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Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis

(1922 - 2001)

Iannis Xenakis was born in Romania of Greek origins and became a naturalized French citizen. Compare this variety of national influences and allegiances with his work in music (as both composer and theorist), in mathematics, in engineering and architecture. Then the complexity, breadth and depth of his musical reach follow quite naturally. For all his influence on musicians of the second half (in particular) of the twentieth century, he is a composer who is seldom given his due, too infrequently programmed, known better by reputation than as a result of genuine affection and admiration for his achievements, which were many, long-lasting and significant. Specifically, his pioneering application of set theory, stochastic (random) processes and game theory have often put off listeners with an imperfect understanding of these techniques. In fact they enhance his contribution to contemporary music as much as do his determination and unusually varied creativity.

Early influences included the folk music of Romania and the Byzantine liturgy. Xenakis' music continued to reflect both the need for structure and the importance of the individual moment in ways redolent of those two much earlier musical styles. Xenakis remained a progressive thinker and activist throughout his life and was a member of the Resistance in the Second World War, in which he lost an eye. Among the composers with whom Xenakis mixed – either as teacher and pupil – were Olivier Messiaen, Arthur Honegger and Darius Mihaud.

In addition to some two and a half dozen or so withdrawn or unpublished works his œvre comprises about 150 compositions… vocal, orchestral, chamber, solo/instrumental, electronic and for the stage. Of particular importance are Metastasis (1953-4) – a virtual concerto for orchestra; the percussion works Psappha (1975) and Pléîades (1979); Terretektorh (1966) – one of the first compositions to explore space in ways that have subsequently been taken up by such composers as Thea Musgrave and Jonathan Harvey; electronic works created using Xenakis' UPIC system (later developed into HighC) are: Mycenae alpha (1978), Taurhiphanie (1987) and Voyage absolu des Unari vers Andromède.

One of the most interesting electronic genres associated with Xenakis is the massive multimedia "installations" and performances which he called polytopes. These are central to understanding Xenakis' aesthetic. For the initial installation of the Polytope de Cluny, for example, computers handling more than 40 million commands were needed. Here technology was truly and almost seamlessly integrated with musical invention – a far cry from being used as a flashy afterthought or overlay for effect. His architectural work with Le Corbusier includes the Sainte Marie de La Tourette; his work without this mentor and collaborator includes the Philips Pavilion for the Expo 58. Indeed, he saw music as architecture and architecture as music. This is to say more than that he saw the qualities each in the other (superstructure, strength, tactility etc). Rather, that they each share a common underpinning and their developments are intricately bound.

To understand the composer's rationale for using electronics is to appreciate how certain musical aspects of electronics (regularity, the mathematics of harmonics and the role of probability, for example) can extend the world of listening into apparently purely mechanical realms; it's also to accept the many ways in which technology (instantaneous, reliable, infinitely controllable) can contribute to an otherwise imprecise and variable means of self-expression. The Cluny work so quickly and explicably became an icon, a landmark, at its time that Xenakis was invited to build and elaborate on its basic premises – at the Shiraz Festival the following year, for instance.

Xenakis was the founder in 1965 and director from that year of the Center for Studies of Mathematical and Automated Music (CEMAMu), Paris. He was Associate Music Professor, Indiana University, Bloomington between 1967 and 1972; and founder of the Center for Mathematical and Automated Music (CMAM), Indiana University; Gresham Professor of Music, City University London (1975); Professor at the University of Paris I-Sorbonne between 1972 and 1989. Xenakis was a prolific writer; his Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (1971, ISBN-10: 1576470792 ISBN-13: 978-1576470794) is perhaps the most important of his books.

Mode Records has a Xenakis edition, which is a good place to start a CD collection of the composer's music. ~ Mark Sealey

Recommended Recordings

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Metastatis

Metastatis with Eonta and Pithoprakta/Le Chant du Monde LDC278368
A. Takahashi (piano), Orchestre National de l'ORTF/M. Le Roux


Oresteia Incidental Music for Chamber Orchestra & Chorus/Salabert SCD8906
Spiros Sakkas (baritone), Sylvio Gualda (percussion)

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Palimpsest

Palimpset with Epei, Dikhthas & Akanthos/Wergo 286178-2
I. Arditti (violin), P. Walmsley-Clark (soprano), Spectrum/G. Protheroe
Palimpset with Echange, Waarg & Eonta/Attacca, Babel 9054-1
H. Sparnaay (bass clarinet), A. Takahashi (piano), Asko Ensemble/D. Porcelijn


Tetras for String Quartet/Gramavision R21S79440
Arditti String Quartet