Thursday, February 4, 2010

Intuition and Order in Xenakis’s Orient-Occident

In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, Xenakis worked with GRM (Groupe de recherches musicales) in Paris to produce several pieces for electromagnetic tape, including Orient-Occident, a piece often overshadowed by works like Concrete PH and Bohor, which are rightly considered more groundbreaking pieces in Xenakis’s early oeuvre, particularly Bohor, with its unique source material, its rather violent dynamics, and its rich sound palette. However, Orient-Occident is a firm testament to Xenakis’s visceral immediacy and also a clear example of his early experiments with creating a connection between micro- and macrocomposition. For Xenakis it was important that there be an inextricable link between materials, method, and form. What is most interesting about Orient-Occident is that, unlike many other works by Xenakis, this connection seems to have been forged primarily through intuition as opposed to rigorous systems of control.
In 1960, Xenakis was commissioned to write the soundtrack to Orient-Occident, a film by Enrico Fulchignoni. The film depicted civilizations from around the world, forming a historical perspective without any explicit narrative thread. The soundtrack was approximately 22 minutes long. To what extent the sounds complemented the images or how the form may have been influenced by the visuals is hard to surmise, but we do know that the director gave Xenakis very little guidance on the creation of the music (James Harley, 2002). In 1962, Xenakis trimmed the soundtrack down to a little less than 11 minutes for a concert piece. What exactly Xenakis cut and how he shaped the material into an independent work is undocumented (the date of revision varies between 1962 and 1968, depending on the source).

Of the pieces he was working on at the time of the commission, Concrete PH, Analogique B, and the acoustic piece Pithoprakta best demonstrate Xenakis’s interest in using what Agostino Di Scipio terms “control structures” to connect timbre with overall form (1998). Xenakis’s preferred method for this control was stochastics, which is derived from the calculus of probabilities. Significantly, Xenakis would use recordings of both Concrete PH and Pithoprakta as source material in Orient-Occident.

Concrete PH, written in 1958 as a counterpart to Varese’s Poème électronique and premiered with that piece in the Philips Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Brussels, is primarily a study in density and the resultant emergent properties of the sound. This piece has one sound source: the crackling sound of burning charcoal, the tape recording of which was cut into hundreds of minuscule pieces and arranged in various densities according to theories of probability. Xenakis called the idea of perceivable properties of sound created by means of control over individual elements “second-order sonorities” (1971: 47). The spectrum of small moments in time resembles the larger formal structures, which is related to the concept of fractals (Di Scipio, 1997, 1998).

Analogique B, a tape piece written in 1959 and later added to the acoustic work Analogique A to make Analogique A + B, was Xenakis’s first attempt at granular synthesis, based on Dennis Gabor’s idea that all sounds can be represented as micro-temporal pieces of sound called “grains.” Xenakis used “books” containing many “screens” each of which depicted a moment in time and contained information regarding the density, frequency and amplitude of grains at that moment (1971). These parameters, as well as the arrangement of screens and books, were determined by stochastics.

The ensemble piece Pithoprakta contains a passage with innumerable overlapping pizzicati and glissandi which, due to the complex nature of the sound, create a second-order sonority. This section was modeled after the Brownian motion of gases (a theory of probability). Much if not all of the percussive elements in Orient-Occident are derived from a recording of this piece (Harley, 2002: 38).

The concert version of Orient-Occident lasts slightly less than eleven minutes and features many blocks of diverse sounds both overlapped and more abruptly juxtaposed, as shown in this spectrogram of the piece.

After a brief introduction of rather focused spectral energy in the low/mid range, Xenakis begins building to the first climax of the piece, introducing wide spectrum sound sources, which effectively open up the sound. Points of arrival are created by quick shifts in color, most notably following the climactic sections. Around the 1:32 mark, bright, bowed tam-tam snippets usher in noisy percussive material covering the entire frequency axis (ca. 1:35). This section, with its hammered metal sounds, I have described as “industrial.” — What follows are low rumblings and short sounds of bowed metal. There are also metal pipes which produce a more focused spectrum, often perceived as quasi-pitched. Both types of bowed metal objects are heavily treated with reverberation. The bowed metal tones are spliced in to very small segments and arranged densely (ca. 4:35). — This can be seen as a transition building into the next and main climax of the piece, which features percussive material from Pithoprakta, water droplets, and snippets from Concrete PH, which supplies bright, full spectrum sounds. The percussive material has been electronically slowed down, creating a very different effect from that of its original context. Here it is used to create metered rhythms or “perceptible patterns rather than statistical ‘clouds’” (Harley, 2002). The bird-like sounds and sliding sine-tone sounds heard in the background (eg: 9:04 and 9:15) are demodulated radio frequencies (very high radio frequencies brought down to audible frequencies), subjected to reverberation, and articulated by glissandi (via changing tape speed). These sounds are relatively static (no melodic activity) and are almost always used in combination with concrete sources. A denouement with quiet beeps reminiscent of sonar leads into a coda featuring a lovely diffused sound palette.

Although much more loosely constructed than many of Xenakis’s other works and seemingly constructed in an intuitive collage-like manner, Orient-Occident relies heavily on a cohesiveness created by its constituent elements. Repetition on various time levels is a main tool in the structure of Orient-Occident. Some repetition is nearly literal as in various quasi-pitched elements (bowed metal) and certain percussive material in both the “industrial” and the “drumming” sections. Some is more subtle as in the use of bowed cardboard near the beginning of the piece (1:12) and then later at (7:46). There is one section, from ca. 1:11 to 1:20, that forms a sort of microcosm of the entire work. Within this short section the listener hears bowed tam-tam, bowed metal, bowed cardboard, and percussive material, all of which will be more fully developed later in the piece. — This passage can be seen as forming a sort of metaphorical fractal relationship with the rest of the work. The different types of repetition allow for points of reference or at least provide a sense of familiarity.

In the “drumming” section, the primary percussive attack is immediately repeated. Each time this two-attack phrase is repeated, it is also lengthened (and expanded in the stereo field). The drumming section itself recalls the other rhythmic (industrial) section from earlier in the piece. The “sonar” pings near the end of the piece (ca. 9:07) clearly recall the similar two-attack phrases from the drumming section.

Many of the bowed metal sounds in Orient-Occident are focused enough spectrally to be perceived as pitched material (Figure 2). The notes labeled D#4 and D4 in the graph are related both in the proximity of their relative frequency and in their use as transitions into more dense structures. Additionally, the pitch very near B5 near the beginning of the piece (which acts as a clear break between thicker textures) is later recalled by the oscillating pitches labeled A5/A#5 and B5/C6. These pitches provide a familiar, clear, and focused sound to balance the more chaotic sections of the piece.

The most obvious of these is the passage containing the quotes from Concrete PH. These samples are combined with other concrete sources to create a very dense section which verges on becoming a 2nd order sonority. It can be argued that both this section and the “industrial” percussive section offer a sort of slowed-down second order sonority – almost a microscopic view of a granular texture. Another example of slowed-down grains is found in the “sonar” beeps which are not dissimilar to the electronic sounds in Analogique B. Di Scipio discusses the merits of this idea in his analysis of Analogique A + B (2005). As in the present work, the successive “screens” or grains in Analogique A + B do not sound close enough in time to truly create a sense of a unique emergent sound, but the process is evident. Whether the passages were meant to be interpreted like this is debatable, but certainly worth considering in light of the amount of thought Xenakis was devoting to the idea of granularity at the time.

Perhaps the most “successful” example of a 2nd order sonority is found at the end of the work (’successful in the sense that the 2nd order sonority is more readily-appreciable than its constituent sounds). The “coda” from ca. 10′ till the end of the work is a beautiful, hazy, texture-based sound. No one sound dominates the overall sonority. There are very few clearly-articulated sounds in this section, owing in part to the liberal use of reverberation. There is also a noticeable lack of pitched material in this section. Regardless of the methods used (which seem to lack any rigorous control) this section is the most convincing 2nd order sonority.

Throughout Orient-Occident, Xenakis showcases his various techniques of layering and collages which he was developing at GRM. Though the piece was originally written as a soundtrack, its revised concert form truly stands on its own formal merits (whether controlled or intuitive). Orient-Occident is a fantastic example of Xenakis’s early forays into stochastics and granularity, a process which would inform many of his later works (as well as the work of many other 20th century composers). Although some of the texture-based passages are not explicit examples of 2nd order sonorities, the concept of texture-dominated sonorities is vividly present in many sections of the piece. Xenakis was also exploring transitions between sound-types, and a similar focus on “change-of-state” figures heavily in many later works, both acoustic and electronic (see Charisma for an example of a work based on the the juxtaposition of sonority-blocks). Ultimately, the balance between sound and structure in this piece echoes the duplicity of all of Xenakis’s music: raw and visceral while at the same time structured and controlled.

Harley, James; 2002. “The Electroacoustic Music of Iannis Xenakis” Computer Music Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, In Memoriam Iannis Xenakis (Spring, 2002), pp. 33-57 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL:

Di Scipio, Agostino; 1998. “Compositional Models in Xenakis’s Electroacoustic Music” Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 201-243 Published by: Perspectives of New Music Stable URL:

Di Scipio, Agostino; 1997. “The Problem of 2nd-order Sonorities in Xenakis’s Electroacoustic Music.” Organized Sound Vol. 2 No. 3, 1997, pp. 165–178.

Di Scipio, Agostino; 2005. “Formalization and Intuition in Analogique A et B: with some remarks on the historical-mathematical sources of Xenakis.” first published in A. Georgaki, M. Solomos (éd.), International Symposium Iannis Xenakis. Conference Proceedings, Athens, May 2005, p. 95-108.

Xenakis, Iannis; 1971. Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Music. Stuyvesant, New York. Pendragon Press.

Manning, Peter; 1993. Computer and Electronic Music (2nd ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993

Software utilized in analysis:
Audacity (ver. 1.2.6).

Sonic Visualizer (ver. 1.5). Developed at the Centre for Digital Music, Queen Mary, University of London.