This 5-disc set brings together the bulk of Xenakis's music for orchestra. The first such collected edition to be released, it is the culmination of Timpani's Xenakis orchestral series.
Xenakis's biography is colourful to say the least. Born in Romania and brought up in Greece, he was the son of a wealthy businessman, receiving a strong early training in music. During World War Two he was involved in the Greek resistance and lost an eye in a street battle; the organised chaos he experienced in urban warfare was to have a direct influence on his music.
Sentenced to death after the war, he expatriated to Paris, where he became the assistant of Le Corbusier. Alongside his architectural and engineering activity he attended the classes of Messiaen, a formative musical influence who encouraged him to synthesize these interests.
Xenakis's first mature work, 1954's Métastaséis, unusally for a composer at the outset of his career, is a work not for chamber ensemble or soloist but for orchestra: the reason being the idiosyncrasy of Xenakis's compositional approach, which envisages the fusing together of a myriad of individual voices in the shared trajectory of a cumulative dynamic form.
With Xenakis western art music veers off into a different zone entirely, away from musical argument or emotive expression and into acoustic description; it is music that is abstract and sometimes doesn't resemble what we've been taught to think of as music at all. The listener may be hard-pressed to find any kinship between the orchestral work of Xenakis and, say, a nineteenth century symphony (a gap occasionally bridged as Xenakis's career went on). Xenakis himself felt more kinship with Ancient Greek thinkers such as Pythagoras and Anaximander than with his forebears in the western classical tradition.
Xenakis's most famous idea is stochastic music: the building up though mathematical methods of huge masses of sound, which enact 'the passage from complete order to total disorder in a continuous or explosive manner' – the production of aural chaos through the use of well-defined modes of organisation. In focussing on sound as a continuum Xenakis displaces the note as basic unit of composition, an important innovation. Throughout the recordings here we find an orchestra of soloists embodying a cumulative sound complex, their sound mirroring 'the collision of rain or hail with hard surfaces, or the song of cicadas in a summer field.'
Although based on complex mathematical calculation, this is music that seeks to explore the basic principles underlying natural organisation; what causes a cloud or arborescence to take the form it does. But this being Xenakis and not the French spectral composers of a decade or two later, the imitation of natural organisation is used for the creation of abrasive, noise-filled, disturbing, violent textures. At times in listening to the works here, for example the drunken haze of rasping clarinets in Tracées, it is as if one were given microscopic vantage onto minute vectors of sound, vectors who irrational order eludes the grasp of reason while still adhering to discrete underlying laws.
The numerous tiny events of Pithoprakta's pizzicato strings, each instrument with its own part, give the impression of the granulated sound of an electronic work, something that has only recently begun to feature prominently in electronic music with the digitisation of sound. The image of Empreintes is of a sea of electricity conjured up by brass and tremulous microtonal strings whose waves swell slowly up and down, the listener bobbing along in their movement like a cork. In Noomena, a Miro-esque delirium of shapes and inhuman inanimal bodies tussle through the closely-alternating sections of the orchestral wilds.
By echoing the relentlessly vivacious and destructive forces of nature, a perhaps surprising aural cousin for Xenakis's orchestral works is found in Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps: apparent, for example, in the rampaging rhythms of Jonchaies, one of the highlights here, which also opens with a modal folk-like melody on massed shrill strings. And elsewhere this primitivism is found in the whooping baritone of Aïs and the ritualistic ugliness of Antikhthon. In general the intensity of this music is of such a pitch that it is difficult to listen to much of it at a time.
Appropriately for a music of such bristling extremity, good performance is hard to pull off. The Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, conducted by Arturo Tamayo, puts in exemplary readings, achieving the optimum balance between heated force and cool precision. Add to this the fantastic quality of the recorded sound and the comprehensive programme offered and it makes this a release that's hard to beat.
By Liam Cagney
Concert Review: The London Sinfonietta perform Xenakis at the QEH
Concert Review: Ensemble Expose perform Xenakis at the Purcell Room
Concert Review: Ensemble Intercontemporain perform Xenakis at Cite de la Musique