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The Hypnotic Groove Of Xenakis

Percussionist Kuniko's new album is devoted to music by Iannis Xenakis.
Linn Records
Percussionist Kuniko's new album is devoted to music by Iannis Xenakis.

Percussionists back in Beethoven's day could be forgiven for feeling a little bored, waiting for the infrequent roll of the kettledrum or the occasional cymbal crash. But as orchestras grew bigger, percussionists got busier — even more so after World War I, when a new generation of composers began writing specifically for percussion.

Composers like John Cage and Edgard Varèse expanded musical horizons for percussionists and others, like Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Boulez, followed their lead. The music, whether for soloist or ensemble, moved percussion into the spotlight and helped set standards for performance practice.

Japanese percussionist Kuniko Kato (who goes by the single name Kuniko) studied in Tokyo under marimba virtuoso Keiko Abe. Later she was the first percussionist to graduate from the Rotterdam Conservatory of Music.

Kuniko's new album, IX, is a terrific all-Xenakis affair devoted to two of his best-known percussion pieces.

In Pléïdes, four movements for six percussionists, Kuniko overdubs herself playing each part (watch a fascinating video). But in the two-part Rebonds ("Rebounds") she is truly alone with her pair of bongos, a tumba (large conga), tom-tom, bass drums and a set of five wood blocks.

Xenakis might be considered cerebral (he was also an architect obsessed with geometry and math), but part B of Rebonds has a hypnotic, nearly danceable groove sustained by quick pulses in the bongos and fat punctuations from the bass drums. Kuniko lays out the rhythmic layers cleanly and with confidence. She doesn't play them speedily (like Pedro Carneiro), but instead opts for fluidity and a distinctive bounce that just might make your hips sway.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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