Reinhold Friedl about
What are we looking to celebrate on Xenakis' one hundredth birthday? His radical works, his sensuous sounds, his ideas, his manifold inspirations, his impact, his contradictions ... but also: where are Xenakis’ ideas today?
Iannis Xenakis revolutionised the music world. As an architect, the composer designed his own listening spaces and conceived music as something multidimensional and spatial. Sounds were now allowed to move around, to impact the listener from different directions, to overwhelm, to be loud – in a word: to be immersive. Xenakis was much taken by wild and intoxicating sound settings; indeed, they shaped him: the chirping of cicadas in his native Greece, but also the turmoil and riots of the anti-fascist resistance, not to mention the bullets that flew during the street skirmishes against the British occupation. Xenakis had sustained severe facial injuries from an exploding grenade and, having been sentenced to death, managed to flee into exile in France in 1947. Noises and sounds became his musical fodder, and he welcomed the foreign and the strange: just how much he loved non-European music and how pointedly he incorporated it into his tape music still remains a little-known fact to this day. Three perspectives present themselves as a result: musical spatialisation, non-European music and the emancipation of sound.
The mainstay of the programme is the spatial reproduction of the radical electro-acoustic multi-channel works: La Légende d’Eer to open the evening’s proceedings; then Bohor, the great scandalous piece, during the middle of the night; and finally, Persepolis, the longest work, with the promise of light as dawn is ushered in. All with the appropriate listening situation, of course, complete with cushions and portable chairs. And performed by proven specialists of electronic music: Wolfgang Musil, Thomas Grill and Katharina Klement, all lecturers in the ELAK electronic music course at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (mdw). A presentation of selected works with a Xenakis-related theme from the ELAK environment is also be performed.
Japanese biwa music was something of an awakening for Xenakis, and it will guide the listener beyond European boundary lines. The percussion music from Africa is as physical and rousing as the biwa music is monolithic, and the Laotian mouth organ sounds in Bohor are deeply sonorous. Electronic music, long since established in Africa, now returns with the imaginary balafon orchestras of DJ DIaki, danceable and just as mind-bending as Xenakis’ thumb piano layerings. Kink Gong’s montages of field recordings feature at the Basement along with Jim O’Rourke and Gilles Sivilotto’s meticulous research into sounds; Rashad Backer focuses on the electronic music of unknown species; in Marcus Schmickler’s sound tempests all manner of sounds swarm about the premises; and a choir fills the space with song under the direction of Guy Reibel. The freedom of noise and sound is celebrated by Lee Ranaldo, the sound-defining Sonic Youth guitarist, and by California’s female duo Blectum from Blechdom. And while the Golden State is now the home of electronic music, it is unmistakably present in the sound storms unleashed by Copenhagen musician Puce Mary. Xenakis would certainly have enjoyed it! Gerriet K. Sharma, for his part, will tease out the Basement’s spatial resonances with his multidirectional IKO loudspeaker. Then finally, it will be time to take to the dance floor, too, with DJ Marcelle and some undisguised Xenakis references. The hundredth anniversary of Xenakis' birth: what a celebration!
Those keen to find out more should on no account miss the keynote speeches by composer and electronic artist Marcus Schmickler and architect Markus Penell (Ortner & Ortner), not to mention the warmly extended invite to take part in the nUFO workshop by Alberto de Campo and colleagues in the afternoon.
About the performers
Blectum from Blechdom (live)
These two San Francisco musicians simply love electronic avant-garde music! And glitch has certainly been a strong influence. When we contacted them with our request, Bevin Kelley just happened to be listening to the new Xenakis box set, so the timing couldn’t have been better. And we can definitely hear the influence of and penchant for scratchy inserts and harsh electronics that lurk behind their melodiously humorous songs. Perfect for the Xenakis party!
DJ DIaki (DJ)
It’s not a party if there’s no dancing! Xenakis loved African percussion and, over the course of this long night of music, you’ll get a chance to hear it time and again in Persepolis and La Légende d’Eer featuring ferocious textured layers of Central African thumb piano. Xenakis even thought that Senegalese drumming resembled his own stochastic music. But now the tables have turned: electronic music has reached Africa, and the Ugandan label Nyege Tapes enjoys cult status. Just as Xenakis once overlaid thumb pianos, Mali’s DJ DIaki now superimposes marimba-like balafon grooves. Disparate concurrent rhythms, right up Xenakis’s street! Except that, with DJ DIaki, you just have to head for the dance floor ...
DJ Marcelle (DJ)
She herself has long ceased to be an unknown quantity, even if she embraces the unknown and the surprising, and has an appetite for risk. As in Xenakis’s Polytopes (to be heard in performances both before and after), DJ Marcelle likes to stack heterogeneous material and find harmonies in the sounds of avant-garde and hip-hop, African dance music and animal voices, evolving all the while into a fully-fledged composer at the mixing desk. The source material from her 20,000+ LP collection is seemingly inexhaustible, and Marcelle has compiled a Xenakis homage set specially for this evening. Whether or not she sticks to it is another matter. After all, total freedom is her creed, underground her origin – not to mention the Monty Pythonesque aspect, too. So we’re thrilled to have the lifetime resident DJ of the Uganda Nyege Music Festival on board with us tonight!
Gerriet K. Sharma / IKO (live)
Gerriet K. Sharma’s site-specific IKO project is an amazing extension of Xenakis’s ideas of spatialisation that uses a spherical loudspeaker instead of a direct multi-channel sound system for a precisely controlled omnidirectional sound. The result is impressive and, as with Xenakis’s Polytopes, the space itself becomes the instrument. What we hear are mostly initial reflections of the IKO located somewhere in the room. Sharma’s sound textures take on an unimagined spatiality and never cease to surprise us with overlapping imaginary soundscapes. The IKO plays the room the way a bow plays the fiddle, transporting us towards raptures of sound.
Gilles Sivilotto: handmade 02 (live)
Even though French electro-acoustic musician Gilles Sivilotto did study all the finer points of software composition in California and at the French Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM), he subsequently opted to renounce it all. Since then, he has drawn his sampling graphs by hand using a computer mouse. It takes days of obsessive work to produce just a few minutes of music and yet they are somehow reminiscent of Xenakis’s UPIC experiments, with graph elements transposed directly into music. Here Sivilotto has exaggerated the process even more: every single sample value is handmade. The result? Raw, edgy and unruly music!
Guy Reibel & Construction Choir Collective (live)
Guy Reibel is a living legend; in fact, it’s hard to think of a more versatile composer of his generation. He ran Pierre Schaeffer’s music research department at French radio, recorded Ligeti’s complete vocal works on CD for the first time as a conductor, but also conducted Xenakis and was in charge of a composition class at the Paris Conservatoire. In Xenakis’s honour, he will be performing his Jeux Vocaux with Vienna’s Construction Choir Collective. There is no denying its affinity with Xenakis in terms of spatial layout, flexibility, sound layering, but also the glissando fields and its origins in musique concrète. Wild choral music, free and immersive.
Isabelle Duthoit (live)
Isabelle Duthoit is an exceptional singer or, rather, vocal artist from France. Ligeti proved with Atomsphères that an orchestra can sound like electronics and Isabelle Duthoit demonstrates that a human voice can sound like a late-Xenakis stochastic noise generator. In fact, you’re tempted to say: ‘has to sound’, so fascinating and surprising are her vocal performances. Almost extra-musical in nature, reminiscent of the techniques of Persian pearl fishers, with undertones and scratch sounds condensing into musical forms. Isabelle will guide the audience not just physically, from Floor 01 to Floor 02, but also musically, ensuring the transition to the chamber music interventions in the Basement.
Jim O’Rourke: gametophyte 4 ix (world premiere, performed by Reinhold Friedl)
Jim O’Rourke is known for his musical open-mindedness, from pop productions to his collaboration with Tony Conrad. What few people know is that he was also a Xenakis fan right from the very outset. In Japan, he has since then taken mathematics lessons at university to better understand Xenakis’s compositional approaches and implemented them in present-day software. That’s precisely what he’s now done for the Wiener Festwochen and the result is a new work scheduled to have its world premiere in a quadraphonic setting. And we’re really excited and thrilled to hear it.
Junko Ueda (live)
In 1972, biwa player and singer Kinshi Tsuruta released a record in France. Xenakis loved this traditional Japanese music and provided the sleeve notes. This ‘Japanese troubadour music’ was something of an epiphany for him. He went on to use biwa sounds in his electronic music. Non-European music was of great importance to Xenakis, a fact still too little known to this day, and so we’re particularly looking forward to the performance by Junko Ueda, master student of Kinshi Tsuruta. As Xenakis once wrote: ‘Even if we don’t understand the text, we can enjoy the music for hours.’
Kink Gong: music of ethnic minorities
The Kink Gong project by French globetrotter, musician and sound collector Laurent Jeanneau focuses on the music of ethnic minorities. Music that Xenakis loved; indeed, he used many different sounds of non-European origin in his electronic music, from African percussion (La Légende d’Eer) to Japanese timbrels and the Laotian mouth organ (Bohor). Kink Gong combines field recordings and superimposes them as quadrophonic sounds, but also adapts music to ambient sounds. To this end, Laurent Jeanneau is bringing along recordings with a definite kinship to Xenakis’s ethnic borrowings. Expect beauty, chill-out and ecstatic compression.
Lee Ranaldo (live) was arguably the creative musical core of the New York cult band Sonic Youth, which oscillated between noise rock and no-wave: his origins in Glenn Branca’s band and his affinity for the avant-garde are legendary. Ranaldo’s solo projects celebrate the vast diversity and freedom of the material, just as Xenakis celebrated it, with harsh and precise soundscapes and surging noise conglomerations, some of which undoubtedly toy with voice and hidden blues references. Kindred spirits indeed. Xenakis loved thunderstorms, and Ranaldo has dedicated his Fender Rhodes piece to the hurricane that struck and paralysed New York for days on end in 2012.
Puce Mary (live)
Where Xenakis was still having to deal with hostility for showcasing noises as music-compatible material, continuing in the tradition of Varèse and Pierre Schaeffer, Puce Mary, who was born in 1987, has long become established as a precision artist: with tonal accuracy and meticulous craftsmanship, she explores avenues beyond martial swagger. And anything goes: drones and field recordings blend with vocal interludes and unpredictable noise eruptions, electronics flash from every corner, creating a superlative multi-dimensional sound experience. Overwhelming aesthetics in the best Xenakis tradition.
Rashad Becker: Traditional Music Of Notional Species – New Version (live)
Rashad Becker is not only one of the world’s most sought-after mastering engineers, but also one of the most prominent exponents of electro music, at the very latest following the release of his LP Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. I in 2013. Like Xenakis, Rashad Becker is fascinated by the foreign and the outlandish, the musically undefined, the seemingly unmusical. Where Xenakis uses African percussion sounds or Japanese string instruments, Becker electronically generates the new music of an imaginary species using sophisticated analogue-digital resources. Here now, specifically to coincide with the Xenakis festival, is the premiere of the material he has developed further into a space-defining eight-channel composition.
Marcus Schmickler: Particle/Matter-Wave/Energy
Marcus Schmickler’s multi-channel composition Particle/Matter-Wave/Energy is a stunning demonstration of how Xenakis’s spatial and multi-channel ideas can be taken to the next level. Swarms of sound race about the space, almost physically grasping the listener surrounded by speakers. It’s an intoxicating sound experience that not only has this particular aspect in common with Xenakis’ great works such as Persepolis or La Légende d’Eer, but is also without question in Xenakis’ own tradition, in both style and ingenious programming technique. Automated overpowering aesthetics, stage-managed by the composer himself at the mixing desk: idiosyncratic and monolithic.
Course in electroacoustic and experimental music (ELAK) at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (mdw, live)
Featured here are four multi-channel compositions from the course in electronic and experimental music (ELAK) at the mdw, by way of a no-holds-barred introduction to Xenakis’s ideas, whether it’s granular synthesis, stochastic methods or noise.
Keynote speeches: Markus Penell & Marcus Schmickler, hosted by Reinhold Friedl
Two keynote speeches will focus on aspects of Xenakis’s oeuvre and take a pragmatic look at it from today’s perspective. Marcus Schmickler will talk about Xenakis’s influence on today’s composition practices and non-academic electronics as illustrated through Schmickler’s own approaches. Markus Penell, head of the Vienna office of the renowned Ortner & Ortner architectural firm will discuss and present the practical aspects of Xenakis’s architectural inventions, something he has been familiar with since his student days. An intervention that’s as exciting as it is rare.
Music by Iannis Xenakis
Persepolis (sound by Thomas Grill)
Created in 1971 for the Persepolis festival under the Shah of Persia marking the anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. Performed with the use of hundreds of loudspeakers in the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient imperial city. The spectacle featured a light extravaganza, torchlight processions and choreographies, with the audience free to move around at its leisure. The 8-track tape composition on which Xenakis condensed his sound material into a great symphony of sound and noise has survived. Processed orchestral sounds merge with African drums; deep and distorted Japanese gongs underpin and sustain the evolution of the music; the clicking of Japanese claves is to be heard, reminiscent of his early audiotape piece entitled Concret PH, which is also incorporated. For the record sleeve of the Japanese release, Xenakis chose the image of a sunrise, with the following phrase emblazoned on the cover: ‘We Bear the Light of the Earth’. A worthy conclusion to this night dedicated to Xenakis as the sun rises from behind the glass frontage of Haus 21.
La Légende d’Eer (sound by Wolfgang Musil)
The audiotape piece La Légende d’Eer was created in 1978 at the Electronic Studio of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne as the musical element of the Diatope, a listening room designed by Xenakis for the opening of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. La Légende d’Eer is regarded as the culmination of Xenakis’s Polytopes: multimedia performances featuring multi-channel audiotape feeds. A rich diversity of sound material is modularly superimposed and scattered about the space via eight tracks. The piece begins (and ends) with the legendary oscillator sounds of the Synthi 100 as they slowly become turbulent (Xenakis dubbed them ‘shooting stars’) and then make way for a wide arching form that includes the richest sound material that includes the African thumb piano and a double bass solo as well as, for the first time, sounds created using stochastic synthesis. An eventful grand journey of sound.
Bohor (sound by Katharina Klement)
is regarded as the greatest scandal in electro-acoustic music. Pierre Schaeffer, director of the GRM in Paris and dedicatee of the piece, was horrified by the excessive and exuberant sound textures. Eight loudspeakers surround the audience as metallic sounds of Persian and Iraqi jewellery evoke – some would say – the clatter of a knight’s armour: the titular Bohor, a knight of the Round Table who, like Xenakis, bore a large scar on his face. The sound of a Laotian mouth organ transposed into a deep bass provides a continuous drone, with the piece concluding in a rapture of sound generated by thunder sheets, similarly transposed. Xenakis played the piece at maximum volume, demanding that the listener surrender to the music.
Concret PH was composed in 1958 for the pavilion Xenakis designed at the World Exposition in Brussels, which was directly adjacent to the Austrian Pavilion by Karl Schwanzer, where this event is taking place today, namely the Belvedere Haus 21. But at the time, Concret PH, which is barely three minutes long, served merely as an intermezzo, an interlude sonore between the performances of Edgar Varèse’s poème électronique. The textural audiotape piece, supposedly consisting exclusively of the sound of glowing coals, is to be heard several times at this anniversary celebration, in its original function as intermission filler.
Translation Stephen Grynwasser