Iannis Xenakis: music for keyboard instruments realised by computer

Daniel Grossman, MIDI programming (NEOS 10707)

6 September 2008 3.5 stars

XenakisIannis Xenakis' music - dense, precipitous and bewildering as it is - is not easily realised. This situation is often exaggerated in his pieces for solo instruments. Works of this nature, the trombone solo Keren for instance, generate much of their emotional force from the sheer intricacy of their ideas, and the difficulty performers have with acoustically rendering them is powerful.

Quite often the internal architecture of the music prevents an accurate account being given, as is the case with the five medium length keyboard works contained on this new disc. Certain common features of his music determine this. The clashing rhythms, the crossing and interweaving canonic voices, the simultaneously differentiated modes of articulation that are often required (in Herma for example when the lower notes are played with pedal and higher notes with staccatissimo spring), and the ultra-small note values often proposed (for example tremolandi on 32nd notes in the harpsichord piece Khoaï) all make the interpreter's job less than envious. As is the case with Ferneyhough, Xenakis' music largely is the complexity that dominates every bar, and every page.   

Thus the conductor Daniel Grossman's attempt with this new release to realise these five keyboard works using MIDI technology with a degree of accuracy previously unattainable by the means of physical dexterity alone. Grossman's position as the single mind behind these realisations does satisfy the implicit request of the composer that a unified voice interprets these scores (he could easily have spread the music across two or three pianos). Yet the occasional rigidity and bluntness of the sounding result takes away somewhat from the whole project. These 'performances' are best seen, as the 'performer' himself acknowledges in the liner notes, as a single instance of interpretation, without claim to authority.

Initially, and as it turns out intermittently (whenever a less busy or a hushed passage occurs), the lack of a guiding touch in this music is felt quite powerfully. The awkward phrasing and the indelicate articulation of the sound are highly off-putting. Herma for instance is continuously compromised by the lack of fluidity of relation between the notes, and between phrases. The sound also is incredibly dry throughout, notwithstanding the vaguely convincing pianistic tone of the computer program. The two harpsichord pieces fare better in terms of sheer sound though, less resonance not being as much of a problem. The thin and aggressive voices of the central slow section of Naama, for instance, or the wonderfully spiky cluster chord drones of Khoaï are two clear cases where the sound of the performance does not feel properly inferior to the sort of sound one would expect of an actual harpsichord.

And of course these reservations about sound and fluency are counteracted by the astonishing virtuosity of the performances, the whole point of the exercise in the first place. The spinning and only minutely separated-in-time canons of non-repeating and undulating scales that occur throughout the disc, most obviously in the first minute of Mists, are dazzlingly realised. The previously mentioned differentiated planes of sound that are a feature of Herma sound utterly distinct, yet related, as no human body could possibly convey. The crossing voices of Eryvali and of Namma are equally well realised, as are the simultaneous but contrary rhythmic strata of the latter. The last main feature of this music, the relatively easy to realise sound clouds or sound masses that were stochastically generated, where density and range are all that matter, are as convincing here as they would be in human hands. But when these start to get superimposed and stutter out of control, as they do in every piece, the machine once again trumps the human for sheer accuracy of reproduction.

Formally these pieces often come down to differing densities of activity and different modes of texture and/or articulation. Overarching subtlety of construction is sacrificed to potency of effect, and in this we can see another reason why the computer performance succeeds to the extent which it does. The music in fact is not particularly variegated- only Khoai, with its initial hard funk drone, its harpsichord sound that feels at time like real physical contact of hands on manual, its mechanical movement in its middle section akin to Ligeti's Chamber Concerto, and its later suggestions of the composer's own Pithoprakta, can be said to deviate dramatically from the four or five features described above. What this music lacks in finesse though it makes up in sheer force of emotion. For example: the stabbing chords that repeat and repeat in the middle register against different rhythms and crossings of momentum in the transition section of Naama, that piece's monumental climax, and the utter enormity of much of the collage writing are all features that help push this music out of the bounds of the rational, and into the visceral.

These are not definitive interpretations, but Grossman has done well in imbuing the performances with some sense of integration, and with a great degree of excitement. This is music, of course, that demands to be heard, and this release offers the opportunity to hear it performed with a greater degree of exactitude than has previously been the case. Think Nancarrow via Boulez, and you'll have some idea of the sound world of this unusual disc.

By Stephen Graham