Thursday, January 18, 2007


"Percussion music is revolution"--John Cage, "Goal: New Music, New Dance", 1939.

I bought a record recently: Persephassa by Xenakis, as performed "par Les Percussions De Strasbourg". Must admit I got it as much for the gorgeous metallic patterned cover--part of the illustrious/lustrous Silver Record series put out by Philips under the series name Prospective 21 siecle, as documented by Woebot a while back*--as much as for the sounds in the grooves. Percussion-only composition is an odd and slightly unloveable subgenre of 20th Century avant-classical. I have a bunch of them but they don't get nearly as much play as the all-electronic/tape records, or indeed the vocal-oriented stuff. Now why is that? The 90s boom of interest in post-War electronic classical and musique concrete was in part a knock-on effect of the explosion of electronic dance (and non-dance) musics (who remembers the hilarious Wire piece where Stockhausen gets played pieces by Aphex Twin and the like, his sniffy reactions and condescending advice?). But as much as the post-rave diaspora awakened an ardour for electronic sonorities, that culture was equally about drums--so many dance records of this time consisted of just beats and percussive timbres and nothing else. So why no equivalent surge of interest in the percussion-only work by these composers? (They sell much cheaper than the electronic stuff, that's for sure). I think one reason is that is as poundingly and imposingly rhythmic as this stuff is, it's totally lacking groove. The other is that it's far less minds-eye-imagery activating. When you listen to Subotnik or Bayle, or Xenakis' own electronic work, you get all kinds of alien colour-shapes and impossible geometries reeling in your head. When you listen to the percussion ensemble works, you tend to just picture a bunch of guys in suits looking slightly ruffled and sweaty, clutching mallets.

Still, it's the exact same composers that do the mind-rending hallucinatory stuff with tape and computers and ring modulators, so there must be something to be extracted from their excursions into bing-bong-tinkle-plash-gdunngggg, right? Maybe I should jump in the deep end and buy this new 3-CD job of Xenakis' percussion pieces....


* here's another inventory of the Silver series, with more cover pix. Annoyingly they don't have the French version of Persephassa, which is what I picked up. But this is the Japanese edition's cover.

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