From our Repertoire: Xenakis' Polla ta Dhina
Xenakis’ first completed choral work, Polla ta Dhina, was a commission from the conductor Hermann Scherchen. Although rarely performed after its 1962 premiere at the Festival of Light Music in Stuttgart, it marked a return to native Greek themes following a period of innovation in purely instrumental and electroacoustic music. The setting of an ode from Sophocles’ Antigone, the “Hymn to Man,” looks forward to stage works such as Oresteïa and The Bacchae, which synthesized ancient Greek drama into a new form of total theater.
The majority of Xenakis’ output following his arrival in Paris as a political exile revolves around a search to reconcile the folk and popular music of his native people with developments in the European avant-garde. The composer was able to support himself by working in the studio of Le Corbusier, starting out as an engineer but eventually taking a more active hand in the monastery La Tourette and the Philips Pavilion, where Scherchen would conduct the premiere of Varèse’s Poème Electonique in 1958.
The tent-like shapes of the Pavilion were influenced by Xenakis’ own instrumental work Metastasis, his breakthrough at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1955. The geometrical architecture of continuously evolving sound masses offered a shocking alternative to the predominant neo-serialist tendencies of the time. It also lay the groundwork for his stochastic method, elements are defined by probability functions—a parallel but separate movement to Cage’s chance operations.
As a guest of Scherchen’s experimental studio in Gravesano, Switzerland, Xenakis found the encouragement to publish theoretical writings such as his controversial essay about the Crisis in Serial Music: “A regular flow between the biological nature of humanity and the constructions of its intelligence must be preserved,” he wrote in the newspaper Gravesaner Blätter. In 1962, Xenakis composed a handful of instrumental works with a computer program generated by his own algorithm.
By contrast, as the biographer James Harley has observed, Polla ta Dhina builds a flexible structure around the lines of Sophocles’ text, with swirling glissandos and clouds of pizzicatos taking on a nearly archaic nature. The chanting of a children’s choir on a single pitch was inspired by the monks of La Tourette, although by excluding the final lines of the ode, Xenakis sought to avoid explicitly religious overtones and instead explore man’s “continuity of conscious rational optimism.”
The following period, from 1963-5, would be Xenakis’ most productive in terms of compositional output, culminating in the sprawling orchestral work Terretektorh, which Scherchen conducted shortly before his death.
Polla ta Dhina • 
For orchestra and children’s choir
Children’s choir / 1. Picc. 2. 1. Bkl. 1. Kfg. / 2. 2. 2. 0. / Pk. Perc. / 8. 8. 6. 6. 4. 8’
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to publications such as The New York Times, Gramophone, and MusicalAmerica.com. More on: http://rebeccaschmid.info