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 Review archive:  # a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Iannis Xenakis - La légende d'Eer [Auvidis Montaigne - 2001]

In the last book of his Politeia (Republic), Plato tells the tale of Er the Pamphylian, who is slain in battle, and whose body is found ten days later without a trace of decay. On the twelfth day, as he is lying on the pyre, he awakens back into life and recounts what he has seen on the other side. In the large body of works by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), his rough electro-acoustic noise-scapes (14 of them, from the 2 minutes of Concret PH to the gigantic Persepolis) take a special place. Indeed, to people outside the rarefied elite of connoisseurs (like you and me), they are often more well-known than his comparatively larger output for orchestra or chamber ensembles, and, with the knowledge of Xenakis being a mathematician, they have helped create the myth of the composer as the forebidding, unlistenable avant-gardist.

La légende d’Eer remained little more than a legend for many years before it was finally released on CD by the Auvidis Montaigne label in 1995, first as Iannis Xenakis 2, later in their series of beautifully designed gatefold sleeves. Never one too shy for a sweeping gesture, Xenakis created this tremendous piece for 8-channel electronic tape in 1977 at the electronic studio of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne (which commissioned it), using recorded sounds of African and Japanese instruments, alongside a plethora of noises generated in the studio, and some of the earliest explorations on his UPIC equipment (built in that same year, with the purpose of transmitting drawings into sound). The music was to serve as a Diatope, a piece for a specific location: in this case the square before the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which had its grand opening in 1978 (though as it happens, the piece was premiered a few months earlier in Bochum, Germany). At this occasion, the music was played through 11 speakers in a large construction designed by the composer (an accomplished architect to boot), and supplemented by an independently programmed light show consisting of 1680 flashes and four lasers reflected in 400 mirrors and prisms.

Sounds forbidding? To most people, it undoubtedly is; but hardly unlistenable to the persevering. Words like overwhelming and awesome pop to mind. The sound is very physical – and it looks like you can take this literally, because Xenakis has tampered with the soundwaves on a microscopic level to engender a direct effect on the ears. Seven layers of tape progress from silence through slowly building tones to an extended climactic roar and back into nothingness. It is a massive cathedral of sound, the music of shifting continents, an endlessly fascinating primeval sound structure, a movement drawing everything into its orbit and leaving the listener breathless (for 46 minutes – be warned!). The composer’s own metaphor is apt: in a 1995 interview he described how he imagined someone in the middle of the ocean, with the natural elements around him, now tranquil, now furious. The reference in the title can steer your imagination while listening (but how would Plato have liked this?), and as behoves the true intellectual, an accompanying brochure at the Paris performance quoted five texts to ensure that the experience would not be limited to the merely musical. Yes, just in case the light show wasn’t enough. Naturally, the first of these texts is the legend of Er itself, albeit significantly edited by the composer, who left out the passage on the harmony of the spheres; the other ones are a basic text of hermetic philosophy, a well-known meditation on infinity from Pascal’s Pensées, a piece from Jean Paul and an article about supernovas from a science magazine. These texts are reproduced in the booklet, as are some essays for your reading pleasure. By now your anti-intellectual meter has probably gone way up in the red, but nobody will stop you from tossing all this extra information and focussing on the sound itself; I would actually recommend it (for starters). And if some of my words seemed at all grandiose, you must consider that the subject matter not only warrants, but demands it!

This music is ritual without religion (…). It assumes that there is man, and there is the universe: nothing else. It invites us to inspect the cosmos around us with fascination, with awe, even with terror, but without piety. The experience it unleashes within us is the product of our own minds and cultures, without supernatural intervention. (from Richard Toop’s liner notes)

Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5

David Bauwens
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