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Dimensions Within Spheres Within Dimensions

New York
Miller Theater, Columbia University
10/17/2009 -  
Composer Portraits – Iannis Xenakis: Psappha – Echange – Palimpsest – Akanthos – Thalleïn – O-Mega

Tony Arnold (Soprano), Joshua Rubin (Bass clarinet), Cory Smythe (piano)
International Contemporary Ensemble, S. Schick (Conductor/percussion soloist)

Steven Schick (© Mark Palmer)

”When I played Iannis Xenakis’s for him” starts the introduction to last evening’s portrait of the composer. The introduction was written by that giant among conductor/percussionists, Steven Schick, so I felt certain it would have some juicy tidbits about that most difficult Greek composer. But no, the introduction was as enigmatic as the music. Mr. Schick wrote about “frustration” in speaking with him. How, when he wanted directions, he was given “constructions in the palpability and complexity of interrelated structures.”

Those dry notes from this most multitalented musician might well have put off most listeners. But last year, Columbia University’s Miller Theater presented Xenakis’s opera Oresteïa in a fully staged performance. And nobody doubted that this was the most engaging, emotional and most brilliant concert in all 2008. The least I could do was try and understand at least six of his orchestral works.

That was hardly a strain. Mr. Schick began with the Xenakis percussion solo, Psappha, based on Sapphic metres, and the “cloak” of sounds around them. One of the earlier works, it was a tour de force for both composer and artist. Mr. Schick, beginning with the usual drum whacks, countered with more melodic sounds, aloang with a few knocks on a frying pan, a tiny sopranino vibraphone and the great clangs of feet on a few bass drums. Whatever Xenakis’s metrical techno-aesthetic purpose, this was a brittle, sharp, sometimes violent command performance.

The following works demonstrated Xenakis’s inspiration in variation, resonance and the organic multiplication of themes. Music which might not have meant to be, but was entertaining. (The only exception was Echange, a concerto for bass clarinet and orchestra where I couldn’t grasp a single measure, passage or rhythmic consonance. Only Joshua Rubin, doing unimaginable things with his instrument, who skirted even on jazz, was of interest.)

The second work, Akanthos brought soprano Tony Arnold to the fore. I would imagine she was projected as being part of the ensemble. But that would have been impossible. The “words” were meaningless phonemes, but her range reached almost three octaves, and at one point seemed to climb up two octaves in a single leap.

To me, only Palimpsest will remain eternally in the memory, thanks to the fiery piano of Cory Smythe. The piece begins with scales on the piano. Rather, scales within scales within scales again until the piano oscillated with music. When the International Contemporary Ensemble continued, with scale variations, including quarter-tones, syncopation off by a nano-second, and–says Mr. Schick’s notes–“Single lines splintering into as many as 11 different individual polyrhythmic threads at a time.”

No, that’s would have been impossible to hear. But like a medieval organum, the scales were repeated into a whirligig of volumes.

The most violent work was Thalleïn, Greek for “budding.” Remember that Xenakis was an engineer and architect, and the architecture of his work, the vitality of his music–for above all, this is vital–is that of an organic structure. Perhaps only on a score could one see all the “budding” notes, each exchanging with the other, to realize his efforts.

Four years before he died, in 2001, Xenakis wrote his final piece, with the pun title O-Mega. It was final, yes, and while small in time, it was big in concept. Here, brass was on one side of the Miller Theatre, winds on the other, strings on stage, and Mr. Schick both drumming and conducting the three ensembles.

No intricate counterpoint, no rhythmic convolutions, the work was like a series of chorales, a hail and farewell.

The complexity of the music can be daunting, the descriptions more so, and for the musicians, the challenges, can be Olympian. No Greek metaphor would have disturbed Xenakis, Hellenic to the core. Like architecture, it exists in three dimensions. And if we can only comprehend one of them initially, after last night, we should be tempted to seek further into his Promethean structures.

Harry Rolnick



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