Iannis Xenakis ‘Jonchaies’: An Orchestral Cacophony

Good day, classical music lovers! Welcome back and thank you for joining me on Day X of the August Alphabet Challenge! Today’s letter was notoriously difficult to choose, and I have decided to look into the 20th Century work Jonchaies by Greek-French composer, Iannis Xenakis. Now I would tell you to sit back and relax, but I’ll be honest with you – this piece will have you on the edge of your seat! So prepare yourself for this adventurous journey!

Iannis Xenakis was born in Romania in 1922. His family was Greek in heritage and both his mother and father were interested in music. His mother especially helped Xenakis learn to appreciate traditional music, so when she died when he was 5 he was left incredibly traumatized. After this he continued his studies at a boarding school in Greece. He sung in the boys choir and was also taught Greek traditional and sacred music here. In 1938 he graduated and subsequently moved to Athens to prepare for his entrance exams to study at the National Technical University of Athens. He successfully passed the exams in 1940 (albeit to study architecture and engineering), however he still took lessons in harmony and counterpoint. His studies were cut short though due to the Greco-Italian War, which broke out in the latter half of 1940. Xenakis joined the National Liberation Front at the start of the war, where he acted in protests and demonstrations. In 1944, Xenakis was involved in street fighting against British tanks and was seriously wounded when a shell hit his face. In all honesty it was a complete miracle that he even survived the hit as it left him permanently scarred, and with only one eye.

The university that Xenakis attended was open intermittently during the war, so by 1947, Xenakis was able to graduate with a degree in civil engineering. However, in 1947 the Greek government began arresting those who were a part of the resistance (which included Xenakis). Fearing for his place in society, he fled the country and went into hiding in Italy and the France. Although an illegal immigrant in Paris, Xenakis was able to get a job in an architectural studio. He worked on many important large-scale projects whilst there. In his spare time, Xenakis would be learning more about harmony and composition, and some of his earliest works started to surface. He often used architectural concepts to help inspire him to compose, with works such as Metastaseis B being based on architecture. It has been researched that Xenakis worked through the night to improve on his style and he approached a menagerie of different teachers to help him, although most turned him away due to his ‘unenthusiastic’ music. Things were looking down for Xenakis, until he met Olivier Messiaen, who took him on as a student. Xenakis was inspired by Greek folk melodies, as well as composers such as Ravel. He then began showing interest in serialism whilst studying with Messiaen, which allowed him to explore contemporary music in more detail. It can be seen, and most certainly heard, that Xenakis’ music is largely based on mathematic formulas and complex rhythmic structures.

By 1959, Xenakis had made a name for himself within the music circle, and was starting to be seen as an important figure. Xenakis was also a top researcher in the field of computer-assisted composition, and he became a visiting lecturer at many different universities around the world. He taught composition throughout his lifetime, whilst still composing and developing his own contemporary style. By the late 1990s however, his health began to worsen and by 1997, he was unable to work. In 1999 he was awarded the Polar Music Prize “for a long succession of forceful works, charged with sensitivity, commitment and passion, through which he has come to rank among the most central composers of our century in the realm of art music.” In 2001, Xenakis lapsed into a coma and died four days later on 4th February, aged 78.

Xenakis’ music is based a lot on the outcome of sound through algorithms and other formulaic means. Thus a lot of his compositions can be analysed through successions of sonorities. Due to his education, Xenakis has been known to be a ‘sound sculptor’ which means he composes and builds on different sounds.

Jonchaies was composed in 1977, alongside another one of Xenakis’ compositions, La Légende D’eer. The latter is a composition which is  comprised of 7 tracks of electroacoustic tapes, and Jonchaies is scored for a large orchestra (specifically 109 musicians). The work is huge and lasts for about 15 minutes when played through. The work is loosely based around a single scale, which can be attributed to the likes of the Indonesian pelog scale (which is used extensively in gamelan music). The work uses a wealth of different extended techniques and unconventional rhythmic patterns, which makes it resonate that of it serialism influences. I will try my very best to give you a walk-through of the work, but it is an incredibly complex and difficult work to completely understand!

The work begins with a glissando from the strings, which slowly dies away. This leads into a very Psycho-esque hammering of the upper register in the strings. A whirling feel is then heard and the piercing strings begin play a long, monolithic evolution of sound. This is where the scale comes in, as it is used for colour, rather than pitch. Nearly every entry is irregular and the strings start moving apart until there are around 18 different string parts. It has been suggested that these kind of sounds are what it sounds like in hell (how lovely!). The pitch becomes lower and lower, with the timpani enhancing and emphasising the shift. There is a clear inner progressive evolution of sound, and throughout the whole work it unravels and becomes a single sound. The sounds you will hear are not melodic, but rhythmic (yes really) and they have all been placed there purposefully, following a graph that Xenakis created. This scale is used on the graph and then transferred onto the instruments, which makes pitch an unnecessary factor. Instead the scale is maintained as a colour and is explored in a linear manner (with the use of irregular lines etc).

About 3:45 into the work, the lower strings play a small passage which is based on a minor 2nd. The percussion add to the ever-building tension and begin playing a very irregular rhythmic cell, with the bass drum, cymbals and timpani being at the forefront. The tempo fluctuates which leaves no drive or steady tempo. The upper strings continue their suspended lines above, whilst the percussion and piccolo flute play syncopated stabs on irregular beats. Someone said to me once this section feels a little “like the music from Jaws” and you can certainly hear that kind of sound here. The music begins to tense up even more, with the strings spreading out into their higher register, leaving the percussion, brass and flutes to play the more colourful notes. My favourite description of this music is “giant sound aura” which I think successfully depicts the mad sound that is happening. The percussion begin a rhythm pattern that is much more conventional, which gives the drive back to the music. Offbeats are also utilised a lot within this section of the piece.

Dynamics are also used in abundance to create different emotions throughout the work. From extreme loudness to extreme quietness, this piece absolutely knows how to make someone feel on edge! The brass then take over and play another irregular rhythm (see a pattern forming?). It sounds nearly like to and fro offbeats, although this is not completely accurate. The temporal evolution of the sound is highlighted again, when the strings return in abundance and with determination. You can hear the brass start going absolutely mental, with pitch bending and over-blowing being a main technique. It genuinely sounds like elephants! The trumpets also use the shake to create these sounds, which they soon do when they quickly put their straight mutes in (same with the horns too). Looking at this from a conventional point of view, this next section is kind of fugue-like, although this is probably disputed! However, the layering of the brass here is very fugue-like and the rings from the tam-tam creates a very loud and destructive tone to the music. This is carried on by the lower drums such as the tom-tom.

The strings make their way up the scale slowly again, with the percussion playing in the background. The dynamic goes to extremely quiet and then fluctuates a little, creating a buzzing sound within the strings. The horns play another ‘ripping’ statement, which brings the tam-tam, brass and winds together into an amalgamation of noise. The piccolo and tuned percussion play a twinkly line, which is rather disturbing (like something from a horror movie!). At the end you just have the two piccolo flutes playing in dissonance, until they blend out. It has been suggested that the Jonchaies has exploded by this point, and the top register of the piccolo flutes is all that remains – its energy has been compressed into a single piercing screech.

Jonchaies is a single continuous movement, however you can hear a set of miniatures inside of it which explore oscillating orchestral timbres. Each textural idea that Xenakis uses is there to intensify the sound sculpture that he is creating. So from the aggressive strings to the drunken brass glissandos, this work is incredibly physical and exaggerated. Jonchaies is jammed packed full of drama, which propels it past the idea of it just being a mathematical concept of sound. The opposing sections within the orchestra clash and have thunderous consequences throughout the piece. From the stoicism of the strings, to the crashing of the percussion, the piece is completely enthralling. This tempestuous piece will not be for everyone – its only by doing this blog I have come to properly appreciate this work. Good luck with it I say! It is the penultimate day of the August Alphabet Challenge tomorrow *cries* so come back and see what Day Y has in store for us!

Happy Reading!

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