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Line Upon Line Percussion ensemble plays Xenakis' music from the future

Luke Quinton

Last year, the Austin percussion group Line Upon Line helped build a set of chimes with a few hundred pieces. This year, they've built a music festival.

"Perspective: Xenakis" will celebrate one of the strangest, most dynamic artists ever: an architect, political dissident and composer named Iannis Xenakis.

As an architect, Xenakis worked with Le Courbusier, the iconic French designer. Xenakis is famous for playing with math to create alien rooflines.

As a Greek dissident, the left half of his face was scarred from shrapnel.

As a composer, Xenakis treated music like buildings, toying with shapes, textures and materials. His buildings looked like the future, and his music could be their soundtrack.

It's a big thing to tackle. Line Upon Line's played "Persephassa" last fall, which was probably its first Austin performance ever. It was quintessential Xenakis: with the musicians in a circle we could physically feel the rhythms swirl around us. It was 1969's surround sound.

So it's no surprise, given Xenakis' history, that Line Upon Line isn't off the hook: they have a lot more instruments to build.

In the back corner of the warehouse there's the faint smell of solvents and the hums of lights and crickets. It's a cabinetry shop, but behind a breathing layer of plastic drapes is Line Upon Line's build and work space.

Adam Bedell has been hard at work building sixxen, custom instruments from Xenakis' specifications. They look like marimbas, but instead of wood they have thick steel plates. With the help of a plasma cutter — who cut 57 pieces of steel in exchange for a ticket — Bedell's making six sixxen. "I've slept," he pauses, "recently."

Xenakis wanted each player to have the same notes but at slightly different frequencies. So, one "A" is just a little different from the next. When they play together it's like hearing a burst of lights.

The architecture extends to the concert settings. Friday's takes place at the stunning Floating Box House, a sleek cantilevered home designed by New York's Peter Gluck (with Austinite Burton Baldridge) overlooking the Austin skyline.

Saturday's shows take place at a church and a second home near Barton Creek. There'll be food and drinks at each, and things keep improving: The owners of the Floating Box have recently installed a labyrinth.

And the festival's names are impressive. Alongside Austinites Michelle Schumann and Steve Parker, Line Upon Line has snatched the Meehan/Perkins Duo — two of the country's best percussionists — and the big one, New York's JACK quartet.

In 2009 JACK recorded what's probably the definitive version of Xenakis' string quartets. You might call them "intense."

On the phone from a gig in Germany, John Richards from JACK explains a bit about Xenakis. "It's all quite challenging music, but I think it's a good challenge."

"At the end of the concert we're just drenched in sweat," he says. People need to hear just a little of what Xenakis was going for, he says, and when it's done, the crowd comes away appreciating its complexity.

Each night will start with the BBC's Xenakis documentary, to explain a little about the man whose life is probably the most compelling of any composer's in the past century.

It'll help, says Line Upon Line's Matt Teodori, that "every act is somehow an expert on Xenakis." Teodori did his doctoral research on the composer, and he's flown in two musicologists for the talkback after each performance.

Part of the draw is that it's rare to hear this music. As Xenakis' music becomes more popular than ever before, JACK have played pop-up festivals in cities all over the world. Xenakis wrote music for the future, and it seems the audiences are finally there.

Line Upon Line is currently in its "small-pond" period. Not affiliated with the university, but just starting to garner notice around the country. Perspective: Xenakis is an undertaking on par with Xenakis festivals in Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York, another event that will increase Austin's reputation as a destination for art music.

But for Teodori, there's still work to be done, including a last burst of fundraising. But more importantly, he says, "I have a meeting tomorrow to find out if the labyrinth is suitable."

'Perspective: Xenakis Festival'