Iannis Xenakis: Jonchaies


Jonchaies was composed in 1977, alongside another one of Xenakis’ compositions, La Légende D’eer. The latter is a composition which is  comprised of 7 tracks of electroacoustic tapes, and Jonchaies is scored for a large orchestra (specifically 109 musicians). The work is loosely based around a single scale, which can be attributed to the likes of the Indonesian pelog scale, which is used extensively in gamelan music. The work uses a wealth of different extended techniques and unconventional rhythmic patterns, which makes it resonate that of it serialism influences.

The Music

The work begins with a glissando from the strings, which slowly dies away. This leads into a very Psycho-esque hammering of the upper register in the strings. A whirling feel is then heard and the piercing strings begin play a long, monolithic evolution of sound. This is where the scale comes in, as it is used for colour, rather than pitch. Nearly every entry is irregular and the strings start moving apart until there are around 18 different string parts. It has been suggested that these kind of sounds are what it sounds like in hell.

The pitch becomes lower with the timpani enhancing and emphasising the shift. There is a clear inner progressive evolution of sound, and throughout the whole work it unravels and becomes a single sound. The sounds you will hear are not melodic, but rhythmic and they have all been placed there purposefully, following a graph that Xenakis created. This scale is used on the graph and then transferred onto the instruments, which makes pitch an unnecessary factor. Instead the scale is maintained as a colour and is explored in a linear manner.

About 3:45 into the work, the lower strings play a small passage which is based on a minor 2nd. The percussion add to the ever-building tension and begin playing a very irregular rhythmic cell, with the bass drum, cymbals and timpani being at the forefront. The tempo fluctuates which leaves no drive or steady tempo. The upper strings continue their suspended lines above, whilst the percussion and piccolo flute play syncopated stabs on irregular beats.

The music begins to tense up even more, with the strings spreading out into their higher register, leaving the percussion, brass and flutes to play the more colourful notes. The percussion begin a rhythm pattern that is much more conventional, which gives the drive back to the music. Offbeats are also utilised a lot within this section of the piece.

Dynamics are also used in abundance to create different emotions throughout the work. From extreme loudness to extreme quietness, this piece absolutely knows how to make someone feel on edge! The brass then take over and play another irregular rhythm. It sounds nearly like to and fro offbeats, although this is not completely accurate.

The temporal evolution of the sound is highlighted again, when the strings return in abundance and with determination. You can hear the brass section start growing more wild, with pitch bending and over-blowing being a main technique. The trumpets also use the shake to create these sounds, which they soon do when they quickly put their straight mutes in. The next section is fugue-like between the instruments. The layering of the brass here is very fugue-like and the rings from the tam-tam creates a very loud and destructive tone to the music. This is carried on by the lower drums such as the tom-tom.

The strings make their way up the scale slowly again, with the percussion playing in the background. The dynamic goes to extremely quiet and then fluctuates a little, creating a buzzing sound within the strings. The horns play another ‘ripping’ statement, which brings the tam-tam, brass and winds together into an amalgamation of noise. The piccolo and tuned percussion play a twinkly line, which is rather disturbing.

At the end there are two piccolo flutes playing in dissonance, until they blend out. It has been suggested that the Jonchaies has exploded by this point, and the top register of the piccolo flutes is all that remains – its energy has been compressed into a single piercing screech.


Final Thoughts

Jonchaies is a single continuous movement, however you can hear a set of miniatures inside of it which explore oscillating orchestral timbres. Each textural idea that Xenakis uses is there to intensify the sound sculpture that he is creating. So from the aggressive strings to the drunken brass glissandos, this work is incredibly physical and exaggerated. Jonchaies is jam-packed full of drama, which propels it past the idea of it just being a mathematical concept of sound. The opposing sections within the orchestra clash and have thunderous consequences throughout the piece.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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