Suntory Hall Summer Festival 2022
The Producer Series KLANGFORUM WIEN

Music between Fantasy and Science Fiction
The Klangforum Wien performs Iannis Xenakis’s Kraanerg: a wild listening adventure for dauntless listeners

Vienna-based Music Critic Walter Weidringer reports on Klangforum Wien’s powerful staging of Xenakis’s Kraanerg at this year’s Vienna Festwochen (June 7-9), as a taster of their upcoming concert performance of this mighty work on Suntory Hall’s main stage (August 26) as part of Suntory Hall Summer Festival 2022.
> The Producer Series KLANGFORUM WIEN - Program for Xenakis 100th Anniversary (August 26)

Kraanerg at Vienna Festwochen (June 7-9, 2022). Sylvain Cambreling conducts Klangforum Wien ©Nurith Wagner Strauss

Is this eruptive music an experience we can simply surrender to, just as we might, for example, relish watching a fantasy monster on the big screen? We could sit back and enjoy the picturesque crackling of brass and blaring of woodwinds as reminiscent of les événements in May 1968, as Paris was shaken by demonstrations, strikes and street battles of great socio-political importance but relatively little violence. But should we also bear in mind that, for Iannis Xenakis, the music also recalled his lethally perilous youth in Greece? In the Second World War, Xenakis was initially active in the resistance to the Nazis, only to end up fighting British troops in the Greek Civil War. During this conflict he was shot in the face and lost an eye. After being condemned to death, he managed to escape the country. In 1947 he arrived in Paris. Applying concepts from architecture and mathematics, in which he had a special interest, to his music, he became one of the most original composers of the 20th century to work outside the dominant movement of serialism.

Kraanerg is the name Xenakis gave to this composition for orchestra and magnetic tape. It was premiered as ballet music in 1969, but soon earned great acclaim in the concert hall. Its title is formed of the Greek words for ‘accomplish’ and ‘energy’. The beginning sounds like real machinegun fire and mass panic. Nevertheless, these 75 music-packed minutes, which are divided up by 22 general rests of exactly 2 to 28 seconds, have plenty of listening pleasure to offer. Everything here is based not on series but on rules of contrast devised with mathematical cunning, on gradually differentiated contradictions between tone colours, pitch registers, types of articulation, dynamics, density of events and forms of movement. Nothing is thematic; the sounds themselves become an adventure.

But it’s an adventure with no triumphant ending – at least not as interpreted by the choreographer Emmanuelle Huynh and the light designer Caty Olive in this production for the Vienna Festwochen festival in 2022. After all, the conductor Sylvain Cambreling ends up lying lifeless on his podium for minutes on end, as swathed in gloom as are the suddenly silent Klangforum, whose playing was formidably urgent just moments ago. This is possible because Kraanerg ends with one of the audio playbacks that take up so much space throughout this modern classic. The recordings could easily be used as the soundtrack to a horror film. Huynh uses four dancers, dressed in black (as is Cambreling, but no other performers), and ultimately has their bodies form a monument with a woman’s raised fist. So perhaps the conductor is merely a necessary sacrifice in a skirmish against the ossified authorities, against the “old white men”. The struggle continues – and the audience cheers.

The violent roots of this elemental experience can be felt before this point, when the dancers stretch out their legs in imitation of guns and throw imaginary stones or Molotov cocktails. Everything revolves around conflicts, either against gravity or against concrete yet invisible enemies, individually or in the collective. What starts with childlike levity as a dance of ring-a-ring-o’-roses can transform rapidly into a different circling formation – an anxious one, closing ranks against an external threat. Caty Olive positions the strings and winds, all barefoot and in white, on two gradually rising podiums, immediately suggesting difference and partisanship. She adds light that careens in stripes and threads across the stage: gradations between black and white.
The Klangforum has taken part in much more demandingly theatrical productions, for example Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire in a production by Marlene Monteiro Freitas at the 2021 Festwochen. But Kraanerg represents a jewel in the ensemble’s repertoire, and the ensemble proves it in every moment. To audiences of a delicate disposition, the grumbling and screeching, the whining and crackling, and the occasionally quite melodious yowling, bleating and jabbering might become all too much – especially in the final third of the work, with ever-longer science-fiction-esque thundering from the loudspeaker boxes. But those with tenacity will be enthralled.

Walter Weidringer
(English Translation: Paul Richards)

Walter Weidringer lives in Vienna as a musicologist, freelance music journalist, critic (Die Presse) and broadcaster (Ö1).