Jonchaies - Iannis Xenakis

Xenakis qualified first as an engineer and then as an architect. Therefore, although he considered that “instinct and subjective choice are the only guarantors of a work’s value,” he approached the problem of form from a scientific and mathematical base. Growth must spring from primary matter, from the initial “assymetrical, non-commutative character of time.” Symmetrical, commutative time can only occupy second place. Form is therefore conditioned by the degree of order and disorder of the molecular elements and cannot be isolated from the content. Changes in the degree of disorder and order can in fact be controlled by the law of probability and statistical physics. The molecular structure can be controlled by advanced mathematical calculation in order that the distribution of sonorous events will result in overall fluctuations that are clearly perceivable by the listener. 

Xenakis claims to be concerned with original, “simple notions”: 

The first impression the ear receives of sound is of textures. These are perceived as primary elements which the eye or the ear “knows” and recognises as form. A texture is a fairly large collection of sound phenomena, considered as elements ruled by unchanging structural laws. Internal sections are repeated sufficiently often to create a feeling of texture... The way in which these laws are applied, and the choice of basic sounds that will be subject to these laws, should be such that the result is experienced primarily as a texture and moreover as an interesting one. 

Jonchaies was commissioned by Radio France for the Orchestre National de France in 1977 and was subsequently selected for the ISCM Festival in Israel in 1980, though not performed due to the size of orchestra required. Jonchaies means “a plantation of rushes.” The relevance of this title should be obvious from the music. The stems of rushes have an overall sameness, yet each is marginally different in size and shape and will intertwine with its fellows, or cross their paths independently. Different varieties of rush have their own shapes, densities and textures, both individually and in relation to each other and the overall landscape. These patterns, shapes and movements in rushes are expressive of themselves as well as of the movement of the greater forces of wind and water. 

Like so much of Xenakis’s music, Jonchaies demands and creates a sound world of strained activity: a kind of desperate bid for a supreme goal that remains elusive. Rationally approached, much of the score of Jonchaies is literally unplayable. Yet the unique power of music itself is essentially irrational; so the dynamism of Jonchaies resides in the desperate attempt at the impossible. The energy created by the variegated textures is transferred to the players: rehearsal has proved that it is impossible to approach this piece with less than 100% energy (in a five-minute section of frenetic activity, the strings have nothing but down bows). The ever-changing degree of order and disorder within the various textures and their superimpositions respects the listener’s music memory. It is this precondition of musical form that gives Xenakis’s music its uniquely bewitching quality. 

Peter Fletcher