This year marks the 10th anniversary of “Ether”, the Southbank Centre’s annual music festival of innovation. From post-punk to electronic music the month-long programme of events sets its sights on that rarefied layer of the atmosphere where experimental rock and contemporary classical may be found breathing the same air.
One of the main offerings this year was a weekend devoted to the composer Iannis Xenakis. Architect, mathematician, theorist, composer, Xenakis makes an ideal subject for a festival that wants to cross boundaries. Although he died in 2001, the bulk of the Greek composer’s output – certainly works such as Eonta and Phlegra, performed in the first half of Saturday’s concert – still sounds fresh.
A bit like Stravinsky, Xenakis wanted to fuse the very old with the very new. In his case that meant ancient Greek culture and modern mathematical techniques. Eonta for piano and brass quintet is a tribute to the Greek philosopher Parmenides, but it also has a piano part calculated by computer. Pianist Rolf Hind wrestled with its near-impossible demands selflessly, especially as the five brass players tended to drown him. Kottos for solo cello is a gritty piece depicting a mythological creature with 100 arms – Tim Gill’s two here were just enough to deal with the music’s extremes – and Phlegra for instrumental ensemble shows a battle between the Olympian gods and the Titans. The brilliant clashes of sounds from the London Sinfonietta players made this easily the most appealing of the three pre-interval works.
There was just one work after the interval, La Légende d’Eer for electronic tape. Written in 1977 for the opening of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, it is one of Xenakis’s architectural pieces, planned specifically for that building. At one point it is like standing at a construction site in New York City while police cars rush past with their sirens blaring. At another it sounds as if it was recorded in a hut in the Amazon rainforest as a deluge clatters down on the tin roof. These big electronic pieces of the 1960s and 1970s seem very passé now that contemporary classical composers have moved on. But Xenakis certainly gave the QEH sound system a good workout.