by Roger Reynolds
Iannis Xenakis: a musical voice without precedent. Born of Greek parents in Braïla, Romania, 29 May 1922, he was sent to a boarding school on the island of Spetsai at the age of 10. There began the steeping in ancient Greek philosophy and drama which ignited and illuminated his creative acts throughout his life. Although he had early lessons in piano and music theory, his formal education culminated, rather, in science, at the Athens Polytechnic Institute, which he entered in the Fall of 1940. A year later, the impact of WWII was growing, and he joined the communist-led National Liberation Front, resisting first the German invasion, and later the British occupation of Greece.
Xenakis' music embodies inferential dimensions no other composer has managed to harness, dimensions only knowable, I think, to one whose very identity was branded by the indiscriminate violence of shrapnel during demonstrations in Athens on the last day of 1944. Three years later, after he had received his engineering diploma, political realities forced him to flee Greece, and to relocate, illegally, in France. There he began an association with the master architect, Le Corbusier; at first as a draftsman, then gradually also as a contributor to the design of, notably, the convent of La Tourette
(1955), and the fanciful, tent-like Philips Pavilion (for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels). Xenakis was a fiercely proud and egocentric being. And a dispute over what he felt was a denial of appropriate recognition for the design of this structure resulted in a rupture of his relationship with Le Corbusier (1959). Only then did he determine to focus his energies on composition -- though architecture always remained, it was clear to me, an essential fascination for him.
His musical aspirations had been encouraged by contact with Messiaen in an analysis course at the Paris Conservatory (1950-52). But it was his own Metastaseis, for chamber orchestra (1953-54), that marked the emergence of a signature originality. It gave substance to his realization -- nourished by architectural engagements -- that sonic surfaces and masses could be generally asserted (as he would have it "out of time," which is to say as relationships not yet fixed in a concretization) as concatenations of straight lines, as statistical distributions of points (brief sounds such as string pizzicati). And he made these surfaces concrete not only through the unprecedented sonorities of Metastaseis (by webs of glissandi, tendrils of sound with continuously varying pitch), but also in the hyperbolic paraboloid surfaces of the Philips Pavilion, and, later, in the conception of his other "polytope" structures.
In the 50s, Xenakis' work attracted the attention of the Swiss conductor, Hermann Scherchen, who championed his music and also began publishing (in his Gravesaner Blätter) the dense and daunting series of theoretical articles -- on probability, stochastic processes, logic, sieves, etc. -- which were eventually collected in Formalized Music (French edition, 1963). In 1962, Xenakis had been given limited access to an IBM computer, and had begun exploring the first of the two distinctive compositional algorithms he devised: Free Stochastic Music [FS]. The continuing need for a research environment in which he could test his musical theories led him to found EMMAMu (1966), and this facility metamorphosed, by 1972, into the Centre d'Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (CEMAMu).
The particular insight that Xenakis told me he considered his signal originality -- that the continuous variability of all of the dimensions of sound could be addressed in music -- was manifested not only in the unique compilations of vibrant, implacable sonic textures which characterize his compositions, but in an original interfacing concept (the UPIC System, 1978). This device allowed him -- and untrained school children as well -- to draw directly on an electronically monitored surface, describing to an attached computer not only the variation of pitch over time, but also the wave-shape identity (affecting the timbre) of the sound material itself.
Xenakis' work manifests an audacious and often a supreme command of materials and time; it bridges the humanely intuited and the mathematically engendered. It asserts the comprehensive, integrative vision that came naturally to him, that of the architect. He announced and celebrated the prospect of a conceptual consonance between the perspectives of music and science and philosophy. But the result of this consonance is unexpectedly raw: aroused by the mapping of presumed-to-be-non-musical phenomena into the sonic world, presenting him with sonic invitations that his informed ear then mediated.
Notable among his more than 150 compositions are Achoripsis (1956-57, for small ensemble), in which he established the conceptual basis for the computer automaticization of the ST series which followed; Herma (1960-61 for solo piano), written for the composer/pianist Yuji Takahashi, and first positing the link between the composer's uncompromising compositional methodologies and the performance athleticism which marked especially his solo writing; the flagrantly physical Eonta (1963-64, for solo piano and brass); Terretekthor (1965-66 for large orchestra), in which the audience and the orchestra members are interspersed; Nuits (1967-68, for 12 solo voices) asserted the characteristically harsh, folk-influenced intensity of his vocal music; a seminal work in this medium, Persephassa (1969, for 6 percussionists); La Légende d'Eer (1977) a 46-minute, 4- or 8-channel, electroacoustic composition written for the Diatope construction at the opening of the Pompidou Center; the hallucinatory outcry of Aïs (1980, for multi-registral male voice, percussion and orchestra); the string quartet Tetras (1983), which marked perhaps the apex of this composer's invention for strings; the texturally impish and infectiously rhythmic chamber ensemble work, Thalleïn (1984); GenDy3 (1992), a blistering electroacoustic piece which displayed the impact of his second major algorithm (Dynamic Stochastic Synthesis); and Dämmershein (1993-94), the most impressive of his late orchestral compositions.
But whatever medium or methodology Xenakis embraced, whatever strategies he employed, his intent was always, clearly, both immediate (grippingly physical) and metaphysical (implying unnamable things). In commencing the argument of Formalized Music, he wrote:
Art ... must aim through fixations that are landmarks, to draw [one] towards a
total exaltation in which the individual mingles, losing his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous and perfect.
The standard he set for himself is inimitable, the frequency with which he met it astonishing. He is survived not only by his musical, architectural, and theoretical works, but by his spouse, the author Françoise (Gargouil) Xenakis and their daughter, Mâhki. There will not be another such voice.
Roger Reynolds, Paris, March, 2001
© Roger Reynolds & Leonardo/Olats, 2001