Sunday, March 14, 2010

Industrial cello - Iannis Xenakis

Industrial music, with its blurring of the lines between what we traditionally call music and what we traditionally call noise, has been phenomenally important in expanding the territory on which musicians can create their art. As tempting and all as it is for me to go on and on, yet again, about the way Einstürzende Neubauten has demonstrated this in their use of unmusical things to create music of staggering power and originality (see 17th February, 10th February and 3rd February), I thought today I might instead focus on the way the same boundary has been transgressed from an entirely different direction, through the unconventional use of an utterly conventional instrument in the solo cello music of Iannis Xenakis, turning one of music’s most romanticised and softly beautiful instruments into a source of savage violence, aggression and grit.

While Xenakis, the experimental Greek composer who died in 2001, doesn’t really sound anything like Einstürzende Neubauten, it’s not at all surprising that they cite him as one of their most important influences. He, just like them, created music from scratch – breaking down all the conventional structures and rules and, like the architect that he was, and the anti-architects that they are, builds something new and different and endlessly interesting out of all the bits and pieces of rubble that are left after the demolition of everything has gone before.

Xenakis wrote two pieces for solo cello – Nomos Alpha, written in 1966, and Kottos, in 1977. For someone like me, who first really noticed the cello, and fell in love with it, through hearing the autumnal, elegiac beauty of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, these pieces by Xanakis couldn’t possibly be further removed from what the cello had come to mean. Here it no longer weeps with tender-hearted poignancy; it doesn’t sing, drenched in noble emotion; it doesn’t flow in a smooth, calm legato. Rather, it screeches, it screams, it crashes, it bashes; it is percussive and brutal; it has no regard for its own, or your, safety; it takes itself and you and music to limits where you feel that all three might break and never be able to be put back together again.

There are parts of Nomos Alpha that sound more like an electric guitar than a cello, with screeching high notes, like some demented, drug-affected bird from another planet, swapping places with droning bass, sliding and skidding, hitting notes that have no name, no place on the conventional western musical scale. There are moments of frenzied chaos, where it is impossible to believe that it’s only one four string instrument making all that noise, and that there’s not an amp somewhere nearby spurting out electronic feedback.

When this was written, in 1966, no one had ever heard the cello sound like this before and, even now, it’s remarkable – fierce and frightened, music where melody and harmony are dismantled and replaced with grabs of sound and noise, each creating its own unfathomably deep chasm of darkness or its own piercingly, blisteringly, bright shaft of laser light. For some stretches the cello’s bottom string is tuned down an octave, giving it a bizarre, droning, watery sort of sound, adding to the whole creepiness and alien feel of the music.

Kottos is no less savage, opening with a fierce, angry snarl at the bottom end of the cello’s range, which builds to a harsh percussive music that dominates most of this piece, scarcely relenting its ferocity, even when the beat moves into the cello’s usually brighter upper register: here, everything is coarse and jagged, like barbed wire.

The cello music of Xenakis, like the rest of what he created, is not comfortable listening. It’s music, like that of Einstürzende Neubauten, that could not have been created other than in a time when humanity had developed an unprecedented array of technologies for making things that destroyed and needed to be destroyed. And it’s the remnants of their destruction that makes this powerful, gritty and daring music not only so good, but possible in the first place.

No comments:

Post a Comment