Composer: Iannis Xenakis
Instrumentation: open, with guidelines. Drums, woods and metals are suggested for 6 groups of instruments (A through F). Groups A, B, C, D and F have three instruments each. E has only one.
This piece uses unconventional notation.
“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.