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IANNIS XENAKIS / Persepolis / CD
Fractal 0X


Computer Music Journal - n°25.1 - 2001 (USA)

Over some forty years, Iannis Xenakis created a series of seminal electroacoustic works, along with much else. Most of these pieces are now available on compact-disc after languishing for many years as out-of-print LPs or as original tapes never released at all. Persepolis, after Kraanerg - a ballet for chamber orchestra and tape from 1969 - is his longest continuous work. It had been available on the Philips label, but the LP, unfortunately, presented a distorted version of the piece, breaking it in half and cutting about ten minutes of material in order to make it fit onto two sides of vinyl. At long last, this impressive work is available in its uncut, uninterrupted glory (although the eight tracks of the original have obviously been mixed down to two).

Back in 1968-1969, at the height of the social activism that swept through Europe and the United States, Mr. Xenakis, well-know as a revolutionary in Greece during the period of World War II and after, was something of a figurehead, at least in Paris. Somehow, in spite of that, and for reasons that remain murky, he struck up a fruitful association with the Shah and Empress of Iran. His percussion piece, Persephassa, was premiered at the first Shiraz Festival in 1969, held in the picturesque setting of Persepolis, an archeological site in the desert of Iran. This center was important to the ancient Persian dynasty, and the modern Shah, for political as well as artistic motives, was seeking to reinforce pre-Islamic culture and combine it with Western modern artistic concerns. Mr. Xenakis, with his own attachment to the ancient civilization of his native Greece, as well as his leadership in the avant-garde, was a good match to the aims of the festival. His percussion ensemble piece, which surrounds the audience with six performers, was a major success, and he was given relatively free rein to create an even more ambitious work for the 1971 Shiraz Festival, which would celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. The invited audience was to include royalty and heads of state from around the world. If ever there was one, this was a prestigious commision !

Persepolis is a 56-min piece of multi-channel electroacoustic music, unrelenting in its density and continuously evolving architecture. The original presentation included two lasers, 92 spotlights, and bonfires and processions of torches on the neighboring hillsides. The music was diffused throughout the site over 59 loudspeakers. In the middle of the desert, in the middle of the summer, it would have been, and by all accounts was, an awesome experience.

In style, the monolithic Persepolis is a cross between the noisy, overlapping textures of Bohor, from 1962, and the huge, but more finely shaped, La légende d’Eer, from 1977. In chronology, it falls almost exactly halfway in-between. The music is constructed from eleven textures, each developed independently and distributed across the eight channels of the tape. There are usually several of these textures sounding at once, but the piece is organized as a sucession of “zones” in which one texture-type dominates for a period of time. It is not at all easy to locate these sectional divisions, as different chanels shift at different times and the dominance of one sonority over the rest is statistical rather than clear-cut. It is hard to identify the sources of the sounds, too, but they can be distinguished by spectral definition, continuity or discreteness, and register. The ceramic wind-chime-type sound, though, is easily spotted, and returns in La légende d’Eer. There are also processed clarinet multiphonics, low, distorted drum-rolls, high complexes of string harmonics, buffeting wind sounds, and more.

Persepolis is a demanding piece; it’s not one to use for ambient mood-music ! But, like many of this composer’s best works, it provides opportunity for intense, transformmative experience; you won’t be the same at the end of this pieces as you were when you started listening (you may even hate it). As the ancient Zoroastrians of Persia sought eternal life in patterns of light, so too, perhaps, can modern artistic creation transcend time and place (and politics) and evoke the extraordinary Mr. Xenakis, for once, found it worthwhile to make the attempt.
James Harley

Bananafish - n° 15 - Summer 2001 (USA)

The monolithic mass of Persepolis has more connection to the hypothetical first bludgeoning forays into noise as practiced by an angry Midwestern teenager than it has to anything made by those who consider it canonical. Thankfully, though, now it can be considered canonical by more than just the lucky, rich, or old - if, indeed, there are any angry Midwestern teenagers out there looking for something new to canonize. Fractal Records’s reissue of Persepolis includes, according to an unconfirmed lucky, rich, or old source, six more minutes of bell sounds not on the original album, which better connects what was sides one and two. This, of course, is a moot point for most people, whose third generation tapes sufficed with the addition of bells, whistles, or butterflies one must imagine buried within the flanks of hiss.
Rock Mag said it about Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but the analogy is more perfect here: Xenakis is a tank. Even his less indestructible ‘90s pieces are leaden clouds raining sweet paint chips into the anxious mouths of children awaiting wide-eyed stupor in the face of the inscrutable patterns etched almost indiscernibly around us. Persepolis, though, floods the pathetic streets of civility with layer after layer of undulating moans, grotesque liquidation, and serpentine squeals. Most tape pieces from this time (1971) have some amount of spritely entertainment value, nimbly spliced twists and tasty dollops of goo. Fun, though, has nothing to do with this, just as fun has nothing to do with the tides, an avalanche, or the rotation of the galaxy. The personal value we give to them is our own choice; Xenakis’s music is as human or inhuman as our atomic makeup.

Vibrations - n°29 - Novembre 2000 (Suisse)

Une des plus grandes œuvres électroniques, Persepolis de Iannis Xenakis, vient d'être édité en CD pour la première fois, et ceci dans sa version intégrale. Ce morceau dense et monolithique s'inspire du feu et de la lumière, ces symboles zoroastriens qui représentaient le bien et la vie éternelle. Constituée dŽune série d'éruptions cataclysmiques qui évoluent lentement tout au long de l'œuvre, cette musique très imagée projette l'auditeur dans des paysages sonores grandioses et spectaculaires. Composée en 1971, cette œuvre n'a rien perdu de sa puissance et reste inégalée.
Rahma Khazam

The Wire - n°202 - December 2000 (UK)

One of very few classical' composers to imagine music as pressure systems rather than narratives, Iannis Xenakis found his ideal medium in the densities of noise he could squeeze onto tape. His electric oeuvre continues to pack a heavier punch than anything written for acoustic instruments, so this debut phonographic appearance of Persepolis is to welcomed with open arms. Created for the Iranian Shiraz Festival in 1971, the piece was performed on the site of the ancient palace of king Darius; but more than a concert, Persepolis was a festival of music and light – a kind of wonder of the world whose continual crescendoes and sustained intensities seem to signal some impending giant event – indeed, calling to mind the apocryphal tales of Babylon’s priest-king caste, disseminating the civilisation’s secrets via bardic songs on the temple steps. The spectacle of Persepolis took place while Xenakis was in exile : his Greek homeland would not welcome him again until the political climate eased in 1974. But it came as Xenakis’s utopianism reached fever pitch in the future-shocked post-lunar landing 1970s; entranced by the Apollo landings and the spaceship Earth’ vision of Buckminster Fuller, Xenakis was wholeheartedly raising music-theatre’s game on a scale that appears impossible grandiose, compared to the beetling, impoverished gestures of today’s classical scene. You have only to look at the forces deployed : eight magnetic tapes diffused through 100 loudspeakers distributed amongst the ruins; fireworks, film projections and natural fire (torches); laser beams flashing on the entrances to tombs; a searchlight throwing Îlight trajectoriesÄ; choirs of running children representing Îactive knowledgeÄ and Îperpetual questioningÄ. The music spectacle itself conjures a pathway picked out in flame : a mental map to understanding the ruins of this crumbled civilisation.
He had been experimenting with the synaesthesia of sound and light before this. In the first of his self styled Polytopes (1967), he created a net of 1200 lights in a Montrüal pavilion whose currents rippled on and off in an echo of the currents he was sending through his orchestral forces; afterwards in the late 70s he was at work on an enormous piece for performance in Mexico’s pre-Columbian ruins, involving enormous choirs of local children, although this does not seem to have been completed. Printed bumph accompanying Persepolis’s performances tapped into Iran’s location as possible cradle of civilization’ : the composer described it as Î arock tablet on which hieroglyphic or cuneiform mesages are engraved in a compact, hermetic way, delivering their secrets only to those who want and know how to read them... The listener must pay for his (sic) penetration into the knowledge of the signs with freat effort, pain and the suffering of his own birth.
All of this is, thankfully, described in some detail in the sleevenotes, for the music heard in isolation would not necessarily evoke such thoughts of civilisation’s distant past. A constant, tinny, nagging rattle underpins the piece’s entire 56 minutes, like an eternally dragging chain. Although there’s little light and shade variation, there are more lugubrious pasages where minute details and gonglike reverberations can be heard emerging from the saturation of the piece’s noise elements. There are several passages where the sonic deluge spikes into pressurised pinnacles : the sound of jet airliners or rocket engines hint at the pull of outer space - the destiny of the mathematical and scientific advances which were largely originated within the Mesopotamian river plains. Such contextualisation is crucial : trying to conjure up mind’s eye visions of those swirling pinpoints of flight, and flaming torches held by Shiraz schoolboys racing down the mountain and disappeared into the nearby forests, you start to realise what an incredible, disarming and plain off-world experience Xenakis was aiming for.
Rob Young

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