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End of Empire

Persepolis (1971), Iannis Xenakis –
“Nous Portons La Lumiere de la terre”
“We Bear the Light of the Earth”

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was fomented by the unusual pairing of ultra-conservative Islamists, reacting against the so-called “cultural contamination” of Iran by the West, and by various leftist elements, long outraged by the nation’s history of injustice, brutality and extravagance under the rule of the Shah. Left and right together filled the streets for months of protest. They marched on and sometimes burned cinemas, casinos, banks, hotels and other ostensibly un-Islamic institutions and luxuries, paving the way for the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Symbolic of the extravagance perpetrated by the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi that outraged both conservative and leftist was the Jashnhaa-ye 2500 Saaleh, or 2500th anniversary celebration of Iran’s founding by Cyrus the Great, held in 1971. This four-day event, held in an elaborate, glittering air conditioned tent city at the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, and in conjunction with the Third Annual Shiraz Arts Festival, is possibly the grandest celebration ever staged. According to no less of an authority than The Guiness Book of World Records, it was also the most “well attended” international event in history, inasmuch as it attracted some sixty-five heads of state, legates and their entourages—including Sultan Qaboos of Oman, Imelda Marcos, Pres. Joseph Mobutu of Zaire, Emperor Haile Selassie I, Vice Pres. Spiro Agnew (representing Richard Nixon), and Tito—and their spouses—a total of six hundred dignitaries, in addition to some 150 chefs, bakers and waiters, hundreds of security personnel, teams of desert vermin exterminators, Parisian hairdressers and make-up artists, Italian drapers, florists, musicians, and chauffeurs for the 250 custom-ordered red Mercedes-Benzes. As well, some 4000 (or 6000, estimates vary) period-costumed soldiers paraded a spectacularly choreographed review of two and a half millennia of Persian imperial glory—the Achaemenid, Parthian, Sassanian, Safavid, Afsharid, Qajar, and Pahlavi dynasties—in order to impress upon the guests what Iran had been in the past, was in 1971, and would be in the future.

Parisian Master Hotelier Max Blouet, came out of retirement to oversee the wait staff for the welcome banquet, an event catered by Maxim’s de Paris, which shut its Paris location for almost a fortnight in order to focus on the event. The menu, which was a carefully guarded secret, included roast peacocks with foie gras-stuffed tails, quails’ eggs stuffed with golden Caspian caviar, mousse of crayfish tails with Nantua sauce, and the finest ports and champagnes, including a 1945 Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild—hardly, many were quick to note, traditional Persian cuisine.

Following the banquet was son et lumière show and fireworks. The voice of Darius the Great spoke in the dark—in French—recounting the glories of Xerxes. This was followed by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’s monumental fifty-six minute, eight-track electro-acoustic work Persepolis, which was commissioned by the Shah to simultaneously exalt ancient Persia’s aristocratic pre-Islamic religious culture, and define a new, specifically secular moment in the nation’s history. Persepolis, subtitled ‘We Bear the Light of the Earth’, was a massive multimedia spectacle (which Xenakis referred to as a ‘polytope’) employing lasers, spotlights, and hillside bonfires to evoke the Zoroastrian belief that light is eternal life. For the event, the eight independent tracks were broadcast by 48 (or 59, or 100, accounts vary) high-end speakers spread around the ruins of the ancient Palace of Darius. The audience circulated freely between six listening zones, listening as they watched laser lights scan the night sky and the ruins of the city, and the mountains. During the event, 150 Shiraz schoolboys ran with torches from the ravine, through the audience, into the columns of the ruins.

Beginning minutes of Persepolis, Composer Iannis Xennakis
Pour bande magnétique 8 pistes. Band réalisée au Studio Acousti, Paris. Creation: 20.08.1971, Persépolis, Festival de Shiraz (Iran)

The work itself is the ebb, flow and overlap of eleven basic waves of texture, ranging from what sound like wind instrument polyphonics, rubbed glass, treated air, and the scraping together of large steel sheets. Listened to in stereo, one or another of these entities appears to dominate the encroaching and juxtaposing layers, but it is important to remember that in experiencing the work as a polytope, it would have no linear motion, only elliptical shifts in texture and “mass”—a concept Xenakis strove to introduce to the world of musical composition. The textures are often at odds, acoustically, yet they do not fight; they, in their opposition somehow strike a balance—exactly as the Zoroastrian contest between Light and Darkness. The sounds themselves burrow up like the elements in times of geologic turmoil, from unimaginable depths, oxidizing and crystallizing on the surface into forms that in turn decay and return to the earth, like civilizations. Even in stereo, Persepolis has no harmonic structure, no breaks or movements, and, like history, no beginning or end.

Xenakis spoke of Persepolis as “… [N]either a theatrical spectacle, nor a ballet, nor a happening. It is visual symbolism, parallel to and dominated by sound”. Though decidedly untheatrical, the event was certainly dramatic, even sublime as a feat of architecture rather than a history lesson, or perhaps the poverty of history consumed by the glissandi of the spheres. It was, Xenakis wrote in his notes, a “symbol of history’s noises; unassailable rocks facing the assault of the waves of civilization. Childhood’s awakening must be maintained because it represents active knowledge, perpetual questioning which forges the becoming of man. To invent light trajectories, to create signs, destinies on stone: on mountain and ruins, through sound, through fire, through light …. This music corresponds to a rock tablet on which hieroglyph or cuneiform messages are engraved in a compact, hermetic way, delivering their secrets only to those who want and know how to read them. The history of Iran, fragment of the world’s history, is thus elliptically and abstractly represented by underground currents of sound. The listener must pay for his penetration into the knowledge of the signs with great effort pain and the suffering of his own birth.”

Xenakis, born in unified Romania in 1922 to Greek parents, is remembered not only for his innovations in computer music, but specifically for the application of mathematics (specifically Peano axioms, set theory and stochastic processes) to musical composition. Unlike some of his drier and more abstruse 20th century contemporaries, his compositions are both emotional and metaphoric, immediate and cumulative in their search for a language to express the most basic and elusive philosophical forms: knowledge, life, power, and tragedy.

That the Shah would select Xenakis, a Greek living in France, for the task of firing the warning shot for an Iran both old and new reflects, I would argue, the Shah’s mystical view of history. The pendulum of history had swung once from Iran to the West and, Inshallah, it would soon swing back. Commissioning a piece so utterly European to represent Iran’s past and future suggests Perepolis and the celebration at large were a metaphor for the Shah’s ambitions for his country: a profound break from history, a reinvigoration of the distant past—a secular phoenix rising from the flames, and the rebirth of the great pre-Islamic Persian civilization as, said the Shah, the world’s “fifth most powerful nation”.

Instead, Iran’s 2500th anniversary celebration was, I would argue, the major polarizing event during the proto-Revolutionary days. Thereafter, the public was either pro- or anti-Shah, and violently so. In the months leading up to the celebration, the liberal press grew very critical, and very lazy, in their diatribes, resorting to crypto-Socialist cant about the celebration being at the expense of the “starving Iranian people”. (Exactly, or even approximately, how much it all cost remains an inflamed partisan issue with critics claiming upwards of $200 million and supporters as low as $17 million. Abdolreza Ansari, one of the organizers, in an interview, put the figure at $22 million). University students, many of whom would soon join the street protests, were caught denouncing the Persepolis celebration on the walls of bathrooms and courtyards. Of course, the most ominous, and portentous, words came from the Ayatollah Khomeini himself, then in exile in Iraq, who condemned the “evil celebrations”.

“I say these things because an even darker future, God forbid, lies ahead of you,” he warned the Shah.

The Iranian public’s reaction was marbled. There were those who saw the celebration as a diplomatic success, a rite of passage for Iran from developing to civilized nation, and a project that had employed hundreds of poor Iranians, as well as securing a major tourist infrastructure in Persepolis. Moreover, Iran’s oil revenue jumped from $2.5 billion to $18 billion in the years between the event and the Revolution. And there were those, mostly leftist, who dubbed the celebration a “ridiculous farce” and pointed to the absence of the Iranian public at the actual ceremonies as the acme of imperial arrogance. Conservative Islamists came to it as proof that the Shah was too secular, anti-Islamic, and a puppet of the west, and was westernizing Iran in an attempt to attract attention. Never mind that the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini cost an estimated two billion dollars.

On the final day of the Jashnhaa-ye 2500 Saaleh, the Shah inaugurated the Shahyad Tower (now known as the Azadi Tower), in which was displayed the Cyrus Cylinder (borrowed from the British Museum for the event). The Shah declared it to be “the first human rights charter in history” and rededicated the freedom that it had promised two and a half millennia before, to the Iranian people. Nine years later he and his family would be stateless wanderers, wanted by nobody, and Iranian history would take a hard right turn. Would that Xenakis’s Persepolis, perhaps the paragon of his repertoire, serve not to represent the pinnacle of Iranian monarchical history, but instead be its swan song.


The audio portion of Persepolis is available in three formats:

1) the original LP version released in 1972 on the prestigious (and highly collectable) Prospective 21e Siècle label. This version features the original analog eight-channel stereo INA-GRM mix. http://www.discogs.com/Iannis-Xenakis-Persepolis/release/655556

2) the CD version released in 2000 on Fractal Records. This version is remastered for continuous play by João Rafael from the original INA-GRM master tapes.

3) a second CD version released in 2002 on Asphodel. This edition contains a second disc of shorter remixes of Persepolis by Zbigniew Karkowski, Merzbow, Otomo Yoshihide, and other electronic music artists. The version of Persepolis is, to my ears, indistinguishable from the remastered Fractal edition.*http://www.discogs.com/Iannis-Xenakis-Persepolis-Remixes-Edition-1/release/197685

* Audiophile note: since the master tapes were mixed for eight channels, but the publically available versions are mastered for stereo, Eric Falardeau of Montreal recommends a 7.1 setup with a receiver supporting Neural THX 7.1 as the surround algorithm. Unlike Dolby PLII and PLIIx, or Neo:6, Neural THX 7.1 shifts channels to the rear speakers, evidently due to a natural compatibility with the tools used to create the mix. The effect is as close to the eight-channel experience as possible.

— “Flames of Persia”, a documentary film of the event, narrated by Orson Welles, is available on DVD. It does not, however, contain any significant mention of Xenakis’s Persepolis).

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