This evening, in the back-room of Orpheus Brewing, Chamber Cartel presented us with an hour of sonic grace in the form of a fantastic performance of Xenakis’ piece for six percussionists, “Pléïades.” The slightly different kit for each of the six percussionists were arranged in a very large V that encompassed two rows of audience seats in the same shape except for one short row at each end that was perpendicular to the V, like dimples on a smile. I had the good fortune to sit at the tip of the audience’s V, such that I had two performers in front of me, two to the side, and two behind, absorbing me in a dramatic 6.0 surround sound experience. Each of the four movements of the work has different instrumentation and Xenakis suggested two different orders for the movements. The Cartel played a reversal of the first suggested order: Peaux (skins), Claviers (keyboards), Métaux (metals), and Mélanges (mixtures). Unlike the previous concerts in this series, the price of admission didn’t include tickets for beer tasting but they did include earplugs, which were absolutely necessary.
I have heard recordings of the work in the past and I don’t believe that any of them played the movements in this order. Although it’s radically different hearing a work like this live than in a recording, I think that the order of the movements used in this performance completely changed the way that I listened to it. There seemed to be a certain narrative structure evoked from this that I never got from the recordings and I think that it was the result of starting with Peaux, which drew me in with its grooves, and ending with Mélanges, which pulls the different instrumentation of the other three movements together.
The first movement, Peaux, was played on a variety of skin-covered drums, including bongos, tom-toms, congas, timpani, and bass drums. The performers banged out a primal groove that seemed to express the more exciting parts of the id. From here they moved to marimbas, xylophones, and vibes for Claviers, which sounded like troublesome pixies wreaking delightful havoc. Métaux was played on a set of six Sixxen, a novel instrument made for the work consisting of metal bars tuned microtonally. I heard the instrument compared to a gamelan metallophone and this isn’t terribly far off. Unlike a gamelan performance, though, the bars were never muted and so they created an undercurrent to the music of a turbulent sonic sea of mad screams that rang out beneath the notes being played. It was like gamelan as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade. These first three movements felt to me like the tale of a journey of some small culture somewhere and the fourth, Mélanges, which incorporated all of the instruments, struck me as a feverish and only mostly coherent attempt to make sense of that story by the survivors.
The percussionists seemed to be using a click track, which appears to have served them well because they were very together. This was incredibly important for this work as any muddiness from a player being off tempo could really wreck the piece. Overall, it was an absolutely amazing experience: it’s one of those pieces that, when heard live, can change the way a person thinks about what music can do to and for a person. I was genuinely disappointed that I couldn’t go to the last performance of it that Chamber Cartel did at the Goat Farm, so I am very grateful to Herron and crew for creating another opportunity for me to hear it.