hen the Shah of Iran wanted to commemorate the great Persian city of Persepolis, he made the interesting choice of commissioning unconventional Greek composer Iannis Xenakis to create a musical piece for the event. Though the reasoning behind this pairing seems completely illogical, the result speaks for itself: an hour-long electroacoustic sound collage that provides a sweeping tribute to forgotten Persia.
Xenakis’ Persepolis was debuted as part of a complex ceremony in the city itself, complete with torchbearers, a laser light show, and massive speakers emitting this strange composition. The material making up Persepolis is simple enough—metallic clangs, whistling ambient swirls, and industrial clatter—but Xenakis’ adept handling of these source elements is what elevates the piece to its emotional apex. Full of dread, chaos, and beauty, the piece shifts through many different movements over its 60 minute length.
Taken as a whole, these varied passages represent the multifaceted life of the city. Segments of serene beauty, augmented by a glimmering rush of bright metallic notes, give way to a droning howl punctuated with machine sounds and a helicopter whirr, then a speaker-shifting static or a low thundering rumble. Xenakis subtly transitions between different sounds, creating a thick, slow-moving liquid soup that often seems nearly static because all the changes are taking place on a grand scale. The instruments used in creating this tense, apocalyptic stew are not always clear either—sometimes a murmur of scratchy strings, or a warped, squealing guitar, or a heavily distorted horn, but more often the sources are rattling percussive instruments and razor-edged electronics.
More important than how Persepolis was created, however, is its effect. The piece utilizes unsettling dynamics to create a dark cityscape, rife with collapsed buildings and hidden catacombs where rats scamper amid the detritus and muted chatter from the metropolis’ terrified citizens lingers in the background. Xenakis may have been charged with capturing the majesty of Persepolis, but what he evokes here is a ruined and tainted splendor, haunted by fear and danger.
The irony of this is that Persepolis paints a portrait of post-industrial decay to commemorate one of the ruined monuments of the pre-civilized world. It’s hard to imagine what the Shah and the thousand or so Iranians who witnessed this spectacle could have thought of Xenakis’ challenging, abrasive work. Throughout the piece’s turbulent duration, tortured effects rise from within the twisted girders of industrial decline erected by Xenakis’ constant metallic clamor, sweeping from side to side like restless ghosts. On headphones, this piece is simply awe-inspiring; its textures ebb and flow in increasingly disquieting ways, building pressure steadily.
While the first disc of this new reissue is dedicated to presenting Persepolis as recorded on the day of its original performance, the second disc of the package features a number of remixes of the track by contemporary figures in the avant-garde world. The best of these mixes re-interpret (but can’t possibly improve upon) Xenakis’ work while stamping it with the artist’s own distinctive imprint.
These remixes, though a mixed batch, are a worthwhile addition to this collection for incorporating Xenakis’ work into new styles and unexpected contexts. The best mixes included here, however, are the ones which remain true, if not to the intent or sound of the original composition, then at least to the composer’s general aesthetic. Otomo Yoshihide’s untitled remix retains elements of his own signature sound as vague traces of the industrial clatter of Persepolis skitter atop Sachiko M’s foreboding sine waves, but the creeping terror embodied in the track certainly remains true to the source material.
Zbigniew Karkowski, who put together this collection, stays closer to Xenakis’ vision on “Doing By Not Doing,” but occasionally amps up the distortion with explosions of noise. With “Untitled 113 for Iannis Xenakis,” Francisco Lopez aims for similar territory, starting from near-silence and slowly building up to a chaotic quilt of careening sounds ripped from Persepolis.
Ryoji Ikeda roams further afield with “Per Se,” a glitchy, schizophrenic track punctuated by sections of complete silence or dimly heard ambience. The sudden jumpcuts within the mix make its bursts of speaker-shifting static and malfunctioning technology even more effective. Merzbow turns in a track that, unsurprisingly, sounds pretty much like Merzbow—it starts slow with a mushy soup of electronics, then completely breaks loose into grating digital noise; the elements of Xenakis’ compositions are chopped into unrecognizable bits but still add a discernable atmosphere to the proceedings.
Though Ikeda and Merzbow manage to do something different and interesting with Persepolis, the remaining contributors are less successful at diverging from the source material. Construction Kit’s “Glitchč” is five minutes of speaker-hopping static which retains no trace of the original music—it’s boring, at best. Antimatter’s mix is a long, slow crawl that transforms Xenakis’ vibrant, emotional music into the sound of wind howling by on an autumn day. Along similar lines, Ulf Langheinrich somehow morphs the original composition into a dull flow of ambient humming.
Despite the second disc’s unevenness, this is a worthwhile reissue, if only for the unmatched fervor of Xenakis’ Persepolis alone. None of the remixers, no matter how good their efforts are, can equal the majestic, dizzying heights of Xenakis’ original, and that in itself is a great tribute to the man’s composing talents. But the best remixes in this package provide a nice accompaniment to the main event, so it’s hard to argue with their inclusion.