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Xenakis - Pléïades

IANNIS XENAKIS - Pléïades (Prom 73 at the Royal Albert Hall)

Listen on the BBC iplayer (only available until Sep 18)

In his first season as director of the BBC Proms Roger Wright has made a remarkable impact, satisfying the standard demands of its fan base, but also reaching out far into the experimental world with an exciting program that this year has   celebrated in some considerable depth the works of two of the 20th century’s most important composers, Stockhausen and Messiaen. On the day that the world saw the world’s most ambitious and far-reaching scientific experiment begin, the Proms celebrated in its own idiosyncratic way, the BBC symphony orchestra showcasing the cosmic ambition of one of Messiaen’s most celebrated students Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, alongside the more familiar Planets suite by Holst, with his 1979 work Pléïades receiving its debut performance at the festival.

Xenakis, who lost an eye whilst fighting with the Greek resistance at the end of the Second World War against the British, worked and trained as an architect under Le Corbusier, but composed as well, although initially as a hobby. Having approached Messiaen for tutelage, he was advised not to allow serialism, which dominated composition at the time, to influence his work, but instead to take onboard the techniques of mathematics and incorporate them into his music.

At the heart of Xenakis’s work is the idea of randomness, centred on stochastic theory, where results can never be predicted. He also pioneered the use of various other mathematical theories and computer programs to produce scores.

The Pléïades, a constellation of stars in Taurus, are a potent aspect of Greek mythology, given to the name of Artemis’ seven daughters, each of which produced children fathered in secret by the major gods. Mentioned in literature from the legendary poet Sappho to Tennyson, the stars are at their brightest and visible throughout the Mediterranean in May through to November. They are also the first step in the so-called Cosmic Distance Ladder, a method used to judge distance outside of the solar system.

Originally written in 1979, Xenakis constructed his own instrument for this piece, a series of metal plates resembling a xylophone called a Sixxen. Six for the 6 percussionists performing, Xen for Xenakis. They are all tuned uniquely, and alongside them each performer also utilise more standard percussion and a brake drum, as well as a xylophone.
The piece is divided into 4 movements, Méteaux, Claviers, Peaux and finally Melanges. At 42 minutes it is one of the longest percussion movements.

From the outset, the power of Xenakis’ music is apparent in its inherent brutality. As arguably the 20th century’s most powerful proponent of percussion, he begins with Méteaux hammering out a clattering series of  rhythms that resembles a fugue, producing an exciting and eerie hum that is accentuated by the crisp nature of the percussion. It is offset by the tranquility of the soft clusters of notes produced by the xylophone on Claviers, and on Peaux, there’s a hint of Kodo-style drumming that follows the strict structure that Xenakis enforces on this piece, contrary to the more random methods employed elsewhere. The 3 elements come together for the finale in Melanges, and there’s a dramatic interplay of drums and sixxen that produces a quite spectacular finale.

I must admit to being quite overpowered by this piece. The noise that the sixxen make is disturbing and in the rarefied atmosphere of the Proms it produced a stark hum that goes against much of the more organic sound one tends to expect at events of this nature. It is one of Xenakis’ more forceful yet relatively simplistic pieces despite the clusters of dissonance at the beginning. Sandwiched between two composers that attract a more traditional crowd, this was an exciting and daring piece of programming by Wright and despite the odd heckle, it drew an ecstastic response from the throng.

Toby Frith

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