CBSO Centre @ 3pm:
Xenakis Plektó (1993)
Pattar Philosophy should stop at midnight (2022) [World Premiere]
Tzortis Croque strideurs (2022) [World Premiere]
Xenakis Anaktoria (1969); Nomos Alpha (1966); Phlegra (1975)
Arne Deforce (cello), Musicians of BCMG: NEXT / Melvin Tay
CBSO Centre @ 5pm:
Xenakis Ittidra (1996)
Fernando Breathing Forest (2022) [Sound and Music commission: World Premiere]
Xenakis Akanthos (1977)
Howard Compass (2022) [BCMG Sound Investment commission: World Premiere]
Xenakis Jalons (1986)
Anna Dennis (soprano), Julian Warburton (percussion), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Gabriella Teychenné
The Exchange @ 7pm:
Luque It Is happening Again (2019-21) [UK Premiere]
Xenakis La Légende d’Eer (1978)
Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre, Sunday 29 May 2022
by Richard Whitehouse
There could been no better way for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group to round off its current season than with this extended tribute to Iannis Xenakis on his 100th birthday. Over three events, a representative selection of the Greek composer’s work was heard within the context of new commissions and realizations of graphic scores.
The latter featured in the Synesthesia concert, after an earlier session where this ‘free, internet-browser-based music application’ (continuing from the UPIC programme that Xenakis pioneered in the 1980s) was made available – two previous graphic scores forming the basis of those pieces heard this afternoon. Philosophy should stop at midnight found Frédéric Pattar following quite literally the contours of the score, a deft humour pointed up though the verse by Richard Brautigan (perhaps a latter-day ‘consolation of philosophy’?), whereas Croquis strideurs found Nicolas Tzortis aligning his score with poetry by Arthur Rimbaud in what was a more capricious or ‘off the wall’ approach.
The three pieces by Xenakis (above) were well chosen to demonstrate the expressive range of his music. Plektó (Braids) is typical of the music from his last years with its teasingly subversive take on a mixed ensemble, while Anaktoria (a lover of Sappho) puts an ensemble as modelled on Schubert’s Octet through its paces in music by turns ingratiating and obstreperous. Most impressive was Phlegra (being (different) regions of modern and ancient Greece), written at the advent of that period when ‘arborescence’ principles brought a new evolutionary dynamism to the composer’s thinking evident in this assured reading by musicians of BCMG: NEXT under the attentive direction of Melvin Tay.
Cellist Arne Deforce earlier took the stage for a performance of Nomos Alpha, typical in its utilizing mathematical abstraction to create viscerally emotional music. Visuals by Marcus de Sautoy and Simon Russell, as derived from the symmetrical properties of a cube, were arresting but it was the musical realization which commanded attention.
Three more pieces by Xenakis were included in the late-afternoon concert. Among his last works, Ittidra (unusual for this composer with its being the reverse spelling of the dedicatee’s name) is a brooding and ultimately fatalistic reassessment of the string sextet, and Akanthos (a city in ancient Greece) extends its instrumental remit to include woodwind and brass as well as soprano whose vocalise adds an often ethereal but at other times keening timbre to the ensemble – vividly conveyed here by Anna Dennis. Again, it was the closing item which made the most lasting impression. Xenakis’s relations with the modernism as represented by Pierre Boulez might at times been strained, but there was evident accord by the time he wrote Jalons for the latter’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Here those ‘signposts’ or ‘landmarks implied by the title emerge as gestural peaks in music whose headlong motion generates irresistible excitement, and not least with BCMG sounding so responsive to the guidance of Gabriella Teychenné.
Alternating with these works in either half were new commissions by very different composers. With its libretto by Zoe Palmer, Breathing Forest is described by its composer Samantha Fernando as ”A meditation on the inner struggles of a woman and her transformation through the Japanese art of … forest bathing”. What resulted was an exploration of its atmospheric text, realized with audible precision and elegance by Anna Dennis, whose musical substance – while not unappealing in itself – remained too inert to convey the emotional catharsis likely intended. More absorbing was a BCMG commission from Emily Howard, whose Compass takes those spatial and nautical connotations of its title as basis for music that unfolded as a cohesive dialogue between string septet with Julian Warburton‘s array of percussion. Few latter-day composers have shown Howard’s zeal for the interplay of music with mathematics, BCMG’s committed realization vindicating her latest piece musically as well as conceptually.
The final event, an acousmatic concert by Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), relocated from CBSO Centre to The Exchange – an impressive Grade Two-listed building on Centenary Square under the auspices of University of Birmingham. Its third-floor conference room certainly suited these two pieces – starting with It Is Happening Again by the Mexican-born, now Madrid-based composer Sergio Luque. Drawing on his development of Xenakis’s stochastic synthesis process, this proved to be a short while evocative study in density of sonic waves whose inherent abstraction was far from being without a tangible atmosphere through its succession of sonic ideas.
Although hampered by microphone malfunction, Christopher Haworth‘s introduction to the next piece was full of relevant detail concerning the purpose and reception of electroacoustic music. Not least when the piece in question was La Légende d’Eer, most expansive and all-encompassing of those Xenakis realized and which caused no mean controversy when initially heard as a musical facet of Diatope at the inauguration of the Pompidou Centre, with its apparently high level of amplification. The present multi-channel version was more easily accommodated, if not at the expense of its dazzling variety – Xenakis evoking the Platonic legend of a soldier returning from the dead via a symmetrical form which takes in an array of instrumental and synthesized sounds as they build to a sustained peak of organized frenzy before the almost regretful evanescence. Had nothing else survived, Xenakis would still have been thought a key creative figure from the post-war era and its impact has not lessened with time or expectation.
It certainly set the seal on a finely conceived and impressively realized sequence of events that reaffirmed Xenakis as a composer whose legacy is undeniable and his influence enduring. The 2020s will bring a whole succession of notable centenaries (that of Ligeti being just a few months away) and BCMG has set the bar high for those to come.
Click on the names for more information on the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, composers Frédéric Pattar, Nicolas Tzortzis, Samantha Fernando and Emily Howard, and performers Sergio Luque, Anna Dennis, Arne Deforce, Julian Warburton, –
Melvin Tay, Gabriella Teychenné and Christopher Haworth.