Xenakis: Electronic Music 1 - The Legend Of Eer

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This is a great gift to all interested in music of the recent past. Iannis Xenakis conceived of a multimedia installation in 1976–78, which consisted...
This is a great gift to all interested in music of the recent past. Iannis Xenakis conceived of a multimedia installation in 1976–78, which consisted of a pre-recorded electroacoustic score, titled La légende d’Eer, and a structure in which it would unfold, called the “Polytope.” The latter was constructed on the plaza in front of the newly opened Pompidou Arts Center in Paris; it is a fluid series of intersecting parabolic forms, in essence, a tent that is a predecessor of the more sophisticated structures of Frank Gehry and other contemporary constructivist architects. It also hearkens back to Xenakis’s original training as an architect, and his work as Le Corbusier’s assistant in the famous Phillips Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, for which Varèse wrote the Poème électronique. Inside, hundreds of flashing lights and mirrors, and four lasers were coordinated by computer into a constantly mutating series of “constellations.” The effect seems to have been one of a sort of transcendent sensory overload, a confrontation with the overwhelming scope and force of the universe (I heard the composer lecture once on the piece, and showing a picture of the Polytope, he quipped, “Here you see many people going in, and a few coming out.”)

Disques Montaigne has already released the original tape piece on MO 782058. This DVD is the first chance we have to experience something of the full piece, through the visuals of Bruno Rastoin. I say “somewhat,” because alas (and amazingly) no video walk-through of the work was ever made (though admittedly the technology at that point would be quite primitive by current standards). Instead, hundreds of slides of the piece in progress were made, and Rastoin has essentially arranged them into a Powerpoint presentation, flowing from one to another in conjunction with the music. There’s no indication whether the sequence of images corresponds to the original sequence of the piece (or even if that sequence was set in a predetermined loop, or more random). While hardly ideal, working with what was available, this at least gives some sense of a visionary project.

The music itself is spectacular, one of the great landmarks of “pure” electroacoustic music. Lasting 47 minutes, the piece moves through a series of overwhelming climaxes. Some are shatteringly ugly, but all are bracing in their uncompromising power. (I heard the piece at the above-mentioned lecture, which was at the International Computer Music Conference, with one of the most knowledgeable audiences in the world for such. Even here a large portion of the audience fled, perhaps because of the sonic onslaught, perhaps out of aesthetic disagreement, probably a combination of both.) This DVD claims to have restored about three minutes to the original tape, and I honestly don’t know where, but it’s welcome and doesn’t change overall the impact any would know from earlier encounters.

Finally, there’s a 67-minute interview with Xenakis in 1995 at his Paris center CCMIX, conducted by Harry Halbreich, one of the most knowledgeable, imaginative, and enthusiastic of European musicologists devoted to contemporary music. The production quality of the document is very poor—an unstable camera, variable focus, moments of blackout—but it remains important nonetheless. Xenakis eventually would suffer the tragedy of dementia in his last years, but in this, six years before his death, there’s almost no sign of any mental decay, and amazingly enough, the whole interview is conducted in English, in which both participants are fluent. One only laments that if one-tenth the resources devoted to a VH-1 documentary on a washed-up 1970s band could be given to chronicling the life and ideas of one of the great revolutionary musical geniuses of the century, this video product would be at least 10 times better. But we deal with what we’ve got, and I’m very grateful for it.

It may seem I have quibbles here, but this really does have my highest recommendation. Mode is carving out an exceptional catalog of new music DVDs (I already know their Carter and Cage releases), and this one is a heroic rescue operation, a treasure. Bravo to all concerned.

Robert Carl, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Release Date: May 10, 2005

  • UPC: 764593014898

  • Catalog Number: MOD-DV-148

  • Label: Mode Records

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Iannis Xenakis