One of the world's most distinguished modern composers - the Greek-born Iannis Xenakis - celebrates his 75th birthday this May; yet he is still adding to his list of works, as a new world premiere demonstrates. His new piece, Zythos, is the world's first-ever composition for the combination of trombone and a sextet of marimbas.
In a cryptic programme note Xenakis states that "Zythos is the ancient Greek word for beer brewed with barley, favoured by northern nations..." Nor does he really expand on that statement when I had the chance recently to speak to him by telephone at his music studio in Paris. "Both Kroumata and Lindberg are Swedish," he says, "but that's not why I made the reference to northern nations. I called it Zythos because I think it's an evocative word and it's a strong piece like this beer."
By "strong" Xenakis probably also infers uncompromising, as he goes on to elaborate: "The piece is loud throughout," he chuckles, "because I like loud music, so there seemed little point in altering the timbres. The six marimbas provide a dense and remorseless texture of pounding rhythms." And the trombone? "Well, he has to fight them, of course," the composer says. In this battle of wills between trombone and warring marimbas, who wins? "Neither side, really - it's a draw in which the combatants exhaust themselves."
Zythos also poses considerable difficulties for its septet of hard-worked instrumentalists. "One has to give these young chaps something to do," Xenakis comments, "and I wanted to write a short, intense and compressed piece which makes an immediate impact." Yet on the question of the impact of his imminent 75th birthday celebrations, which continue throughout the year, the composer and one-time architect and civil engineer is more philosophical: "It's very nice of people to want to honour me. But it is my music which should stand by itself. If the music means something to somebody, that is already enough as my reward."
EYE ON THE NEW
As part of London's Barbican Centre's "From the Heart" festival of Irish music and arts comes a rare opportunity to hear John Cage's work for magnetic tape, Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegan's Wake, in which Cage evokes the spirit of James Joyce's novel via a dense collage of sounds, musics and readings. Roaratorio is prefaced by two other Cage works calling on traditional Irish musicians. The whole circus is billed, "like all great Irish events, as beginning in a church and ending in the Guinness bar afterwards".
St. Giles' Cripplegate, London (box office 0171-638 8891) 11 Apr, 6.30pmReuse content