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Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis Composer

Psappha, for percussion solo

Performances: 6
Tracks: 6
  • Psappha, for percussion solo
    Year: 1975
    Genre: Solo Chamber
    Pr. Instrument: Percussion
Iannis Xenakis had achieved some renown for his impressive first work for percussion ensemble, Persephassa, from 1969. Among other features, that piece places the performers in a ring around the audience, and the final passage whirls layers of accents around the perimeter at breath-taking speed. In approaching Psappha, his first solo work for percussion, Xenakis decided to forego any peripheral effects and concentrate solely on rhythm. The title pays homage to the ancient Greek poetess, Sappho, whom the composer credits with introducing "metabolae" (shifts of meter or pattern) into the rhythmic structure of her poetry. Using a technique he calls "sieves," Xenakis, too, creates set rhythmic patterns in his piece, which are subjected to ordered permutations. Psappha, though, is more densely conceived, even if restricted in means. Over 15 minutes in duration, it is a major addition to the percussion repertoire. It is also extraordinarily difficult to perform. For, instead of just creating sequences of patterns, he also layers them, delineating each in terms of timbral class and register. Xenakis does not specify any particular instruments (with the exception of the bass drum). Rather, he defines categories of timbre, including skin, wood, and metal, each meant to fill three registral zones, each of these zones being comprised of three distinct instruments. Thus, each timbral family contains nine specific instruments, although the metallic group includes only seven.

Psappha is organized in five main sections, each being distinguished by shifts of tempo, timbre, and texture. There are passages in which the pulse continues as a regular beat, colored with patterns of accents and shifting instruments. Set against these are the rarer moments in which the pulse is dispersed through widely varying rhythmic durations or much sparser densities. There is a powerful central section in which the bass drum is struck as forcefully as possible, quickly followed by an echo on a higher instrument and a very long silence. This gesture is repeated a number of times before the density is notched up again. Such moments of extreme drama are the stuff of Xenakis' music. Toward the end, the layers are piled up, creating a passage of incredible density, only possible if the low skin part is played using a foot pedal in order to leave the two hands free to cover the other layers. The piece ends with an unraveling pattern of accents that in fact follows in its sequence of durations the Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …). Psappha is poetry, but of an abstract type, concerned with pattern and density, placing less emphasis on narrative imagery. A powerful poem nonetheless, it has become a benchmark for serious percussion soloists.

© James Harley, All Music Guide
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