Something Rich and Strange: The Life and Music of Iannis Xenakis

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In the days before our present age of cultural plenitude, recordings by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis weren’t always easy to find. My haphazard introduction to contemporary composition came via record libraries and secondhand shops but even in these havens of obscurity discs of Xenakis music remained frustratingly elusive. Today I do own a few Xenakis CDs but there’s still a large portion of his work that I’ve yet to hear. After watching Mark Kidel’s documentary I’m persuaded once again that the gaps in my listening ought to be filled.

20th-century composition can be intimidating to the unitiated. Intimidating to listen to when so much of it is about finding new sounds, new structures, new modes of performance; and intimidating to read about when the discussion involves the analysis of very cerebral or technical conceptions. It can also disappoint when the results of those conceptions fail to hold the attention or excite the emotions. Many Xenakis compositions had their origin in mathematics or scientific theory but the musical results are consistently powerful and dramatic, even unnerving in a manner familiar from the works of Penderecki and Scelsi.

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Mark Kidel’s hour-long documentary gives a small taste of the musical power and drama, especially in Roger Woodward’s performance of Eonta, a short composition for solo piano that’s astonishing to hear and see. Something Rich and Strange was made for the BBC in 1990 but it’s one I missed on its original broadcast so it’s good to find in a quality copy on the director’s Vimeo pages. The note there describes the film as a definitive portrait which sounds like a boast but there aren’t many Xenakis documentaries to choose from and it is very good, if a little too short for its subject. The film follows the composer and his wife, Françoise, as they journey to the Greek island of Spetsai where Xenakis spent several years at school in the 1930s. His reminiscences (or refusal of them) are interwoven with a sketch of his remarkable life which in its early years involved fighting with the Greek Resistance during the Second World War (and losing the sight in one eye as a result), fleeing to Paris in the post-war period after being condemned to death in absentia by the authoritarian Greek government, and working as an architect with Le Corbusier in the 1950s before deciding to devote the rest of his life to music. Kidel’s views of the Greek landscape wordlessly demonstrate the parallels between Xenakis’s music and the sounds of that landscape—goat bells, water lapping in a cave, a priest hammering a piece of wood—but we don’t hear much discussion of the composer’s musical evolution. His interest in electronic music, for example, is briefly mentioned but dismissed as being a direction he was unwilling to follow. But it was a direction he followed intermittently for at least a decade, and his electronic compositions would occupy several hours of your time if listened to in sequence. That’s the problem with trying to sum up a diverse career within the bite-sized limits of broadcast media; if the film was longer there would have been more time to address both the life and the details of the work. As it is, this is still an excellent introduction to a great composer.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Vasarely, a film by Peter Kassovitz
A playlist for Halloween: Orchestral and electro-acoustic

Weekend links 511

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Design by Romek Marber, 1963.

• The death of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki prompted so many “Shining composer” headlines you have to wonder what kind of notices he might have received if his early work hadn’t been purloined by Hollywood. György Ligeti always seemed ambivalent about having his music used as cinematic illustration (Kubrick annoyed him by altering some of it without permission) but Penderecki worked as a composer for Polish films in the 1960s, not only providing a score for The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) but also (surprisingly) writing music for a number of short animations. I’ve been listening to his music for almost 40 years, after a chance discovery of the stunning Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima led me to seek out more. I have to admit that the appeal of his recordings lay in their ability to thrill and terrify—qualities that musicologists seldom address—and I’ve never paid any attention to Penderecki’s later work which was less of an assault on the senses. At The Quietus James Martin argues for listening to the entire oeuvre, not just the early works. For more about the composer’s life and work, Culture.pl has a number of good articles, eg: Mazes, Notes & Dali: The Extraordinary Life of Krzysztof Penderecki, and Music Is Not for Everyone: An Interview with Krzysztof Penderecki.

• The late Romek Marber (1925–2020) was a designer/illustrator whose name is familiar to collectors of Penguin books via the Marber Grid, the template he created in the early 1960s for the Penguin Crime series, and which was later extended across the entire paperback range. Marber talked about this period of his work in Penguin by Illustrators in 2009. Elsewhere: Rick Poyner on Marber’s design, and a suggestion for how the Marber Grid was designed.

• “…you’ll see Lego and children’s toys, but also Rawlplugs, tile spacers, Monopoly houses, cigarillo tips, curtain hooks, biofilters, Smarties tube lids, fishing beads, broken security seals, razor parts, bits of toothbrushes, roofing screw caps, medical lancets, golf tees, false teeth, plastic soldiers, posties’ rubber bands, bungs and stoppers.” Beachcomber Tracey Williams talks to Andrew Male about the undying ubiquity of plastic waste.

• “Thanks to Bookshop, there is no reason to buy books on Amazon anymore,” says Alex Lauer. The caveat is that the service is limited to the USA. I order books direct from publishers or from eBay and Abe; the latter may be Amazon-owned but you’re still paying most of the money to the individual sellers.

• Mixes of the week: Radio Belbury 19: Family Fun Time, and Through A Landscape Of Mirrors Vol. VII – France IV by David Colohan.

• “[Amanda Sewell’s] Wendy Carlos: A Biography is a great work of scholarship,” says Geeta Dayal.

• “Part of me expects to go on forever.” David Barnett on Michael Moorcock at 80.

• “What is the point of a critic if not to tell the truth?” asks Rachel Cooke.

John Boardley on medieval road-trips and the invention of print.

Anna Bogutskaya on where to begin with the Weird West.

• Inside Tove Jansson’s private universe by Sheila Heti.

• Memory Of Hiroshima (1973) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s Red Buddha Theatre | Hiroshima Mon Amour (1977) by Ultravox! | Hiroshima (1982) by Borsig

Weekend links 450

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Orpheus (c. 1903–1910) by Odilon Redon. One of 30,000 public-domain images from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection.

• Network DVD has announced the premiere home release of Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries, a British TV series that ran from 1973 to 74. Welles’ involvement was limited to introducing each episode but the series itself was one I enjoyed a great deal: 26 short adaptations of period mystery stories that featured a wealth of British and American acting talent. The theme by John Barry was an additional bonus.

• The trailer for Apollo 11, a documentary by Todd Douglas Miller which presents for the first time the 70mm footage recording the Earth-bound parts of the Moon mission. Related: Michelle Santiago Cortés on how NASA used art to shape our vision of the future.

• At Dangerous Minds: a preview of Third Noise Principle, the latest in an excellent series of electronic music compilations from Cherry Red, and Cosey Fanni Tutti talks about her first solo album since 1983.

“The way I understood theory, primarily through popular culture, is generally detested in universities,” Mark [Fisher] told me in 2005, when I interviewed him for the Village Voice. “Most dealings with the academy have been literally clinically depressing.” He darkly surmised that his blog, K-Punk, and the surrounding blogosphere, “seemed like the space—the only space—in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out, with appalling cultural and political consequences.” Mark and the Village Voice are both dead now, leaving unfathomable voids in their wake.

Geeta Dayal on Mark Fisher

• At The Witch Wave: Peter Bebergal and Pam Grossman discuss Bebergal’s latest book (also my current reading), Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural.

• At Bandcamp: another release from the retro-synth cosmos of Jenzeits, and Ufology , an investigation of Britain’s flying-saucer landscape by Grey Frequency.

• Surprising collaboration of the week: Beth Gibbons and Krzysztof Penderecki have made a new recording of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony.

Alchemy (1969) the debut album by the Third Ear Band, receives an expanded reissue next month.

The Burn: a science-fiction story by Peter Tieryas with illustrations by Arik Roper.

• Mix of the week: Self-Titled Needle Exchange 275 by Black To Comm.

Amy Turk plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on her harp.

Chrismarker.org is seeking donations.

Mystery Train (1955) by Elvis Presley | Mystery R.P.S. (No 8) (1981) by Holger Czukay, Jah Wobble, Jaki Liebezeit | Mystery Room (1985) by Helios Creed

Weekend links 405

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Taro Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun on the cover of an Expo ’70 guide.

• Last week I was watching the restored print of Howard Brookner’s excellent William Burroughs documentary, Burroughs. Among the later scenes are shots of the writer visiting Britain in the autumn of 1982 for the Final Academy events, a visit also recorded on Super-8 by Derek Jarman, and by the video cameras of the Haçienda nightclub at a reading I was fortunate to attend. Included in the Brookner film are brief snatches of an interview with Burroughs for BBC Radio 1 by John Peel’s producer, John Walters, something I missed when it was first broadcast.

• Taro Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun was built in Osaka for Expo ’70, and unlike many one-off expo buildings has managed to survive years of neglect and threats of demolition. Visitors to the Tower may now explore the restored “Tree of Life” interior, although places are limited so it’s necessary to book in advance. Related: Expo ’70 at ExpoMuseum, and Tower Of The Sun (1997) by Shonen Knife.

• Also at Dangerous Minds this week: a 1969 TV recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s notorious The Devils of Loudon, an opera based on the same Aldous Huxley book as Ken Russell’s The Devils, and which includes (among other things) a singing nun enduring a forced enema.

• The new Cavern Of Anti-Matter album, Hormone Lemonade, is released this week. XLR8R has a preview. Related: an old/undated mix by Tim Gane for The Brain radio show here.

Milton Glaser on some of his favourite posters. Milton Glaser Posters, a book collecting 427 poster designs, is published this week by Abrams.

• The Ghosts of Empty Moments: Christopher Burke reviews M. John Harrison’s You Should Come with Me Now.

• Mixes of the week: FACT mix 644 by Susanna, and XLR8R Podcast 534 by Pär Grindvik.

Emily Temple found 25 of the most expensive books you can buy on the internet.

Towers Of Dub (1992) The Orb | Tower Of Our Tuning (2001) by Broadcast | Television Tower (2001) by Monolake

Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013

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In previous posts about the Quay Brothers’ films I’ve expressed a hope that we might see a new collection from the BFI that gathers together more of their recent works. That’s what we have now in a 2-disc Blu-ray set that will be released in the UK on 10th October.

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Quay (2015) directed by Christopher Nolan.

The new collection repeats the contents of the earlier BFI DVD set, The Short Films 1979–2003, while adding some of their recent commissions including Maska (2010), Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. (2013). Among the extras there’s a short portrait of the brothers, Quay (2015), directed by Christopher Nolan. This shows the Quays at work in their Southwark studio where they discuss the technical details of animation and puppet-making a little more than I’ve seen in other interviews. Nolan’s film is both beguiling and frustrating, the latter for being so inexplicably short. When I first saw Quay announced I thought it might be a feature-length documentary rather than a fleeting glimpse; the Quays have been interviewed regularly over the past few years so they’re not exactly unforthcoming. I’m hoping now that Nolan’s public enthusiasm for the brothers might at least help them to make another feature, a decade having elapsed since The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005).

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Street of Crocodiles (1986).

As to the films, seeing them in high-definition is certainly a plus although the earliest ones were all made in 16mm so they don’t gain a great deal. Street of Crocodiles, however, looks superb, and I found myself noticing details that I’d earlier missed despite numerous viewings. I’m disappointed that two early shorts, Igor: The Paris Years (1982) and Leos Janácek: Intimate Excursions (1983), remain unreleased due to apparent problems with music copyrights. (See this post for YouTube links.) Also uncollected are their other music videos apart from the two produced for His Name Is Alive, together with a handful of other short pieces. (See this post for further links.)

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Street of Crocodiles (1986).

Of the longer films on the second disc, Maska has become a favourite, with its combination of a baroque science-fiction scenario (from Stanislaw Lem) and a score by Penderecki. Through the Weeping Glass, a 30-minute documentary about the medical oddities housed in the Mütter Museum in the Quays’ home city of Philadelphia, is a kind of companion piece to The Phantom Museum (2003), a similar study of the Wellcome Collection in London. This is the first film the Europhile Quays have made in the US, and comes with a short documentary showing them at work on the film, and an interview about the production. I’m still getting used to their shift to digital video—I miss the grain and texture of their films—but since I’ve been working digitally myself for many years now I can’t complain if others choose to do the same.

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The preview discs of the new collection came without the booklet which will be present in the package. This will include an updated Quays Dictionary by Michael Brooke (as featured in the previous BFI collection), and the 2012 “interview” by the deceased calligrapher Heinrich Holzmüller, On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets. The latter appeared in the catalogue for the Quays’ MoMA exhibition where it was printed at an eye-straining point size. I’m hoping the BFI version will be an improvement.

The Films
Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984)
This Unnameable Little Broom (1985)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988)
Stille Nacht I: Dramolet (1988)
Ex-Voto (1989)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
The Calligrapher (Parts I, II, III) (1991)
Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (1992)
Stille Nacht III: Tales from Vienna Woods (1993)
Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong Without You (1994)
In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)
Songs for Dead Children (2003)
Eurydice, She So Beloved (2007)
Alice in Not so Wonderland (2007)
Kinoteka Ident (2008)
Inventorium of Traces (2009)
Wonderwood for Comme des Garçons (2010)
Maska (2010)
Through the Weeping Glass (2011)
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. (2013)

Special features
Introduction by the Quay Brothers (2006, 20 mins)
Quay (2015, 8 mins): a film by Christopher Nolan
Quay Brothers audio commentaries for This Unnameable Little Broom, Street of Crocodiles, Stille Nacht I-III and In Absentia
The Falls [excerpt] (1980, 5 mins)
BFI Distribution ident (1991, 30 secs)
The Summit (1995, 12 mins)
No Bones About It: Quay Brothers (2010, 12 mins)
Behind the Scenes with the Quay Brothers (2013, 31 mins)
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. trailer (2 mins)

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Quay Brothers archive