In conversation with Emmanuelle Hunynh and Caty Olive

Emmanuelle, you have choreographed and worked on the music of Iannis Xenakis before, for your 2009 production Cribles. What in his compositions and theories resonates with your own choreographic approaches and artistic considerations?

Emmanuelle Huynh
First it is important to say that I don’t take the relationship between music and dance for granted. There is not always music with my dance pieces; I’ve worked a lot with silence, poetry and gestures, maybe more like a visual artist. So at that time, I wanted to look at a music score and see if I was able to use music as a protagonist. Back then, I was also a dancer in The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky choreographed by Dominique Brun, inspired by Nijinsky. For me it was such an intense experience to dance to this music that I wanted to find something that would make us rise up, and leap up, with sheer energy.
Also I wanted to continue with a formal challenge that I had touched on in some of my previous pieces in which I linked dancers hand-in-hand, to form a circle. Listening to Persephassa by Xenakis I found it incredibly powerful; I later understood that it was a piece for a circle of percussionists. It also became clear that Xenakis’s music has powerful archaic forces. I liked that the musicians are physically very engaged and committed; it’s a piece that celebrates the movement of the dancers and the musicians, all of whom are producing sound. And in a way our Kraanerg also celebrates bodies all melting together to produce and represent sound.

How did you approach Kraanerg and where did you start from in your staging and interpretation of it?

All our inspiration came from Kraanerg and Xenakis: by hearing and studying what Xenakis’s intentions were with Kraanerg. It was about this energy that he wanted to unleash and allow the audience to experience. But also more generally about how Xenakis worked and revolutionized music using mathematics, his life as an engineer, as an architect, even as a resistance fighter. And what he did with other pieces such as Polytopes, where not only the music, but also the architecture of the space, the light and the way in which the audience is arranged were all conceived by him.
Caty and I worked together 20 years ago, and then more recently for my piece entitled Nuée. This collaboration was a very powerful artistic experience and, when the topic of architecture came up in our conversation about Kraanerg, I wanted to invite Caty to give some thought to and create the spatial architecture using light.

Caty Olive
Our historical approach was facilitated by our exchanges with the two musicologists Makis Solomos and Benoit Gibson. We were aware of the way that Xenakis used space and approached the music beyond the sound itself, but also as a sonic and visual space. So that was the direction we wanted to go in. If you look at the photograph that we have of the initial commissioned project for Kraanerg in 1968, it was quite a static vision. We knew that Viktor Vasarely as one of most renowned visual and kinetic artists had done the scenography back then, so we wondered what it would be like to start with these images but then imagine something in motion for our new version of Kraanerg: a kind of kinetic space. That, then, was our initial historical approach, but we decided very early on to take the idea of using movement and energy to make light appear and, through that, then make the space appear.

The Klangforum musicians are on the stage and part of the space. To play this composition they have to form two blocks: one block with the strings and one block with the winds, with Sylvain Cambreling as the third point of the triangle. Like Emmanuelle with the choreography, I too was interested in the musicians’ movements to depict the music within the space. I decided to do it in a very analogue way by capturing the orchestra using a multi-camera recording device and then graphically processing the footage to turn it into animated black-and-white light that is then projected back onto them and onto the stage. Referencing Vasarely’s art, we rendered the light as vertical lines and put it into motion based on the gestures of the musicians and the conductor. So the music is made visible through the gestures of the orchestra. It’s this very simple relationship between the musicians’ bodies and the dancers’ bodies, along with the rhythm and space, that is so exciting for us.

Kraanerg was originally scored as ballet music and premiered in 1969 with choreography by Roland Petit. In your choreography, four dancers share the space with the orchestra. How do you work with the dancers’ bodies on stage?

We were both interested in getting to know the process that Xenakis used with Kraanerg. It was important to listen to Xenakis’s political, aesthetic and personal artistic context. Even though we are not replicating Kraanerg, I like to know why people do what they do. I understood that Xenakis didn’t have that much time to do the piece, so he recycled things that already existed. The situation was similar for us, too, and so I decided to follow that process of recycling principles and excerpts that already existed in my own body of work. In that sense it is a sort of meta-choreography and perhaps the first time I dared to transpose my own vocabulary of dance, coming from Múa (1995), Tout Contre (1998), A vida Enorme (2002), Cribles (2009), Spiel (2011), Saint Nazaire Morning Dance, (2019), Nuée (2021).

The orchestra is visible and in motion while it is playing, but there is no physical body to sustain the electronic soundtrack of the tape. I thought the four dancers could be the hidden body of the tape. And except for two movements where we break with this rule, they would only move when the tape is playing, sometimes with the orchestra, sometimes alone.

What was your entry point into the very complex musical score for Kraanerg?

For most of this score, our understanding was greatly facilitated by Benoit Gibson and Makis Solomos. It is indeed very complex, but at the same time its principle is quite simple. Certainly not simple to play, but simple to understand visually. You’ve got the blocks for the musicians, a line for the tape, and then there’s the silence.

But even in the parts where the musicians are not playing, they might scratch their arm or shift the position of their body – and we might find those movements interesting, too. For me the difficulty is to edit the movement footage captured by the different cameras. At times I might play more with the rhythm of the violinists; at others, it’s a wider frame featuring all the orchestra, in which case it is a bit more like a vibration. It is all about being in dialogue with the score and using the score to compose the light.

Thinking of Xenakis’s masse sonore, the way he creates these really huge volumes within the sound, we have found it helpful to imagine we were making a sculpture – one that is made up of bodies, sound, movement and light through graphic animations, something of a sculpture sonore.

Much has been written about the fact that, when composing Kraanerg, Xenakis was inspired by the energy and rebellion of the social uprisings and youth movements of 1968. Are those inherent utopian ideas something you considered as well?

It’s really important to realise that Xenakis created Kraanerg just after May 68. He himself was not that close to the movement, even though he was in the resistance and managed to escape Greece and its dictatorship. But he did think that, in the future, there would be so many people on earth that powerful movements and perhaps even rebellions will emerge. We can hear that in this music, the fact there is so much energy. It is so powerful that it’s impossible to stand still. And at some point I took that as my guideline for extracting elements from the pieces I had done previously. Choosing the ones that could carry or could be carried by all this strength and rebellion. So it’s not so much that we worked on rebellion in this piece but that there is rebellion in the score itself and that we can then use it to guide us at certain moments.

Emmanuelle Huynh and Caty Olive spoke to Carolina Nöbauer.

Kraanerg by Xenakis

By Benoît Gibson, Makis Solomos

By the mid-1960s, Xenakis’s reputation had grown exponentially. In 1965-66, the work entitled Terretektorh premiered at the Royan Festival with Xenakis scattering the entire orchestra (88 musicians in total) throughout the audience. Its impact reverberates to this day. In 1967, he was commissioned to compose a piece for the French pavilion at the World’s Fair in Montreal, where he performed his first polytope. In 1968, Nuits was encored at its premiere, a rare enough phenomenon in the world of so-called contemporary music. Such was the backdrop against which Kraanerg was composed, a musical work for ballet (hence undoubtedly the length of the piece). It was commissioned by the Ballet Guild of Canada for the opening of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on 2 June 1969. Critics at the time pointed out that three foreigners had in fact been commissioned for this inauguration of the Canadian centre: Xenakis, a Greek political refugee in France; Roland Petit, a French choreographer; and Victor Vasarely, a naturalised French Hungarian, entrusted with the sets (not to mention an American conductor, Lukas Foss, on top of these three ‘foreigners’). One of the critics at the premiere, who had highlighted this fact, was merciless in his review, not with regard to the music or indeed the sets: it was the choreography with which he took issue: ‘And yet the choreography remained the weakest element of the evening, even if it is difficult to measure up to the likes of Xenakis and Vasarely’[1] – which in itself tells us something about Xenakis’s fame.

By then, Xenakis’s fame was not so much that of a ‘mathematician’ introducing the notion of ‘formalisation’ into music than that of a ‘revolutionary’. This was, after all, around May 1968, a time when Western societies were being shaken by student riots, by protests against the Vietnam War and American imperialism, and by the Black American civil rights movement, and many other political movements. And while any number of exponents of avant-garde music may not have been particularly revolutionary, politically speaking (i.e. Stockhausen, Boulez ...), Xenakis’s past was well documented: he was the communist, a survivor of Greece’s civil war. His music, then, is doubly revolutionary: musically and politically. (Indeed, commentators have posited the theory that his music became revolutionary by musically transposing the political revolution he was unable to bring about in his own native country [2]). Kraanerg is certainly a piece in which May 68 strongly resounds: ‘In barely three generations’ time, the population of the planet will have passed the 24 billion mark. Eighty per cent of that population will be under the age of 25. Fantastic transformations will occur in all areas as a result. A biological battle between the generations, unfurling across the globe, destroying political, social, urban, scientific, artistic and ideological frameworks, on a scale never before experienced by humankind, and unpredictable’[3], says Xenakis by way of introduction to the piece, the title of which, incidentally, signifies a ‘fusion of two Greek words (“cranium-energy”) that roughly translate as “cerebral energy”. There is also the connotation “accomplishment” through the root word Kraan’[4].

Formally, the material featured in Kraanerg is often recurrent, prompting James Harley to comment that the piece is ‘kaleidoscopic’ in form[5]. The tape material is said to come from recordings made with the same group of musicians. Even though these recordings were reworked electro-acoustically, certain passages are close to those performed by the instrumental ensemble, enabling certain sound ambiguities and cross-fading effects. What’s more, the alternation between the instrumental ensemble and the tape, more prominent at the beginning and end of the work, is often achieved through tuilage, i.e. overlaps of varying duration (2 to 7 seconds).

While Kraanerg unfolds mainly as a sound continuum, the score also indicates several silences, some as long as twenty-eight seconds. At the time the work was created, these silences would give the sound engineer time to change the reels, but there is no way of knowing whether that is the explanation. We also note a number of contrasting sections of lesser density, bracketed by silences. They include just a few solo instruments.

While Xenakis is known for outlining a formalisation of music, Kraanerg’s concept does not appear to rest on theoretical foundations. In fact, the score is closely related to another orchestral work by Xenakis, premiered the same year at the Royan Festival: Nomos Gamma (1967-68). There is certainly a striking similarity between these two works. With the exception of long sustained notes, built around pitch scales and identified as ‘Nereids’ in the composer’s sketches, all the material for the strings is derived from Nomos Gamma. It forms either static blocks, modulated by dynamic profiles or rhythmic pulses, or composite ‘clouds’. These clouds stem from a passage that Xenakis describes in his writings as a ‘sound tapestry’. As for the wind instruments, Xenakis also draws from Nomos Gamma, often transcribing the parts in retrograde motion. But he also inserted excerpts from other works such as Akrata (1965) for 16 wind instruments or Nuits (1967-68) for 12 mixed voices. Each time, these materials are assembled freely. The structures on which they were based disappear in favour of sonorities characteristic of the composer’s idiom. Kraanerg is Xenakis’s longest work, running at almost 75 minutes. It is also the one for which he made the most use of montage[6].

[1] Pierre W. Desjardins, Kraanerg, Vie des arts No. 56, 1969.

[2] Cf. Makis Solomos, ‘Des combats de décembre 1944 à Metastaseis : d’une révolution à l’autre’, in Makis Solomos (ed.), Révolutions Xenakis, Paris, Philharmonie de Paris / Éditions de l’Œil, 2022, p 296-308

[3] Iannis Xenakis, sleeve cover for the LP Xenakis, Erato, STU 70526-30

[4] Iannis Xenakis, in François Delalande, Il faut être constamment un immigré. Entretiens avec Xenakis, Paris, Buchet-Chastel/INA-GRM, 1997

[5] James Harley, Iannis Xenakis: Kraanerg. Ashgate, 2015, p 88

[6] On the practice of montage in the work of Xenakis, cf. Benoît Gibson, The Instrumental Music of Iannis Xenakis. Theory, Practice, Self-Borrowing, Hillsdale, New York, Pendragon Press, 2011.

Makis Solomos, Professor of Musicology at the University of Paris 8 (France) is a specialist in Xenakis’ music and in todays musical

Benoît Gibson, Professor of Musical Analysis at the University of Évora (Portugal), is a specialist in the music of Iannis Xenakis.

Stephen Grynwasser

© Christian Robert Emmanuelle Huynh
© Arthur Pequin Caty Olive
Press the Enter key to search or ESC to close
The Wiener Festwochen would like to thank their main sponsors.