Xenakphobia

I had ever such a good time at the Proms last night, listening to an inspired combination of Ralph Vaughan Williams (favourite of Classic FM listeners), Holst (his Planets Suite, almost certainly in Classic FM’s “top essential classic classics of all time” list), and as the filling in this Classic FM junky sandwich, Xenakis – who pretty much epitomises the phrase “plinky plonky music”. Although in this case it was more like bashy crashy music, as six very talented percussionists thrashed the hell out of an array of big bits of metal.

As the audience reviews show, the reaction was divided between those who pretended to like it because they think that’s the cultured thing to do, and a rather bigger demographic who were horrified by the affront to their senses (to somebody on a diet of smooth classics at teatime the work was basically the aural equivalent of hardcore pornography).

Anyway, I’m a real life working composer now so I can say what I like: it was bollocks. Brilliantly performed, noisy and occasionally exciting bollocks for sure, probably unbelievably clever bollocks as well knowing Xenakis – but bollocks nevertheless, and although it didn’t irritate me as much as smooth classics at teatime, I did find the whole thing rather an ordeal.

Still, I’m delighted it was in the programme and it’s just the kind of thing the Proms needs. Listener Nicholas Sayer (who needs to learn the “i before e” rule) may claim “peices like this […] will only generate polite applause”, but he couldn’t be more wrong – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of music at the Proms whip up such a reaction, at least outside the Last Night. My companion (who was of the opinion that we should spend the whole section of the concert in the bar) and I entertained ourselves by counting the number of people making a dash for the exit during the work; we counted 134. That’s enough people to fill the Wigmore Hall. (Maybe that’s where they all went, desperate for a fix of Schubert or something more palatable.)

It’s a super way to spend a concert and I highly recommend trying it next time there’s a piece of Xenakis at the Proms, or maybe Stockhausen or Nono. You can decide on other things to count as well – we didn’t really start counting “number of times one piece can go up and down a xylophone” until too late in the movement, but we did count Gratuitous Lighting Changes: 4 (they’re clearly taking the previously mentioned gay clubbing approach to ambience to a new level) and Cries of Despair: 1.

That’s right, a man let out an agonised scream about five minutes into the concert (I’m sure you’ll hear it if you listen again). And that surely is another sign that it was something rather special.

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