Monday, May 31, 2010

X Marks the Axiom

I begin with a haiku:

Frances, O Frances
Picked a Xenakis record
She makes me think, think!


My brain has been doing some serious cartwheels. Iannis Xenakis comes off so smart you wonder if his head was always hurting from all the math in there. I'll get the obligatory narrative out of the way right now: he's a polymath superhero, educated as an architect (coolest fact: according to this biography, his thesis was on "Reinforced Concrete") and mathematician before he started publishing music. One can point to actual buildings in the world that he designed or at least helped to design, mostly as a student of the 20th Century's premier architectural superstar, Le Corbusier.

Though as a young man I'm sure he was dead serious about how cool it would be to make tons of ripply, flowing, frozen masses of buildings to get all the math out of his head, it was ultimately through music that he would realize his greatest success. For one thing, architect superstars are few and far between: there's only so much room and time and resources in the world for new buildings, so the profession allows no more than a couple of outsized personalities per generation. However, I guess the main reason is that music as a medium is much more fluid: it lacks physical substance, so you have to make fewer concessions in its realization, and once you do get it out into the world, no one has to live in it. Of course there are still limitations, concessions to the desires of your audience or the availability of people to play it, but no medium is perfect.

Enough about the guy, you can read about him all over the place if you want to. I'm here to talk about the record, which Frances selected for me while in a particularly cerebral mood, it seems. What we have here is three pieces: Metastasis (for 61 individually scored instruments - you can't play it with 58 or 60 or 63!), Pithoprakta (for 46 strings, 2 trombones, 1 xylophone and 1 wood block), and Eonta (actually the title is four bizarre runes - doubly schooling Led Zeppelin, having been created nine years before the Zofo album and being actual 2400-year-old writing [from Cyprus!]; it's for piano, 2 trumpets and 3 trombones). We also have a wonderful insert: a gloriously, gleefully brain-scrambling essay by the composer called "The Way of Research and Questioning: Formalization and Axiomatization of Music", in which he argues that science is the child of music but that it's fallen far behind (or as he puts it: "Musical thinking has been, and is, far behind thinking in physics and mathematics, which are avant-gardes cut off from a philosophy that has been thus castrated."), and that it's time for composers to pick up the ball and once again reinstate music as the director of physics and mathematics. How? Why through Stochastic Music, which is to say music based on probabilities, which allows for, you guessed it, formalization and axiomatization.

Yes. Yes it does.

(Apparently it also allows for big blonks and bbwwwwwaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrgghghghhgs; huge masses undulating, gliding and soaring and punctuated by little pinpricks of other sound; clouds of tiny stabs and hits that glob around like a flock of birds.)

The soul is a fallen god. Only ek-stasis (going outside oneself) can reveal its true nature. It is necessary to escape from the Wheel of Birth (reincarnations) by means of purificartions (katharmoi) and sacraments (orghia), the instruments of ekstasis. Katharmoi are performed by means of music and medicine.


About sixty years ago there was a powerful movement in Western art music, probably not coincidentally accompanying the shrinking of the world through improved transportation and communication. Music had to be re-thought, because tonality and the preceding three centuries of European music were exposed as just one teeny-tiny little system in a vast ocean of possibilities. Xenakis's focus was to generalize out from that system in an attempt to start to reveal the same music of the spheres that Pythagoras envisioned and that gave birth to the disciplines of mathematics and physics. He proposes two fundamental aspects of music:

Two natures must be distinguished: "in time" and "out of time"... The logical relations or operations applied to classes of sounds, intervals, or musical notes, etc., are... "out of time"... Serial order is "in time", as is a traditional melody. Any music, in its "out of time" nature, can be liberated instantaneously, frozen. Its nature "in time" is the relation of "out of time" nature with time. As sounding reality, there is no pure "out of time" music; there is pure "in time" music, i.e. rhythm in the pure state.


It took me while to get a handle on that, but I think I got it. As I read it, "in time" is the music itself, and "out of time" is the stuff that determines and describes the music: or as we call it in the digital music indutry, metadata. (Of course the concept of metadata that we throw around doesn't include a lot of the stuff that I think Xenakis means: I think he's getting at the idea of a "score" or program or a formalized system and language that determines the generation of music, and trying to create a vocabulary for an abstraction of that idea, whereas metadata is more about describing the elements of a work, usually a recording, that's already been generated. Still and all, it's an interesting congruence to look at: since he wrote those words almost a half-century ago, popular and to some degree art music in the West continued its evolution into an extreme focus on recorded performance, form-as-music and performance-as-music; my miles of LPs are a testimony to this evolution and to my generation's preoccupation [and that of the two that preceded it] with metadata: obsessive description, categorization and examination of music in its frozen state, the product and particular form, rather than the living essence. In the recommendation technology industry [my bread and butter these last ten years], metadata becomes the score, an ever more granular set of data points that you can feed into a computer until it completely understands and can reproduce the essence of Kind of Blue and differerentiate it from In a Silent Way, Water Babies and Tutu.) Seen this way, music in performance is "in time", and the set of rules, circumstances, assumptions, systems, traditions and other midwives that occasioned its creation are the constancies "out of time"; the tempered scale and other tools of European music in the classical tradition, brilliant though they are, are but one particular and limited system among an infinitude of "out of time"s. Given the woeful inadequacy of this system to account for the immediacy and importance to large numbers of people of, say, the Ramones or the Boredoms (or to use an example closer to the time in which Xenakis was writing, the Beatles), it seems that Xenakis was right in 1963 - classical music needed to either produce some straight-up Wall of Sound, with a guy jumping on a contrabass and eating the strings, or die and be buried under mountains of "acid rock" and "rhythm and blues" and other similarly newfangled monstrosities.

He then goes on to make his argument in the language of formal logic, and while I have no ability whatsoever to stay on the train once that happens, it does tickle me to read stuff like the following:

This second definition leads to a Theory of Screening which, with the help of congruences modulo z, constructs particular structures, such as the major and minor scales, etc. A screen r is defined by the set of x's that are congruent to r modulo z (r and z being given relative whole numbers)...


(For those who can't get enough of this, he wrote a book full of it, Musiques formelles, and this particular argument is taken from the book.)

Happily, I can get back on the train here:

The job of the next few generations is to carry forward the integration of music into this field, virtually untapped... In these directions they will have to be aided by computers and servo-mechanisms. I think that having shown the group structure of the tempered chromatic scale in the broad sense, the use of numerical machines no longer stands in need of justification. It is not a mystery. If there is a mystery, it is in the mental structures of music and not in the computers, which are only tools, extensions of the hand and the slide rule.


And here we are. Since Xenakis wrote this maddeningly dense but impassioned manifesto, we've indeed seen music drive the development of computers and servo-mechanisms - though perhaps not in the directions he envisioned:


  • Electronic amplification! It started out as just a way to let the people in the back row hear better but then we got the Velvet Underground and heavy metal and from there it wasn't long until "noise" got to be a genre and people like Masonna and Boyd Rice playing with sound art and fascist imagery to make whatever kind of statement they wanted to make and then comes Trent Reznor and noise gets into the mainstream as one more color in the sonic palette.


  • Rhythm! The Silver Apples, then Kraftwerk, then Detroit techno, house music and finally David Guetta.


  • Sampling! The vast cultural mashup. First breaks and beats in the Bronx, then the Bomb Squad, then Girl Talk. Using the emotional and cultural resonances of previously recorded music as building blocks for new music.


  • File sharing! The application of search engine technology to liberate the flow of recordings frozen in the glacier of commerce. The subsequent meltdown of the commercial system and the liberation of the material of music from "out of time" (recorded product) to "in time" (performers make their money from performing rather than selling product).


  • Also, robots playing instruments. I keep hearing about this these days. It's so funny. I saw a band called "Robot Rock Band" in Buffalo about seven years ago that was all robots playing spontaneously composed rock music (with spontaneously generated titles, a nice touch), and then I just recently heard about this other group on NPR and if you look on youtube you can find these guys who are hilarious.



All of these formalize music and have evolved their own systems of formalization and axiomatization. Yet the mystery that Xenakis suggested remains: what are the mental structures behind music? That hese developments are undeniably commercial, physical, and emotional in nature hints at a truth that Xenakis and the theorists in his club weren't ready to admit: for music to gain traction and move forward and to push the development of scientific thought (ok, these are technological rather than purely scientific developments. It's the best we can do so far; music has yet to push the limits of n-dimensional space or describe quantum phenomena inside a black hole, though it's not like Jimi Hendrix didn't try), it needs to be popular. Being awesomely smart isn't quite enough.

He might not have wanted to say it, but Xenakis felt it. His music is noisy, cerebral and totally weird - but it rules! He's got a sense of drama and a rock-star appeal that other similarly intellectual dudes from the same circle - Luciano Berio, say, or Morton Feldman - can't really touch. For one thing, he's super-hardcore: badly wounded and left for dead as a member of a unit in a Greek resistance force during the Second World War, he lost an eye and remained facially scarred for life; also, he spent time in jail for being a Communist. Compelling narrative aside, though, the rockin' tunes are what keep the crowds cheering, and here the X-man delivers the goods as well. Metastasis, presented on this album in a recording by Maurice Le Roux (to whom the piece is dedicated) conducting the National Radio Orchestra of France, is as heavy a jam as Boris or Sunn O))) ever conceived, careening, screeching, popping and lurching all over the place in its stated attempt to prove "that the human orchestra could outclass, in new sonorities and finesse, the new electronic means that had set out to eliminate it." The same conductor leads the same orchestra in Pithoprakta, where they do all that funny stuff like smacking their instruments and whatnot that usually bugs me but when the riffage rocks this hard, I'm not gonna complain. By "riffage" I of course mean "dense pointilistic clouds of sound", and by rocks, I mean "totally fucking rocks". Eonta, whose title apparently means "Beings" and is most accurately written, as I mentioned above, in ancient freaking runic script from an island where people were probably wearing bear heads and dancing around while they invented a writing system, brings the funk with an insane part for piano calculated by a computer (in 1963, when computers were the size of Central Park) and played by Yuji Takahashi, the great interpreter of insane piano parts written by brainy composers, and mind-obliterating brass glassandi that swoop, dive and blast for almost twenty minutes, played by the unimaginatively named Paris Instrumental Ensemble for Contemporary Music directed by Konstantin Simonovic.

It's still a hard sell though. I'm actually stretching it a bit with the rock comparisons. Stoner rock kinda gets it, because those dudes are on a long trip to find ultimate heaviness, which means they have to push the envelope of acceptability - but they're mostly still living under the tyranny of the beat, the legacy of rock transmitted through the ancestral mind and felt in the fundament. Xenakis wasn't too into rhythm. This record is in the Vanguard Records "Cardinal Series", an imprint that the label - which had started as a classical label in 1950 but had later gotten famous for spearheading the folk movement by signing people like Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie in the early 60s - initiated to release high-quality classical music at an attractive low price. Which is to say, they were flush with Country Joe and the Fish cash, so they took a hit on getting some deeper tracks on the shelves because they loved them. Interestingly, Xenakis is a freaky standout among the mostly pretty straight composers who have records listed on the inner sleeve - Telemann and Bach; Beethoven, Liszt, and Grieg; Purcell and Handel. Mahler and Satie are about as out as it gets except for Mr. X - could it be that something about this crazy music appealed to the totally sober Vanguard guys?

He's not what you'd call a household name, maybe, but Xenakis hangs in there. Modern art music's most eloquent cheerleader, and my generation's most popular and passionate pundit in the realm of the non-pop, Alex Ross, recently devoted a week of his New Yorker column and blog to Xenakis(ok, so it's not O - but not bad for a guy who couldn't make an argument without resorting to congruences modulo z), and noted in a more recent post a number of Xenakis events taking place around NYC this summer. Clearly, the music-heads are on board, and the music brings enough to the table for the casual listeners to continue showing interest. But is it true to his mission? I think so. Music fails when it makes you put in more than you take out - it's like a joke that you have to explain. There's a wide gulf between music you need to think about and music you can just feel, and Xenakis scares you by making you think you have to think, but then when you hear his music, you forget what you were thinking about and tune in to the music of the spheres.

1 comment:

  1. I need to read this blog more regularly. There is a large sum book deal, or other profitable venture on the horizon right? Well, there should be.

    "Music fails when it makes you put in more than you take out." Yeah I don't like having to convince myself that something is good. I like for it to just be good. Then there are the times when I am impressed by music despite my aesthetic non-pleasure.

    This is similar to the concept I've had to explain to people who defend film adaptations of books just because the source material was good. Or who say "Well you would have gotten that part if you had read the book." Sad condescending fool! I have ALWAYS read "the book". And the book is irrelevant except in determining whether or not the film was successful as an adaptation. Beyond that, the film stands for itself. But aaaaaaanyway, this has absolutely nothing to do with what you wrote. I am typing for the sake of it now. Hey, do I have the cutest little tiny precious cousin Frances on Earth or what?

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