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James Harley - Persepolis (review) - Computer Music Journal 25:1 Computer Music Journal 25.1 (2001) 92-93

Book Review


Iannis Xenakis: Persepolis. Compact disc, 2000, FractalOX; available from Fractal Records, 26 rue Garnier, 92200 Neuilly-sur-Seine, France; fax (+33) 1-4745-1702; electronic mail; World Wide Web

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-known 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 commission!

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 succession of "zones" in which one texture-type dominates for a period of time. [End Page 92] It is not at all easy to locate these sectional divisions, as different channels 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.

Perselopis 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, transformative experience; you won't be the same at the end of this piece 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 one, found it worthwhile to make the attempt.

Reviewed by James Harley
Moorhead, Minnesota, USA

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