Synergy’s committed, energised performances result in a 1-0 win for Xenakis.

Carriageworks, Sydney

April 22-23, 2014

Before Reich, before Glass, there was Iannis Xenakis – a Greek composer of great originality whose career saw him constantly questing for the refinement of his sonic art, coupled with an ongoing exploration of his theories of music and mathematics. Not that the harmonically complex Xenakis would have appreciated the comparison – his music only bears a superficial resemblance to the minimalists (cellular development, a tendency to repetition and gradual change). What he does share, though, with the likes of Steve Reich, is an ability to be embraced and appreciated by many outside of the classical mainstream. There’s something about his sound world that gets a hold on you and fascinates, especially in live performance.

In 2011 Synergy decided to take up the challenge of Pléïades, Xenakis’ 50-minute four- movement work for six percussionists, and one of the most remarkable works of the 20th century. Like the work’s dedicatees (Les Percussions de Strasbourg) before them, Synergy had to build their own set of sixxens (the word comes from ‘six’, for the six musicians, and ‘xen’, for Xenakis) – instruments consisting of nineteen metal bars, tuned microtonally to an unequal 21-note scale and played with metal hammers.

This week, Sydneysiders were lucky enough to get another chance to hear the work, in all its gloriously intended surround-sound, courtesy of the ideal environs of one of Carriageworks larger bays. The six percussionists were raised on platforms dotted around the space and, as the audience were quick to realise, that meant we could sit, stand, perambulate or lie flat on the back with the eyes closed, pretty much as the mood took us.

Synergy chose the order I. Métaux, II. Claviers, III. Mélanges and IV. Peaux – not one of Xenakis two approved versions, but probably the most satisfying for the listener. From the first tintinnabulations on the sixxens, the intense concentration on the players faces drew us into Xenakis’ compelling world.

The beauty of Pléïades lies in its ability to both hypnotise with its shifting patterns while presenting a dramatic musical experience (which, of course, may not have been the composer’s immediate intention). Again and again, certain sections pulled you up short – a reminiscence of pealing bells, an aural interpretation of the night sky, a brutal synchonisation where metal was hammered virtually to extinction – a sort of descent into Nibelheim on acid.

The Claviers section with its vibes and glocks was distinctly trancey in a gamelan-ish kind of a way. The final section with its drum thwacks was exhilarating; the addition of six other players for the final assault provided a thrilling last hurrah. It’s virtually impossible to do justice to this music via a recording, so should you get the chance for a rare encounter with Pléïades, it is to be recommended wholeheartedly!

The following evening was devoted to a new work by Australian composer Anthony Pateras – Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All. A confessed admirer of Xenakis, Pateras has scored for the same forces as Pléïades plus added electronics. At just over an hour it’s an ambitious work and began impressively by creating an original sound picture that promised to be as intriguing as the previous evening’s Xenakis. Resonant drumbeats catapulted us into a mysterious world laden with doom and gloom, while diffused electronic sounds, manipulated by Pateras himself, added to the unsettling atmosphere.

An hour later, however, it was hard to feel any of the things that Pléïades inspired. Drama was eschewed for monotony; variety gave way to a tendency towards an unremitting forte; the atmosphere at the end was pretty much the same as at the beginning. There were some interesting and arresting moments along the way (some thrilling drum riffs, a haunting bowed metal section), but it all took what felt like a great deal more time than the Xenakis, while seeming to have far less to say. Worse still, for all that the program notes maintained the composer’s manifesto for invention and originality, I personally felt I’d heard it all before. The audience reaction was tepid compared with the previous evening’s ovation.

That aside, all credit to Synergy Percussion who gave two intensely committed performances that deserved to have been packed out – it’s imaginative programming like his that keeps the contemporary music scene alive. But for those simply interested in the final score, for me, Xenakis vs Pateras was a fairly one-sided match ending up 1-0 to the Greek.