To provide full insight to this recording, I should describe the UPIC system. Paraphrasing text provided by Curtis Roads in the accompanying booklet, the UPIC system -- developed by the singular genius Iannis Xenakis -- is a machine that could convert graphic images into sounds. What began as an imagined tool in 1953 became a realized version in 1977. Xenakis utilized the machine for composition by tracing drawings on a graphics tablet mounted to a drafting table. The system was expanded by 1986 with a sampling option, but a major advancement was made in 1991 providing the user with real-time functionality. Based on a dedicated synthesizer controlled by a personal computer, the user draws on screen with a stylus on a tablet in order to directly generate sound, allowing the system to become an instrument capable of live performance. Amazingly, only three of these hand-built synthesizers were ever constructed.
Enter Florian Hecker and Russell Haswell, who in 2004 began work with the UPIC system at the Centre de Creation Musicale Iannis Xenakis (CCMIX) in Paris. As a collaborative unit, Haswell and Hecker have created one of the more important computer-based works in recent years with Blackest Ever Black. With little musical lyricism on offer, however, this is not a recording intended for the masses. In fact, there really is no musical lyricism to speak of. This is noise; raw, unsympathetic, and untamed. The human editing, arranging, and composition are the only factors that contribute any sense of blood-in-the-veins to the constant state of flux within the work. You never become overly familiar with any formation each piece assumes, as they exist in a perpetual state of transition.
Relentless, tonal glissandi fidget and streak in all manner of shape and stroke throughout "Movement 1," while the merciless fluctuations and assaultive shards of digital scree that comprise the stunning "Movement 3" open the path to the disorientating climb and subsequent collapse into an overwhelming series of agitated passages . One of my favorite compositional shifts, however, arrives at the 02:01 mark in "Movement 2." Distortion, in a previous state of climb and flux, ceases before a cacophony of minute rotations evoking a swarm of birds. If you have never seen the in-air dance they demonstrate when seeking cover from an approaching storm, then it might be a lost analogy. But, I assure you, it is a visual that is at once haunting and unnerving.
The arrangement of events contained in Blackest Ever Black are unarguably masterful. Hecker and Haswell display an unflinching sense of placement and pacing in their decisions, none of which are ill-conceived. Though the work is undeniably austere, it does not devalue its importance. To dismiss the work of either Hecker and Haswell as unnecessarily challenging is, frankly, missing the point. By confronting endless limitations and well-worn theories, they address historic foundations while simultaneously pushing developments forward in an effort to create their own compositional language and forms. Xenakis would certainly be proud of their achievements, most assuredly of this recording.