Saturday evening on London's Southbank saw the first of a couple of Xenakis concerts taking place in the capital over the weekend. These concerts were part of the ongoing Ether festival, the rubric of which takes in everything from the techno of the Cologne-based dance music label Kompakt to a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a live score.
Xenakis: Architect of Sound (the title is the same as that of the Southbank's highly successful Xenakis festival back in 2005) occurred alongside an international academic conference, organised by the Department of Music at Goldsmiths University, exploring the Greek composer's legacy, a legacy that continues to inspire.
In some respect it is strange that Xenakis's posthumous reputation should flourish. Of course it is compositionally warranted: eschewing traditional harmonic, melodic, and note-based approaches to composition, something that resulted in works instead based on dynamic movements of sound, Xenakis is one of the more successful iconoclasts of the sui generis moment in post-WW2 avant-garde composition.
But what surprises in main is how Xenakis's music has struck a chord in the popular imagination. In an era when contemporary western art music is ignored by a general public turned off by its dissonance, Xenakis's music – among the most extremely dissonant of the lot – enjoys a crossover appeal that would be the envy of his peers.
This seeming paradox is perhaps explained by the fact that Xenakis's forefronting of mathematics touches on our fascination with the myth of a music-and-maths hybrid; or perhaps it is simply down to the quality of the works themselves. Whatever the reason, the QEH was packed for this concert, a scan of the audience revealing young and old, academics and hipsters, and even some families in attendance.
Eonta is scored for piano and brass quintet. Composed in 1963, it is typical of Xenakis's style in that it mixes Ancient Greek thought with recondite twentieth-century mathematics. The title means 'Beings', and is taken from a text of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. Formally it makes use of stochastic procedures (pitches determined according to the theory of probabilities) and logistics, and the notes of the opening piano solo were calculated using an IBM 7090 computer at the Place Vendome in Paris.
Although some say the London Sinfonietta is not at its strongest with Xenakis, you couldn't fault the performances here. Xenakis is a challenge the players clearly relished. Rolf Hind tackled the extravagantly demanding piano part. After his initial pellucid solo, the brass gradually entered with an exquisite major triad offsetting the scattershot piano's punishing atonality.
The brass moved around the stage, a couple of times coming to a halt by the piano to blow loudly into the sound box. The only performative fault was that the brass's din at times rendered the piano inaudible; but otherwise the interplay of theatrics and timbre was persuasive.
Afterwards Tim Gill took to the stage for the cello solo Kottos. Aptly named after the hundred-armed Titans fought by Zeus in Greek mythology, this work presents a catalogue of different cello techniques and sonorities, in this respect being analogous to Berio's Sequenza VI for solo cello.
Some portentous gestures by Gill could be forgiven as the work lends itself to such dramatics. More than any of the other works Kottos struck a good balance between moments of coruscating harshness and moments of harmonic beauty, a particular highlight coming near the start when Gill ran through a series of fascinating chord-based sonorities.
Phlegra is for eleven-piece ensemble and made a relatively light lead-in to the interval. A series of different motives move around the ensemble, jostling with each other spatially and in pitch content. Of most interest were the Ligeti-esque repeated-note patterns, occasionally making the piece a study of Morse-code effects.
The second half of the night was given over to the vast electronic piece La légende d’Eer. The title refers to a story in Plato's Republic concerning the journeys in the afterlife of a soldier who subsequently returns to describe what he has seen. A sense of journey indeed pervaded the hall for the piece's duration, but if in reference to the afterlife it was exclusively hellish in character.
For around 50 minutes the hall was play to some of the ugliest sounds imaginable. It was amusing to think of a highbrow audience paying money to be subjected to a violent and seemingly endless barrage of electronic ugliness. There are noise artists who make a not-dissimilar product and who would have trouble getting ten people to attend a show.
Originally composed as the sound component of a multi-media site-specific show at the Centre Pompidou in 1978, the sequence of electronic sounds is compelling, but overall here did not quite work. But although you mightn't have quite enjoyed the experience, you couldn't argue with its disorienting force.
By Liam Cagney