The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who died last year aged 79, wrote works—often breathtakingly complex and demanding—for orchestra, tape, electronics, computer. The sleeve notes to Persepolis—disc one is an hour-long eight-track Xenakis tape work originally commissioned for an Iranian festival in 1971, perhaps the apex of a particular strand in his work—describe him as “staggeringly influential.” Well, yes but no. Of the generation of composers who ruled the avant-garde from 1948-68—the high-phase post-war Modernists, if you like—he was always set somewhat apart, and anyway as a group, they were militantly set against what ordinarily constitutes “influence.” Mimicry, shared heritage, communities of unexamined communication, the spare-parts free-for-all of the fabled “folk process,” let alone that spine of the pop world, the cover version: These were exactly the mass-cult ills this sect existed valiantly to battle. Waging war on any shared structure (and often barely on speaking terms), John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Xenakis, and others not only rejected the framework common to 19th-century composition; they pushed the Romantic fetish of originality to the molecular level, inventing a new rule-system of musical language with almost every work—as if such stand-alone pre-coding was the work.
If to imitate or inherit is to be corrupted, then to cause either is to be betrayed. Yet disc two here is a bonus CD of previously unreleased remixes of the sound on the master tape, by nine hip noiseniks from the happening worlds of glitch, improv, and out rock. What could be more fallen, commodity-wise, than the remix? Isn’t this just rescue-mission marketing, of a titan of bruisingly unfashionable difficulty?
Speed-read history claims that 1968 saw the attempted global overthrow of the Society of the Spectacle, student revolts as a Worldwide Stage Invasion which ended the megalomaniac high-art bullying enslavement—of musicians, audience, culture-at-large—known as Modernism. In 1971, Xenakis, a celebrated leftist who lost an eye fighting Nazis in World War II, hired himself out as court composer to one Muhammad Reza Shah, then busy staging a vast 2500th birthday party for the ruined city of Persepolis in southern Iran—the shah announced himself the successor to Cyrus the Great, to dismay and disperse an increasingly turbulent Islamic priesthood. He delivered a massive son et lumière—Persepolis was played through 59 loudspeakers from the desert-bound skeleton of a palace, with processions of children and flaming torches, while projectors threw images up against the nearby hillside tombs of Darius and Ataxerxes.
But isn’t son et lumière the epitome of Spectacle, in the bad ’60s sense? And the shah, well, a dictator who fostered torture until he turned grisly mendicant, spurned by all? Undesirable metaphor ahoy. No wonder wised-up devotees want to save the work from the worst excesses of its vanished milieu: “Despite their distinctiveness,” conclude the sleeve notes defensively, “what unites all these remixes is a shared sense that all great works of art can transcend the contexts in which they were first conceived, in order to explore, and perhaps fulfill, their greater purpose.”
Well, yes—except no, again. Because one impulse behind the assault on shared structure was the doubt that such transcendence is possible. Pop, as Modernists saw it, was endlessly co-opted by commerce, which they took to mean meaninglessness—and so they ruthlessly stripped their own work of anything pop-like. In fact, this combo release contains a great sequence of panic-doubts about co-optation, influence, corruption, communication, and originality: Remixers contest Xenakis, Xenakis contests the shah, the shah contests history ancient and modern. And then there’s the spell that all the above cast (or fail to cast) over the listener.
Whose response is what, actually? I taped Persepolis for my Walkman, to review while driving across England—deadlines don’t dissolve family responsibilities—and found that, oops, I couldn’t hear it. At all. The transfer lost high and low end; the engine masked the rest. If time had been tighter, I’d be writing up the M6 between junctions 3 and 18. Transcending the context that formed it leaves Persepolis—like any other record—prey to every contingency the purchaser contributes.
Welcome to the Overturned World. Here’s what my notes say we’ll hear: “a HUGE ANCIENT STRUCTURE under immense strain, generating long-drawn metallic skreeks as it accommodates force with tiny slow bend and sway. Presently sound-events in motion, which suggests the arrival of smaller, freer elements, dust-motes grind-released in clouds still sparse enough to catch what light there is, and glint. Notes flow, slide, dance, flutter, in blocs, blobs, ribbons, dots, whirled along atop torrents.” Vamp in like vein for another 56 minutes: By the time we reach CD 2, we’re reduced to “Otomo Yoshide: long drones; Ryoji Ikeda: totally processed, what remains?; Construction Kit: glitch extremism; Merzbow: birds (PRETTIEST!!); Ulf Langheinrich: notes illegible.” Sounds like a train, then a drill, then elephants stomping on cellophane.
In other words, we run out of language: We reach the limits of our imagination. Description is militantly refused: Extra-musical communication still constitutes corruption. Then versus Now: Who will win? The CD is small in my world, two fragile slivers of plastic set against urgent domestic duty. But it defeats me: I can’t master it without reaching for clues, and most of these, the convenient routine knowledge by which the sounds facing me will alchemize back into someone’s real-time choices and reasons, are precisely denied me. No score to study. The kids with torches won’t fit in my sister’s car. Online interviews with the noiseniks give you flummery about “transgression,” but nothing about why this bit buzzes but that bit crackles . . .
But if the absoluteness of Modernist aesthetic self-sufficiency suggests doubt rather than certainty, the remixes—neither ads co-opting the pop song nor even vice versa—maybe announce a contrary self-confidence. It’s the spell of the original’s scale and range they want to take on. Its power versus theirs: Whose noise will stand?
And it’s because I can’t get more than a fraction of it across in print that I find Persepolis compulsive. Life’s happenstance has given me a grasp of the fuckoff-hardcore mathematics—Markovian stochastics in re: points and mass, detail and flow—in Xenakis’s little-read manual of method, Formalised Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (English translation, 1971), but if I had the time would you have the patience for a painstaking translation? The point being that such devotion to the master’s inner world is self-evidently pointless enslavement. Instead of an elitist-restrictive priestcraft—within which initiates communicate, excommunicating the mainstream world—the barminess of Xenakis’s totalist rigor ensures that no one gets in free. High priests and laity are all on the outside, together. Formalised Music is a massive autodestructive engine: It creates the monumental ruin of itself. If the noisenik glitch on this record is to stand, then by self-choice Persepolis is the cataclysm alongside which it will have to stand—except isn’t “a work that stands the test of time” the lamest promo-cliché of all?
Faced with the near-perfect impenetrability of Xenakis-rigor, I either retreat into lame sour-grapesing, or fast-track evolve until I’m his equal. Because of course a pop song press-ganged into servicing an advert will sometimes reverse the direction of the appropriation (to doubt this is to accept that adverts are by definition stronger art than music). The avant-garde distrusts trade, old and new, because it fears its own power, and also yours: What if the listener brings something to the picnic that turns the composer into spurned loser-mendicant? Uncorrupt non-treacherous response (the critic’s mission?) means elaborating an analogy—translation from music-noise into words (and letters)—as far-reaching as Xenakis’s lifework. Like Shelley on Ozymandias (or, you know, something equally leftover-throwaway-easyreach). A response which merely folds into itself all history, all philosophy, all mathematics . . . I say my mission, but actually I just decided I mean YOURS ZZZZPhthccrrkkkzzeeeeoweeeeoww- zhzhzhkattattaata . . .