This is music that shocks and astounds. Coming from a country of violent contrasts, of blaring sunlight and rocky isles, of ancient democracy and chronic political persecution, is it any wonder Xenakis string quartets are so stark and unpredictable? His music is "stochastic;" which means its tones and melodies are calculated in advance by rules of probability set up by the composer. No matter how stark or frenetic the string quartet, it has a pattern to it. Often the pattern is harrowing, and sometimes, in the case of his music for solo violin, its high-pitched progressions are both humorous and spooky.
If there's any modern composer to whom you can compare Xenakis, it's Elliott Carter. Although Xenakis' works are shorter (sometimes only four minutes long), they pack a wallop similar to Carter's. Cubist and ominous, they can drive you away with a shout, only to coax you back with a crook of the finger. Their dwelling place is not the comfy alcoves of minimalism, but in the tortured caverns of passionate speech. Xenakis continuously reinvents himself. Listen to both piano quartets and see how radically they differ. One piano sonata is quiet and orderly, while another sounds like its evil twin, tearing up the place. Play this music when you need to be energized. Not recommended for a serene night at home.
Copyright © 1997, Peter Bates