Stillpoint Staff Series: An Analysis of Iannis Xenakis’ “Metastasis” by Kathryn Koopman

This work was instrumental in composer/architect Xenakis’s architectural plans for the Philips Pavilion, with its arching ceilings and inner space crea

ted for the inherent possibilities of its acoustics. Scores of the piece reveal literal, visual parabolas fleshed out by strings glissing in opposite directions (see video), brilliantly realized into the auditory realm. Listening, my ear is tantalized and shocked simultaneously, and left at the end wondering where the textures and tonalities flew to. Below is a recreation of my hearing, my in-the-moment thoughts:

The work begins on a whispering unison, pianissimo. It is not a calm quiet; the sound is energized, pressurized, squeezed tight with a momentum that can’t be contained in this unison Ab. The pitch gently bends out of line, expanding up and down in a broadening glissando. There is an architecture to this sound, creating a certain “room” in the mind’s ear and its perception of time-space. The ascending and cascading glissandi bow ever higher, ever lower, creating enormous arches and parabolas.  It is the wind-up to an MGM film, prepping me for incoming action.

The strings pause, breathe, and reenter on a wide, dissonant chord in scratchy tremolo. It is nervous, physical, full of energy. They release, leaving a lonely triangle and some light percussion accompaniment naked and exposed, comical. And then, yet again, the strings reenter, in their angsty, unsatisfied chord, this time with a growling brass addition. They cut, and enter again, and again, and again, unrelentingly gnawing through this thick column of sound, force-feeding listeners abrasion until we tolerate it. Finally, it gasps, leaving the hall full of resonance.

Enter a new sound world. Wire sounds sparsely and incoherently enter in and out of the texture. High, icy strings color the top of the spectrum. Broken notes unrelated to any recognizable tonality resound in the lower strings. Short ricochet figures bounce in and out. The experience is very visual, fireflies on a summer night, flickering enough to identify their relative place but not long enough to find and capture them.

Gestures quicken, this time with pizzicato in all strings. A muted drum texture thumps in the background, like hearing the neighbors (because can’t they ever cut the music at reasonable hours?) through thick walls of insulation. Minutes pass, the texture unfolds, with effects lengthening, sustaining. Brass, woodwind, and percussion noises wildly assert into the mix. Our mental space fills densely, momentum gaining, all of the sounds happening in incomprehensible disorder. Flutter tonguing, trombone glissandi, percussion rolls, string glissandi, and tremolos extend, gathering energy; the music is pregnant with anticipation, before it all takes an abrupt breath…

Order returns out of stochastic chaos. The strings form

military ranks from this dense and rebellious mutiny, sectionalizing and marching deliberately up, deliberately down, crossing each other in the middle. Finally, finally, they converge into one voice, a unison pitch, bookending the work as it began. The form is a rubber band, static to begin but rich with dynamic possibilities, vibrant and full of life once plucked and activated, pulling our ears where we never expected to go, eventually returning to its equilibrium point, a calming stasis and return home.

Metastaesis is evolutionary, unfolding in a delicious introduction of ever-changing timbres and textures. A listener loses sense of time-scales and space-scales while listening, elevated beyond physics and into a new landscape, a new dimension.

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