Articulate Silences

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Month: June, 2012

Jonchaies, Iannis Xenakis

Written in 1977, over twenty years after his breakthrough score Metastasis, Jonchaies represents the apex of Iannis Xenakis’ orchestral output. As a trained engineer, the Greek composer spent much of his career experimenting with the application of complex mathematical techniques to the compositional process, implementing ideas from statistics, set theory and geometry to arrive at what he called stochastic music. Whilst Jonchaies is a culmination of many of these compositional practices, it is remarkable amongst Xenakis’ works for betraying a palpable sense of the composer’s personality, augmenting its more cerebral concerns with a prominent communicative dimension.

Scored for 109 musicians, Jonchaies is a piece on an immeasurable scale – even by this composer’s colossal standards – and, despite being cast in a single continuous movement, the score proceeds as a series of self-contained miniatures which explore wildly oscillating orchestral timbres. Devoid of any common thematic thread, the only thing binding the various sections together is their shared level of uncompromising intensity. This is extremely physical music; from the rasping, drunken brass glissandos to the ever-present incisive thrust of the strings, Xenakis magnifies and extrapolates each textural idea until the aural surface of Jonchaies is a teeming collage of exaggerated sounds and timbres. The variety and eccentricity of its orchestration is Jonchaies’ most enduring quality, transmitting the brutality of Xenakis’ musical vision in a vibrant stream of clashing colours and evocative imagery.

The viscerality of Jonchaies is directly at odds with the all too common characterisation of Xenakis’ music as overly clinical and scientific. Xenakis has said himself that his precise mathematical approaches to composition will only satisfy the listener if the composer displays a “certain flair”; indeed, his motivation behind developing these techniques was not to take the composer’s hand out of the creative process by enforcing a strict set of predefined rules. Instead, Xenakis aimed to free composition from the shackles of hackneyed conventions, unlocking a wealth of new possibilities for musical expression.

This ambition is brilliantly realised on Jonchaies. This music is saturated with a thrilling sense of drama and spectacle indicative of Xenakis’ desire to propel his music beyond its rigorous mathematical inception. Jonchaies could broadly be described as a duel between opposing sections of the orchestra, as thunderous clusters of brass and percussion collide with the insistent stoicism of the string section, crashing together in a glorious, elemental cacophony which is far removed from any sort of dry intellectual exercise: Jonchaies is tempestuous, naturalistic and utterly enthralling music.

Below is a recording of Jonchaies followed by a brief listening guide.

Jonchaies can be divided into five main sections. At 0:30, having opened with one of Xenakis’ characteristic glissandos, the piece settles into a highly lyrical passage comprising a web of strings punctuated by interjections from the percussion instruments. At 3:35 a hesitant figure in the strings introduces the most rhythmically vitalised section of Jonchaies. The momentum of this passage is constantly derailed by various musical lines moving in opposition to the dominant pulse; listen in particular to the segment from 5:10 to 6:40 which is incredibly internally animated but devoid of any forward progression. The fleeting third section runs from 9:00 to 10:38 and sees insistent statements from the strings and percussion supported by a backdrop of wailing wind instruments. The music then abruptly opens out into a spacious passage of glissandos in the brass before the strings re-enter at 13:06 to begin the fifth and final passage of the piece. In this closing section the thrashing mass of musical elements gradually thins to reveal the high tones of the piccolos – as if Jonchaies has completely imploded, its energy compressed into a single piercing screech.

The propulsive performance above is conducted by Arturo Tamayo with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and is available on the Timpani record label, either as a single disc with three other pieces or as part of a comprehensive 5 disc set of Xenakis’ orchestral works.

For other similarly stormy works by Xenakis try the excellent piano concertos, Erikhthon and Synaphaï. As something a little more off piste, I would also recommend Terrains Vagues by Danish composer Per Nørgård, a piece written in 2000 which shares some of its rhythmic and timbral identity with Jonchaies.

Artwork: Composition VII, Wassily Kandinsky

by Thomas May

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Atmosphères, György Ligeti

Atmosphères is incredibly sensual music. With his second major orchestral score, having fled the cultural isolation of life behind the iron curtain in 1956, Hungarian composer György Ligeti announced himself as a significant proponent of the European avant-garde. Receiving its premier in October 1961, Atmosphères was originally conceived as an electronic piece but the composer was forced to return to traditional orchestral means after becoming frustrated by the still rudimentary technologies of sound synthesis. In the process he recast the orchestra – seen by many in the post-war avant-garde as an irrelevant, archaic institution – as a site of endless potential for contemporary sonic exploration, assembling huge static clouds of steadily morphing musical textures.

Famed for bestowing Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of modern cinema 2001: A Space Odyssey with that unforgettable aura of glacial grandeur, Atmosphères is so intoxicating and mysterious, as well as synaesthetically visual, that it is ultimately a disservice only to experience it alongside accompanying images – however otherworldly they might be. Devoid of any melodic or harmonic progression, Atmosphères is a kind of atemporal music. Instruments enter almost imperceptibly, rising furtively from the mist before gently receding, and as such there is no concept of beginning or end, only abstracted sounds and textures hanging motionless in time and space.

This radical new musical language was in part facilitated by Ligeti’s recently developed technique of micropolyphony. For much of Atmosphères the instruments of the orchestra are treated individually, following unique, precisely defined paths and coalescing into a shimmering mass of sound from which no single melody can be distinguished. Countless separate musical lines interweave to create a rippling, but homogenous, aural surface minutely detailed and vitalised by the seething activity beneath. The possibility for the micro and macro concerns of a piece of music to be so symbiotically intertwined was one of the major innovations of Ligeti’s music.

On the one hand, Ligeti’s musical language is that of an uncompromising modernist, propelling the listener into uncharted aural territory and challenging accepted conventions of musical expression, and indeed over the course of the second half of the 20th century his was a name synonymous with the European avant-garde. Yet beneath this façade there is a humanism that pervades his entire output; whilst Atmosphères may initially give off a steely air of reticence, every moment of its development is informed by Ligeti’s desire to carry his listeners on a kaleidoscopic auditory journey through alien musical landscapes.

This music is at once both tactile and vague, seductive and esoteric: a mesmerising testament to the intrinsic beauty of sound itself.

Below is a recording of Atmosphères followed by a brief listening guide.

Following the opening static 59-note chord, Ligeti introduces a second massive cluster of notes at 1:39. Whilst the pitch played by each instrument remains the same for the following minute of music, there is an illusion of harmonic progression as various instrumental groups rise and fall in volume; listen in particular for the striking clarity of the harmony in the brass at 2:10. At 4:20 note the extreme contrast in pitch as Ligeti moves from the highest register of the orchestra to the lowest – as if framing the cavernous aural space into which the piece is projected – before introducing a passage of micropolyphony in the strings from 4:37 to 5:23. After a nightmarish transition through a gauntlet of rasping brass, Atmosphères gradually dies away in a translucent haze of brushed piano strings and tentative flurries in the violins.

As one of Ligeti’s better known pieces, Atmosphères has been recorded a number of times; the sadly out of print recording above is directed by Claudio Abbaddo with the Vienna Philharmonic and in lieu of this performance I would recommend Jonathan Nott’s reading with the Berliner Philharmoniker, released as part of Teldec’s excellent Ligeti Project.

To delve further into this era of Ligeti’s creative development, his pieces Lux Aeterna and Lontano would make good starting points. The music of Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi also emphasised subtle shifts in texture over melodic and harmonic development; Ohoi, a shimmering piece for strings, comes highly recommended.

Artwork: Number 1 (Lavender Mist), Jackson Pollock

by Thomas May