Miller Theatre Program Notes Iannis Xenakis: Oresteia
Saturday, September 13, 2008, 8:00PM Tuesday, September 16, 2008, 8:00PM Wednesday, September 17, 2008, 8:00PM Introduction “I felt I was born too late—I had missed two millennia. I didn’t know what there was for me to do in the twentieth century.” (Conversations with Iannis Xenakis, by Bálint András Varga) Composer of electronic music, rethinker of the orchestra, startling defier of the norms of good instrumental sound, pioneer of musical cybernetics, Xenakis here situates his modernity in the distant past, as if his music were all about revivifying an archaic culture, making the statues speak—and sing. Often he would chose titles for his works with reference to the literature, philosophy, and religion of Greece in classical or pre-classical times. Only rarely, however, did he form his music directly on the model of an ancient text. Not only is his treatment of the Oresteia (The Orestes Story) the most substantial of these exceptions, it is also his longest work and the one that took him longest to complete, for to his original score of the mid-1960s he made additions in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is a story with many beginnings. One was in Athens during World War II, when Xenakis, then a student, stood in the halls of the National Archaeological Museum and first started wishing away those two millennia (and more). Another was in 458 B.C., again in Athens, when Aeschylus—now in his mid-sixties and the most famed dramatist of the age—presented his fellow citizens with a trilogy unfolding how a young man was beset by supernatural forces for fulfilling his obligation to revenge his father’s murder. Still others lay in yet earlier centuries, when the pieces of the Orestes legend came together out of history and invention. And there was another in the small town of Ypsilanti, Michigan, which decided in 1963 to honor its Greek heritage (Demetrius Ypsilanti, for whom the place was named, was a hero of the Greek War of Independence) by building an amphitheater for an annual festival of Greek drama. As it turned out, the debut performances in the summer of 1966 took place on a makeshift stage on the college baseball field, with an audience in the bleachers. Nevertheless, ambitions remained high. Alexis Solomos, artistic head of the National Theater of Greece, was brought in to direct. He had worked with Xenakis in Athens in 1964 on another Aeschylus play, The Suppliants, and now he called on the composer again, to supply music for what was the U.S. professional premiere of the Oresteia. There was also a starry cast. Judith Anderson, as Clytemnestra, “turned the ball field into a nightmare-real landscape of bloody tragedy,” according to Time magazine. Like other composers writing music for the Oresteia in the 20th century, from Darius Milhaud to Harrison Birtwistle, Xenakis evidently strove for the elemental and the hieratic, as if to evoke the remoteness of the source material in the act of making it so very present. The instrumental score, for an ensemble of wind and percussion plus a lone cello, is often rude and brazen, the harmonies rendered savage by quarter-tones. Many of the chorus’s contributions, set for groups of men, women, and children, suggest that the lineage of Greek drama can be traced straight through to the chant of the Orthodox Church. Elsewhere come signal, fanfare, and brute noise, with all the non-percussionist performers also playing small percussion instruments. Greek theater, we are reminded, was ceremony, a ceremony of life and death. In 1967 Xenakis recast his Ypsilanti score as a 40-minute concert piece. Twenty years later he brought the music back to the stage and added a new section, Kassandra, for a performance amid the ruins of Gibellina, Sicily. This was only a few kilometers from the burial place of Aeschylus at Gela,
leaving out much of the drama. they are still here.as he noted in the score for the new piece. Together they decide on vengeance. after which the chorus returns. Xenakis’s Oresteia thrives on disunity. quarter-tone space. so that the whole scene (somewhat cut) is delivered as split monologue. In graphic imagery. A second section for Sakkas. They are broken and stand amid wreckage. At this point comes Xenakis’s first insertion. put together at different stages in the composer’s life. involving a male vocalist also strumming a psaltery. wildly disparate in style and tone. Then he stands to face the chorus (and the audience). whose part is notated as a waving line. together with a percussionist performing on skin drums and wood blocks. The Xenakis version Xenakis’s work presents fragments of the three plays in due order. who has governed in his absence—welcomes her husband back. The work was recorded by Radio France in Strasbourg soon after the Gibellina production. in favor of Orestes. or else in dialogue with the characters. whose speech is replaced by pounding drums with slow glissandos from super-high piccolo and cello. When Agamemnon has gone into the palace and his wife Clytemnestra has followed him. A quick double stamp from the ensemble introduces a short prelude in which instruments growl and slither within hot. and creating a final version that plays for over an hour. to decide whether or not Orestes acted justly in killing his mother. after some hesitation. but it is their condition and status as remnants that gives them power. cursing Helen of Troy in bare fourths. he brings with him a trophy concubine. says more than any individual. Orestes. Cassandra is left onstage with the chorus. and this is the performance to be heard on the Naïve album MO 782151. Clytemnestra kills both of them. he lacks his mother’s bold confidence. interrogate. and at extraordinary
. Another instrumental lament leads back toward the atmosphere of the prelude. Clytemnestra—Agamemnon’s wife. alternates between falsetto speaking or singing for Cassandra’s lines and his baritone register when he is acting as the chorus. They have survived. the Trojan princess Cassandra. reflects the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Clytemnestra. on harmonics. honoring the composer on his 70th birthday. The jurors are evenly divided. sensing rather that he is pursued by the Furies for his sin of matricide. Kassandra. with high wailing oboe. Orestes duly kills Aegisthus and. an instrument the composer used here as a direct descendant of the ancient lyre. Torn from the theater and restored. onstage throughout. However. and review starts with news arriving in Argos of the fall of Troy and the imminent return of the Argive king. son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. justifying herself on the grounds not only of Agamemnon’s adultery but also of his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia on the way to Troy. With the Furies at his back. Agamemnon. When the Furies complain. the actor-singer Spiros Sakkas and the percussionist Sylvio Gualda. like Clytemnestra before him. returns to Argos and meets his sister Electra at their father’s tomb. The statues sing indeed. a revenger over two bodies. Then the chorus enters: men in unison answering a soloist. whether in lengthy passages of description or narration. now with speaking chorus. The action they observe. expound. She stakes her claim to go on ruling with Aegisthus. The Aeschylus story in brief The chorus. Athene transforms them from demonic creatures into mankind’s helpmates. and so Athene gives her casting vote. The ensuing instrumental section. which he devised for two artists with whom he had collaborated before. then Athene. was written for a performance in Athens in 1992. which tells of the king’s return and murder. before a jury of Athenians. A fanfare frames the arrival of Agamemnon. and brass punctuations. or else representing it by instrumental commentary. From more than two millennia ago. who declares there must be a trial. La Déesse Athéna (The Goddess Athene). beginning with the Agamemnon. after a decade-long campaign. the consort she took while Agamemnon was away. Orestes appeals to the gods: first Apollo. However. The vocalist.
in phrases separated by a clangorous quarter-tone chord. The chorus first sings a lament. Cassandra foresees Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his wife—a prophesy the chorus interprets as madness. they rattle off a dialogue in which Electra and Orestes move toward a demand for vengeance. According to an ancient story. then. Then the same chorus sings in outbursts of lament before the scene ends with instrumental music for Clytemnestra’s self-justification.
. There is no psaltery this time. The instrumental opening. but now on fixed pitches and as a single person. in which the solo male vocalist again switches between baritone and falsetto declamation.disgwylfa. and a choir of children comes forward with a hymn. and percussion create an ominous atmosphere before Aegisthus’s death cry is heard. decreeing that her favored people of Athens shall henceforth decide homicide cases by trial. Xenakis’s earlier score picks up just before the scene of Agamemnon’s slaughter. In the final sequence. Then an instrumental passage supports Orestes’s confrontation with Clytemnestra. still of men only. mutter in complaint to Apollo and sing a chant of blood lust. The play’s final chorus is sung by the full chorus in an atmosphere of mounting celebration and noise. a tribute Clytemnestra has ordered to salve her guilty conscience. watching as his sister Electra and other women arrive at Agamemnon’s tomb to pour a libation (an offering of oil or wine). and the play ends with sirens and percussion. crying out. the goddess.musical tension. Extremely high piccolo notes and cello harmonics lead to a choral chant of expectation while Orestes is in the palace. The third play takes its title from the new name the gruesome Furies who have been dogging Orestes get at the close: The Eumenides (The Kindly Ones). introduced by subterranean wind tones and percussion. Then Xenakis introduces his chorus. of keening lines punctuated by wood block. so called because it opens with Orestes.
© Paul Griffiths (www. and of La Déesse Athéna. giving a different color from that of the male-dominated Agamemnon. the chorus delivers the argument between Athene and the Furies in which the latter agree to become the Eumenides.com) Miller Theatre has commissioned writer and music critic Paul Griffiths to write the program notes for its 20th anniversary season of events. this episode had such an effect at the first performance that a pregnant woman miscarried and died. replaces the lines in which Aeschylus’s chorus considers the queen’s demeanor. but accompaniment for the full wind-cello ensemble plus solo drummer. of women in this part of the trilogy. cello. personifying them in their new role. son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. with percussion only. the Choephoroi (The Libation-Bearers). Trombone. these dark creatures. Far from kindly at first. There are no soloists. the king’s dying words being relayed by the chorus. We now proceed to the second play. A shrill fanfare announces the arrival of Athene.