stretched over a metal frame, the Diatope’s curvilinear form recalls the famous Philips Pavilion designed by Xenakis and Le Corbusier for the Brussels World Fair in 1958, which housed the Poème électronique of Edgard Varèse.  Indeed, the immersive multimedia plan of the Philips Pavilion was the model for a number of later works Xenakis called Polytopes.  He created four of these prior to the Diatope: the Polytope de Montreal in 1967, an open-air spectacle in Persepolis in 1971, and two Polytopes in the Parisian Abby of Cluny in 1972 and 1973.

Inside the Diatope Xenakis arranged a light show involving 1600 flashbulbs and four lasers guided by four hundred adjustable mirrors.  Both abstract and representational figures were meticulously choreographed and traced by light. Xenakis’ sketches for the light show mention shapes such as “lotuses,”galaxies,” and “wheels.”

In the program booklet for the original 1977 presentation, Xenakis included five quotations that together capture the metaphysical ambiance of the work.  I reproduce them here in the order in which they originally appeared:

Each group would spend seven days in open country, and on the eighth, they had to break camp and head out for four days to finally reach a place where one discovers, stretching all across the sky and over the earth, a beam of light straight as a pillar, akin to a rainbow, but much more radiant and pure. – Plato, The Republic

From there emerged a crying out, indistinct, one I likened to a voice of fire,  just as there emerged from the light…a holy Word blanketing all of Nature, and the purest of fire was thrust out of the humid natural world toward the sublime area above. – Hermes Trismegistus, Pymander

For indeed, what is man within nature?  A void in the face of infinity, a whole before the void, a center between nothingness and wholeness…unable to perceive the void from whence he came, nor the infinity in which he is submerged. – Blaise Pascal, Pensées

 Christ went on: “I traversed the worlds, I ascended into the suns, and soared with the Milky Ways through the wastes of heaven; but there is no God. I descended to the last reaches of the shadows of Being, and I looked into the chasm and cried: ‘Father, where art thou?’ But I heard only the eternal storm ruled by none, and the shimmering rainbow of essence stood without sun to create it, trickling above the abyss. – Jean-Paul Richter, Siebenkäs

In the first stages of the explosion, the general distribution of the star’s energy closely matches the distribution known for theoretical black holes at a temperature of 12,000 degrees Kelvin.  In the case of SN 1970g the radius was measured at 3x1014 centimeters, in other words, as large as the orbit of Uranus.  Once the supernova’s radius is known, it is possible to determine its absolute luminosity.  For SN 1970g, this was calculated at 1042 ergs per second, or one trillion times that of the sun…  During the 30 days following the explosion, the radius of the surface from which the light was emitted increases at a near-constant speed of 5,000 kilometers per second.  At the end of this period, the star’s photosphere, in other words, its visible surface, reaches a radius of 2x1018 centimeters, a much larger radius than that of our solar system. – Robert P. Kirshner, Supernova

These quotations offer no program or story, but rather, at best, set a mood for the spectacle: a sort of saturnine melancholy tinged with childlike wonder.  The first quote, taken from the end of Plato’s Republic, demands explanation, as it the source of the title Xenakis chose for the musical component of the Diatope.  It concerns a soldier named Er who returns from the dead and describes what he saw on the other side.  The vision culminates with Er’s sighting of the “Spindle of Necessity,” a great shaft encircled with eight rings representing the eight celestial spheres known to ancient astronomy.  On each ring is perched a siren singing a tone corresponding to the circumference of its orbit and together forming a cosmic harmony.  Seated on thrones amidst the sirens are the three Fates, or “daughters of necessity,” who accompany with their voices the harmony of the sirens: Lachesis, singing of the past, Clotho of the present, and Atropos of the future.

Finally, there is the music: comprising seven tracks distributed over 11 loudspeakers placed throughout the Diatope, Xenakis’ tape composition La legénde d’Eer (The Legend of Er) is a sprawling, 46-minute journey in sound.  (For the DVD release, Xenakis’ original seven-channel mix has been reduced to a 5.1 version.)

Given Xenakis’ reputation as a composer of fearful complexity, the form of the music is remarkably transparent: beginning with pure, high twinkling tones that Xenakis described as “sonic shooting stars,” layer upon layer of sound is added, from harsh, wailing industrial noises, to recognizable instrumental timbres such as thumb piano and mouth harp, to a throbbing electronic vortex that emerges midway through the composition.  These sound layers enter at lower and lower registers, suggesting a descent from the rarefied upper realms into the chthonic domain below.  Hearing this music at high volume over a surround-sound system in a large room, one is confronted with the sublime aesthetic terror of sensory overload.  As one listener described the experience, it is the auditory equivalent of staring directly into the sun.

Finally the density of sound subsides, and at the end the listener is left once again with the shooting stars.  These too gently fade away into a now-resonant silence. The emergence and passing of these distinct sonic textures gives the music a powerful if extremely dilated sense of motion.  Indeed, the time scale of The Legend of Er, and the primal violence of its sounds, are suggestive less of human music than of natural phenomena: as if we, like Er himself, are here witness to some vast cosmological process otherwise inaccessible to human ears and eyes.

April 20, 2010, 5:39pm

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Curtis Roads: “Eleventh Vortex”

From the album Point Line Cloud (2005)

Among the most fascinating and distinctive techniques of sound generation to emerge in the 20th century is granular synthesis, based on the principle of breaking sound waves down to their smallest units, processing these “sonic particles” in various ways (filtration, transposition, temporal distention), and reconfiguring them into new musical structures.

First imagined in the 1940s, granular synthesis took off only with the advent of digital sound processing, although  Xenakis pioneered granular methods with magnetic tape in the 1950s.

Music composed via granular synthesis is typically characterized by skittering, chaotic textures, but as this example shows, it is also compatible with moments of stillness and harmonic repose.

Roads has written a fabulous book called Microsound, which offers a thorough but readable introduction to the aesthetics and techniques of granular synthesis.

"Beneath the level of the note lies another multilayered stratum, the microsonic hierarchy.  Like the quantum world of quarks, leptons, gluons, and bosons, the microsonic hierarchy was long invisible.  Modern tools let us view and manipulate the microsonic layers from which all acoustic phenomena emerge." (Curtis Roads, Microsound, p. 3)

Played 159 time(s).

August 07, 2009, 10:46am

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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 1,249 time(s).

May 15, 2009, 9:36am

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