I spent last night listening to Synergy Percussion perform Iannis Xenakis‘ fiendishly complex piece Pléïades at Carriageworks, an inner-city arts center with a fetish for polished concrete. In a fairly odd-sounding room – big, boxy and oddly free of reverb – six percussionists (and some surprise guests at the end of the piece) performed in a loose oval setting, on platforms. The audience was free to move around, and the performance was recorded for ABC radio. (Video was taken too, so who knows where it’ll be seen?)
A work of four sections, Pléïades (1978-79) notably uses instruments called sixxens, a word signifying the number of performers and the start of the composer’s name. They’re custom instruments, microtonally tuned, and Synergy had a set made for a previous performance. The piece, first played by Percussions de Strasbourg, has a title which means ‘many’, but also refers variously to mythological and astronomical matters. Each section addresses a different type of instrument – skins, metal, ‘keys’, – with one section being short for ‘all of the the above’. It involves a raft of instruments, to say the least.
This video lets you hear what the sixxens sound like, though, as well as other parts of the piece.
It’s the second time I’ve seen Synergy – now celebrating their 40th year – perform the piece. The first time was in 2011 at Angel Place in a slightly more conventional setting – on a crowded stage with a seated audience, which you can glimpse in the video above. The program notes for that concert are available online, and are worth a look, as they give more background information than I will here. Last night’s performance was very different to the 2011 gig, though also confusing. It was great to be able to walk around the musicians and to watch their performance from angles not usually seen. The tradeoff was that unlike an auditorium performance, the sound wasn’t as shaped as it would normally be – there was no projection from stage to seat – so for some parts of the show it seemed a little quiet.
The only difficulty I had with such freedom over my listening position was that I suspect it impeded my ability to appreciate the work totally. I’ll explain in a moment. But first, something about the composer. Xenakis’ stuff is – to a maths dunce like me – incredibly difficult. I love his work, and the fact that he was more or less a polymath with music, maths and architecture under his belt – he famously designed the ultra-modern Philips Pavilion in Brussels for Expo ’58 in his role as Le Corbusier’s assistant – just adds further to his fearsome rep. This is, of course, leaving aside the fact that he’d been sentenced to death in absentia as part of the upheavals in Greece of the ’40s, and survived a tank shell to the face.
So, a tough dude. And one whose books I’m very keen to read, though I’m pretty sure they’re up there with Paul Davies’ books on the universe in terms of ease-of-access.
A sidebar: For an example of how musically abstract the guy could be, check Concret PH, a piece fundamental to field recording, musique concrète and pretty much any experimental music there is. It’s a recording of burning charcoal, layered many times and overdubbed. Rare in that it was done by feel (rather than by formula, a key part of Xenakis’ work) it’s the sort of thing that still influences – years later, Einstürzende Neubauten’s ‘Wüste’ used burning oil and sand to make music, too. Or you could try listening to Metastaseis, a piece which is informed by Einstein’s views of time and Xenakis’ memories of the sounds of the battlefield.
It’s suitably gruesome.
(Also of note is the Iannix software project, which aims to recreate Xenakis’ legendary UPIC software, a computerised compositional tool. It’s free, so if you’ve any interest in graphical scores, automation of sounds or just making horrible noises behind which lurks a system of regularity, give it a go.)
Back to the show. I make points about the role of systems and science to indicate how – aside from its otherworldliness, occasionally shot through with foot-stamping rhythm – difficult the music can be to follow. The sixxens are (I understand) all slightly out of tune with each other in order to facilitate the sort of interplay which foxes the ear on listening. Each performer was rigged with an earpiece – though whether it was a counting track or a foldback system I couldn’t be sure – so you know there’s a lot of attention paid to getting it right. I find that listening to a recording of the work requires close attention for most enjoyment, and it felt to me a little that the ability to stroll through the performance also removed something key to making sense of the piece – a fixed position.
Think of it as a two-dimensional graph. You have an X and a Y axis and it’s pretty easy to keep a track of where you are. Same with watching a show in a staged venue – the stage is front, you’re x distance away, and you’re hearing left and right sounds. Moving around the venue last night made me feel part of the piece, true, but it also made me feel a little … lost. I walked around a fair bit during the first two movements but as the show pushed towards its end, I found myself staying in one position longer and longer to keep the sound-field more stable.
A boon to last night’s performance was that it allowed the audience to see how physical this deeply complex music is. Walking around the musicians, it was impossible to ignore the almost joyous dancing that went on amid the don’t-lose-count-and-don’t-lose-a-page stress of the piece. This is music that requires players to move between instruments very quickly, while playing fast and (most likely) slightly out of synch with the other performers. And yet despite these, the joy of the players in the ‘skins’ section of the piece was infectious. Having hit large drums before, I can see why they were grinning. The release was palpable.
For some patrons, the standing was too much, though it was only a short show. The couches and leaning spaces were quickly filled, and the darkness near the room’s entrance was a haven for those beaten by the noise of the performance – make no mistake, the assault of metal percussion can be bludgeoning. I like to think the kids sitting down at the edges of Carriageworks, pulling faces at the sixxen-induced oscillations will one day write something of equal ingenuity. I wonder how different I would be had I heard Xenakis that young?
There’s a full recording of a Kroumata Percussion Ensemble album featuring Pléïades (and the solo percussion piece Psappha) posted below. The order is different (I suspect) than last night, as there are a couple of composer-approved ways the piece may be played. (The Kroumata uses Order III – ‘Métaux’-‘Claviers’-‘Mélanges’-‘Peaux’ while I think the Synergy gig was Order II – ‘Métaux’-‘Claviers’-‘Peaux’-‘Mélanges’, though I can’t be sure.)
However it’s organised, this version will have to do until there’s a full recording of the Synergy version released. Here’s hoping it happens, as after experiencing last night’s event in the dizzying round, it’d be intriguing to be able to sit in one place and take it all in. I’m glad Synergy are local and are playing gigs like this. Even if the staging was a mixed bag, soundwise, it’s good that risks are still being taken 40 years on, and that such focus is given to difficult works. It was an unusually-staged evening of excellent musicianship – but then, I’m probably the target audience for this kind of thing, eh?
(A side note: it was great to see previous Synergy players around the gig, both on and off stage. A highlight for me was Ian Cleworth’s performance (he began the piece, unless I’m misremembering) as it’s so different from the taiko for which I know him best. A great performer.)
(There’s an interesting chat between percussionist Colin Piper and current Synergy Artistic Director Timothy Constable over here, too.)
(Another addition: this article is a good introduction to Xenakis’ work.)