Acts Creative: A Tale of Two J/Iannis'

by Dr. Brett Reed, Music Faculty

This last week I’ve been knee deep in the production of a new concert by one of my ensembles, Crossing 32nd Street. And while I didn’t intend for it to be all about two Greek heritage composers, Jannis Kyriakides and Iannis Xenakis, that’s exactly what has happened.

In the case of Jannis, we have over the last 10 days, created a new studio recording to support his work Telegraphic. The process and need for this recording is what got me thinking about a previous studio cut of Iannis’ Persephassa, one of the masterworks for percussion ensemble. While there are many things about their music that is different, they do share an interest in spatial presentations, working in new media, and large scale forms. Each also share a drive to create music that is new. Not new in the sense of, well I made it today so it is newer than what I made yesterday, instead this has never been heard before new. That’s a much loftier concept - and hard to get to within our human experience of music. Both composers have also asked performers to make that happen.

And one other thing… in both cases they wrote music that can’t be played by us mere mortals.

This, then, is where the role of interpretation comes into play. How do I as a musician create a performance that is representative of their score, their intention, their concepts? Especially when their concepts are such that humans alone can’t do what the composer has asked of us, because they are trying to create that certain something brand new. How does this intersect with my artistic concepts and sensibilities? There may be shades of grey here, but as I see it, there are only three reasonable solutions. 

One, you could train yourself to do that very thing that humans can’t, or don’t, currently do, athletes seem to do this all the time (in Telegraphic, performers are asked to play wind instruments for very long periods without breathing - kind of a challenge, circular breathing is a possibility for some). Two, you can create a workable solution, a version of what the composer asked that meets most of the musical criteria, but isn’t technically what they wrote (in fact Xenakis expects this in his works - creative tension based on the problem solving). Or three, don’t do it humans alone, get help.

Using the recording studio to solve these problems is not new, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Les Paul, and the Beatles have all shown us what can happen in the studio. It takes a certain stance though, to warmly embrace a recording that is not entirely based on performers, though the music is intended to be performed. 

In Persephassa, Xenakis wrote a rising spiral of notes, that gradually accelerate to a furious conclusion - for seven instrument groups, any 2 or maybe 3 are playable by the usual human compliment of hands. What about the other four? In performance you have to slowly change the part by leaving out notes, density or both. In the studio? Three overdubs later (as opposed to growing more limbs) this is what you have:

And as we listened to the playback after the last take, we heard new - what Xenakis had envisioned and that no one had ever heard before. An amazing moment.

In Telegraphic, multiple takes of each part looped and blended in a certain way - and presto - humans that don’t need to breathe (that’s evolution!) - with a similar result.

This is pretty common way of working for me these days, no tools are left unused in the pursuit of an interesting sonic experience, and occasionally something new.