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