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A Far Cry gets elemental with Xenakis’s ‘Aroura’

Avant-garde composer Iannis XenakisErich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/file 1966/Getty Images

On April 12-13, A Far Cry presents a sky-and-earth-inspired program including a particularly elemental piece: Iannis Xenakis’s 1971 “Aroura,” for string orchestra. Even for a composer as experimental as Xenakis, “Aroura” is extreme, an attempt to delineate sonic structure by juxtaposing various types of noise: tone-clusters, sliding glissandi, the growl of bowing on the bridge, the clatter of the bows’ wooden handles on the strings. The music is in keeping with Xenakis’s penchant for uncompromising abstraction; the intricate statistical and geometrical control with which he engineered his scores has often inspired analyses that read like advanced mathematical treatises. But there was, perhaps, a more symbolic dimension to the work, hidden in plain sight in its title.

“Aroura” (“Earth”) is a word from Homeric Greek, specifically, from Homer’s Iliad, where it appears in reference to the city-state of Athens, “the land of great-hearted Erechtheus,” the poet writes, “whom of old Athene, daughter of Zeus, fostered, when the earth, the giver of grain, had borne him.” Erechtheus was an early, ancient king of Athens who, according to legend, was autochthonous — that is, born of the earth rather than of human parentage. The story anchored Athenian distinction: Athenians could, literally, trace their ancestry to the very soil under their feet.


It would not be the only time Xenakis made reference to Athenian origins. He would later pay tribute to Erechtheus himself, in his 1974 piano concerto “Erikhthon”; the title of a sequel, the 1986 concerto “Keqrops,” echoes the name of Cecrops, Erechtheus’s predecessor and the founder of Athens. One might read such allusions as both personal and artistic statements. A leftist and Greek resistance fighter in World War II, Xenakis spent years in Parisian exile after Greece was taken over by a right-wing military junta. He decided to “withdraw into music,” as he put it, zealously pursuing an intellectual freedom.

Xenakis’s citation of such myths could assert an identity immutable to the flux of history and a similarly indelible epitome of expression. The relentless abstraction Xenakis pursued in his composition reaches toward an autochthonous ideal: musical works as self-engendering realms, beyond the reach of limiting powers and forces. The score becomes a blueprint for a new creation. “For a long time,” he once said, “I have thought that music is nothing but a path among others, permitting humankind first to imagine, then, after long generations, to lead the existing universe to another, entirely created by humanity.”


A Far Cry performs music of Arvo Pärt, Iannis Xenakis, Aaron Jay Kernis, Béla Bartók, and Osvaldo Golijov April 12 at 8 p.m. in Jordan Hall, $25-$70, www.afarcry.org; and April 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, North Andover, $10-$28, 978-837-5355, merrimacktickets.universitytickets.com

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.