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Hyperion Records

CDA66980 - Xenakis: Choral Music
Beneath Enchanted Ground by Clive Barndon
Reproduced by kind permission of the artist / Private Collection

Recording details: July 1997
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Gary Cole
Engineered by Gary Cole
Release date: February 1998
Total duration: 57 minutes 26 seconds


'Nothing short of phenomenal. Here is one of the 20th century's most important musical voices, and this recording does that voice full justice' (Gramophone)

'Quite dazzling … these performers make this music mythically awesome and hypnotically accessible' (Choir & Organ)

'Staggering virtuosity. A likely disc of the year' (The Sunday Times)

'This is a 'must have' disc. Quite simply magnificent. Overwhelming. Buy it!' (Classic CD)

'Achingly beautiful as well as aesthetically satisfying. I can't imagine a better representation of the vocal work both in program and performance. This is an absolute Must Have for everyone' (Fanfare, USA)

'Riveting' (The Irish Times)

Choral Music

In the oeuvre of many composers the vocal works are often the most personal, as if the primacy of the human voice and speech elicit an unguarded response. Xenakis' earliest works were based on a Bartókian approach to Greek folk music, which he rejected. However, his Greek origins continued to disturb him like subterranean tremors. His great love of ancient theatre, Greek philosophy and his mother tongue had to be married to a new musical language. The works on this CD all stem therefore from highly autobiographical sources.

The works fall into three groups: the first intrumentalizes and orchestrates the voice stripped of text as in Nuits and Knephas; the second (Medea) is based on his beloved Classical Greek theatre with a dramatic context and text; and the third is a relatively new group, setting vocal texts where the language is left whole and undisturbed in a music which displays a limpid and strict modality (A Colone and Serment).

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Just as it is inconceivable to imagine painting in the twentieth century without Picasso or architecture without Le Corbusier, so contemporary music cannot be imagined without Xenakis. Iannis Xenakis is a prophetic composer whose earliest predictions about music and the leading role of the arts in science and computers have been fully realized, thanks to the major role he played in shaping these media. He is both an epochal composer and an outstanding architect, who had a liberating and formative influence on the work of Le Corbusier and on generations of composers.

Xenakis is still considered the most radical of composers, and yet he comes from the most ancient of cultures. He was born to a Greek family in Romania on 29 May 1922 and sent to boarding school in Spetsai after the early death of his mother. He was educated in the Classics and went to Athens to study engineering. However, his student years coincided with the Fascist, then Nazi occupation of Greece. A student Partisan, he was active in anti-Nazi Resistance in Athens and frequently was sent to prison. Ironically, he was severely wounded after the Liberation by an exploding British mortar in the battle over Athens; his face was shattered and he lost an eye. He narrowly escaped death yet succeeded in completing his engineering studies. He was then imprisoned by a military tribunal and later sentenced to death. He escaped to France in 1945 and joined the atelier of Le Corbusier.

Such a beginning in a forceful personality led to the life of an artiste acharné. He was an intellectual, possessed with enormous talent and an enquiring mind, but a horrendous and traumatic past haunted him.

No wonder Xenakis was the angriest young man in new music. He first appeared in the mid-fifties as a paradox in post-war music, with his oddly named ‘stochastic’ (‘goal-seeking’) music. His music was defiantly international. He developed a method of working with components of sound, pitch, rhythm and timbre as the components of mathematical equations which could be shaped like building materials in architecture. Now, with the acceptance of ‘chaos theory’ and a shift in musical perspective, works which sounded raw and strident seem fresh and powerful when compared to post-serialist counterparts.

Once rejected as an ‘engineer’, he has become a ‘grand master’, heaped with honours. A body of masterpieces which hammer out a rugged physicality and an imperious intelligence comprises more than 130 works. Of all the composers who marked the second half of the century with their music, there is only one whose entire life was shaped by political events and who left landmarks in composition in the wake of his struggle to come to terms with it. These have now become the modern classics for solo instruments, piano, violin, double bass: Herma, Mikka, Theraps; for quartet and ensembles: ST/4, Eonta, Anaktoria, Akrata; for orchestra, Metastasis, Pithoprakta and Jonchaies, and others. Their variety of compositional approaches and instrumental techniques has expanded our musical horizon for succeeding generations.

In the oeuvre of many composers vocal works are often the most personal; the primacy of the human voice and speech seems to elicit an unguarded response. Xenakis’ earliest works were based on a Bartókian approach to Greek folk music which he has since rejected. At first, he theorized mostly about the mathematical underpinning and inspiration of methodology and science. However, his Greek origins disturbed him like subterranean tremors. His great love of ancient theatre, Greek philosophy and his mother tongue had to be married to his new musical language.

The Xenakis output is divided between works which advance his style and research in composition, and those which enshrine his cultural roots. The works on this CD, A Colone, Nuits, Serment, Knephas, and Medea, stem from highly autobiographical sources. These vocal works fall into three groups: the first intrumentalizes and orchestrates the voice stripped of text as in Nuits and Knephas; the second (Medea) is based on his beloved Classical Greek theatre with a dramatic context and text; and the third is a relatively new group, setting vocal texts where the language is left whole and undisturbed in a music which displays a limpid and strict modality (A Colone and Serment).

The text for A Colone (1977) is taken from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Xenakis wrote that ‘the melodic lines unite with the speech modulation of that period [the fifth century BC] while respecting the long and short values’. This is a work based on the desire to recreate the ancient style of speech patterns and perhaps also the ceremonial performance atmosphere generated by a restrained, almost chanting choir. A Colone is entirely non-combative, with a clear triumphal opening in which the instrumental and vocal forces are briefly but forcefully contrasted with texture. There is no contest, the phrasing is stately; the choir, sometimes with short solos, dominates the instrumental texture which frequently comments, sometimes lends support, and occasionally adds sinew to the musculature of a monumental statue.

It is worth remembering that as Xenakis was working on Nuits (and Medea) in 1967, his country, Greece, was plunged into the darkness of dictatorship by military junta. He, too, had been a political prisoner as a student in occupied Greece and, still under death sentence by military tribunal, was living in exile. He sought to bring attention to the plight of political prisoners in his own country and elsewhere, heading the score with the following dedication:

To you, unknown political prisoners—Narcisso Julian (since 1946), Costas Philinis (since 1947), Eli Erythriadou (since 1950), Joachim Amaro (since 1952). And for you, the thousands of the forgotten whose very names are lost.

Xenakis has synthesized the text from Sumerian and ancient Persian in phonemes and syllables. This is a language freed from semantics, where phonology is everything. The carriers of meaning are the shapes and gestures of the voices themselves. The a cappella soprano voices burst into keening quarter-tone melodic plaints which are neutralized by the basses, altos and tenors. The vocal elements are set in constant opposition, as if different parts have to fight for survival. It is a work of agon (‘contest’), with a basic armoury of phonic elements which range from high shrill to open vowels treated rhythmically in polyphony. Xenakis is able to produce interference beats and purely ‘orchestral’ timbres with voices. He seems determined to strip them of linguistic connotation, just as the prisoners to whom he has dedicated the work had been deprived of free speech, their words stripped of meaning and reference. Nonetheless, the expressive medium of disjointed bits of words and their emotional deployment, discharges a highly combustible message with great depth and tragic dimension, eschewing long-sung phrases.

Nuits was commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation and the first performance, at the Royan Festival in April 1968, was given by the soloists of the ORTF under the direction of Marcel Couraud.

Serment (‘Oath’, 1981) is based on the Hippocratic Oath sworn by doctors and was commissioned by the 15th World Congress of the International Society for Cardiovascular Surgery. The first performance took place in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens in September 1981 and was given by the chorus of the Third Hellenic Radio Programme conducted by Antonis Contogeorgiou.

As a young architect with Le Corbusier, Xenakis had designed a chapel for the Dominican monks in the famous Couvent de la Tourette in 1954. The chapel became especially notable for his musical panes of glass based on the Fibonacci series which also ordered his first orchestral work, Metastasis.

From the opening phrase of Serment, in which the main structural idea is blithely presented, the work quickly develops towards a colourful weaving of fine textures—solo voices of complex articulation, accompanied by rapidly shifting block sounds. These alternate with broad repetitive sweeps and percussive interjections that serve as textural tufting points. One of the interjections, leaping from the background to the foreground and then back again to pulsate like a war chant, pulls the ensemble together again for a final sweep. Something of the asceticism of monastic life to which he was strongly attracted, tinges the pliant and rigorous aesthetic of this uplifting work.

Knephas (‘Darkness’, 1990), by contrast, is a vast and angry lament, without words. Based on a phonetic text, it integrates many of the elements of a musical language which has come to be identified with Xenakis over the years, who maintains: ‘I want to get away from myself, as if I had come to this world like an alien. I think the powerful things are without sentiment.’ His need for Verfremdung is warranted by his resolve to express fearful and threatening experiences which were ‘unspeakable’.

At first, with fixed pitches spread fan-like across the register, assertive women’s voices sustain their position supported by blocks of massed male chanting. A thinned texture revolving around small intervals leads gradually again to multiple, broad, almost orchestral strokes in which small changes in pitch or articulated vowels cause the sustained sounds to shimmer, to take on instrumental colours. As the forces of the choir alternate in supporting or interrupting roles, the work gradually unfolds towards a dense group polyphony, finally to come to rest slowly in a cavernous, only slightly decorated, sustained mass recitative.

Knephas was commissioned by the Almeida Festival for James Wood and the New London Chamber Choir and was first performed by them in June 1990. It is dedicated to Marc Dondey and James Wood.

Chronologically, the first vocal work (1967) on this disc is Medea (using Seneca’s Latin version of the text) for male chorus and ensemble, which was commissioned for the Théâtre de France. It shares the instrumental freedom which Xenakis unleashed in what has become a classic modern masterpiece, Nomos Alpha for cello. The youthful Xenakis had often wondered how the music of ancient Greek theatre might have sounded, how the actors, chorus and musicians might have chanted the text and played the aulos (wind instrument) and in this work he provided his solution. He treated the instruments as voices and the voices as instruments to create an implacable work, extending the language phonetically with whispers and hisses, repeated phrases and even banging stones. The atmosphere is archaic, with a setting which is both raucous and primitive. The composer writes of the work:

It was Jean-Louis Barrault in 1967 who asked me to write the music for Medea of Seneca for Maria Casares’ Medea in a stage version of Jorge Lavelli with the Ensemble of Musique Vivante under the direction of Diego Masson for the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris.
I hesitated because I knew Seneca as a pseudo-philosopher, an imperial courtier, and above all a Roman who sought, like all the Romans of that period, to emulate the ancient Greek masterpieces.
But in reading the Latin text written in the first century ad I was seduced by its violent sonority, its barbarity, and so I agreed. I used a chanted male chorus, to preserve the sonority of the Latin particularly in verses 301 to 379. These verses relate the story of the maritime journey of the Argonauts, hence the stones—symbol of the virgin sea [‘stones’ is a reference to the rocks that guarded the entrance to the Euxine Sea by clashing against each other when anything passed between them]. This, however, is only a very small part of the Medea of Seneca which consists of a total of 1,027 verses.

Nouritza Matossian © 1998

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