Review: CLASSICAL Xenakis Bath Festival

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How well I remember the visits here in the late 1960s and 1970s of Iannis Xenakis, usually as the guest of his indefatigable fellow Greek, Lina Lalandi, at her English Bach Festivals in London and Oxford. Before performances of his work, he would set out his stall, a stall so different from those of his contemporaries - Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio - explaining in the softest of voices and politest of manners his musical theories, stunningly hard to understand but amazingly convincing in delivery, ideas born of a simultaneous training as musician, architect and civil engineer. In his way, Xenakis has perhaps been the most inventive of all. He never tried to adapt existing musical systems; instead, through mathematics, modern science and philosophy, connected and encouraged by his first major collaborator, Le Corbusier, he turned his back on all traditional musical conventions. Music for him has meant research (usually computer-led) into complex sets of events - clouds, galaxies of sound - governed by the law of large numbers, ie: the more numerous phenomena are, the more they tend toward a determined state. The scope of his projects, particularly the audio-visual constructions - the Polytopes of Montreal, Cluny and the Pompidou Centre Diatope - have been vastly ambitious. In the ruins of Persepolis and hills of Mycenae, the countryside has been lit up by laser beams, torches, brushwood fires, all bathed in flashes, and submerged in computer-driven electroacoustic sound. Britain has never had such an event ... surely a must for the millennium celebrations?

Last weekend, as a final flourish to an exhilarating 1997 festival, Bath presented a concentration of contemporary music with Xenakis as honoured guest. His 75th birthday fell last Thursday and, in a bizarre ceremony (piped baroque music and medieval floppy hats), he was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Bath - which boasts no music department. Xenakis brought with him Les Ateliers UPIC (UPIC being a computer and sound synthesis system of his that translates visual images into sound) plus a couple of live percussionists. Whatever means Xenakis uses to produce his music, the power and logic is overwhelming - but good performers do help. In the young French percussionist Roland Auzet, genius presides. Slowly flailing arms, a curling lip and a quivering mouth spelled raw energy, sensuality, and physicality in a performance of Xenakis's Rebonds (1978) for percussion soloist that threatened to bring down the chandeliers in Bath's Guildhall. In retrospect, this was the work of the evening, even though a mini world premiere, Erod (a Bath Festival commission of just over four minutes length), served to prove that his vocabulary of electroacoustic sounds - like some intergalactic storm raging against moaning drones - leaves his colleagues standing. Brigitte Robindore's Comme etrangers et voyageurs sur la terre - for two percussionists and tape including amplified tam- tam - was simply horrible and a threat to the eardrums.

Later that evening, the 20th Century Ensemble (students of the Royal College of Music) gave brave performances of Varese's Ionisation and Xenakis's Pleiades. Anyone who witnessed the 1983 tour by Les Percussion de Strasbourg or knows one of the six recordings would have found Pleiades hard to recognise. Pleiades (1978) is one of Xenakis's finest works - elemental, primeval, kaleidoscopic as showers of percussive colours ricochet between the players. But, technically, it's virtuoso territory, due to the intense excitement generated as the players try to stay on the rails. This being a student group, a conductor (Edwin Roxburgh) was perhaps inevitable, but sadly no sparks flew.

On Saturday afternoon Reservoir, conducted by Mikel Toms, included the UK premiere of Xenakis's Kai, a peculiarly monotonous piece, a world premiere of the ruggedly modernist Craw by Alwynne Pritchard, and Frank Zappa's Dupree's Paradise - the acceptable face of cross-over. But it was the great saxophonist, Evan Parker, improvising in Barry Guy's Bird Gong Game, who really began - without theories - to challenge Xenakis on his own ground.