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Sight and Sound

Iannis Xenakis: Now and Tomorrow
Curtis Roads: New Work, with Brian O’Reilly, Video, REDCAT, January 30, 2011 – 

The CalArts Center for Experiment in Art, Information and Technology (CEAIT) Festival returned this year to REDCAT with an extraordinary three nights of concerts and two symposia featuring the work of the highly experimental architect and composer Iannis Xenakis. Presented in conjunction with the MOCA exhibition Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary, Angelinos got a rare opportunity to dote on the work of this complex hybrid master.

The culminating CEAIT program included Xenakis works, Dikhthas (1979), Epicycles (1989), Akanthos (1977) and Polytope de Cluny (1972), and that night’s opening performance featured the work of Curtis Roads and Brian O’Rielly whose dynamic audiovisual collaborations were the perfect evenings’ aperitif. Roads and O’Rielly have conjured a most finely tuned experience between sight and sound. Working side by side they presented Flicker Tone Pulse, a collection new electronic and cinematic pieces composed since 2009 as well as a few from the previous set Point Line Cloud (2005). The sophistication of pairing new music with visuals reaches for even higher ground in these works due to the intense synchronistic event that is achieved. The drama is not imposed on by theme or narrative such as seen in the collaborative work of Bill Viola in the Tristan Project, but emanates from within the electronic/visual landscape. Curtis cultivates his purely computer generated tonalities from the “…realm of microsound, of sound grains. First predicted in the acoustical theories of the physicist Dennis Gabor and the polymath Iannis Xenakais, the microsonic realm remained invisible for centuries.” Part of the extraordinary experience manifests as the duo of composer and filmmaker operate in tandem, live, so that even as the materials of electronics and video are perhaps a step removed from the temporal unique performance of say a classical orchestra, the every nuance of the production feels of the moment, a distinct performance.

Point Line Cloud (selections) from Brian O’Reilly on Vimeo.

The excitement generated by this kind of staging is now being played out on a grander scale in Miami Beach at the New World Center, home of the New World Symphony. This latest of Frank Gehry design performance venues takes public broadcasting to the next level. Simulcasts of New World Symphony performances are relayed to the general outdoor park public via a hundred and sixty-seven speaker system as well as accompanying video projections that are displayed on an exterior wall, seven thousand feet square. What happens inside hall is reshaping the world of concert music and looking at the success of such partnerships as Curtis and O’Rielly it is a wonder to think of the dramatic possibilities. The New World Center is equipped with ten robotic cameras that project onto five curvilinear acoustic sails floating above and around the stage. And just as Curtis and O’Reilly work in tandem so do the filmmakers, composers, conductors and engineers (who can monitor and respond in real time to the subtlety of tempo), all now have the opportunity to explore simultaneous, supple performance possibilities.

Directly following Flicker Tone Pulse was, Dikhthas (1979), the first Xenakis composition of the evening and a duet of a different nature. This highly dynamic exchange between violin and piano is built of a series of individual, contrasting dialogues. Fiercely performed by violinist Mark Menzies (and the evening’s considerable conductor) and pianist Dzovig Markarian, Dikhthas bears little resemblance to the classic chamber combination of strings and piano and favors the differentiating factors between the two instruments in both range and density. The rapid and fast shifting exchange between instruments, connected yet wildly divergent, create an unmistakable anxiety akin to rapidly falling in and out of love. Extraordinarily compelling and heroically demanding of body, Menzies and Markarian delivered a virtuosic performance.

The idiom, “Back to the Future” has never felt more germane than when considering the finale of Xenakis: Now and Tomorrow—particularly when reflecting on the new hardscaping of multimedia performance, the Polytope de Cluny (1972) is clearly a harbinger of productions to come. Commissioned for the Festival d’Autonne and originally performed in the medieval ruins of the Baths of Cluny in the heart of Paris, Polytope de Cluny was a success unknown for its time. Running for sixteen months, four times daily and with attendance statistics over 200,000 it was a sound and light projection piece of a scale and sonority not yet experienced. Due to the historic nature of the performance site, the entire installation was erected within the walls utilizing a series of scaffolding and cables. All operations, the coordination of six hundred flashbulbs and three lasers were directed along paths determined by four hundred adjustable mirrors. The timing of light and sequences were programmed on a computer (circa 1972!) and subsequently converted into electromagnetic tape signals. Thus the twelve loudspeakers placed around Cluny were precisely coordinated with the light spectacle. One could not fault Xenakis for lack of tenacity.

While REDCAT was not in a position to reproduce the visual counterpart to Cluny the sound was ever faithful and Curtis, at the keyboard, kept to Xenakis’s propensity for volume. The layer upon layer of sound, distributed across eight channels included sonic material ranging from gongs, ceramic wind chimes, timpani rolls, and metallic, brassy entities. Cluny is also the first instance in France, much to the pride of Xenakis, to incorporate computer generated digitally synthesized sound into a composition. However, for all its ground breaking electronic prowess, the powerful crescendo of Cluny resides in the hands of a sustained, singularly plucked African thumb piano, and while this eventually gives way to a more complex conclusion, one is struck by the contrast and paradox of this deeply satisfying experience.

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