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Pléïades

composer
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.

from notes by Kuniko Kato © 2015

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