Southwest Chamber Music Plays the Works of Xenakis and Friends at the Pasadena Armory of the Arts

Photo by Ted AYALA Audiences look over the evening’s music during intermission at the SWCM’s concert at the Pasadena Armory of the Arts.


An expert in such arcane mathematical fields as stochastic processes, statistical mechanics, and game theory  and a notable figure in 20th century architecture: this doesn’t sound like a very likely pedigree for a composer. That this particular composer was able to marry all these and other diverse elements into a challenging, but very personal voice and body of work would seem even more unlikely. Yet Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) managed to do just that in a career that saw him become one of the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century and a pioneer in the fields of electronic and computer music.

In a chamber concert that Southwest Chamber Music (SWCM) director  Jeff von der Schmidt described as being “demonic and angelic,” solo works for the contrabass and the harp were programmed on Saturday night, Jan. 29. Here Xenakis’ spirit was felt thorough the direct impact of his own music and the influence he continues to exert on composers today.

Programmed on this concert were a two works for solo contrabass: Xenakis’ ‘Theraps’ and a work by Vietnamese composer Vu Nhat Tan, ‘2T for Tom.’ Closing the program was a work for solo harp that called upon the harpist to speak to and “question” the harp, ‘Hsing’ by local composer Anne Le Baron.

Vu Nhat Tan’s ‘2T for Tom’ was a sort of solo dialogue for SWCM contrabassist Tom Peters. Requiring the bassist to alternate between playing an acoustic contrabass and an electric one, Tan’s work was a dark and virtuosic score by this former student of Xenakis. Contrabassist Tom Peters effortlessly managed his way through this complex score.

Seeing him shuffle quickly from one contrabass to another was a fun sight in and of itself. The sounds Peters coaxed out of his electric contrabass were truly “demonic”: deep, nether worldly moans and growls were conjured from his instrument and played against the acoustic contrabass. Punctuated by almost jazzy pizzicatos and closing with a march-like section that had the electronic contrabass playing an ostinato that sounded like the distant tramping of thousands of feet, the work had a fascinating, nightmarish quality that seized the attentive listener.

“Xenakis was an architect […] and he had this sense of being able to take shapes from architecture and creating sound with them,” said music director von der Schmidt in a pre-concert lecture. “If this is your first Xenakis experience, this is a great place to start.”

‘Theraps’ opened with a furious ostinato that opened up a microtonal world of complex harmonic and rhythmic relationships. Xenakis can hardly be confused for Massenet, but ‘Theraps’ was a powerful, near visceral experience that dazzled the ear with terraced rhythms and wild harmonies. Contrabassist Peters again outdid himself by playing this ferociously difficult music with all the nonchalance of a salon piece by Koussevitzky.

The entire second half of the program was taken up by Anne Le Baron’s unusual and creative ‘Hsing’ for solo harp. Not content to merely showcase the harp, Le Baron calls on the harpist herself to share the spotlight in a kind of musical mystery play where the harp is a silent “character.” Inspired by the experiences she felt when she was given a haunted harp from a carnival haunted house as a gift – “I felt sorry for it because I couldn’t give it a home,“ recalled the composer after the concert – the work interspersed moments of Debussyan grace and beauty with the world of theater.

Harpist Alison Bjorkdahl was superb in this work that had her interrogate, harass, provoke, argue, coddle and sing along with her instrument. A vast array of harp sounds wrought through the use of unusual playing techniques.

During intermission and after the concert, patrons were encouraged to talk to the musicians and look at the sheet music and instruments. This lent the evening an informal quality to it that made some of this very forbidding music much more approachable.

During the pre-concert lecture, it was announced that composer and friend of SWCM Milton Babbitt had passed away that evening. The concert was dedicated to his memory.