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“Psappha” by Iannis Xenakis

PERFORMANCE SPOTLIGHT:

“Psappha” by Iannis Xenakis

Performed by Michael Zell

Mallet Selection for this Piece:

M134

Orchestral Series M134

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Medium hard urethane. Dark and bold for xylophone and bells.

ABOUT THE PIECE:

“Psappha” is an archaic form of “Sappho,” a great Greek poetess from the Island of Lesbos, born in the 600’s BC. Her style was sensual and melodic, and she was one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally. The target of her affections was most commonly female, and today both her name and place of residence have become synonymous with woman-love. This emotion and sentimentality does not seem to manifest in Xenakis’ interpretation.

Written for six groups of instruments, three of wood and skins and three of metal, Psappha is sharp, brittle, and even violent at times. This intensely masculine work seems almost in contradiction to its title. The inspiration here, however, manifests not as aesthetic, but as structure. The work’s rhythmic structures are derived from small rhythmic cells characteristic of Sappho’s poetry. These rhythms pervade the entire work and make both local and large scale appearances. Much of the specifics of instrument choice is left up to the performer: Xenakis writes, “timbre serves only to clarify the rhythmic structures,” suggesting the “words” of this poem are only a secondary color to the structures that contain them.

ABOUT THE COMPOSER:

Iannis Xenakis (May 29, 1922 — February 4, 2001) was an ethnic Greek, naturalized French composer, music theorist, and architect-engineer. He is commonly recognized as one of the most important post-war avant-garde composers.Xenakis pioneered the use of mathematical models such as applications of set theory, varied use of stochastic processes, game theory, etc., in music, and was also an important influence on the development of electronic music.

Among his most important works are Metastaseis (1953–4) for orchestra, which introduced independent parts for every musician of the orchestra; percussion works such as Psappha (1975) and Pléïades (1979); compositions that introduced spatialization by dispersing musicians among the audience, such as Terretektorh (1966); electronic works created using Xenakis’s UPIC system; and the massive multimedia performances Xenakis called polytopes. Among the numerous theoretical writings he authored, the book Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (1971) is regarded as one of his most important. As an architect, Xenakis is primarily known for his early work under Le Corbusier: the Sainte Marie de La Tourette, on which the two architects collaborated, and the Philips Pavilion at Expo 58, which Xenakis designed alone.

ABOUT THE PERFORMER:

Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Michael Zell is a musician specializing in orchestral percussion and drum set. For two seasons, he served as Acting Associate Principal Timpanist and Section Percussionist with the Honolulu Symphony, and has also been an extra or substitute percussionist with the Houston, Kansas City, and Charleston Symphonies, among others. He currently resides in Miami, Florida, where he has served as Principal Percussionist with the Florida Grand Opera for the past two seasons in addition to freelancing with most of the major ensembles within the South Florida region. He also maintains a studio of private percussion and drum set students.

Michael won his first professional audition while still an undergraduate student at the Peabody Conservatory. He subsequently served as Principal Timpanist with the Annapolis Symphony for five seasons, concurrently completing a Masters Degree and Artist Diploma at the Yale School of Music. Completion of graduate studies brought Michael to New York where he earned a fellowship with Carnegie Hallʼs Academy Program, in conjunction with the Juilliard School.

Within the realm of classical percussion, Michael holds no particular specialization. Uniquely, he is equally at home within orchestral, small ensemble, and solo musical settings. His interest in musical styles runs the gamut from early music to music of the 21st century. As a drum set artist, he continues to perform at many of the major venues in and around Miami.