Untamed storm of Iannis Xenakis at Berlin’s X100 

X100 at Berlin’s Kraftwerk celebrated the obsession with Iannis Xenakis, a man who broke the laws of time and space, leaping far ahead of his generation. Over three nights, commissioned acts by popular experimentalists like Lee Gamble, Puce Mary, Bill Kouligas, Kali Malone, Pan Daijing, Dreamcrusher, and Powel, high-energy percussion performances of Xenakian classics, and a cappella ensembles filled the cavernous halls, with abrupt staccato and drastic light travelling through the former power plant. Xenakis’s revolutionised approach to composition and architecture has been admired across cultural circles for decades—from early adopters of computer-assisted music production to the Iranian Empress Farah to today’s multimedia enthusiasts to Berlin Atonal’s team. At X100, they fulfil Xenakis’s dream to bring the masses into one space beyond elitist art circles, holding them in awe with a multisensory experience. 

Our conversation with X100’s curators starts with an anecdote about Xenakis’s annual trips to Sicily with his family. They’d sail the island on kayaks, camp, and keep moving. During the storms, Xenakis would count the seconds between lightning flashes, grab his kayak and throw himself into the storm to embrace nature’s mayhem. This fascination with the laws of nature laid the foundation of his work as a composer, architect, and mathematician. For LABOUR (Colin Hacklander and Farahnaz Hatam) and OUTER (Laurens von Oswald and Harry Glass), organising X100 was like travelling in their own kayak through the divine chaos of artists and visions inspired by the ground-breaking legacy of Iannis Xenakis.

How did you select Xanakis’s pieces to be presented at X100?

Harry Glass: There aren’t so many electro-acoustic pieces, and only a few that are really available. We worked together with Sergio Luque who was one of the experts in presenting this work, and he’s very scholarly about it also (Sergio Luque is a composer, researcher, and expert in Xenakis’s legacy who supported the team in the curation and production process and diffused the pieces). 

Many of Xenakis’s works are not made available in a final form, and there’s a lot of controversy and politics regarding how these works should be presented. When Xenakis was composing, it was challenging to document things properly—he was making these recordings of his electro-acoustic pieces on tape at that time.

And today, if you want to present or perform his works, you receive digitised files from a publisher that have been made available. But when you speak to some experts, they often say that the way the files were prepared is wrong or a tape is recorded backward. So, it’s often the case that people are usually clapping when these pieces are performed, but they’ve just heard the thing completely upside down. [Luckily] there are these obsessives among musicians, academics, and architects who study his composition techniques and know all the details. So there’s a whole discourse around it, and people who have different perspectives. But there’s also many people who represent misleading perspectives.

Laurens von Oswald: I sometimes think that this ambiguity is kind of baked into the work itself in an interesting way: one of the piano pieces that was presented on the first night was written to be physically impossible to perform (Mists 1980)

— so, the interpreter has to make a decision (Prodromos Symeonidis). They can’t do it all, so they have to say no to some things to be able to say yes to other things. And that’s built into this space, built into the work. So this kind of idea of the ambiguity – that it’s contested somehow, is not just a super-phenomena, but it’s kind of in the stuff itself in some way. 

One of the most notable tasks in your work was to transform the enormous space of the former powerplant into something different than what you’d expect from a music festival. Experimentation with space, light, travelling sound, and stages was even more remarkable during X100 than with the previous editions of Atonal and Metabolic Rift. The audience had to move between two floors confused and excited about where the next performance would break out. 

LO: From early on, we wanted to make it feel less like a conventional festival—with a lineup and a stage where you’re waiting and there’s a changeover and you go to the bar and have a beer and come back to see the next act. And we did that by splitting the staging up, having eight speaker stacks in a space that get used at different configurations for every performance, and somehow that’s our kayak in the storm. Trying to reference this obsession of the Xanakis to kind of be situated within something bigger—some sort of chaos that is going on around.

Along with the Xenakis’s pieces, a number of popular experimental artists performed their new works commissioned specifically for X100. Puce Mary, Bill Kouligas, Pan Daijing, Lee Gamble, Rashad Backer, Moritz von Oswald, Powel—the names affiliated with your initial annual festival, Berlin Atonal. How did you approach the commissions and did you have any specific Xenakian ideas in mind when approaching new artists? Did you want specific techniques or mindsets to be interpreted in these commissioned performances? 

HG: One of the cool things about our curation was that we didn’t know that our internal obsession with Xenakis was so widely shared by other artists around us. An artist would be like, ‘My cat’s called Xenakis!’ or ‘Oh my god, Xenakis was my first massive musical experience!’

You don’t often get an opportunity or a context where you can freely associate your work with somebody else’s, be it techniques or anything else. But it makes sense in this context because it’s directly related to his pieces. For example, Powell is obsessed with specific mechanisms that Xenakis used in his compositions, although Powel’s music doesn’t sound like Xenakis’s.

Another example is Pan Daijing’s [opera pieces,] which don’t sound like Xenakis’s music. Yet, there’s a direct correlation between using voice in the way Pan does, the emotional effect, and the situational aspects [developed by Xenakis]. 

And what about Lee Gamble, whose music influenced many post-club movements on the dancefloors and Discord communities today and questions consumerist violence, seductions, and capitalist impulses? 

HG: There’s so much in Lee’s practice that can correlate to Xanakis’ work — patterns, rhythmic structure, and synthesis techniques that are pretty wild and hard to tame. And short compositions — aiming to not only get a dance floor moving but also create listening situations. 

Colin Hacklander: On the one hand we’re inspired by a number of quite specific techniques as far as synthesising all the sounds that we’re using—for our music [as LABOUR], for example, we’re using supercollider, which is an algorithmic sound synthesising environment. Xenakis was very ahead of his time, as, for example, mapping out these algorithmic ideas in the digital realm and also developing massive audiovisual spectacles. The modern-day audiovisual show that we’re used to seeing is really indebted to Xenakis. On a broad level it’s this idea of developing new systems, architectures and new ways of thinking about music. Xenakis was always coming in on a meta-level of music. Schönberg, for example, deconstructed harmonic music tonality, and then Xanakis just comes in and he’s so post-tonal from the beginning. 

Haswell & Florian Hecker used a technique where you draw sound, which Xenakis developed (UPIC Diffusion Session # 23). And so we use a graphical tablet that’s then digitised and made purely manipulated sound synthesis. Also, Schmickler in Particle/Matter-Wave/Energy was doing a lot of things in terms of diffusion. 

I believe it’s also not common to hear these complex pieces in such a democratised environment with a very diverse audience, from sound designers to artists to ravers to families with toddlers. I can imagine that the academic world holds on to their agency to present and listen to such new modern music. How challenging was it to bring these pieces to Kraftwerk?

CH: The way that the diffusion centre was set up in the festival made it possible to do those pieces. It’s true that they are normally done in a really academic environment, like orchestral halls, and are served in perfect listening positions where the audience is always seated. And what’s special about Kraftwerk and this particular situation is that it’s young audiences—they’re probably not privy to his work or practices from before. They can move around freely in the hall and get different perspectives on the sound itself. Kraftwerk is just a massively beautiful building to do something in. So I think it matches how amazing Xenakis’ works are, how spectacular they are, and how much they work with space and shape that space.

Your piece ‘Sungazing’ (by LABOUR) was one of the central and most expansive performances of the festival, where performers appear among the audience and the audience becomes a part of the action. You started with this approach in your work Hit of Enlightenment (بیگانگی) presented at Metabolic Rift (also organised by the Atonal team) in 2021, right?

Farahnaz Hatam: The first time we played with a group of drummers was at the Atonal festival back in 2018. Next time, for Metabolic Rift, was where we included the peripheral drummers. This piece was magnified more because we started working more with noise and different percussion instruments that we were a bit careful with before because we weren’t sure they’d work in such an expansive space. And actually, when you move people as a cluster and act like a moving cloud, this density allows you to work with instruments that, maybe by themselves as individual instruments, would not be loud enough to be used. This was a beautiful way of incorporating all of the space and the periphery and going outside the speakers’ field. 

This collective act draws inspiration from ancient Zoroastrian rituals involving sun and fire. In Sungazing, strings, percussion and voice, drum sets, light arrangements, dancers, and electronics disperse through the space like molecules—one of the natural phenomena Xenakis studied and implemented in music composition. How do you translate this Xenakian approach in your work?

FH: Xenakis was very interested in natural phenomena and analysed them in terms of probability functions: the way gas moves, birds move in flocks, or people move in a crowd. With Sungazing, we were interested in experimenting with super-imposing stochastic systems, unleashing systems, and then layering on top so that the drummers are moving around, the instrumental is moving around, and the electronic sound is coming in—coming in with their voice. There are moving fabrics through the space in a line, these constant things. 

It’s redrawing space and disrupting the audience. Usually, it’s a very separate zone, and we were very much interested in actually being in that zone, moving through the space, and bringing the proximity of sound much closer to the audience—in an acoustic way and not just through the loudspeakers.

CH: Exactly, not just through the loudspeakers. And this juxtaposition of amplified and un-amplified sounds is a fundamentally different space to be in when we’re listening to just the acoustic sounds in the room. You listen differently and become more aware of the multi-dimensional space and sound organisation. So the listening becomes more active, and your ears have to reach out and look for the new details. Plus [the experience is amplified] by the lights. 

The audience was well familiar with the majority of the artists invited to X100, and many went to a specific night to see a specific act. The great thing about well-curated festivals is that there’s space to discover new artists. JJJJJerome Ellis was a new name to the experiments-pampered X100’s audience. His poetic and luminous performance softened the concrete severity of Kraftwerk with the mellow sound of his voice and his sax, with his character freezing and melting in time and travelling between generations, dressed in lace and embroidery. How does his work translate into the ideas behind your curation? 

HG: One thing we are attracted to in his practice is the continuity between him as a person, his lifestyle, and what he does artistically. For me, it was very special meeting him and discovering that the glimpses one gets of his self-understanding expressed through his music also appeared in his personality. The way he conceives his performances is deeply personal, reflecting on his own experiences. 

And what about Dreamcrusher— the noise, industrial, nihilist queer rebel from Brooklyn, who performed at Kraftwerk for the first time? Pure punk as they are, they invited the audience to loosen up in this ‘arty-farty’ setting at the beginning of their performance. And honest as they are, Dreamcrusher finished by saying, “People who invited me here have been really nice to me, and it doesn’t always happen with alternative musicians who are not white.” 

HG: That was super sweet of them to say—I wasn’t expecting that, but it’s touching, nice, and very human in the context of a festival that could be quite ‘inhuman’ in some ways. Both their and Jerome’s interventions were quite human, and it was also something we were trying to balance out. It also goes for Pan [Daijing]— to avoid getting lost in this abstract world of techniques, computer music, etc. 

Dreamcrusher’s act was one of the most ‘vocal’ ones at the festival, radiating a different energy of experimentsation, more common for hardcore concerts, rather than what’s expected from Xanakian vocal interpretations, like Pan Daijing’s experimental opera or an a cappella piece sung by the PHØNIX16 ensemble. How does Dreamcrusher’s approach to music correlate to the ideas behind X100? 

HG: A part of our job and our journey is trying to look for people who fit a certain idea, and with this project this idea was a little bit different to what we normally do in that it had this specific slant. But that in a way made it easier to find the things that we wanted to identify and the artists that we wanted to bring. One great thing we learned from Sergio [Luque] is using the word ‘energy’ as a musical word, in a technical sense. Instead of saying ‘loudness’ or ‘harshness’ Sergio would say the energy here, the energy in this range, the energy from that speaker. I think the way in which this translates into a human body and a bodily performance is nicely expressed in what Dreamcrusher is doing. And that for sure is something interesting for us.


Photography · Frankie Casillo and Lisa Wassmann
Special thanks to Berlin Atonal and Modern Matters

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