Return to 'Pleiades'
Chamber Cartel reimagines Xenakis' percussive masterpiece
Arno Hunter MyersIn October 2015, Chamber Cartel presented the Southeastern premiere of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis' "Pleiades" at the Goat Farm Arts Center. Two years later, almost to the day, artistic director Caleb Herron will again lead the same sextet (save for one substitution) in a complete performance of "Pleiades," one of the more significant works not just in the percussion repertoire, but in the post-World War II classical canon.
"The crux of Xenakis' music is the striving for an ideal, the way he challenges performers to go beyond their self-perceived limitations to get to the music's core," Herron says. "It's a phenomenon that doesn't come across easily in words, but connects us with something greater than the mere existence of the work."
In ancient Greek literature, the Pleiades were the daughters of Pleione and Atlas, the Titan who was forced to carry the heavens upon his shoulders as punishment for waging war against the Olympian gods. Distraught over their father's fate, the sisters committed suicide, a sacrificial act which prompted their transmutation into stars in the Taurus constellation. Xenakis' "Pleiades" commemorates the sisters in four movements each of which partly refers to the construction of the specified instruments: Peaux (drums), Claviers (mallet percussion), Metaux (metal instruments) and Melanges (mixture).
First performed by Les Percussions de Strasbourg in 1979 when Xenakis was 56 years old, "Pleiades" requires a variety of drum and mallet instruments including timpani, congas, xylophone and marimba, plus a sixxen. Specially conceived by the composer, a sixxen consists of 19 metal bars laid out on a rigid frame (similar to a xylophone) and struck with mallets. The bars, which are tuned to micro-tonal scales, produce an ethereally resonant ringing resembling the sound of an Indonesian gamelan. Having already constructed a half-dozen sixxens for the Goat Farm concert, Herron and company (Paul Stevens, Christopher Eagles, Victor Pons, Sean Dowgray, Morris Palter) are fully equipped for the Orpheus show.
"With one performance under our belts, the ensemble will be tighter this time," Herron says. "The array of the group will also change from a circle to a curved line, so the audience will see our faces rather than our backs."
"Pleiades" is the penultimate installment of Don't Look Back: Beyond the Zero, a series of 10 concerts by Chamber Cartel at Orpheus Brewing. Whereas previous recitals have been staged in the front lobby, Saturday's show will take place in the rear of the brewery. According to the ensemble director, the reverberation in the space will enhance the sonic power and celestial beauty of "Pleiades."
"The beer won't hurt either," Herron says with a wry chuckle.