A brief critical, or personal, introduction to the late music of Iannis Xenakis

I've been discussing — & advocating for — Xenakis' music online for three decades now, i.e. since before this site began & so also before "the internet" really took off in the public imagination. And I've had a page here more or less since the beginning, in part remarking on some recorded interpretations, but I've never really come to write about Xenakis' works in much detail — or to name individual favorites. And although my ultimate aim here is (finally) to discuss individual works & to develop a relatively small set (currently under two hours) of favorites, I also want to spend some time discussing my personal journey to this point. Perhaps that'll lead to some more general observations in turn, but it'll at least give me a chance to think through my own interaction with this music, an activity that at this point has intertwined a good portion of my life....

Of course, I haven't been listening to Xenakis (1922-2001) continually for the past thirty years, more intermittently, and was prompted to consider doing so again more systematically (during 2020) on account of wanting to compare & contrast around new projects devoted to Cage & Tenney. I thought that perhaps I'd want to write a new Xenakis discussion at some point, but suddenly realized that I'd never actually undertaken a systematic survey of his work. (This surprised me to observe, and leads to some potentially interesting narrative factors....) Originally, my listening was largely restricted by what was available to hear, but as time passed, I'd basically missed the (perhaps subtle) moment when most of Xenakis' output had been recorded — & even a sense of closure for the works list itself, i.e. acceptance of the man's death. I suppose that, in some sense, I was always waiting for more.... (And I've seen various comments from others to suggest that Xenakis' last works didn't end up being very satisfying for many people waiting for more, so I wasn't particularly encouraged to seek closure....) A telling shift was probably with the release of the Orchestral Works series on Timpani, a body of music that I simply never sat down to study (aurally) in detail: From that point I'd listen to a Xenakis album — always a full album — when I was in the mood for "that kind" of music (you know: loud, atonal, colorful, active, rhythmic...), but without really thinking about the individual pieces (beyond, perhaps, some I already knew). Finally studying a works list all these years after his death has yielded some clarity, though: It's not as if an outline of Xenakis' output becomes especially clear, particularly considering its various overlapping concerns & usually nonstandard forces, but it does become clear that he won't be writing more music. And so, forming & expressing some opinions on individual works would seem to be long overdue. (Still, though, there are some pieces that haven't been recorded, including at least one that I intend to position below as a summit....)

When it came to thinking about favorite pieces, then, I found that I didn't really have any! Actually, the only piece that came to mind for me individually as something I'd sometimes specifically choose to hear — & that became the key question for me, not just opting for "some Xenakis," but a specific piece... — was the vocal & percussion duo Kassandra (1987). It seemed immediately absurd to name it as Xenakis' best piece of music, though. (For one, it's already an inserted scene for an earlier work, Oresteïa (1965/66)....) And although percussion music is often cited as one of Xenakis' biggest repertory contributions to contemporary musicians, vocal music generally isn't: Indeed I've seen reviews belittling the vocal style (of extremes) that Xenakis develops in these soloistic Greek works, but I want to name it clearly as one of his most personally distinctive individual contributions. (There are thus many vocal works through every period of Xenakis' output, and these are also some of the most likely to remain unrecorded.... Most are not in the same style, but do also suggest strong emotions.) What I found so unsatisfying about my own response, then, isn't the work Kassandra itself — although it'd still be difficult to claim it as a work of broad scope & consequence — but rather that it didn't involve what for me is Xenakis' most characteristic music around string glissandi & powerfully colorful eruptions. Or seemingly much in the way of mathematics.... How to choose among these "other" works then...? I've also found myself wanting not just better performances of this very difficult music, but also better recordings. (The smaller pieces simply pose fewer frustrations in terms of being able to hear everything that's happening....) So performance expectations do remain a factor in that sense, but Xenakis has received considerable attention from outstanding musicians, even as the sonic detail available in recordings of a few decades ago can start to seem unsatisfying....

Another factor in the main Xenakis page here being so austere — & so in presenting an artistic mismatch with the music itself — is that I was criticized decades ago for daring to have a page at all! It was a different era, of course, and in those days, many of my pages were the first search hit for a variety of topics, Xenakis included. The page wasn't very developed, though, with just a few personal remarks, and so students of Xenakis were offended. I wonder if anyone else remembers this, but I do.... Anyway, as should be crystal clear to everyone at this point, I don't control what the search engines decide to offer to their users, and I never did. (And I had various similar situations on the medieval side as well, with pages being "touted" "inappropriately" by the commercial portals....) In any case, I felt inhibited in terms of posting less settled musings at that point: And I don't mean that my feelings were hurt, but rather that it was indeed impressed upon me that whatever I wrote was the first thing that many people would see about Xenakis.... But thankfully that's no longer my responsibility, and I can reasonably expect my comments to be treated as what they always were, my own. (Obviously I could have come to this point much earlier....) Pace that orientation, I also came to Xenakis' music with my own doctorate in mathematics, and always found his "formalisms" to be intuitively clear. Beyond that, I'd say I generally received the music sonically with awe — a common experience. And so I also came to think of Xenakis as a significant personal influence: The mathematics were a parallel, but so was the desire to move beyond the Western musical tradition & its dubious claims to universality. I felt a similar outsider orientation & a similar path of study, so the work resonated strongly for me. Yet I could subsequently attempt to select favorites around thirty years later and come up largely empty? That's the kind of contradiction that can drive me in aesthetic topics.... And it's not as though I questioned my interest in Xenakis when feeling dissatisfied by a favorites inquiry — although I did begin to question how I'd write this page — but rather that it suggested asking different questions. For one thing, Xenakis remains a touchstone for many of the musicians I appreciate in contemporary improvisation: His music is obviously relevant, and random advocacy (e.g. from me) thus becomes largely irrelevant. (I'm sure there are still plenty of people who'd be happy to respond that Xenakis's music "isn't music" & all the usual quips that I used to hear & see, but what's relevant is that there are enough others who find it valuable that Xenakis' historical position is already assured....)

So after spending some months with most of Xenakis' output, I do tend to believe that he functions more as a general inspiration & influence than as a composer of specific works for hearing again & again.... Returning to the topic of earlier offense taken by Xenakis associates, though, of course this sounds less than complimentary, but I don't want to undersell the "general inspiration & influence" aspect either. (And as noted, I'll also go on to suggest some favorite pieces....) He's clearly an important Western composer for the second half of the twentieth century. Basically, Xenakis' mathematical formalizations yielded so many ideas & directions that he was barely able to pursue even a small percentage of the implications of his own early work. And those ideas & directions continued to flow through various others... including via new (technological) ways of composing, etc. (For me, simply the mathematical rendering of many different, & previously nonmusical, ideas into sound continues to suggest many unexplored possibilities....) In that sense, the "miracle of Xenakis" is that he was able to have this music performed & presented to the public already in the 1950s! As a "producer" he really got the ball rolling, then, even as various others continue to follow the inspirations & implications.... And in switching to a more "intuitive" style — a more directly expressive & affective style, one could say — during the 1970s, it might also be fair to note that the early (mathematical) Xenakis included the later Xenakis among composers he came to influence: I'm going to discuss the latter, because that's where I hear a more personal style, i.e. music that's ultimately more fruit than experiment. (Xenakis' technical developments could, alternately, be discussed in abstract terms, without reference to a more personal or emotive style.... Or perhaps even with the "more personal" as regression from pursuing mathematical abstraction per se....)

The notion that Xenakis' earlier music is his most striking & important is actually widespread enough, though, and it's clearly music of great mathematical abstraction, sometimes almost a bare illumination of mathematical ideas & processes in sound.... In that sense, its affectivity is rather general — & in part already due clearly to broad personal factors, i.e. an aggressive & colorful extroversion, a sound world always burgeoning with "more." (It also tends to be an immediate challenge for human performers to render....) One might then characterize such mathematical music as inhuman, as the result of basically "natural" phenomena, and such inspiration does come increasingly to run through Xenakis' oeuvre: A mathematical approach to line, timing & combination came to evoke the worlds of physics & biology, etc. My project here, then, isn't to discuss or illuminate the mathematics, but rather the effectiveness of the later music as music, its links to a world beyond itself & so ultimately to human thought & experience. In that sense, much of Xenakis' music does come off as big showpieces, a sort of sonic onslaught of musical motion (e.g. per Varèse), and so perhaps his big orchestral works never really fit my own personality very well. (They're also difficult to record & hear, simply in terms of the sheer number of sounds happening at any moment....) They haven't seemed so much a part of daily life for me, but do come with a great deal of power, particularly on good audio equipment.... (Although I've emphasized e.g. the smaller string forces in the past, in some ways, the more different sounds & colors there are, the more idiomatic for Xenakis....)

So I'm intending to proceed chronologically to discuss individual works, with more emphasis on the last decade or so of Xenakis' musical output. As noted, almost everything has been recorded, although I do intend to highlight (below) a few pieces that haven't, and so I've been able to (re)hear the vast majority of Xenakis' music for this project: Exceptions would be earlier electronic works & other early odds & ends, plus some unrecorded vocal music. (I do intend to remark on any later piece I haven't heard recently.) Xenakis' individual works also tend to be in the ten to twenty minute range, and in fact there have been only five pieces longer than twenty minutes (per the Iannis Xenakis Association page) written since 1980 (& only two since 1986). There's only one piece an hour or longer since the 1960s.... (And although there are surely limits to such an analysis by "length," it'd also appear to correlate with time devoted to a project....) That most of Xenakis' major works don't fill even half of a traditional CD program also has implications, particularly around my prior writing here: I've long thought of my audience as people who want a selective list of recordings, and that's (commercially) meant albums — until recently, I guess, as listening to multiple versions of everything becomes more practical for students & casual listeners alike. So I intend to discuss these works independently, with a discussion of recorded interpretations coming second, rather than conditioning the discussion more broadly around quasi-arbitrary programs.... (These are what I've come to call questions of musical economy.) There's also an economy of appreciation: I'm not seeking distinctive pieces that'll stand out & scream "Xenakis!" amid a more general program of contemporary music — i.e. as this music would appear in concert, its basic aggression sure to attract attention — but rather pieces that speak to me specifically somehow in my daily life now. And that actually proved challenging in terms of "unlearning" my prior rather uncritical take, the simple vagueness of my experience of the music for the past many years needing to come into greater focus: I consequently listened many hours for months, in a variety of settings, attempting to probe how Xenakis' music might really be used in my daily life, i.e. beyond its (also very real) function as historical provocation & mathematical inspiration.... In this, I was also working almost entirely by ear: I did read Formalized Music circa 1990 (as well as much else then that I've forgotten), and as noted, found it to be intuitive & relatively easy to grasp, but I didn't pursue further technical or critical orientations in 2020: I read a few scattered remarks, including those accompanying some recordings, but didn't seek out others' thoughts. (I probably won't.) I basically brought the same ear I've been developing in contemporary improvisation, largely ignoring factors outside of sound per se. (I look at scores occasionally, not systematically.)

And Xenakis began his musical career in the heyday of serialism, observing that many such works were largely indistinguishable to the ear from random processes. So this launched his stochastic explorations — while it appears that he also disdained Cage's rather different work with chance or randomness around the same time: Cage wanted to free the mind from attempting to follow a musical argument, but Xenakis basically abstracted serial music into process music per se, stochastic elements reflecting the way that many (e.g.) physical processes present to the senses. His "random music" was scientific, a more meandering way to move from point A to point B... & not to clear the mind, but to illuminate a quasi-real process. (One should note some basic similarities, however, in that Cage's "gamut" concept involved assembling the technical range of an instrument or composition in order to choose figures by chance: I.e. it's also about randomness within an already defined set.) From a twenty-first century perspective then, Xenakis' work suggests an extension of serialism per se (despite his initial disdain), but with a kind of directedness that the more whimsical Cage was trying to avoid. (And I wouldn't say that serial music precludes whimsy....) But of course, that's only if one takes the infrachromatic leap, serial music having (at least initially) concerned "only" the twelve chromatic tones: Mathematics of the continuum allowed Xenakis to relate any frequency to any other, making for expressions of raw power e.g. by evoking relations of astronomy etc. There's thus often a feeling of (natural) brutality — very unlike Cage — & so largely no sense of repose. However, the unleashing of "natural phenomena" in music also sidesteps some of the same issues of Western egoism that concerned Cage. In that sense, Xenakis frequently channels non-human grandeur. (One might compare e.g. to his teacher Messiaen, although the latter's "natural" music sounds very different.... And Xenakis appears to have been a scientific atheist, certainly not a Catholic.) His titles are often fanciful, and might involve evocations of different worlds (i.e. are not only about the real naturalism of our own), but also come to involve more restrained settings in the later music, a narrowing of focus from the entire universe per se.... One could say that Xenakis developed a primordial voice & even his own (idiosyncratic) sense of (musical) ecstasy, such that the complexity of his music can come to project a kind of primitivism (or even crudeness).

A world of sonic wildness doesn't necessarily suggest mathematical calculation, but as a means of sonic & musical relation, mathematics did find a world of use in Xenakis' music: Changing equations, either formally or in one parameter or another, became a means for musical experimentation, i.e. of experiment with affect per se. What could be heard? What was the effect? These sorts of affective inquiries seem to concern Xenakis increasingly from the 1970s, and that involves increasingly "fitting" music to human performers as well: While some of Xenakis' earlier music is impossible to play exactly as is for the forces written, that changed as he not only responded to more musical commissions, but developed more technical means of expression. So whereas some of the earlier works forced instrumental technique to expand, the later works can begin to take such expansion as a given. The outcome also increasingly involved an emphasis on composite timbres, i.e. of instrument families sounding together versus "straight" mathematical relation via piano or strings.... In this, Xenakis continued to expand the sonic palette of musical expression for decades — & that's considering only his music for traditional (i.e. acoustic) instruments. (He didn't generally pursue the "inside" of sound or timbre, but rather via superposition, i.e. as an additive process. Almost every piece seemingly uses a different combination of forces, i.e. produces a different overall timbre.) His electronic works did come to attack timbre differently.... And that went for his approach to vocal expression too, as Xenakis pursued various extremes of pitch & timbre, but not usually by doubling voices with instruments — although he did continue to write choral music as well. And although individual sounds & colors tend to intertwine in a variety of (including stochastic) ways, there's also a sort of fitful rhythmic-"harmonic" "backbone" that tends to animate so many of Xenakis' works, forging lurching sorts of ensemble rhythms that don't quite synchronize: A kind of rhythmic difference or remainder always seems to be involved, even when parts are close to coinciding, a "not quite" that retains forward momentum. (One might speak of patterns of stability forming, many soon to be discarded, but not without making an impression. And this sort of "momentum" does retain a linear quality, although more braided, like a rope with uneven strands....) There's thus always a sense of wrestling with the elemental, of finding a sort of fit or coherence around unwieldy ideas or materials.... Yet, Xenakis is also wanting the listener to be able to hear more clearly: He spoke of e.g. audio technology to allow the listener to "zoom in" on individual players for instance & thereby move around a work/ensemble, and he continued to work on technology to allow for more intuitive composing: Xenakis wanted to be able to conjure sounds directly from e.g. graphic sketches, get immediate aural feedback, and then adjust. (This is the sort of process underlying his later music. It's basically nowhere to be found in the earlier, more "purely mathematical" works.) And he wanted to make such a process accessible to anyone. (And to some degree, the latter possibilities are now reality, as many people besides Xenakis have contributed to such technical feedback systems....)

And although his earlier music is still significant both conceptually & for spawning new performance techniques, having his commissions arise from a greater variety of sources does appear to have forced his musical work to become more practical. Indeed, perhaps Xenakis even comes to recall Ravel — the short piano piece À r. (1987) being an homage — with his various coloristic orchestrations & linear displays of impressionistic variety.... (And as noted, there can be a kind of "bigger is better" sense to some of these sonic explosions: In this, I'm surely not getting the full effect listening by myself at home....) There's also very little in the way of repose, mostly a perceptual onslaught that does yield to familiarity, but not really to mastery. (There are just so many notes. And note that tragedy lacks repose for a reason.) One might consequently question the music's potential for affective benefit — which can sometimes seem to be limited to that of an exhibition or ear candy — & yet such an onslaught tends to annul any distance that its mathematicalizations might otherwise suggest. The resulting immediacy tends to suggest burgeoning possibilities instead.... And Xenakis did want to be "sonorous to the ear..." (to go along with "luminous to the eye" in his architectural-multimedia creations, a body of work with which I've never really engaged), perhaps even to overwhelm.... In his quest for sonic variety, not only did orchestral & mixed ensemble music play a central role, but e.g. vocal & percussion repertories as well, and further afield, his output encompasses e.g. various pieces using harpsichord & even Nyuyo (1985) for four traditional Japanese instruments.... But his earliest stochastic works have been making impressions for the longest period, and their technical novelty played a significant role in that reception: String pieces such as ST/4 (1955/62) & Nomos Alpha (1966) thus set new standards for technique, the latter in particular assembling its own sort of "gamut," thereby largely remaking the solo cello genre. (Xenakis would later project similar ideas onto the larger canvas of the double bass in Theraps (1975/76), solo bass music having generally been a novelty to that point.) There's also a stark quality to the early string music that might be paralleled (somehow) by the roaring delicacy of the horn calls of Eonta (1963), famous technically not only for its stochastic lines, but also on account of using the brass output to condition/modify the piano resonance (as a sort of early "preparation").... But Xenakis' music also already became more bustling, e.g. in the large wind ensemble piece Akrata (1964/65), with its serial-sounding & colorfully conversational stochastic interactions.... And Xenakis' music through this period does seem to be very much of its era, featuring a sort of post-war brutality (in his case, via a mathematical primitivism...), e.g. evoking Stravinsky in his extended ballet music, Antikhthon (1971) & of course extending ideas on what a "multimedia" performance could be into architecture... (& so forging early notions of ambient music, etc.). Of course, such "multimedia" notions also immediately evoked thoughts of ancient Greek theater for Xenakis — expressed especially in Oresteïa (1965/66) from this period.

A sort of quasi-inhuman (i.e. mathematical) rigor thus leads into more impressionism in the 1970s, particularly with the development of Xenakis' UPIC system, completed in 1979: This was the graphical compositional feedback system he'd wanted, and it came to yield greater textural command & consistency, shifting his music from a kind of post-serial pointillism (as augmented by linear glissandi) into "thick" chords & intertwining musical strands.... (Xenakis is thus a pioneer of both computer music per se, and computer-assisted composition, in his case in order to create music for human performers.) Xenakis' "progress" in intuitive musical feedback also prompted some more explicit self-consciousness at this time, his architectural collaborations climaxing with Diatope (1979), followed by a short autobiography (1980), as well as a determination to go it alone as a composer (thus ending his employment with Le Corbusier, during which his music had already been presented prominently to large audiences). Other work to note from the late 1970s includes Akanthos (1977) for soprano & eight instruments, perhaps Xenakis' most "abstract" vocal work, with smooth tones (quite unlike the Greek-inspired music in its seeming indifference) & nonsense syllables arrayed against timbral variety (grinding strings, piano flourishes, etc.) in linear series. Akanthos thus already suggests the sort of pairing of opposites that would concern Xenakis especially at this time, but is also a departure from the double vocal work N'Shima (1975), the (stochastic) incantatory voices of which seem almost unreal against the instrumental motion (which recalls Eonta), but never so indifferent.... As I've noted elsewhere, then, Xenakis' sense of pairing opposites reaches something of a climax with Dikhthas (1979) for violin & piano, reusing parts of Evryali (1973) for piano with its proliferating tree-like lines, now with the microtonal violin providing aggressive continuity between those rattling notes. (Such a classic juxtaposition can benefit from austerity in performance, and a sort of "inhuman" tone does often suit Xenakis' instrumental parts. And do note further that employing violin in this sort of "mode of extension" is very much of its time, notions of extended continuity being associated with the instrument by e.g. Cage & Scelsi.... Sinewy, twisting lines are thus also the focus of the Mikka (1971&1976) solo pieces.) And piano is once again part of such a juxtaposition in Palimpsest (1979), a sort of chamber piano concerto where the piano is obscured by the other ten instruments (including prominent percussion), and where a variety of musical styles are encountered sequentially in another sort of showpiece.... (The notion of layers of activity would also become important for Xenakis.) The basic romantic sweep of such music was also exemplified with greater noise & brutality by Jonchaies (1977) for large orchestra.... But where I want to take up another thread for later development is with Aïs (1980), an orchestral work featuring extended baritone & percussion in a novel Greek-inspired (or ultimately, perhaps, Egypt-inspired) style: The result is considerably stiffer than Kassandra, but the basic concept was there. (In other words, Xenakis was returning to emphasize human expression, now itself in an extended — i.e. hyper-emotional — guise: Inhuman brutality meets human response & reaction... although perhaps still within a primordial mood.) And none of these works ends up being particularly (affectively) satisfying for me (i.e. beyond positive initial impressions), at least in the context of Xenakis' later developments, but that's not the case for Mists (1981), clearly his most sophisticated piano work & a piece sure to remain in the late twentieth century piano repertory. (Mists follows Herma (1960) & Evryali — both partly unplayable — and precedes the short À r. as noted.) It unites Xenakis' exciting style of linear runs with his set theory approach to the discrete tonal possibilities of the piano — wrapped in an impressionistic inspiration. (The combination of starkness & complexity keeps Mists from sounding much like Debussy's piano music, but there does appear to be some inspiration there....)

Of course, it's the string music that's long been canonical for me in this arena, and Xenakis returned to the string quartet in particular (not long after Mists) with Tetras (1983), a piece sometimes viewed as a summit. But whereas Tetras does involve a novel string language (again a sort of gamut...), and fascinating conversational interplay, its adoption of the quartet format still seems arbitrary, i.e. as four "random" voices among many. Such an impression is strengthened by Shaar (1983) for sixty piece string orchestra, a bigger piece that develops a similar interplay to a greater extent.... (And I'm surprised that the similarity between these two works hasn't been noted more often, with Shaar actually seeming to be something like the "sequel" to Tetras that many fans had wanted... the later quartets being in a more melodic style.) Tetras seems almost sparse in comparison, although also rethinking earlier string ideas already made famous in e.g. Metastaseis (1953/54) & Syrmos (1959). (String pieces thus tend to illustrate various structural ideas for Xenakis, and strings do tend to be the backbone of the ensemble works, but these works aren't as colorful as many in Xenakis' oeuvre. They tend to present similarly among themselves, though, whether for a just a couple of players or for large ensembles.... And "starkness" tends to come off similarly, i.e. as an engineering trait or architectural quality about the music, i.e. as non-rhetorical geometric articulation: Xenakis thus continues to suggest the impersonal.) And instruments capable of microtonal articulation continued to become more of an emphasis for Xenakis, meaning also that the piano was deemphasized through the 1980s (in parallel e.g. with my own desires to move away from tuning limits...), but that's not before appearing in other significant ensemble works (after Mists): Thallein (1984) for fourteen musicians is another flowery showpiece, once again involving piano & percussion, and moving through the illustration of a series of lively timbral combos. (One might note that "nature itself" involves a lot of "pointless" variations, and Thallein is indeed sonorous & even pretty....) On the other hand, Akea (1986) for piano & string quartet suggests an exploration of melancholy or even nostalgia, apparently part of a sort of "healing" impulse for Xenakis, once again with romantic evocations. (The emotionality of the piece can seem almost childish, suggesting e.g. a lament for his long dead mother....) And 1986 was a huge year for Xenakis in general (perhaps the biggest after 1979...), including e.g. reuse of passages from Horos (1986) for orchestra in Akea, but also involving his final piano concerto (after Synaphaï (1969) & Erikhthon (1974)), Keqrops (1986): After that grand, ostentatious piece — in which the orchestra often seems merely to be ornamenting the massive piano part — it's fair to say that piano starts to become more scarce in Xenakis' output.... (He also wasn't done with 1986, with Jalons — also "milestones" — being another distinctive ensemble piece, this time projecting a striking sort of jungle vibe around bent harp tones & dark textures.... This exhausting piece doesn't hold me all the way through, but its opening is striking, and the intriguing instrumentation isn't repeated.) Such a climax with Keqrops (& in a different mode, Akea) does seem quite intentional too, especially considering the sort of titles Xenakis was choosing at the time.

Particularly since I'd already mentioned Kassandra (1987) earlier in this survey, it's probably also appropriate to linger on the "summary" quality of the 1986 pieces (even as some also press on with new explorations...). And then I need to note another 1987 piece, Ata for large orchestra: This is the oldest piece that Xenakis incorporated into Mosaïques (1993), and so a candidate to be his first "mature" or late orchestral piece. And it's a "heavy" piece, with various thrashings (unlike e.g. the more gestural Tracées (1987), with its one big climax....) perhaps even recalling Keqrops in its almost relentless onslaught (pace Jonchaies...) that does, nonetheless, begin to suggest ocean textures & even seasickness. Such stormy, "sloshing" drama will recur — & mark the post-86 chronology to its end.... And then Kassandra itself, a return to the duo mode of e.g. Dikhthas & a reprise of the affective (& technical-vocal) stance of the orchestral cantata Aïs, was actually conceived as a new scene for (the substantial) Oresteïa cycle, prophecy itself thus taken to arise from a sort of dualism.... It's a work of great contrasts, but also establishes a decisive human component that comes to expand in Xenakis' "Greek" music, i.e. begins to forge a place for the human (pace the divine) within the brutal Xenakian natural universe. So while I'd thus suggest that much of Xenakis' prior vocal music involved dehumanizing the voice, with Kassandra he really starts to seek the ur-human & indeed via (classical) intersection with divinity, i.e. as forces of nature. (And the prominent psaltery is not so unlike the harpist opening Jalons....) And as noted, it's been striking enough to make an ongoing individual impression — including as a piece I might audition for acquaintances.... Still, while a vocal & percussion duo might suggest a paleolithic musical interaction (although not with strings as percussion, it doesn't!), it's not going to resonate much as "classical music" — & Xenakis did value the classical tradition (of Beethoven et al., even as such influence is seemingly absent from so much of his output). Moreover, this is the period during which I "discovered" Xenakis personally, meaning that these pieces were once new for me (while they were actually new), including Waarg (1988) for thirteen musicians (especially winds): I've thus had a fondness for the piece since its appearance on an ASKO Ensemble album devoted to Xenakis. It's a fairly ordinary work in some sense too, thematic elaboration around rumbling counterpoint with lovely wind shadings & string glissandi — no piano & no percussion! — in a taut but somehow easygoing sort of musical thicket that can even suggest a quasi-Baroque sense of repetition & effort.... (I find it conducive to relaxing while working, perhaps in keeping with its title, "work.") The year 1989 then seems to mark another (minor, but still notable) summary for Xenakis, particularly with the chamber concerti Échange (1989) for bass clarinet & Epicycle (1989) for cello: Both works continue to explore a "duo" mode of interaction, in this case with the soloists responsible for roughly half the music, and such that the pieces also unfold in layers (as articulated already explicitly in Palimpsest...) or variations, such that the full chamber ensemble almost seems in turn to "fold" inside the solo part, or even to become an ornament. (These works thus come to project an austerity at times, and so to herald some of Xenakis' later music.... Epicycle in particular suggests an element of personal nostalgia as well.) This was also the year of Oophaa (1989) for harpsichord & percussion, surely the most appealing (& last) of Xenakis' works for the former instrument (after Khoaï (1976), Komboï (1981), Naama (1984) & the ensemble piece A l'île de Gorée, also from 1986), here in an "absurd" sort of combination, once again evoking an eerie jungle on the one hand, with the harpsichord sometimes conjuring "electronic" sounds on the other.

Xenakis' last (partial) decade of composition then opens e.g. with the lovely Tetora (1990), a work for string quartet that could hardly be more opposite from the harsh figures of Tetras, embracing not only the traditional quartet format per se (rather than as simply four strings among many...), but developing a more melodic sense: Xenakis does this via his developing modal conceptions, which don't involve octave repeats, meaning that the different ranges of the instruments involve different scales, and so in turn persistent musical layers to the piece. In this, its expression tends to be in relatively narrow ranges too — & so to disappoint some fans of Xenakis' most aggressive music — in conjuring a sort of smoothness (as perhaps following some of the more tender ideas broached by Akea....). Tetora is thus the middle work of those I'll be featuring at the end of this introduction, as well as a genuinely "musical" piece that would seem to offer possibilities for broader appeal.... (There's still the matter of familiarity.) But the year 1990 also produced Kyania ("cyan"), one of the rare Xenakis pieces longer than twenty minutes (as noted early in this article): It thus suggests another summit, and like Ata, contributed material to the orchestral summary Mosaïques (while also reusing a section of Horos itself): As the colorful title suggests, there are oceanic qualities to Kyania too, but it also projects a sense of symphonic grandeur, with various climaxes emerging from shearing motion & romantic lines of flight. (A symphonic argument per se is awkward for Xenakis, because his "themes" interact in layers, rather than transforming each other....) It almost comes to feel like an airing of resentments. The year 1991 was then another very prolific one for Xenakis, also including Roaï & Troorkh, two more orchestral pieces eventually contributing to Mosaïques: Roaï appears to attempt some deconstruction, then a rebuild from fractured figures, suggesting nonlinear form (as not really elaborated subsequently), sometimes in a sort of carnival atmosphere (or even a Disney-esque struggle between good & evil), while Troorkh expands upon the 1989 chamber concerti, yielding a dazzling trombone showpiece that likewise involves the orchestra seeming to "fold inside" & ornament the dominant trombone part. (And Xenakis had already composed the solo trombone piece Keren (1986), paralleling e.g. Cage's contemporary fascination with the instrument & its glissandi.) And the trombone is generally expected to maintain a taut, continuous tone — as Xenakis typically treats violin, and does so once again in Dox-Orkh (1991), a violin concerto (& another showpiece) of similar inspiration (but not included in Mosaïques). Dox-Orkh involves more clichés, but can also be an impressive virtuoso piece (& so a sort of climax here as well). The final piece contributing to Mosaïques is then Krinoïdi (1991), the shortest of these pieces, but for me, the prettiest: The inspiration is the sea lily (an underwater animal), and so once again the music evokes watery motion & colors, particularly via its striking high winds (not so unlike Waarg). There's thus a bit of delicacy conveyed by Krinoïdi, but also massive sound (although fewer urges toward climax), again with a sense of (environmental?) layering — yielding a sort of ethological exultation, I suppose. With these 1991 pieces then (& isn't 1986 the golden mean between 1979 & 1991?), Xenakis' reputation is clearly at a high point, the orchestras & soloists playing these works at the time being a good measure.... (And do let me note the other specific pieces from the 1980s that are over twenty minutes in length, per the opening above: There're the choral works Nekuia (1981) & Pour la Paix (1981) — the former an epic drama, while the latter can involve an electronic tape in various combos around its common, for the era anyway, theme — plus Alax (1985) for three ensembles, unheard by me & perhaps a "game" piece.... Kyania is thus the rare "straight" instrumental work to exceed that length for Xenakis, joining Persephassa (1969) & a few even longer pieces still to be noted below....)

And as the foregoing might already suggest, while Xenakis was producing a plethora of interesting sound combinations & dynamic textures, the overall form of his works remained both "intuitive" & relatively arbitrary (or unsatisfying): I imagine most deriving straight from graphic sketches of waves & climaxes.... (In contrast, e.g. Tenney constructed his waves & climaxes via analytic means. Xenakis used e.g. notions of a varietous promenade instead, i.e. per Thallein....) So although he was developing some great sounds & illuminations of natural forces & settings, where was the "musical message" per se? For Xenakis, relevant themes were already to be found in classical tragedy (& some similar literary works), such that again, I'll suggest that texted works are actually among his most important, despite relative neglect: Indeed, much of his late work comes to suggest dramatic scenes... & that's explicitly so of the short La déesse Athéna (1992) for extended baritone & percussion soloist plus nine winds & cello, another inserted moment for Oresteïa. Here one finds an elaboration of the sonic dynamic & expressivity of Kassandra, but with additional instruments providing a supporting & smoothing quality, sophisticated expressive layers developing along the modal ideas of Tetora. There's also more sense of context & directionality, although the piece does end abruptly... or rather, takes up the scene from Oresteïa again. (It's thus both more & less satisfying than Kassandra. I'd also ignored the piece as a curiosity until recently....) But then, I might not even be featuring La déesse Athéna if Bakxai Evrypidov (1993), the longest of Xenakis' late pieces at a full hour, weren't languishing unrecorded (& so unheard): This setting of the Euripides classic The Bacchae for baritone solo, female choir & nine instruments (including three percussionists, but no strings) clearly suggests a climax in Xenakis' oeuvre, building upon his characteristic extended baritone laments (presumably here also in divergent extremes...), as well as his extensive choral writing. Presumably musical layering is likewise used in this piece to articulate & recall the dramatic action itself.... (Unfortunately, I can't really say more about the piece, other than speculatively. But I can note that the other two pieces longer than an hour in Xenakis' output are Oresteïa itself & the electroacoustic ballet Kraanerg (1968/69)... while the next longest pieces are all from the 1970s, Persepolis (1971) & Legende d'Eer (1977) for tape, and Pleiades (1978) for percussion ensemble....) And Les Bacchantes d'Euripide isn't the only important unrecorded piece from 1993 — itself the chronological peak of Xenakis' musical output as a whole? — as the short (eight minute) Mosaïques itself remains unrecorded & unheard by me as well! (I assume that this relatively short piece was compiled in response to a commission, since it was premiered already in 1993, but that Xenakis was busy with his late summaries in the wake of realizing that his mind was going....) And while I haven't been able to appraise the choral style of Bakxai Evrypidov — which I'm assuming marks something of a dramatic climax — Xenakis did continue his choral developments elsewhere in this period, with Pu wijnuej we fyp (1992) for children's choir as based on a nonsense text from Rimbaud, and especially Sea Nymphs (1994) for mixed choir, suggesting shearing "seasickness" around a text from Shakespeare. (The latter thus completes a progression from e.g. Nuits (1968) & through various dramatic explorations, into a chaotic & shifting world of voices... a sort of derangement by furies. These voices no longer seem distant or abstracted, but rather terrifying: I expect something similar to occur with the choir in Bakxai....) Xenakis continued to create new electronic works in this period as well: Gendy3 (1991) marked a new system that was extended into a sort of stochastic timbral variation ("dynamic stochastic synthesis") by S.709 (1994) — the latter not being especially enjoyable, but suggesting a variety of later & more sophisticated developments to be explored by others (e.g. Anthony Braxton & SuperCollider...).

While the latter works (i.e. Sea Nymphs & S.709) would seem to constitute singular climaxes, or at least exhibitions, of Xenakis' work in some specific areas to that point — the latter in particular suggesting a "now or never..." motivation, while the former might well rehash some concerns from Bakxai — Xenakis did also continue with more elementary explorations: I'm not sure if Plektó (1993) actually predates his diagnosis or work on Bakxai, but it appears to involve the forging of something like "sonata form" at this late date. Indeed this sextet piece (involving the smallest mixed ensemble that Xenakis used & unusually including piano once again in this late period) presents in a colorful & melodious way, but its quasi-pastoral presentation also moves beyond the "promenade" style, coming to sound very modernist (even to the point of cliché at times) as it "weaves" its material together into one tapestry: This isn't a layered piece, but rather involves real confrontation & synthesis of material, sounding both rather like twentieth century music in general & rather unlike Xenakis otherwise (Phlegra (1975) having been perhaps the most similar in texture). Plektó is thus basically resolving conflicts & synthesizing Xenakis' highly divergent sonic figures into some kind of "classical" apotheosis, with the completed texture again invoking waves & even seasickness.... (Does this style go anywhere for Xenakis? Perhaps it figures some of the theatrical drama of Bakxai? Perhaps it was basically a study.) Considering how much work other composers have put into these sorts of sonata-inspired developments, Xenakis' contribution ends up sounding preliminary & even naïve, albeit involving his own characteristic material, but while Plektó thus remains enigmatic, Dämmerschein (1993/94) for eighty-nine member orchestra presents as satisfying a closure as one is likely to find with Xenakis: That the "twilight" title refers to Xenakis' own musical career has been noted elsewhere — as has a supposed parallel with Wagner, which remains unconvincing for me — but it also refers directly to the textures developed: Xenakis thus continues to build on his "water music," into a piece showing real textural suspension & not just a messy rush from one climax to another.... There's even a sort of fragility to this massive music, a kind of hovering amid flickering colors, with less concern for extremes, but a constantly shifting focus. (It can also induce nausea.) And at this point, I have to think that Dämmerschein is Xenakis' greatest orchestral piece — maybe his most satisfying work. (One might even suggest that Dämmerschein balances audacity & argument for Xenakis, the latter developing only recently with Plektó....) I'm also unsure as to when or how Xenakis' dementia began to affect him more strongly, but the 1994 pieces obviously include some absolutely critical summary material, and that goes for the string quartet Ergma (1994) as well: Following Tetora, one not only hears a real engagement with the "string quartet" per se as independent force & genre, but with the classical repertory more generally, as hints of its rhetorical history flicker in layers through the relatively brief Ergma.... And it can involve the shifting & thrashing chords that tend to dominate Xenakis' last works as well, but opens with a melodic core, perhaps with less counterpoint per se than the previous quartets. Its relative brevity could be on account of Xenakis' illness, but it also suggests more of a classical vibe than much of his music. (The even shorter Voile (1995) for twenty strings then takes this concentration & dissonance to another level, as a sort of singular eruption without much development....) From there, I'm not sure how much more there really is to hear, as Xenakis' music becomes more austere & unelaborated, increasingly suggesting a kind of farewell or remembrance: This is particularly true of the smaller string works, as the sort of fitful thrashing already noted becomes the main or only motion, as ideas seem to be scoured down to their essences, i.e. wave-like sketches & braids, backbones that are never to be covered in flesh or flowers.... Ittidra (1996) & its general mirror image vibe basically complete this process, but there're also the stark cello duets Hunem-Iduhey (1996) & Roscobeck (1996) — continuing to suggest the cello (e.g. after Nomos Alpha (1966) & the more expressively aggressive Kottos (1977)) as a personally meaningful instrument for Xenakis. (These works thus also continue to be formally naïve.) Such simplicity or severity is found in the late percussion-oriented ensemble works Zythos (1996) & O-Mega (1997) as well, again involving a sort of scouring down of what had been a very expressive & elaborate style.... And a similar austerity is found in the wind nonet Kuïlenn (1995), again with a sort of acerbic tenderness, while I was unable to hear the mixed ensemble piece Kaï (1995) again for this survey (despite that it was recorded in the 1990s, and that I surely heard it then...). In some ways, these late works expose the "nuts & bolts" of Xenakis' style, i.e. the relatively unremarkable backbones behind so much of his colorful, burgeoning music.... But there were still more orchestral works! In particular, Ioolkos (1995) has received some attention, but is mostly a short, texturally dense release of climactic energy, into a sort of triumphant driving fanfare.... (One might note the characteristically braided, i.e. mostly simultaneously articulated, timbres.) Once again, there's no sense of poise, but maybe some vertigo — as typical enough of Xenakis throughout his career. There's also Koïranoï (1995), which hasn't been recorded & which I haven't heard (& is a twelve minute work, versus the eight minutes of Ioolkos, although I have no idea which was actually composed first...). And then there's Sea-Change (1997), another short orchestral piece, even more chaotic & seasick again to start (perhaps evoking the deranged S.709 via traditional instruments...), but coming into tonal clarity with a kind of quick romantic sweep through Xenakis' characteristic textures.... I suppose it's autobiographical.

One thing that this survey will surely suggest then (& at a glance, or absence thereof) is that Xenakis' work is not easily summarized: I've attempted to trace some thematic histories around ideas that seem relevant to me, not only in terms of my intellectual engagement per se with the music, but in terms of pieces that I ultimately find to be the most (affectively) satisfying. And for me that does include the "Greek" vocal works — which as noted, also prompt concrete large scale forms. (These grapple with nothing less than the full chaos of human context & experience....) So I'll go on to discuss a few favorite pieces (or personally selected highlights) in a section to follow, and don't really intend to update this introduction. (Notes on subsequent releases & listening will thus be found below....) Do I appreciate Xenakis more or less now, i.e. after undertaking this survey & discussion? I'd have to choose the former, of course, given the greater familiarity with the music that's resulted, but that familiarity did also eliminate some of the mystique I'd still felt. (And I'm not sure how to relate to that: Will I ever feel a sense of awe again at someone else's musical activities? I don't seem to be the same person who once felt that way, and so to "unlearn" it did involve some pain....) At least if I want to hear "some Xenakis" now, I do have much more concrete notions for individual pieces that might be appropriate to the moment.... But I'm no longer going to be happy just bathing (relatively uncritically) in his mathematically & sonically rich music, I suppose. And much of it does end up seeming impulsive or arbitrary (yet always exploratory)....

So all that said, let me close this section by recapping pieces that (are presumably significant to this project & that) I wasn't able to hear: Those are Bakxai Evrypidov (1993), Mosaïques (1993) & Koïranoï (1995). I also wasn't able to hear the extant recording of Kaï (1995) again. And although I was able to hear them on Youtube, Sea Nymphs (1994) & Sea-Change (1997) do not appear to have been commercially recorded....

Todd M. McComb
11 February 2021

Review of select works

In this second/closing section, I intend to review & discuss a handful of select works separately — as well as to note recorded interpretations. There are only nine pieces featured here (or ten if counting Bakxai Evrypidov, which hasn't been recorded), making for less than two hours of music in sum. (In other words, the music on this list doesn't pose a huge time commitment, although it might well sound very unfamiliar....) I'm going to list works chronologically, with scorings & timings taken directly from the Iannis Xenakis Association catalog (& timing isn't necessarily consistent in performance, as it'd be for e.g. Cage's Number Pieces): In that, Tetora is theoretically the longest, but Kassandra has been the longest in actual performance. (And comparing more interpretations, Waarg is also sometimes the longest.) The selections also range from a solo & a couple of duos, into two (string) quartets, a chamber ensemble piece, and two full orchestral scores.... In this, most possess only one recorded interpretation or pose an easy choice, but more interpretations will be noted when appropriate (& presumably will be for future releases as well?). So without further ado....

Mists (1981) for piano (12') —
This is easily Xenakis' most sophisticated piece for piano, an instrument he came to employ less centrally through the 1980s. Mists is thus a clear highlight of his output from a period relatively early for this list, but would also appear to be poised as a late twentieth century repertory piece — pace its extreme difficulty: Its pairing of linear runs & pointillistic indeterminacy give it a distinctive feel. Although piano isn't a priority for me, Mists can thus sit alongside other late twentieth century piano favorites, i.e. outside of a specific Xenakis orientation. Per the "repertory" comments, there are also more interpretations to consider here than for many of these works: Claude Helffer recorded it at least twice (including in the classic set with the Arditti Quartet), but particularly during this survey, I've come to prefer the technically starker articulation of Aki Takahashi on Mode. (The clarity of that interpretation might not fit the title as well, though....) Among younger interpreters, none has really stood out for me to this point, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that someone else has already developed a great interpretation of this piece....

Shaar (1983) for string orchestra (14') —
This "big" piece for sixty strings (16/14/12/10/8) presents something of a summary of Xenakis' ideas in that arena to that point, i.e. also from the early 1980s. Although it doesn't ever seem to have become iconic (or particularly known at all), it can feel tautly dramatic & primitivist at the same time, as a variety of quasi-linguistic string figures interact across a broad musical canvas: Compared to some of the later symphonic works, though, it seems almost tonal — despite its dissonant glissandi, etc. (It's probably too intense to be long-form film music, but does kind of give that vibe....) A sense of space tends to maintain, indeed as a sort of canvas (i.e. world) for the contrapuntal string conversation, itself both wild & highly controlled.... There's only one known recording, that on Orchestral Works Vol. II — which is appealing, but also part of a broad series, i.e. doesn't really highlight this under-recognized piece....

Kassandra (1987) for amplified baritone (with psaltery) & percussionist (14') —
This striking duet has long been a favorite, despite its less than classic ensemble. In some sense it suggests a "restart" after Xenakis' many 1986 pieces & summaries, taking up a series of pieces inspired by Greek drama again — as continuing to extend down this list.... There's a hyper-emotional quality to Kassandra, & so an exposition of prophecy per se as arising from (dualist) extremes: One might be inclined to criticize Xenakis not only for this "hysterical" sort of presentation, but for casting a male singer.... (My understanding is that he already admired Spiros Sakkas, so the inspiration may have gone in that direction, although there's still plenty for feminists to critique about this setting, going back to its ancient history....) In any case, the urge to humanize his music & bring it back to classical themes & drama is particularly on display here, despite Xenakis' reputation for abstract "physics" pieces. And I still appreciate the classic recording with Sakkas & Sylvio Gualda, but among more recent renditions, I've especially come to enjoy Roland Auzet with Nicholas Isherwood (on the former's big set from Mode): The older interpretation keeps to the timing from the works list, thus presenting at a faster pace & with some of the "smaller" vocal ornaments seeming more distinctive, but the more leisurely & controlled reading by Auzet & Isherwood does hold up quite well for me. It's become my main choice for Kassandra in the course of this survey, which I guess increasingly takes on a life of its own.... (And there're at least two other recordings, so this piece hasn't actually languished....)

Waarg (1988) for thirteen musicians (8 winds & 5 strings) (16') —
Xenakis wrote so many varied ensemble works for similar combinations of forces that it can be difficult to sort among them, but this piece has always been enjoyable for its prominent winds & simmering counterpoint. It's also less percussive than many pieces from this period, and projects an easygoing quality through its (relatively) substantial length — although it can be tense or insistent too, maintaining momentum in generally bright textures. Waarg has also had at least four recordings, including two by the ASKO Ensemble, which seems to have adopted it: Their second recorded interpretation is especially fluent & enjoyable, although taken as the closer for their live album (& so with plenty of applause, unfortunately, left on the track). This is good music for mental activity.

Tetora (1990) for string quartet (17') —
This (second) string quartet opens with appealing modal coloring in a more melodic guise, although with Xenakis' characteristic jerking chordal motion at times too, suggesting almost a chorale. Indeed there's a folksy quality to some of this — still very challenging to play — music, presumably emerging "mathematically" from modal concepts.... There's also a sense of bands of sound (perhaps coming to define "characters") that channel previously wilder motion, now also conjuring a sense of "string quartet" as genre.... There's still a distinct sense of dissonance to Tetora, though, later shifting into harmonics. And I've come to love the brisk (at 13') Jack Quartet reading with its great pacing & continuity — plus flatter technique typical of the later Mode releases. But the Arditti Quartet classic is of course still worth noting. Presumably others will be tackling this quartet as well, clearly one of Xenakis' most melodically developed summits....

Krinoïdi (1991) for seventy-one musician orchestra (15') —
This might be a relatively arbitrary selection here, considering that Xenakis wrote several at least superficially similar orchestral pieces around the same time, but somehow it does attract me more than the others. In particular, the sense of biology (i.e. ethology) & scenic depiction mitigate a tendency toward grandiosity.... And a "watery" sound came to be quite a specialty for Xenakis — not only in "color," but in conjuring feelings of tossing & shearing motion as well — here in one of its most immediately satisfying expressions, still in sonic layers, a sense of triumph projected right from the start.... (The feelings of seasickness emerging at times might make the relatively more formal Shaar seem tame....) Especially given its frequent blue shadings from the winds, one might also reasonably place Krinoïdi in the middle of a timbral series from Waarg to Dämmerschein.... (And do note, again, that I haven't heard Mosaïques, to which Krinoïdi contributed....) The relative formal "tightness" of Krinoïdi comes through especially in the one recorded rendition, that of Orchestral Works Vol. IV, a dance-like quality seeming to emerge from its considerable interpretive brevity (at 10'), i.e. as a sort of triumphant underwater "dance" of sea lilies....

La déesse Athéna (1992) for baritone solo & eleven musicians (9') —
This piece has been easy to ignore, or at least I was certainly able to do so when the enigmatic Xenakis & Varèse album first appeared on Mode. However, it continues & expands upon the ideas of Kassandra — again with a female character from classical tragedy (& beyond) portrayed by a male baritone — by incorporating the modal "banding" of e.g. Tetora into the sometimes smooth (to almost piercing...) sequences & articulations of its expanded instrumental ensemble (of percussionist, nine winds & cello). The formal sweep is also considerably more sophisticated (albeit over a shorter span...). I've thus come to find The Goddess Athena to be highly appealing for its strongly evocative quality — until it ends abruptly, i.e. returns to the Oresteïa cycle into which it was inserted.... (Perhaps I should note that I do find the only recorded performance, that with Philip Larson, to be rather appealing, even as his later interpretation of Kassandra with Steven Schick, there in a percussion anthology, comes to seem almost disinterested....)

[ Bakxai Evrypidov (1993) for baritone solo, women's choir & nine instrumentalists (60') —
While this piece hasn't been recorded (although it was premiered in London already in 1993...), its "structural" position in Xenakis' oeuvre — combined with its length — screams out that it's a summit (or at least that that's what he'd intended...). Presumably it builds upon the musical-dramatic ideas of La déesse Athéna.... In any case, I'm actively calling for a recording! ]

Dämmerschein (1993/94) for eighty-nine musician orchestra (14') —
Although relatively brief, this late orchestral work can project a massive sound. Notions of "twilight" emerge from the sound itself, a sometimes fragile & sometimes vertiginous combination of energy & suspension, into a kind of tense intermingling that Xenakis' previous layered approach had largely eschewed.... And while Dämmerschein somehow rests on its ephemeral, shifting "middle" — perhaps not so unlike the relatively much earlier Mists — it can involve extremes as well. The piece seems to require great audio quality, but fortunately receives it on the (suddenly prominent here) Xenakis & Varèse album from Mode: That recorded rendition features remarkable clarity across a broad sound stage, even as the rhythmic articulations from the (student?) ensemble don't always maintain as many layers of temporal continuity.... Still, it's an impressive recording (& actually at faster than stated tempo!) & so it's more than a little foolish that I didn't spend more time with it earlier.... There haven't been any subsequent recordings.

Ergma (1994) for string quartet (9') —
Xenakis' final string quartet was actually first recorded by the Mondriaan String Quartet on the same 1994 album that was also the first recording of Cage's Five3 with James Fulkerson! That said, it's also shorter than Tetora, and after a particularly (historically) reflective opening, tends to remain relatively sparse: It would thus appear to inaugurate Xenakis' last string works, with their increasingly severe & relatively unelaborated torsos.... Ergma retains some real charm though, not to mention taking up a rare (for Xenakis) historical format (once again), and so makes a good ending for this list.... It already projects something of a rhetorical quality itself (which is not the norm for Xenakis), its relative concentration seeming to make for a good concert piece (not to mention its self-consciously nostalgic evocations...). I've particularly enjoyed the rendition by the Jack Quartet on Mode, once again the second & so far the most recent....

Back to prior Xenakis intro.

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Todd M. McComb
Updated 15 February 2021