Music review: Xenakis Festival at REDCAT


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Though hidden away and not much promoted, “Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary” -- the captivating MOCA show –- cannot be kept quiet. When it opened in November, the Greek composer’s electronic sound field, “Polytope de Persépolis,” was installed at Los Angeles State Historic Park for an hour’s assault on eardrums. The next day, his extraordinary ritualistic opera, “Oresteia,” had its West Coast premiere at CalArts.

The show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Pacific Design Center gallery closes on Friday, so last weekend was a last excuse to make a Xenakis ruckus. CalArts’ Center for Experiments in Art, Information and Technology (CEAIT) presented a Xenakis festival -- three evenings of concerts along with two symposia -- at REDCAT. I was only able to attend the Sunday program, by which time you might have assumed Xenakis zealotry would have died down.


Not at all. Xenakis wrote music of nerve-wracking intensity, complexity and often volume that draws diverse audiences. That includes architecture fans (Xenakis worked with Corbusier), complexity addicts, electro-acoustic geeks and young rockers intrigued by the sheer physicality and strangeness of this sound world. On Sunday there was something for all.

The violinist and conductor Mark Menzies, who put the programs together, wrote that he felt Xenakis’ earlier music is often neglected in favor the composer’s later works (Xenakis died in 2001). But the program was properly diverse and while three of the pieces were from the ‘70s, “Epicycles,” the world’s strangest short cello concerto, was written in 1989.

As a fighter in the Greek resistance during World War II, Xenakis suffered an explosion that destroyed part of his face. So one way to hear the duo “Dikhthas,” from 1979 for violin and piano (Menzies and Dzovig Markarian), might be as blasts of chords, clusters, single notes, sliding tones on the violin, functioning like dazzling sonic shrapnel. Time here has a mind of its own. The piece verges on the impossible, and the performance was brilliant.

A decade later, Xenakis had slowed down some in “Epicycles.” The solo cello (the excellent Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick) moves in irregular thumping beats. A small ensemble does, too, but not necessarily at the same time. Winds and brass play fantastic harmonies and let them resonate a long while. There is a lot of funny business in the strings. Menzies conducted a student ensemble in a precise, forceful performance that evoked unknown worlds.

In “Akanthos” (1977), a violin (Lorenz Gamma) and soprano (Maurita Thornburgh) dominate an ensemble of nine. This is raw, unattractive music, not quite so unknown, not quite so appealingly weird, but the solo violin sections were gripping.

The concert began and ended with electronic music. The opener was Curtis Roads’ “Flicker Tone Pulse,” which the composer controlled from a soundboard during the performance. The seven short pieces, fashioned from Xenakis’ procedures, are carefully polished sound objects. Beautiful bubbling electronic effects surrounded the audience so we might examine them from every angle. They were accompanied by lively flickering visual that Brian O’Reilly produced live.

Xenakis’ “Polytope de Cluny,” an enveloping electronic score intended for a large cathedral space, was the festival grand finale. A deep roar shook the ground, and for 25 minutes there was the profound sensation of tectonic movement. REDCAT has a great sound system and Roads ran the equipment expertly, assuring that loudness remained below the level of pain but reached the point where sound pressure is both a pleasure to the ear and, in its vibrations, to the body. RELATED

Xenakis heads West

-- Mark Swed