Dancing About Architecture

The Composer Portraits concerts for this season began Saturday night at Miller Theater, with percussionist Steven Schick performing as well as conducting the International Contemporary Ensemble in music of composer Iannis Xenakis. Performances of this music are rare enough, and therefore exceptional, and this concert was exceptionally well presented.

Xenakis was a specialist’s specialist; in the rarified world of cutting-edge classical music of the post-war 20th century, he is reflexively thought of as an avant-gardist but was really a rigorous, disciplined experimentalist, working very much in the tradition of classical music while at the same time extending its possibilities. Just as much a resistance fighter and an architect as a composer, he was concerned with exact and probabilistic structures, electronic music and musical drama. The Portraits concert was an aesthetic extension of last year’s fabulous production of his opera, Oresteia, offering a dramatic vocal link to that performance along with a collection of chamber music, including one piece from his last years which so far has not been recorded.

Schick is a masterful musician, and has already produced an excellent collection of Xenakis’ important works for percussion. He opened the concert with a fluid, loping performance of Psappha for solo percussionist. The score allows the musician to choose the instruments used in each performance, and Schick favored a stark, brittle palette, which emphasized crispness of attack and a disciplined understanding of the rhythms of the piece. Music like this can seem stiff and even arbitrary, but Schick’s command and understanding of the score are deep, and his intensity of expression was yoked to an absolute comfort with the rhythms of the piece, which flowed through time with a supple, horizontal feel. There are passages which mimic antiphony, with different timbres stating an idea, to which others respond, and Schick played these so musically that the call and response seemed as natural as it would in Gabrieli. Under his hands and foot, the music swung.

After this invigorating beginning, Schick led ICE with the baton and, on the final O-Mega, played and conducted with his mallets. This is challenging music not only to hear but to play, and performances and recordings are still infrequent. The music lies at the extreme end of the repertory, so there is frequently a sense in performances that the musicians are still finding their way to the point where the music becomes intuitive. The language is transparent and clearly defined, but also so different and new that instinctive ways of approaching phrases and chords do not apply – although Xenakis does use kind of phrases that are familiar from Messiaen, ones that seem a bit awkward but on completion reveal an incontrovertible logic. ICE played this music with complete assurance and understanding, there was never once the sense that the language and sound where anything but the most natural way to make music. The experience was of hearing the composer’s expression with no intervening obstacles, and with this the ear and mind adapt quickly to the Xenakis’s ideas and means, which are fascinating and exciting.

Xenakis logically extended the accumulation of ideas and possibilities in classical music, but did so by seemingly skipping intermediate steps and presenting a futuristic idea, whole. Starting with Varése’s liberation of sound and timbre from conventional structures, Xenakis created new possibilities by working with essentially the most basic materials, placing sound in time. His music is about making objects, and the development of the pieces through the one dimension in which they exist, time, is about turning the object through the course of the piece so that all its features may be displayed. Once the display is completed, the piece ends. There is a strong ritualistic quality to this, which is consciously cultivated. His sound is solid, astringent and brittle, creating the visual impression of an ancient metallic object, colored by a patina of weathering and rust, extending varied, sharp branches from a central core.

The objects are mysterious and compelling, like all great music. The two quasi-concertos on the program, Échange for bass clarinet – Joshua Rubin – and ensemble, and Palimpsest for piano – Cory Smythe – and ensemble, express opposing arguments for the concerto idea. The former piece has the soloist and musicians literally passing tones and pitches back and forth and around the ensemble, an exercise in cooperation, while in the latter the music the piano plays is attacked and overwhelmed by imitative and mocking versions of it in the ensemble, and the antagonistic back and forth is constant with the opposing forces rewriting each other’s material. Xenakis’s means are timbrel extension, rhythmic complexity, extended experimental harmonies and dynamics; his music can be loud in an exciting way. In Échange, ICE not only played the microtonal (the musician’s playing a little bit sharp or flat) harmonies with awesome precision, but played each of the multiple repetitions with the same altered pitches, a feat that would be profoundly bravura if they hadn’t made it sound so easy. Soprano Tony Arnold was the soloist for Akanthos, another exploration of timbre vis-a-vis the ensemble, with the vocalizations, including tongue clicks and the sounds of breathing, elided with different instruments. There is an inherent dramatic theatricality to this work, as with most of Xenakis’ vocal writing, an abstract yet focussed exploration of ancient ideas of ritual, of a narrative poem being sung. With sounds replacing words, we are left to fill in the details of the structure on display.

The concert concluded with the large scale piece Thallein, an intensely fulsome work with orchestral qualities. Here Xenakis presents rich sound ideas which evolve into following ones, the material is abstract but the logical progression is clear. O-Mega, the final work, is a recent piece (1997) and is a fascinating combination of dirge and elegiac fanfare. Shick was flanked on stage by the strings, while the woodwinds and brass were arrayed at opposite sides of the theater. The music is powerful and incantatory and there is the sense of overseeing an ancient ritual, as the groups took their turns offering complimentary gestures, all directed by an assured leader wielding the most ancient of man-made instruments, sticks. It emphasized not only the exceptional quality of the performances, but also the well-made program which, in one evening, presented a clear and comprehensive portrait of one of the most unique and compelling composers of the 20th century in performances which refreshingly assumed the importance, excitement and naturalness of the music.

The Composer Portraits series continues November 7 with a program of another highly individual and exciting figure, Galina Ustvolskaya, followed by Portraits of Ralph Shapey and Kaija Saariaho on the 17th and 22nd.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.