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Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001)

IX

Kuniko Kato (percussion)
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Recording details: September 2014
Lake Sagami Hall, Kanagawa, Japan
Produced by Yuji Sagae
Engineered by Kazuya Nagae & Yuji Sagae
Release date: April 2015
Total duration: 59 minutes 11 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph by Michiyuki Ohba.
 

Many have classified Xenakis' compositions as unplayable, but Kuniko's unrivalled prowess sees her perfectly these ground-breaking works for percussion. The main work, Pléïades, explores a rich variety of sounds and textures and also requires a sixxen, an instrument designed by Xenakis and customised by Kuniko, who hand-selected 120 metal bars to craft the perfect sound.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.

Reviews

'Kuniko plays with a subdued, affectionate touch' (The Guardian)» More

'These are meticulous and muscular performances, at once elemental and elegant. Brilliant' (The Sunday Times)» More

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Iannis Xenakis was a Greek-French composer whose name and work has had a huge impact within the world of music, and thankfully in particular on percussion repertoire. Not only was he a composer, he was also an experienced music theorist and an architect-engineer. Xenakis mastered his own way of composition by pioneering the use of mathematical models within his compositions. Amongst his catalogue of compositions, he has left us great music for orchestra, solo instruments and various ensembles that are greatly appreciated. Xenakis’ music is very profound and some think it is impossible to play. Each composition is perfectly constructed and every note is the result of a calculated decision to eliminate any ambiguity and prevent the wastage of any single note. Each marking is significant and of value.

Xenakis was influential in the development of electronic and computer music. He liked to experiment with combining music with architecture and different spaces; he sought to find the perfect composition or performance opportunity for existing spaces in addition to composing music with a specific space in mind.

Today, it is very easy for us to type all of our compositions perfectly into a computer, that is, if you’re good with computers; but why is it that Xanakis chose to write everything down by hand and present it to us this way?

Humans are not machines. Even if you tried to play perfectly like a machine, there would most likely be a natural rhythm within our bodies that would cause various fluctuations during performance. Working with the finest percussionists, such as Sylvio Gualda amongst others, I believe Xenakis experienced these human fluctuations; the physical limitations of performers, the equipment and performance spaces, and sometimes, even miracles and excitement too. These beliefs have led me to think that Xenakis created not just simple pulse combinations, but instead captured these misalignments in his music based on his experiences and understanding of human natural tendencies.

The most interesting and fascinating aspect of Xenakis’ music for me is that no matter how many times or how thoroughly I’ve read through one of his scores, I am always able to find something new to explore with each reading. I have been surprised by unusual harmonies, unique combinations of complex rhythms and I have discovered beautiful melodies in unexpected parts of the score. This pleasant phenomenon occurs both when one delves straight into his scores and plays the music faithfully, without showing any personal taste in one’s approach, but most surprisingly, I was able to find even more from his music after hours of studying Xenakis’ works. This dedication has allowed me to see the spectrum of imaginative ideas he had, his interests and even his hopeful expectations for percussion through his various experiments within the scores. His grand ambition for the construction of each composition has become clearer to me with each reading. Additionally, there is a vibrant sense of fun in his detailed phrases and rhythms which I also enjoyed discovering. Xenakis’ limitless ideas must have been overflowing whilst he was composing, and from these discoveries, I believe it’s safe to assume he thoroughly enjoyed himself in the process.

After many hours with these compositions, deciphering each note and analysing the enormous amount of care that went into his hand-written scores, Xenakis’ music has become a part of my body and soul. As a musician, I have tried to express all of the observations I’ve discovered as faithfully to the score as possible, and to the best of my ability. I hope that the insight and emotion I’ve created through sound is released into space and reaches the ears of you the listener. I am so happy to be able to share this special music with the world.

Pléïades (1978)
This great piece is constructed of four sequences. It was originally composed in 1978 and commissioned by Rhin Opera. Its world premiere was performed by Les Percussions de Strasbourg.

Pléïades is very popular and famous within the percussion community as an ensemble piece and has become a standard part of the repertoire. It’s not a well-known fact, but this piece was originally written for dance. Coincidentally, the original motivation that led me to this work was a dance project I was involved in premiering in 2014.

Xenakis suggests that the six percussionists, with mostly the same instruments, are to be positioned in the centre, either in a circle or horizontally lined from right as A-B-C-D-E-F towards the audience. He then left some freedom for the players to determine which sequences are to be played and in which order, although he does suggest four orders. His suggested orders experiment with different combinations of basic rhythm and complex polyrhythm (multi-rhythm), as well as low to high pitches, with accents being an important tool in each sequence.

Mélanges
‘Mélanges’ means mixtures and as the title describes, it is the mixture of all the instruments coming together in order to prepare for the following sequences. Phrases are taken from each of the sequences and are combined with different timbres to expand the musical theme as if it was a completely different sound-world.

This sequence makes me imagine walking through the twinkling lights of a street market at night with shops lined up one after the other. And as I continue walking through the streets, wondering where I am going next, I am suddenly surprised to hear a commotion akin to a toy box tipping over. This display of sound is full of humour with a strong sense of fun.

Métaux
A SIXXEN, a specially crafted instrument for this composition appears within this sequence (see image of SIXXEN on pages 2, 3 and back cover of the accompanying PDF booklet). SIXXEN is named after SIX percussionists and XENakis. It is made up of nineteen metal bars with irregularly distributed pitches. The six SIXXEN are tuned slightly differently in an attempt to avoid unisons in the music. This instrument is played with a metal hammer. I can feel Xenakis’ imagination and his desire to create a beautiful metal sound through the SIXXEN.

After many experiments with various materials (aluminium, steel and brass), the sizes and the shapes (such as open end, closed end, etc.) of the metal bars, I finally decided on steel square tubes of a certain thickness. Nineteen bars multiplied by six instruments equals 114 metal bars (plus some spares!), which meant I had to choose over 120 steel bars of varying sizes for different pitches. This in itself was a full day’s work. Choosing these 120 bars felt and sounded like someone sorting through scraps at a metal shop, however once they are laid out on the custom SIXXEN frame made by Adams it looks like a complete instrument.

The first note of this sequence starts as a single atom, and one by one, more sounds and polyrhythms are combined from the six parts, creating an overtone from the six SIXXEN that starts filling out the sound-space like a myriad of bell crickets singing at the same time. Or quite possibly like the initial atom into molecules from which the universe was born and burst, releasing a variety of shapes and colours.

Claviers
As the title describes, this is the sequence for marimba, vibraphone, xylophone and xylo-marimba (or xylorimba, which is the occasional term that appears in French compositions, as it is an instrument between marimba and xylophone). One of each instrument is assigned to each of the six performers, which creates a unique acoustic structure. I personally find the effect of using six vibraphones absolutely fantastic. Xenakis takes the music through what seems like every sound combination possible, almost as if he was trying to recall the universe’s constellations. It is more an experiment on a mathematical fusion than an emotional one. The last coda section has an unexpected, yet amazing, tutti like gamelan section.

Peaux
This sequence is probably the most popular and most frequently performed in live performances. It is mostly made up of a variety of combinations of rhythms based on eighth, sixteenth and thirty-second notes as well as polyrhythms. Somehow, through these combinations of rhythms, together with the accents, a variety of melodies and uplifting rhythms unfold. Finally we arrive at the universe’s ‘Big Bang’; this sequence is the real highlight of Xenakis’ drumming world.

The title Pléïades does not seem to directly relate to the Pléïades star cluster and its Greek mythology, however Xenakis’ works are a sort of magnificent universe to me. When I play his work, I always feel the scale of his music and I am pulled in to his universe as if something was drawing me in. To understand this fantastic music, I spent an enormous amount of time reading the scores, creating the SIXXEN and selecting the other instruments, along with the mallets and heads. Throughout my preparation and performance of each note, to me, there always seemed to be a myriad of stars which appeared, sparkled and scattered as each note of the music was created.

Despite this challenge, Xenakis’ intentions are always extremely clear—what he intended to do and how he wanted to construct the music. There will always be things that we as humans can’t completely perform. Perhaps every percussionist has experienced this at some point.

Xenakis’ intended fluctuations on the time axis and various timbres, pitches and rhythms allowed me to create an even more powerful sound and energy. Even if everything was written to be perfectly aligned, it can never be perfect and nothing can be repeated exactly the same, which is how he intended to generate more energy. He has demanding expectations for each of the percussion instruments he’s chosen throughout the music.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of thoughts Xenakis had when writing this music. Leaving Greece to live in Paris on his way to exile in the USA, what did he see and find there? There were many genres of arts, many artists full of passion coming and going, and it was a very active and vibrant era to develop new things. I like to believe that he must have been inspired and self-motivated from this part of the world.

After I finished recording Pléïades, I went to Étretat, France where I felt the ocean breeze while overlooking the English Channel from the quay. As I pondered over the past year of dedicated hard work, I reflected on what a truly great composer Xenakis was and how music is full of mysterious charm. And with this reflection, I found myself ready for my next challenge.

Rebonds (1988)
As a percussion soloist, this is a piece that I have been playing and performing throughout my entire career. This is my second recording of Rebonds. This piece is perhaps the most popular percussion solo repertoire that there is, and I remember it being performed at many festivals, concerts and masterclasses when I started travelling to Europe in the early nineties. Rebonds, written by Xenakis in 1988, was the follow up to his first piece for solo percussion Psappha, composed in 1975. Rebonds was written as a standard score, unlike Psappha which was written as a graph notation. The instrumentation for Rebonds is more realistic and feasible for every percussionist to play, which is one of the reasons why I prefer to play Rebonds over Psappha.

At the time of publication, it was very difficult to find out about solo percussion repertoire in Japan. I was very curious to see what was going on in Europe and how these pieces were being played, so I made the decision to travel to Europe. In those days I could barely follow the score, and after playing through them I was out of breath. Since then, I have played this piece numerous times; developing my technique, physicality and interpretation of the piece over the years. However, for this recording, I wanted to take time to re-study the whole piece and start my interpretation from scratch once again. As I revisited this composition, I was constantly surprised at how many new discoveries I made and how my understanding of this familiar piece was able to evolve.

When speaking about Xenakis, I need to mention a certain percussionist, Sylvio Gualda, who is one of my all-time favourite, and a highly respected, percussionist. During my studies I listened to his recordings in the library and was amazed. It had always been my dream to see him perform and in 2010, I was fortunate enough to see him in Brisbane, Australia for the very first time. When he listened to my performance of Rebonds, he gave me a great compliment.

Finally, I would like to send my sincere thanks to all who supported this year-long project. I am very fortunate to have had a chance to record the great works of this amazing twentieth-century composer, Iannis Xenakis.

Kuniko Kato 2015

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