Most of us probably are aware of the close connection between mathematics, physics, and music, but for ninety-nine per cent of us knowing of the connection is as far as we take it. Perhaps those who have studied recording in a serious way have a better understanding of the math of music, and people who have taken advanced physics classes will know more than the rest of us about the science of how sound travels.
It would surprise me if anyone, even those studying mathematics and physics, would have studied more than the rudimentary basics, and even that only as a small component of their over all course work. There are not a great many people out there with doctorates in physics who play, or even compose music, and I'm sure that the number gets even smaller when you move to mathematics.
Which is not to say that those people don't or haven't existed; Iannis Xenakis was born in Romania to Greek parents in 1922. After the end of the World War Two, he moved to Greece where he began his studies in both mathematics and music. When he ran afoul of the dictatorship in Greece, he was forced to flee to Paris where he began to study as an architect and designed a couple of projects in the 1950s.
It was his musical compositions he is best known for. Among twentieth century contemporary composers, he is recognized as being one of the great innovators and experimenters. He is most famous for attempting to rationalize music composition using computers and formulas to create sequences of sound detached from emotions. He reduced music down to the bare bones of, equations equalling tone, and a series of equations played by sequencers and computers equalling a composition.
Now, in an interesting twist, German contemporary composer Reinhold Friedl has created a composition for amplified acoustic orchestral instruments, Xenakis [A]Live! that draws upon Xenakis's computer generated work for inspiration. In a new two disc CD/DVD release Friedl leads his chamber group Zeitkratzer Ensemble through an approximately fifty-five minute attempt to recreate what it would be like to listen to that type of music if it were played on acoustic instruments.
The DVD of the two disc set, released on Asphodel Records, has had a piece of video art created especially for the music by Lillevan a member of the Performance Art Troupe Rechenzentrum. As Xenakis' musical compositions are reduced to their base elements, so is Lillevan's video. He has taken still photos and film fragments of the ancient Iranian city of Persepolis and broken them down so far they are no longer recognizable and then created a full length film from the pieces in an attempt to provide a visual representation of the music being played.
So, what does all this mean for you and me who are sitting down to listen and watch this on our DVD players or just listening to it on our CD players. The first thing you have to be prepared for is you probably won't have any frame of reference for this type of music. In all honesty, I'm not even sure I know how to describe what it was I listened to.
What I had to do was continually remind myself I was listening to an attempt to recreate the affect that pure mathematical music would have on an audience. It was like an abstract work of visual art the tones, shapes, and colours couldn't be looked at literally. What was important was the overall impact the work had on me and how much I felt like I understood what it would be like to listen to a piece of work by Iannis Xenakis
Now it would be helpful if I had ever heard anything by Iannis, but I've a good idea of what his music would have sounded like, as I've listened to some music of a similar nature. Based on those experiences I'd have to say I've never heard any acoustic musicians come as close to recreating the effect of electronic music as the Zeitkratzer Ensemble playing their conductor's composition Xenakis [A]live.
Reinhold Friedl accomplishes this by having the individual parts of the ensemble come together as a whole unit to create a sustained tone in much the same manner that a digitally created note would sound. It wasn't difficult at all to believe that they were recreating a digital composition.
I did find that I had an easier time listening to the music on the DVD when it was accompanied by the video. The two worked extremely well in tandem to help reduce the strangeness of the music and allow my brain to accept what I was listening to. Maybe it was because it was such an accurate visual representation of the concept (many parts going in to making a whole), that it was much easier to except the ambient nature of the music.
After only a minor amount of time had passed watching and listening to the DVD I discovered I began to enter a light trance that made it easier for me to obtain the state of mind required to appreciate the music. It was almost like looking at a painting and it's not until the component parts go slightly out of focus that you realize what you're looking at.
Listening to the CD alone it was a much more difficult exercise to be able to achieve that desired state. Maybe it was because I had just watched the DVD and I was suffering from slight information overload. I'm sure that the end result would be the same in the long run anyway, with the disparate sounds gradually merging and forming a whole.
Electronic compositions have always felt rather soulless, mainly because of the impersonal nature of the equipment used. To be able to take the music of an extremely gifted electronic composer like Iannis Xenakis and interpret what he did so that it can be appreciated on acoustic instruments like Reinhold Friedl has done with Xenakis [A]live is itself a great accomplishment.
The new CD/DVD package of the Zeitkratzer Ensemble performing this piece, and the accompanying video on the DVD by Video artist Lillevan, is a major step towards demystifying modern composition. It might never become everybody's cup of tea, but it maybe that much more accessible, that more then just a few will be able to appreciate it. Now that would be a real achievement.