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XAS by Iannis Xenakis for saxophone quartet

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Serge Bertocchi

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XAS by Iannis Xenakis


for saxophone quartet

This piece by Iannis Xenakis, commissioned by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet was
composed in 1987. It is written for the traditional quartet instrumentation of soprano, alto,
tenor, and baritone saxophones.
The title is an anagram of SAX: S (the single unbalanced letter of the title) is written
backwards, in order to create a mirror image. One also might note a play on the name of
XenAkiS (i.e. highlighting the outermost letters and the center of his name). since Xenakis
never wrote for sax before, giving part of his name and reversing the inventor's name in the
title is a kind of appropriation of the saxophone for his own use, for the use of his own
music.
This is also the only piece Xenakis wrote for the saxophone, since his concerto project was
never composed.
When listening, the work exudes a sense of power mixed with rudeness, despite a small
instrumental ensemble. Note the main use of fff dynamic, which probably contributes
greatly to this particular perception. The formal clarity is particularly noteworthy and the
general architecture is simple enough (see the summary table realized below). The total
theoretical duration of the piece is 8'32 ", but Xenakis states that tempi must evolve
according to the acoustics of the space, and offers a typical duration of 9'00".
The composer only briefly uses new techniques: some quarter tones and simple
multiphonics (almost clarinets' broken sounds) punctuate the piece; on the contrary, most
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"attack modes" and tone colors (aside from extreme dynamics) are absent, evaded, or left
to the performer's choice. However, we note that he adopts the principle of a very extended
high tessitura (a minor sixth on soprano, a minor ninth on alto and tenor, and up to an
eleventh on baritone above the theoretical limits of the respective instruments). On the
contrary, the low C on the baritone is omitted. It seems that the composer followed the
wish of the dedicatees, specialized in the high register, but the old instruments the Rascher
Quartet plays (dating from the first half of the century) do not have this extension, which is
now common on modern instruments.
But the exploration of the unheard by Xenakis is not only based on the development of
particular techniques (the effect of which would soon be outdated), but also in an
unconventional use of already known principles. Seeking to identify, through the study of
this piece, the practical implications of Xenakis' work on the notions of order and disorder,
I had to define a rating scale of the degree of order from O = -5 to +5, essentially based on
psycho-acoustic sensations. This scale is based on several concepts:
a) Degrees of "mathematical" complexity of the parameters, for example :
- Melody : from joint to disjoint
- Harmony: distribution of aggregates from narrow and regular to wide and irregular
- Rhythm: from regular flow to chaotic
- Dynamics : from stable to moving
- "Orchestration": Regular / in opposition / every man for himself

b) Degrees of auditory perception


-to identify the prevalence of a given parameter in relation to another, in the case of
opposite treatments (e.g. a joint melody with dynamic movement)
-to determine the relative degree of instability of each parameter with respect to
others in the juxtapositions (e.g. opposite and very disjointed pitches in sixteenth
notes seems less ordered than a line of semi-joint thirty-second notes).
The writing of this work came after the recording I made as part of Xasax, it goes
without saying that I consider this study as the analytical application of the work of
the performer, a view of the piece illuminated from the inside out.
The measure numbers indicated refer to the published Salabert score, time
information (t) to the recording made by Xasax, modular saxophone ensemble (EROL
Records CD 7019, track 7).
The Material :
As in most pieces of his same composing period, Xenakis uses two "out-of-time
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sieves" as base material: scales A and B, which do not repeat at the octave. Both
scales are complementary with the exception of a single note: F# 2.
A and B scales are present throughout the whole of the work, and are only temporarily
"forgotten" during the introduction, coda, and central random passages, and are
explored in several ways in the piece (here classified by degree of order).

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Sieves A and B appear first in the form of parallel and joint scales (e.g. introduction and
bars 50-53, t = 4 '10 ", O = +5.), which is similar perceptually to the highest degree of
order in the score. It is interesting to note that Xenakis chose the center point (bar 50 of
this 100-bars piece) to adopt this particularly stable process, while the previous passage
was an example of a totally random cloud (i.e. the lowest level of order, or O = -5).
A comparable process is the use of very tight canons (at the sixteenth note and in unison):
first appearing in the piece in bar 10 (t = 0 ' 53 ", O = 4.) The result is quite similar to the
joint scales, but since it is obtained by a shift of instrumental entrances, the impression of
verticality is blurred at the beginning of every phrase and on each held note. Here, the
estimated order degree is +4 (or even +3 when the rhythmic values are unequal, as in bar
25.) Both sieves are also the basis of "calls" (i.e. order: bar 9, t = 0 '47 " O = 2), pointed,
iterative, usually high-pitched homorythmic pointed rythms .
. The same type of rhythmic writing technique is used in the figures of the "stuttering" solo
alto saxophone (bar 22). Aggregates, built on the rhythmic patterns of "Calls," generally
consist of four joint notes from the same sieve (e.g. bar 9). We find the same principle of
vertical construction, but sometimes with a mixture of sieves A and B to form complex
"chords." In these passages Xenakis desired to hear an Organ-like sound. The four
instruments must then play in a homogeneous and continuous way despite the great leaps
of range and respiratory needs of the performers (e.g. bars 73-81, t = 6 '08 ", O = -1).
In this example, the long held notes follow a rhythmically agitated and complex section,
creating a sense of calm, despite extremely loud dynamics (fff).
In this type of playing, compact chords are commonly used in opposite registers
(bass/treble in bar 31, t = 2'37 ", O = -2 and +2).

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The construction of aggregates is particularly interesting here, since it opposes, on equal note values,
regular and ordered "chords" in the treble register.
These aggregates of consecutive even or odd degrees of sieve B (which would sound like major
seventh chords) are against the more complex superpositions of the two sieves (BABA) in the low
register, and with opposing dynamics (fff against mf).
In the two examples above, I analyzed the distribution of notes of the two sieves (A in bold, B
regular) in bars 31/32 and 73/81: one may refer to this analysis for a better understanding of these
"harmonies" of Xenakis.
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With "independent lines" (e.g. bars 19-21, t = 1 '37 ", +1 to -1), short agitated 32nd note values are
emphasized by the random movement of the four instruments, apparently lacking any relation. In the
example, Xenakis nevertheless follows a general strategy that brings the saxophones from an extreme
high to extreme low register: individual lines are driven by random processes, creating a striking
mass effect, increased by vehement dynamic and punchy staccato. The degree of disorder is created
by the simultaneous use of both sieves, the instruments grouped in pairs (A: soprano and tenor, B:
alto and baritone).
This writing sometimes leads to a form of "Ataxia" (e.g. bars 54-58, t = 4 '31 ", O = -4), a principle of
controlled delay between different voices by the use of highly complex rhythmic layering. Xenakis
manages to create an extreme illusion of disorder: the next step in this direction is the realization of
totally random events. The advantage of this method lies in the possibility of brief rhythmic (and
sometimes melodic) stabilization (mm. end 57-early 58). Bars 66 to 73 provide an interesting special
case of fixed ataxia (t = 5 '35 ", O = -3), where the outer voices are opposed to the medium in a
alternative 14 notes against 15 during 8 bars: the effect obtained oscillates between a paradoxical
impression of simultaneous stability and instability, amplified by the regular or animated use of

dynamics.
Finally, the use of totally random "Clouds," (e.g. mm. 40-49, t = 3 '26 ", O = -5) images of the most
complete disorder, where the rhythms are at the discretion of space distribution in the score, where
the pitches are freed from the rule of the sieves.

In the quicker figures, thus played and perceived as equal, Xenakis uses fragments of sieves A

(soprano) and B (alto), but borrows momentarily from other scales (e.g. C, tenor and baritone).
As if to emphasize the "alien" aspect of this passage, it is also here that we find the only F# 2 of the
piece (with the exception of the Coda, where it appears twice in the baritone part).

Occasional techniques
Apart from writing processes developed throughout the piece as described above, Xenakis
sporadically employed special techniques, particularly in the opening and final passages.
Because of these stylistic breakthroughs, I allowed myself to isolate an "Introduction" (bars 19) and "Coda" (bars 88-100). In the initial part, in addition to the presentation of sieve A,
acting as a sort of "herald" of the generative material used in the rest of the piece, Xenakis uses
a variety of "Distortions" of pitches (e.g. bars 1-6 ) in order to change the base material. These
techniques are generally related to sound acoustics: 1/4 tones, slow vibrato (or waves), and
split sounds (multiphonics). But they can also sound quite "ordinary" in a classical acception,
as in the case of the use of unison or trills : what is striking is their incongruity in Xenakis'
writing. It is then their incongruity in the discourse of Xenakis that is striking.
In the coda, the writing of pitches is mainly unstructured, as Xenakis development takes the
form of "Arborescences" a process that he had abandoned for several years. The writing is then
essentially chromatic, based on rotations and permutations of intervals and simple cells (e.g.
bars 88-94, t = 7 '11 ") in time and space. In the central part, Xenakis builds three short
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passages that I call "rarefactions".


They consist of moments of "rest" where one of the voices is highlighted, solo or accompanied
by long tones, in which Xenakis chose to explore a specific aspect or instrumental technique.
These breaks are particularly noteworthy since the four instruments are normally used together,
in "compact writing," and are treated as roughly equivalent without undue concern for their
"idiomatic" considerations.
On the contrary, these sections are representative of the specific nature of the solo instrument.
The first is a stuttering solo by the alto sax in the low register (bars 22-24, t = 1 '51 "), during
which each bar alternates the development of B, A, then A again, in an attempt at "melodism"
that is quickly integrated into the canonic writing that follows. Second, entrusted to the soprano
saxophone, is a kind of solo screaming in an extremely high register played at full power,
supported by punctuation in the other three voices.
The third rarefaction is entrusted mainly to the baritone saxophone (bars 34-39), in the form of
long low notes in multiphonics ("split sounds"), and at a medium dynamic, before being joined
by the other three (soprano, tenor and alto, using the same technique), and dissolves in the
great central "aleatoric cloud".
A fourth kind of rarefaction starts in bar 81, with staggering (almost) inverted instrumental
entries in the altissimo register (s, a, t, a, s), joined by the baritone holding a note in the low
register (bar 85), which bursts into multiphonics (bars 86 and 87), recalling the process of the
3rd rarefaction. The successive entries here are: bar, ten, sop, alto. But, it does not indicate the
predominance of a particular instrument relative to another: this passage seems rather to serve
as a "bridge" between the recall of 34 and the final "chords."
The contrast between the three instruments in the altissimo register (because of its bias of
extended tessitura) and baritone in the low register, desynchronised, is at the end of the work
(e.g. bars 97-100, t = 8 '00 ") designed to generate the most curious of the "effects" in the
piece: three (later two) altissimo notes played simultaneously generate an audible difference
tone, then are doubled as an echo by the baritone at a very soft dynamic.
Order and form
Of particular note is the elegance of changes in the level of order in the piece. The first part of
the work (bars 10-50) can be read as a journey from the highest order (canons at the sixteenth
note in bars 10-16, O = 4) to complete disorder (clouds in measures 40-49, O = -5). I will
not repeat here the details of the first half of this paper, which was discussed in the "Material"
section, but I am interested mainly in relations between the two parts. The main break is placed
exactly at the center of the piece (bar 50), where it contrasts a completely random section
(rhythm and pitches) with parallel scales of Sieve A (O = 5). Note that the control of random
processes allows the author to generate very convincing mass movements, as the
transformation of an aleatoric cloud into joint scales is united by a progressive fixation on
certain pitches (bar 50).
This major breakthrough is immediately followed by the passage containing maximum
movement between order and disorder (e.g. bars 54-65, t = 3 '26 ", O = -4 to +4), which can
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therefore be considered the peak of instability. From there on, the end of the piece is conceived
as a move towards stability, as the following two sections operate a return to a less severe
disorder: firstly a partial disorder is stabilized (bars 66-73) the long organ-like sounds ensue
(bars 73-81). This second part is a kind of blurred mirror centered around the physical center of
the piece. Distorted images of the main sections of the first part can be found here in the form
of "montages" in which the composer chooses to modify some of the original parameters.
Among other examples, the Organ tutti of bar 59 is in sixteenth notes, twice as fast as the
"original" in bar 31. The independent lines of bar 60 are distributed over a wide ambitus and
each voice remains stable, without mass movement, as in bars 19-21. The cloud in measures
61-62 remains fixed on Sieve B, whereas its model from bars 40-49 is generated from
completely random pitches.
This very animated section is followed by a paradoxically calm passage that I call "fixed
Ataxia" (bars 66-73, t = 5'35" O = -3) based on a particularly complicated rhythm of 14 against
15, the soprano and baritone on one hand, the alto and tenor on the other hand, each instrument
playing alternately with his vis--vis. Supporting this rhythmic "unstable stability" are violent
dynamic (p to fff) and tessitura changes. I think this passage is representative of a search for a
"partial," or controlled, disorder. The following passage (bars 73-81, t = 6'08 ", O =. - 2) is
another form of altered recall based on the organ sounds of bar 31, this time expanded over
very long values, based on complex aggregates juxtaposing and superimposing the two original
sieves (see musical examples). This section then connects to bars 81-87, which opens with the
presence of shrill cries, followed by low sounds and multiphonics. This is both a reminder of
the 3rd rarefaction and an anticipation of the end of the piece.
Note that the average size of the sections of the second part is larger than the first: their number
is reduced accordingly, unless we decide to separate in small parts the section of "maximum
movement" (bars 54-65) in each of its components, which seems to be contrary to the
composers will.
Errata?
Some passages are still at odds with the analysis: it is difficult to know if these are
copying errors, the aesthetic choice of the composer, or a lack of finesse in this same
analysis. Nevertheless I want to identify four of these "uncertainties":
Bar 5, the last note of the baritone saxophone: it makes more sense to read the note in
treble clef (a), which would reconstitute a joint aggregate of sieve A merging perfectly
with bar 6, whereas C in bass clef is borrowed from sieve B, which shouldn't appear
before bar 8.
Bar 19, the baritone saxophone is written here without indicating 8va. It is also the only
two notes (F and G, 2nd and 3rd notes of the 2nd beat) that foray outside of the assigned
sieve
Bars 24/25, linking between the last note of the alto saxophone and the first note of the
soprano: the connection between these two notes seems to have slipped from one staff to
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another. Is this a question of relay? The alto sax indeed begins the canon in the next bar,
after he has just played his stuttering solo.
Bar 31, all serious and unresolved chords are BABA except the last (7 eighth note)
which is BBBA. If the tenor played a minor third lower, a Bb instead of the written Db,
we could find a beautiful harmony of sieves. But that would also alas produce the
harmony of a minor seventh chord, which is not quite adequate here...
Conclusion
Twelve years after its creation, XAS by Iannis Xenakis is (or has become) one of the
most compelling pieces for saxophone quartet. Over time, one might even consider it as
the first serious piece that was written by a major composer for this type of ensemble.
This was often previously considered as ridiculous or in bad taste (similar to the brass
quintet), as the saxophone was limited to its role in popular music and jazz by most major
composers of the twentieth (as well as the nineteenth) century.
We can therefore thank Xenakis for his laudable non-conformism, which certainly
contributed to the current passion for saxophone quartet. In fact, since the publication of
XAS, the saxophone repertoire has been enriched with other prestigious and valuable
pieces by Donatoni, Cage, Dufourt, and Aperghis, to name a few. These composers have
also "dared" to confront the many unexplored possibilities of this rich formation of
chamber music.
The saxophone quartets who decided to add XAS to their repertoire are rare - probably
due to the necessary high technical and musical level required to play it . But it should
be noted that this is a piece that is frequently performed at saxophone quartet concerts.
When the saxophone (the newest of the wind instruments, remember) and its performers
have reached sufficient maturity not to be dissuaded by their first impressions, it is not
unreasonable to suggest that this piece will become the major "classic" of the repertoire
of the twentieth century for the instrument. Indeed, beneath a harsh and angular exterior,
we find a generous and powerful work perfectly architected and teeming with musical
ideas that even an unprepared public audience applauds.

Text by Serge Bertocchi, originally published in


Prsences de Iannis Xenakis (CDMC),
translated with the precious help of Sean Fredenburg.

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