Solo Percussion Concert with Stu Jackson Wednesday June 12th at Seven O’clock
Stuart Jackson, percussion Approximate program duration: 50 minutes
Rebonds B Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001)
Etudes Boreales (for piano solo) John Cage (1912-1992)
Psappha Iannis Xenakis
Messe de Nostre Dame Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377)
Psappha is the Aeolic version of the name of Sappho, a greek poetess who was born on the island of Lesbos somewhere between 612 and 630 BC. She is known for writing very personal poems where she passionately expressed the difficult feelings of love longing, of which the target of her affections were often women. However, instead of taking inspiration from the content of the poems, Xenakis makes use of her innovative and complex meters, which manifest themselves as rhythmic themes throughout the piece. Although the rhythms are extremely precise, much of the timbre in the piece is largely indeterminate. There are six groups of instruments labeled A-F. A-C should be skins or wood, and D-F should be metal. Beyond that there are no restrictions other than group E contain a single, non-resonant instrument, and the other groups contain three instruments with the pitches organized from high to low starting with group A.
Rebonds B was written in 1989, fourteen years after Psappha, and although still a relentlessly physical piece, it is perhaps a bit less harsh and brittle than his earlier work. One interesting aspect of both pieces, and in fact many other Xenakis pieces, is the appearance of passages that are actually physically impossible to play. This forces the performer to accept defeat and develop a way of presenting the music in a way other than a purely literal reading of the score. As a result, every performance of one of these works will never be executed exactly the same way.
The Etudes Boreales is just one work in a series of etudes written by Cage in the 1970’s, which also include the Freeman Etudes for violin and theEtudes Australes for piano. There are two versions of the Etudes Boreales: one for solo piano and one for cello, and Cage specifies that they may be played as a duet or separately as solos. All of these etudes were composed using star atlases that were compiled by the Czech astronomer Antonín Bečvář in 1950’s and 60’s. In the Etudes Boreales for Solo Piano, a piece in which the performer is required to hit various parts of the piano with various beaters and mallets, Cage used the Atlas Borealis to determine what part of the piano construction the hits were to be made (wood or metal) and where they would be made (right rear, left front, etc). In this way, the piece effectively repurposes the piano as a percussion instrument. This idea is exemplified in the fact that the pianist Jeanne Kirstein, to whom the piece is dedicated, and who had previously performed Cage’s earlier piano pieces, declared the piece to be unplayable. The first person to figure out a way to play the piece was the percussionist Michael Pugliese.
John Cage, who was never known to create overtly social or political pieces, nevertheless viewed art as a social exercise, claiming it to be a “process set in motion by a group of people” in his Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse. About the etudes, Cage offers this explanation in regards to the social implications:
“These [the etudes] are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we’re now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it’s just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.”
Messe de Nostre Dame is a polyphonic mass that I first came across in the form of a piano transcription by György Kurtág. I transcribed them to be played here on an antique set of bells.