When the Persian Shah commissioned Persepolis back in the early ’70s, much of recorded music was restricted to the lengths of the vinyl record. Modern composer Iannis Xenakis had prepared a tremendous piece of electronic music to be blared forth from 59 loudspeakers in a large open space, and it clocks in just six minutes short of an hour. It was also accompanied by bright lights, a laser show, and burning torches, but we can’t get bogged down with the visuals for the bulk of this review. What’s important is that the Karlrecords label is giving us Persepolis in full. The limitations of vinyl are just an option these days.
The original recording that Xenakis oversaw himself went out of print and the various bootleg recordings to surface over the years have incorrect sample rates or are missing a full three minutes of music. This new release comes from the original master tapes, mixed and mastered by Martin Wurmnest and Rashad Becker. So if you were wondering what exactly came of this small chapter of Xenakis’s long career, you can stop worrying.
Enough about posterity, what does Persepolis sound like? If you are familiar with the name of Iannis Xenakis (and if you’re reading this, you most certainly are), then you know what’s in store for you. If by some chance you clicked on this article by accident, then be warned that the Greek composer in question was a strong pioneer of computer music in its early days, using a variety of mathematical methods to produce sounds that otherwise would have never existed.
Divided up into nine tracks for the sake of convenience, the music of Persepolis sounds as bewilderingly modern now as is probably did at its premiere. It’s the musical equivalent of the fable of the boiling frog: the water is fine when the frog is inside the pot. Turn up the heat gradually, and the frog won’t realize the change in temperature until it’s too late. But instead of boiling water, Persepolis sounds like a gradually brewing sandstorm that turns into a full-blown tornado halfway through. These noises, this carefully controlled chaos lasts for almost an hour, and that can either intrigue or exhaust the listener.
Speaking for myself, the reasons that Persepolis appeals to me are the very same things that make avant-garde so unique — unclassifiable, nearly indescribable forms of sounds that have not been heard before and may never be heard again. It doesn’t have to be academic if you don’t care for it to be.
Naturally, people may be repulsed by Persepolis for the very same reasons, and I don’t blame them if they are. This isn’t background music for your office. It isn’t meant to put a spring in your step. What is it for, then? That’s a great question, one probably best answered by the visuals that were presented at its premiere. Divorced from that, it is here for its own sake — it is art. It may be mathematically-modeled, computer-generated noise, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be art too.