PROGRAM NOTES: Wavefield Ensemble - Xenakis, Palimpsest



1 A manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.

1.1 Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

"parchment from which earlier writing has been removed to clear it for new writing," 1660s, from Latin palimpsestus, from Greek palimpsestos "scraped again," from palin "again, back"

E.g.: the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus contains 5th Century portions of the Old and New Testaments in Greek covered with 12th Century works of Ephraem the Syrian.

For music to tease at our comprehension in the same way as would such a multi-layered parchment, simultaneously holding highly disparate layers of information and meaning, it must do so in time. Time is the parchment. It is time that must be scraped away, and it is time that must be written over anew.

It is deliciously tempting to look at the layers of complex rhythms that occur throughout this piece, and, in visually inspecting a single bar, believe that one is looking down through symbolic musical centuries, through a series of accumulated, stacked, scraped, and overwritten texts. My favorite instance is one particular measure wherein the winds and strings are simultaneously performing 23, 22, 21, 20, 20 (but slower), 19, 19 (but slower), 18 and 16 attacks within the space of four beats. Such a conglomeration of unaligned notes gives the eye the impression of many layers in an unlikely coexistence.

The problem for me is that these layers are all “of a sort.” To the ear, this measure sounds like a single sound mass. It sounds not like “nine things,” but like “one thing.” So if we’re thinking about the palimpsestic as not just jumbled words on a page (like what comes out of an old photocopier prone to jamming), but rather as completely different documents with completely different but totally coherent ideas that happen to coexist within physical proximity, then this sort of rhythmic layering is not it.

For Xenakis, 23 against 22 against 21 against 20 against 20 (but slower) against19 against 19 (but slower) against 18 against 16 all over 4, is just…Xenakis…composer par excellence of rhythmically complex, churning sound masses. It is his native language, so to speak.

I have elsewhere seen Palimpsest described as a “piano concerto.” While it is true that the piece opens with a short piano solo, and the piano writing is at moments highly virtuosic, the piece just does not “read” as a concerto. As the work progresses, the solo voice is subsumed in interruptions by the ensemble and ultimately this polyphony of interruptions gives way to a striding unison melody, which has absolutely nothing to do with the solo piano music with which the piece began.

I would propose that the palimpsesticness of the work is not contained in the small moments of chaos, but in these large transitions. It is as though Xenakis began writing a solo piano piece, then wrote over it with a rhythmically complex ensemble piece, then wrote over that with a second, quite different and rhythmically simplified ensemble piece. As we go, moments of each earlier piece peak through in small, scraped away holes in the sound, reminding us that the parchment through which our gaze must pierce is actually our own memory.


WritingsNicholas DeMaison