Xenakis show: the logical vs the curator

Written: Jan 05, 2014, exactly a month after the fact

My mouth has uttered the words “Xenakis show” more than any other words in the past 6 months, more than any other phrase perhaps by a factor of 100. It’s fascinating how our artistic agendas tend to consume our lives, but what might be more amazing is that we can’t help but come back for more. Now that the “Xenakis show” is over, I seek not to jot down a literal narrative of what happened (agendas, moving drums, meetings, what have you…), but I seek moreso to give a retrospective of what it meant to do the show – why I felt it needed to be done, how I went about putting it together, and perhaps piece together some kind of reason behind the decisions I made to do the show the way it was done.

“The Spaceship” is a good place to start. A quick googling of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Musuem will unveil a wondrous looking work of modern architecture by the brilliant Zaha Hadid; she’s also worth googling. The Broad (pronounced: brode) started to surface on Grand River in November of 2012, just 3 blocks up the road from where I’ve lived for the past 4 years. I thought the straight lines of the thing were so wonderfully human; surely no force of nature could organize such symmetrical and specific systems of lines. Having no right angles in the entire structure, The individuality of each angle, the attention to detail, and the simple uniqueness of the building all somehow makes one feel cold and warm all at once – a confounding feeling I tend to enjoy. It goes without saying, others felt differently about the Broad. Communally dubbed “The Spaceship,” the Broad has been an East Lansing buzz-word since they poured the cement. Just as the museum rounded out its inaugural year, I did a concert there in celebration of Iannis Xenakis and his influence on music and architecture. Xenakis, himself, was a gifted architect and visionary composer but his life’s work couldn’t seem to find its place in the world as ‘old’ or ‘new’; in the words of Steven Schick, Xenakis was “ simply other.” My mind likened his otherness to the Broad, which stands WAY out on MSU’s old brick style campus, with thousands of trees, fields galore, and ivy on every wall. A year or so ago, I thought it’d be cool to give a concert marrying the two worlds of art that spoke so clearly and deeply to me – the stunning new building on the campus of my school and current home, and the music of Xenakis that resonated in me to the soles of my Toms.

So I approached the Broad curators and started to meet with the fabulous Tammy Fortin to begin organizing the show. Tammy generously offered me a budget and the wheels started turning. She helped guide me through the logistics of the show, told me what was possible and told me when my ideas were too crazy. There was a reinstallation in the museum going on in their main gallery during the time we picked, so we were posed with the unusual challenge of doing a show amongst the museum, rather than in just one space. Aside from the main gallery of the space, the museum offers several other stunningrooms.This ended up being the propagating idea for the show; the idea of disunity, leading to a representation of the two natures or personalities of Xenakis. I decided the “golden thread” of the show, if you will, was the two-faced-ness of the composer — and those of you who know him even basically will see a remarkably obvious connection to his literal two-sided face, the one half handsome and proud, the other deformed and concave as the result of an explosion in his younger years; a time where he was a political dissident amidst the British/German conflict in post-war Greece. In his life as a mathematician and musician, architect and composer, I argue that he was the embodiment of a complete dichotomy of self; he had his hand equally in the two worlds of architecture and music, he was fond of mathematical precision in musical organization yet felt free to break his own rules for the sake of something sounding, simply put, really awesome. Another well-phrased tip from artist and author Steven Schick, we have two sides of Iannis: Xenakis the logical and Xenakis the mythological. The show was on one hand a tour de force for the audience uninitiated to Xenakis, and on the other hand it was a programmatic and experiential outline of ‘Xenakis: logical/mythological’.

I wanted to bookend the show with drums. Starting small, ending large, I decided I’d perform Rebonds a+b at the top of show, and to finish with Peaux to end with the proverbial ‘bang’ — moreover, MSU’s percussion studio was familiar with the piece, as we had just played it at PASIC on our showcase concert, and the year (or so) prior. Much less, the two pieces support the story of the show perfectly; Rebonds is such an orderly work, it gives the audience a taste of Xenakis’ skilled hand at the handling of ‘data’, and shows them his ability to sculpt a grid of math-y procedural tendencies into dramatic, even tragic grooves for the drums. At the other end of the show, Peaux IS “Xenakis the mythological” — the sheer sight of 45-some drums and the sound of them, much less… it’s enough to make ones head burst, but there’s something so visceral and cool about ‘drumming’ that the public just seems to get. In terms of numbers, here we also get a taste of Xenakis’ organizational procedures with poly-rhythms as they’re superimposed over each other. But also we feel the wrath of his more terrible side, in (what we called) the “Donkey Kong Section” – where we simply pound savagely away on the lowest two drums in each of our drum-sets —it’s really freaking cool, not sure how else to say it.

Beginning and ending with drums —ok, but how to fill the middle? The Don Sinta Sax Quartet from Ann Arbor jumped on board to play XAS, a piece which also takes the audience on a trip through Iannis’s procedural and duality-laden compositional tendencies. Unsettling cluster-chords expand to rich and chocolatey, open-voiced harmonies, and altissimo, caterwauling shriekfests which fall smoothly down to wonderful, peaceful notes in the low registers of the quartet. XAS is a great piece, but is also very challenging for the audience —there are definitely nails-on-chalkboard moments aplenty, so I had the thought to follow it with a piece that maintained the higher-plane the audience was thinking on, but also made the transition to the heavy-handed nature of the man’s compositional voice. Opening the second half, I selected Mycenae Alpha which is a rather simple piece to understand. Xenakis developed software called the UPIC that rendered line drawings into sound/noise over projection speakers. He sketched horizontally drawn line-figures that I see clearly as architectural structures. Essentially, you just need to ‘hit the spacebar’. It’s brutally honest, a piece that starts/goes/ends, and just is. The UPIC makes a noisy, shrieking realization of vertical sonic structures for a while, then Peaux.

So now we had a program, the know-how and the personnel, and things were falling into place. In a series of talks with one of my mentors, maestro Kevin Noe helped me hone the show into something really special. His advice was to feature the focal point and message of the show more clearly – we talked about how to help an audience feel what you’re trying to get across to them, and certain ways to play with head-space and expectation. The Professor healed me realize that an all-anything concert is rather mundane, and if I was going to do that, it had to be presented in a particularly memorable and sensible way. For the show, in order to further progenerate the notion of separation between Xenakis’ two worlds, I had the thought to do something perhaps a bit literal, and a bit heavy-handed to accentuate the nature of the whole ordeal… with the whole program done with no break between pieces, we ended up putting the audience in concert formation-like rows in the downstairs gallery of the museum, where they listened to Rebonds and XAS. Here, the audience mimics the logic mind of our composer; people sitting in orderly rows, facing the same direction, all prescribed a location and purpose. Just as the sax quartet finished, they heard, from a distance in the upstairs galleries, the electronics piece Mycenae Alpha. The assembled audience disbanded and became a unified crowd moving upstairs, all in a similar direction but each person with their own tangent and macro-purpose of motion. Each body was its own force, with its own singular intent and tangential direction. Projected over a set of loudspeakers, the Mycenae Alpha lasted about 10-minutes long, in which time the audience left their seats and made their way upstairs for somewhat of a surprise. Get this, the museum filled 3 entire galleries with the sketches and models of yet another architect, the recently deceased Lebbeus Woods. I projected speakers into the “Woods” galleries to show off the unique (read: beautiful) acoustics of the museum, and to give a distinct sound-world to each individual space in the museum. The public roamed through the galleries or avante garde sketches and models, while being bathed in Xenakis’ noise. People’s attention was then drawn to the Landing in the upstairs space which connects the 3 galleries. In this cramped space which feels strangely like a (modern, cement) campfire setting, the crowd witnessed Peaux, and was up close and personal with the barbaric nature of the music. The band was set up in arc formation, and I would have the two outside players point their bass drums into the adjacent galleries in order to send those shockwaves of sound out as antiphonally as possible. Peaux doesn’t necessarily wind down or come to a ‘close’, but rather is sent off and continues on seemingly forever into musical space. That last moment of silence is prolonged simply by the pure endless decaying of sound we sent reverberating through the Broad. The conical nature of the acoustics made that last moment feel spiritual.

For the sake of a retrospective, and to help tie up this linguistic fantasia, I’d like to present words from the Lansing CityPulse editorial that followed my show:

“A new element was inscribed on the periodic table of music in greater Lansing Dec. 5, when student percussionist Zac Brunell of the MSU College of Music led a fearsome percussion ensemble in a mindexpanding, chest-bursting performance of music by Greek avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis at the Broad Art Museum. The music blasted through Zaha Hadid’s fancy new museum, sounding as raw as mating bull elephants, yet precise and refined as a physics equation. For openers, Ann Arbor’s Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet sent burning vines of sound straight up the museum’s glassy, diagonal walls. The percussion ensemble churned like mad in the second floor atrium, with the visionary drawings of conceptual architect Lebbeus Woods around them. The Broad Museum is still finding its way as a venue for music, but after “X is for Xenakis,” it will be very hard for any venue this side of Alpha Centauri to find a better way to wire eyes and ears together.”

I couldn’t be more pleased with the review. The first person to come up to me after the show was this late-40’s woman in a red winter coat, cell phone in-hand. She handed me the thing and said “okay, now you’ve got to type that guy’s name into my phone. I don’t know if I like this stuff or not, but I want to check more of it out, for sure.” I’ll never forget that feeling of fulfillment. The goal of the show was never to convince people of Xenakis; no, I love his music and I love to preach about it (thanks for reading, thus far), but I only sought to 1) offer people Xenakis, and 2) perhaps interest them enough to explore him further. I can’t quite describe what it’s like when the first person who approaches you after the show regurgitates your precise mission statement back to you… anyway, it feels super. Most feedback from the show has been something in the nature of “the perfect way to be introduced to the Broad Museum”… “one of the best shows I’ve seen”… “strange, maybe not my favorite kind of music, but definitely fascinating”… the best is perhaps the aforementioned from CityPule, who likened the evening’s sonic exploration to mating bull elephants. All of which to say: the show was a success…

While at Princeton this past July, I had the pleasure of sharing some Xenakis show sketches and thoughts with Mr. Adam Sliwinski. Over sandwiches, Adam helped align my perspective and purpose for the Xenakis show, saying that “since he’s dead, it’s up to us to carry on his legacy.” Adam generously sent me his doctoral dissertation, written on Xenakis, which became the catalyst for many hours of Xenakis research prior to doing the show, itself. Since Iannis can’t be reached by phone (or any other means, for that matter) I like to think he keeps living vicariously in ‘some type of way’ through everyone who reads about him, sees his work, or performs or hears his music. They say we die twice: first, when the our final breath leaves our lungs, and second when the last person we know speaks our name. After my “Xenakis show”, around 150 people go away thinking about the letter X, and who it stands for. That’s why folks came, and that’s why I did the whole thing. I wanted to do a show that helped people know the man behind the sound. With drums, harmonies, noises and the perfect architectural setting, I get the feeling that my “Xenakis show” helped the already growing and ongoing legacy of a man with a mighty imagination, who fought nearly to his death for what he thought was right, and always knew the right time to break the rules. Xenakis is certainly a man worth googling.


Zac Brunell

Hi there, I'm Zac Brunell - I'm a percussion artist, which is the umbrella term is use for what I do: from vivid/glitchy artwork and design, to electronic/Detroit-esque musique concrete, to the general approach with which I... approach the art of hitting things.