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Xenakis: Complete Works For Percussion / Schick

Release Date: 10/17/2006 
Label:  Mode   Catalog #: 171   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Iannis Xenakis
Performer:  Steven SchickJacqueline LeclairPhilip LarsonJohn Harris
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Back Order: Usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

XENAKIS Psappha. 1 Rebonds. 1 Persephassa. 2 Dmaathen. 1,2 Pléïades. 2 Komboï. 3 Kassandra. 1,4 Okho. 2 Oophaa 5 Read more class="BULLET12b">• Stephen Schick (perc); 1 red fish blue fish; 2 Jacqueline Leclair (ob); 2 Aiyun Huang (perc); 3 Shannon Wettstein (hpd); 3 Philip Larson (voc); 4 Greg Stuart (perc); 5 John Mark Harris (hpd) 5 MODE 171 (3 CDS: 175:53)

This is another very important release from Mode, and finally brings together a set of important 20th-century repertoire pieces that previously we could only experience in anthologies or paired with other non-percussion works of Xenakis on disc. It reminds me of the same label’s recent integral Berio Sequenza set, and perhaps this release is even more successful, because the level of performance and the sound are at a consistently high level throughout.

The guiding force behind this project is Steven Schick, who is one of our great percussion virtuosos, period. For many years the percussionist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars; more recently he has devoted himself more fully to solo repertoire, recording ( see my review of his rendition of John Luther Adams’s The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies in Fanfare 30:1) and teaching at the University of California, San Diego, where he heads the ensemble red fish blue fish. It is technically a student group (as I understand it). But, in fact, one of the great glories of contemporary music is that the level of percussion-playing and instruction at a host of American conservatories and universities is currently at an incredible level, and one often finds the most innovative programming and stunning performance in the US at these concerts. Schick’s group is not only no exception, under his leadership, it’s one of the very best.

Schick, in his extremely perceptive notes, suggests that even though Xenakis did not invent solo and ensemble percussion-writing, his output is so strong and influential that it actually colors our conception of his progenitors. There’s truth to this, in part because the composer’s music has such a primal sound. Those who only think of Xenakis as a “cerebral” composer who worked from mathematical formulas should buy this disc, simply to have that conception overturned. This is propulsive, raw, ritualistic music. It is compelling; one often feels overwhelmed by its energy and relentless drive.

This is not to deny the rationalistic, modernist side of Xenakis’s compositional profile. His controversial use of “stochastic” techniques (which essentially use statistical algorithms to generate musical fields) are similar in spirit to chaos theory, in that they create vast, naturalistic sweeps of sound that are like the weather. They can be suddenly changing and unpredictable one moment, at the next cyclic or static with unnerving regularity. The earlier works in this set, Persephassa (1969) for six percussionists and Psappha (1975) for solo percussion, fit this description best, as they can move from frenetic textures to large swaths of isolated sounds, only to recoup the energy into shattering climaxes. (This is above all the case in Persephassa , which is one of the sonic marvels of the whole set.)

For my taste, the most extraordinary work of the whole set is Pléïades (1978), a four-movement work also for percussion sextet (it and Persephassa were written for Les Percussions de Strasboug). This piece uses percussion keyboards, drums, and a special metal instrument called sixxen that Xenakis invented for the piece, each in a separate movement; the opening movement uses all three groups in combination. No piece of Xenakis has as strong a gamelan sound as this one, and its timbral palette is perhaps the most striking and sensual of all the works in the set. (Another surprise is just how modal Xenakis’s music is throughout.) Another knockout is the 1989 Okho for three West African djembe drums, which is an essay of how to explore endless rhythmic variety from an extremely limited source.

Schick takes on the two great solo percussion works, Psappha of 1975, and the two Rebonds of 1989. As I’ve said before, he is a great virtuoso. It seems to me his greatest strength is his ability to clarify music of immense complexity. The layers of rhythms in these pieces, which often come close to surpassing human ability, emerge transparently from his performance (Schick does admit that because certain demands by Xenakis are “transcendental” to the extent that they surpass any human’s technique, his ensemble used some multitracking in Persephassa to realize the actual notes written in the score—but this seems to be the only time this was done on the recording, and in no way affects his solo work).

The only slight downers for me are the four pieces for solo instrument with percussion. Any one of them would be striking on a program, but heard in sequence they sound a little repetitive. Komboï (1981) and Oophaa (1989) each have extensive solos for harpsichord that to my ear go on too long for their materials, and feel a little clunky. Dmaathen (1977) features remarkable, screaming oboe-writing (I’ve heard a version with soprano sax that is even more remarkable), and Kassandra (1987) is certainly a one-of-a-kind piece. It asks the baritone soloist to alternate between normal voice and falsetto in a sort of dialogue for its 20 minutes. It starts off almost humorous, a little like the Monty Python “Mary Queen of Scots” sketch, but over time it becomes a sinisterly enacted rite, where one feels that one is eavesdropping on something from several millennia ago.

I’ve already cited the exceptional sound and performances. (For the record, let the names of red fish blue fish be recorded, even if they aren’t parsed to their individual pieces: Gustavo Aguilar, Patti Cudd, Rob Esler, Aiyun Hunag, Ross Karre, Terry Longshore, Ivan Manzanilla, Don Nichols, Morris Palter, Brett Reed, David Shively, Lisa Tolentino, and Vanessa Tomlinson.) It also appears that, whether they are premieres or not, currently these are the only recordings of Dmaathan, Komboï , and Oophaa commercially available. Some of the other recordings of this repertoire are important, because they feature performers for whom Xenakis wrote this music, in stunning performances. But here we have the whole package, taken up with youthful spirit by a new generation. This is another major milestone in recorded 20th-century repertoire, and an essential release for anyone interested in percussion, Xenakis, or vital/challenging music.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Psappha by Iannis Xenakis
Performer:  Steven Schick (Percussion)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; Paris, France 
Rebons by Iannis Xenakis
Performer:  Steven Schick (Percussion)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1987-1989 
Persephassa by Iannis Xenakis
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1969 
Pléïades by Iannis Xenakis
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1979; Paris, France 
Okho by Iannis Xenakis
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1989; Paris, France 
Dmaathen by Iannis Xenakis
Performer:  Steven Schick (Percussion), Jacqueline Leclair (Oboe)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1976; Paris, France 
Kassandra by Iannis Xenakis
Performer:  Steven Schick (Percussion), Philip Larson (Voice)
Period: 20th Century 
Oophaa by Iannis Xenakis
Performer:  John Harris (Harpsichord), Steven Schick (Percussion)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1989 

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