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[Rediscovered Treasures]

A column by Eldad Tsabary about works from the past that he has recently revisited: an appreciation of both the “classics” and lesser-known works.

Iannis Xenakis — Metastasis (1954)

Iannis Xenakis — Metastasis (1954), for 61 instruments
Première: Donaueschinger Musiktagen 1955. Cond. Hans Rosbaud.

I am starting off this Rediscovered Treasures column with Xenakis’ first major work: Metastasis (1954), for 61 instruments.

Metastasis (1954) is scored for sixty one instruments with individual parts, creating a complex mass of sound, molded from many individual events.  Through this orchestrational method, Xenakis demonstrated the sheer power of the human orchestra, and particularly as a comparative comment on the concurrent electronic music, which began to sprout at the time in studios worldwide.

The structures of individual intervals, dynamics, and durations in this piece are calculated using geometric models, particularly the golden ratio, an artistic model that Xenakis acquired from his architectural work under Le Corbusier. This piece is crafted in a very balanced musical manner, maintaining a continuous sense of development, textural variety, and contrast. The individual glissandi in the string instruments are calculated at different angles and thus create a sound mass that continuously evolves. Incidentally, these glissandi were Xenakis’ inspiration for his architectural design of the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels Expo in 1958 (see here).

The piece begins with a powerful glissando buildup, which is contrasted with a pedal tone in the cellos and occasional woodblock hits. The listener is guided towards an intense non-glissando string tremolo which, despite sustaining a fixed dynamic level, maintains the sense of evolution by being interrupted with short statements of growing intensity and pitch in the percussion and brass instruments. The intensity subsides without resolution, being followed by a shorter glissandi buildup, which ends on a long orchestral chord. At this point, about a third of the way into the piece, a contrasting polyphonic section begins with a beautiful melody in a solo violin, accompanied by short statements of large melodic leaps by other solo strings.

From this point on a second, longer intensity buildup begins, with increasingly erratic accompanying statements, added instruments, special instrumental effects, percussion, loud brasses, and a lesser sense of continuity created by larger leaps, radical timbral and textural changes and an ever increasing polyphonic complexity. Xenakis releases the sheer power of the orchestra in a manner similar to natural stochastic sound, such as the collision of hail or rain with the ground — to use Xenakis’ metaphor — in which the total sonic event is made out of numerous individual sounds. After this long intensity buildup, the piece concludes with another series of many individual glissandi in the strings section leading to an eventual unison tremolo note.

Metastasis is quite a well-known piece and has been released on several CDs.

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