Mp3 Blog #23: A l’Ile de Gorée


Iannis Xenakis:
A l’Île de Gorée (1986)
For amplified harpsichord and ensemble

Performed by Elizabeth Chojnacka and Ensemble InterContemporain

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Early in the summer I had a brief conversation with Jean Lesage about composing for the harpsichord in a contemporary context, in which he suggested that there are two valid modern approaches – the repetition Ligeti discovered in his masterful piece “Continuum” and the Xenakis’s statistical procedures. Since I have long been a fan of Xenakis’s music and have a certain inclination towards statistical theory and phenomenology I decided to spend a large portion of the summer studying Xenakis and seeking out his harpsichord works.

Although I had little trouble finding a few scores and an article on Xenakis’s harpsichord works, finding recordings proved exceedingly difficult. A possible reason, besides the extreme difficulty of these pieces, is that Xenakis wrote most of his harpsichord music explicitly for a modern harpsichord that has four manuals, an extended register, as well as 16’, 8’, 4’, timbral stops, and a pedals to change stops. In recent years there has been such significant backlash amongst harpsichordists against the modern harpsichord that its repertoire the modern harpsichord been rendered almost entirely obsolete. (I even know of a professor that refused to accept a free modern harpsichord somebody offered a university.)

Last week I finally found a recording of Xenakis’s harpsichord works and I have to say that I think they really live up to their reputation. In fact I think that one work in particular, “A l’Île de Gorée” for amplified harpsichord and ensemble, is the most emotionally powerful Xenakis composition that I know.

A lot of the emotional power in this work derives itself from the title, as Xenakis explains in his program note: The Isle of Gorée, off the coast of Dakar, in Senagal, was once a world slave market… This piece is a tribute to the black Africans who, torn by force from their homes on the way to appalling slavery, yet managed to win, in certain civilized countries to which they were transported, positions of first rank. It is also a tribute to the heroes and black victims of apartheid in South Africa, last bastion of hysterical racism.

In this composition, as with most of Xenakis’s oeuvre, one can almost see the moving statistical violence of the riotous crowd that Xenakis describes in his book “Formalized Music;” however, in “A l’Île de Gorée” there are also moments of painfully ambiguous beauty that contrast the descents into chaos and violence. This contrast is exaggerated by the two clearly different timbral worlds that the ensemble and harpsichord inhabit.

From a programmatic perspective it is difficult to determine if the harpsichord or the ensemble represents the slaves or oppressors, because at times the solo harpsichord plays extremely beautiful music and the collective ensemble plays very violent music and vice-verse. To further complicate matters, at times the harpsichord and ensemble play what appears to be a similar role.

Having studied the score and listened to “A l’Île de Gorée” a fair amount it seems that Xenakis wrote few, if any, of the registrations or effects that a modern harpsichord enables. Even if he did, they don’t play the integral role that they play in some of his other harpsichord works likes “Khoaï-Xoaí.” Therefore, it seems that one can easily adapt “A l’Île de Gorée” for the more common harpsichord historical recreations like some have done with Ligeti’s “Continuum.” If this is so, I strongly urge daring harpsichordists and ensembles to learn and program this work so that at least one of Xenakis’s amazing harpsichord works doesn’t fall into complete obscurity.

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