Iannis Xenakis – GRM Works 1957-1962

A four-track collection of the Greek composer’s work presents ‘an unapologetic dedication to modernism which was often repulsive and engaging at the same time’.

I‘m not particularly sure why, but Iannis Xenakis was the first “modern” composer I really developed an interest in. Maybe it’s that great backstory that did it, the revolutionary left-wing Greek on the run from Fascist forces in his home country, winding up in Paris and working for (and eventually with) the most important architect of the time, Le Corbursier. His music appeals and interests for much the same reason as Le Corbusier’s theories and buildings do, an unapologetic dedication to modernism which was often repulsive and engaging at the same time. The bloody-mindedness of these men, the ego of it in a way, makes their work compelling even if you cannot ultimately fall in love with it, at least not in the way you might initially expect. They are too hard for that, too sharp and imposing.

This intensity is obvious in this collection of four works created while Xenakis was working with Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète (GRM)institution, between 1957 and 1962. While Xenakis never truly made music concréte, at least by Shaeffer’s defintion of it, the four pieces here are not worlds away from the rest of the GRM output, though they bear the marks of Xenakis’ burgeoning confidence in the melding of musical and architectural practices.

It opens with ‘Concrete PH’, the shortest track. It’s two and a half minute runtime is occupied by sounds in the upper range of the spectrum, sparkles and the sound of glass breaking over stone. Designed to welcome people to the famous Philips Pavillion building which Xenakis himself designed, it serves a similar purpose here, setting a tone without much force, gently insinuating itself in the mind and readying you for what comes next.

What comes next is perhaps the most impressively dynamic piece here, ‘Orient-Occident’. Originally composed for a film by Enrico Fulchignoni in 1960, the work is easily able to stand for itself without visual aid. A sprawling 11-minute piece, it presents a dank and corroded soundscape, with few elements occupying the panoramic space at any one time. Opening with some light, discordant tones and slowly builds a metallic rattle into full volume as crashes pan around the field. Its midsection is quieter and more sparse. Once the final drums patter out drawn out tones once again roam around menacing and alone, rotten at the edges. The piece is built on its transitions, feeling almost like a mixtape flowing flawlessly from one musical scene to another. The interruption by the distorted drums after the 7-minute mark is a powerful moment and when they are zipped up into a half second of silence before the sub-bass snaps in, it’s like the most tribal, dank proto-jungle/dubstep imaginable. Atmosphere is everything towards the end, where more distant, unfocused drones swirl around and leave a trail of smoke behind them. It feels similar to the work of Daphne Oram that would come a little later, wan and unsettling in its tonality.

‘Diamorphoses’ closes out Side A with an exploration of the contrast between upward and downward movement. It feels unhinged and decentralized, always going somewhere before turning on its heel and running back the other way. It is impossible to get a hold on.

The B Side is dedicated to one of Xenakis’ most full-on works, which is saying something. ‘Bohor’ fills almost every second of its 22-minute running time with sound of an almost physical force. It rubs harsh mid-tones off of soft lower-end drones to begin with, constantly threatening to submerge the high-end in the billowing low notes. The cacophony doesn’t let up at all, it simply shifts its focus slowly over the course, sometimes pushing the low notes, sometimes raging upward into the violent mid-range. In the second half, distorted formants emerge that sound almost like human voices and it is hard to know whether the are voices that have been shredded and changed or some other spectral force imitating human cries. The ambiguity is terrifying. It peaks right near the end, rising to its peak volume and blasting the ears with the harshest of noise when the bass drops away before burning itself out in a fit of manipulated distortion. ‘Bohor’ is not a casual listen.

Editions Mego’s Recollection GRM series has so far highlighted the work of some of the finest composers working in Europe in the 20th century, with people like Luc Ferrari and Shaeffer himself appearing so far. Xenakis is well deserving of his place here, and the four pieces chosen serve to highlight the huge influence the Greek has had on the fifty years of music and sound since. While far from representative of Xenakis’ overall work, the four pieces here fit together well, delighting in the “primacy of the ear” that Shaeffer so passionately and astutely advocated. The frenetic and powerful energy each piece exudes is indicative of the man’s work throughout his life and the control exerted over these forces, with such early technology, is a sure sign of his skill as a technician and his genius as a musical mind.

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