Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Iannis Xenakis/ Phillip George
Iannis Xenakis (May 29, 1922, Braila, Romania – February 4, 2001) was the eldest son of Clearchos Xenakis, a Romanian businessman, and Fotini Pavlou. His parents were both interested in music, and his mother provided his early introduction to the art. Her early death, when the composer was five, proved a traumatic experience that, in his own words, "deeply scarred."
Xenakis was educated by governesses, and then, in 1932, sent to a boarding school on the Greek island of Spetsai. He sang at the school's boy's choir, where the repertoire included works by Palestrina, and Mozart's Requiem, which Xenakis memorized in its entirety. It was that the young musician studied notation and solfège, and became enamored with Greek traditional and sacred music.
In 1938, after graduation, Xenakis moved to Athens to prepare for entrance exams at the National Technical University of Athens. Although he intended to study architecture and engineering, he also took lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Aristotelis Koundouroff.
Two years late, he successfully passed the exams, but his studies were cut short by the Greco-Italian War, beginning with the invasion of October 28. Although Greece eventually won, it was not long before the German army joined the Italians in April 1941. This led to the Axis occupation during World War II, which lasted until late 1944, when the Soviet Army began its drive across Romania. Xenakis joined the communist National Liberation Front early during the war, participating in mass protests and demonstrations, and later becoming part of armed resistance -- a painful experience Xenakis refused to discuss until much later in life.
After the Axis forces left, the British forces stepped in to assist in the restoration of the monarchy; they were opposed by the Democratic Army of Greece, and the country plunged into a civil war. In December 1944, during the period of Churchill's martial law, Xenakis (who was by then a member of the communist students' company of the left-wing Lord Byron faction) became involved in street fighting against British tanks. He was gravely wounded when a shell hit his face; and his survival has been called a miracle.
He survived seriously scarred, and lost his left eye.
Despite all this, Xenakis was able to graduate from the Technical University in 1946, with a degree in civil engineering, and was then conscripted into the national armed forces. Around 1947, the new government began hunting down former resistance members and sending them to concentration camps. Xenakis, fearing for his life, deserted and went into hiding. With the help of his father and others he fled Greece through Italy. On November 11, 1947, he arrived to Paris. In a late interview, Xenakis admitted to feeling tremendous guilt at leaving his country, and that guilt was one of the sources of his later devotion to music:
"For years I was tormented by guilt at having left the country for which I'd fought. I left my friends -- some were in prison, others were dead, some managed to escape. I felt I was in debt to them and that I had to repay that debt. And I felt I had a mission. I had to do something important to regain the right to live. It wasn't just a question of music."
In the meantime, in Greece he was sentenced (in absentia) to death by the right-wing administration.
Although he was an illegal immigrant in Paris, Xenakis was able to get a job at Le Corbusier's architectural studio. He worked as engineering assistant at first, but quickly rose to performing more important tasks, and eventually to collaborating with Le Corbusier on major projects, which included a kindergarten on the roof of an apartment block in Nantes (Rezé), parts of government buildings in Chandigarh, India, the "undulatory glass surfaces" of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, a Dominican priory in a valley near Lyon, and the Philips Pavilion at Expo 58 -- the latter project was completed by Xenakis alone, from a basic sketch by Le Corbusier.
Xenakis' compositions from 1949 to 1952 were mostly inspired by Greek folk melodies, as well as Bartók, Ravel, and others.
He met his future wife Françoise Xenakis (née Gargouïl), journalist and writer, in 1950. Back in Greece, his in-absentia death sentence was commuted to ten years' imprisonment the next year.
During this period, while working for Le Corbusier, Xenakis was studying harmony and counterpoint, and composing. He worked long and hard, frequently far into the night, and sought guidance from a number of teachers, most of whom, however, ultimately rejected him.
Such was the case with Nadia Boulanger, who was the first person Xenakis approached about lessons. He then tried studying with Arthur Honegger, whose reaction to Xenakis' music was unenthusiastic. As Xenakis recounted in a 1987 interview, Honegger dismissed a piece which included parallel fifths and octaves as "not music." Xenakis, who was by that time well acquainted with music of Debussy, Béla Bartók, and Stravinsky, all of whom used such devices and much more experimental ones, was furious and left to study with Darius Milhaud, but these lessons also proved fruitless.
Annette Dieudonné, a close friend of Boulanger's, recommended that Xenakis try study with Olivier Messiaen.
Xenakis approached Messiaen for advice: should he once again begin harmony and counterpoint? Unlike Honegger and Milhaud, Messiaen immediately recognized Xenakis' talent:
I understood straight away that he was not someone like the others. :He is of superior intelligence. . . . I did something horrible which I should do with no other student, for I think one should study harmony and counterpoint. But this was a man so much out of the ordinary that I said . . . 'No, you are almost 30, you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music."
Xenakis attended Messiaen's classes regularly from 1951 to 1953, where the elder composer and his students studied music from a wide range of genres and styles, with particular attention to rhythm.
At the end of his studies, Xenakis married Françoise.
After studying with Messiaen, Xenakis discovered serialism and gained a deep understanding of contemporary music, in part thanks to other pupils at the time, who included Jean Barraque, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Messiaen's modal serialism was an influence on Xenakis' first large-scale work, Anastenaria (1954): a triptych for choir and orchestra based on an ancient Dionysian ritual. The third part of the triptych, Metastaseis B (Metastasis, 1954), is generally regarded as the composer's first mature piece, and was additionally based directly on architectural concepts. The work included independent parts for every musician of the ensemble.
In late 1954, with Messiaen's support, Xenakis was accepted into the Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète, an organization established by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, dedicated to studying and producing electronic music of the musique concrète variety. Shortly after that, Xenakis met conductor Hermann Scherchen, who was immediately impressed by the score of Metastaseis and offered his support. Although Scherchen did not premiere that work, he did give performances of later pieces by Xenakis, and the relationship between the conductor and the composer was of vital importance.
His daughter Mâkhi, later a painter and sculptor, was born in 1956.
By late 1950's, Xenakis slowly started gaining recognition in artistic circles. In 1957 he received his first composition award, from the European Cultural Foundation, and the next year his first official commission, from Service de Recherche of Radio-France.
Also in 1958, he produced a musique concrète piece, Concret PH, for the Philips Pavilion.
After leaving Le Corbusier's studio in 1959, Xenakis was able to support himself by composition and teaching, and quickly became recognized as one of the most important European composers of his time.
By 1960, Xenakis was well-known enough to receive a commission from UNESCO, for a soundtrack for a documentary film by Enrico Fulchignoni.
In addition to composing and teaching, Xenakis also authored a number of articles and essays on music. Of these, Musiques formelles (1963) became particularly known, as collection of texts on applications of stochastic processes, game theory, and computer programming in music.
After the fall of The Regime of the Colonels in 1974, Xenakis's old imprisonment sentence was finally nulified.
The composer became especially known for his musical research in the field of computer-assisted work, for which he founded the Equipe de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (EMAMu) in 1966 (known as CEMAMu: Centre d’Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales, since 1972).
1966 was also the year of one of his compositions that introduced spatialization by dispersing musicians among the audience -- Terretektorh.
Xenakis taught at Indiana University from 1967 to 1972, and established a studio similar to EMAMu there.
Musiques formelles was revised, expanded and translated into English as Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (1971) during this time.
Xenakis worked as visiting professor at the Sorbonne from 1973 to 1989.
The composer frequently gave lectures, particularly during his stint from 1975 to 1978 as Professor of Music at Gresham College, London. He taught composition students including Pascal Dusapin, and his works were performed at numerous festivals worldwide, such as the Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran.
During this time, he also produced the percussion pieces Psappha (1975) and Pléïades (1979).
By 1979, he had devised a computer system called UPIC, which could translate graphical images into musical results. His archetectural drawings' various curves and lines could be interpreted by UPIC as real time instructions for the sound synthesis process. Mycenae-Alpha was the first of these pieces he created using UPIC as it was being perfected.
In 1982, Xenakis developed his Music Timbre and Cadence Scale which is used quantifying musical styles in modern music.
The composer completed his last work, O-mega for percussion soloist and chamber orchestra, in 1997. His health had been getting progressively worse over the years, and by 1997 he was no longer able to work. After several years of serious illness, in early February 2001, the composer lapsed into a coma. He died in his Paris home several days later, on February 4, at 78.
Xenakis pioneered electronic, computer music, the application of mathematics, statistics, and physics to music and music theory, and the integration of sound and architecture. He used techniques related to probability theory, stochastic processes, statistics, statistical mechanics, group theory, game theory, set theory, and other branches of mathematics and physics in his compositions. He integrated music with architecture, designing music for pre-existing spaces, and designing spaces to be integrated with specific music compositions and performances. He integrated both with political commentary. He viewed compositions as reification and formal structures of abstract ideas, not as ends, to be later incorporated into families of compositions, "a form of composition which is not the object in itself, but an idea in itself, that is to say, the beginnings of a family of compositions."
Specific examples of mathematics, statistics, and physics applied to music composition are the use of the statistical mechanics of gases in Pithoprakta, statistical distribution of points on a plane in Diamorphoses, minimal constraints in Achorripsis, the normal distribution in ST/10 and Atrées, Markov chains in Analogiques, game theory in Duel and Stratégie, group theory in Nomos Alpha (for Siegfried Palm), set theory in Herma and Eonta, and Brownian motion in N'Shima. At the Persepolis Shirah Arts Festival, he designed Polytope as mixed-media composition specific to the historic site. He was commissioned by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran), to compose Nuits, which Xenakis dedicated to political prisoners in protest at the Shah’s atrocities.
Andrew Hugill, writing in 2008, noted, "Xenakis had originally trained as an architect, so some of his drawings, which he called 'arborescences', resembled both organic forms and architectural structures."
In conversation, Iannis Xenakis frequently distanced himself from being seen in too strict terms -- like many other composers for whom method and structure were the easiest aspects of music to discuss verbally, he sees the role of such things as relative. One way to envisage this approach is that the method constitutes a thematic germ, a starting-point, and from there the normal musico-aesthetics, personal obsessions and practical considerations play their normal role in finishing and shaping the piece. Indeed from the 1970s onwards Xenakis' use of method became deeply assimilated into his general musical thinking and he reports in interviews from that time that the strict application of statistical processes was no longer necessary to produce the results he was looking for.
Xenakis appeared easily bored in interviews when people attempted to take an overly simplistic view of him as "complex" -- the various clichés surrounding him appeared to greatly annoy him in interview and he would frequently make recourse to the wider aesthetics of music in general and the other arts, in order to contextualise his contributions to music-making. In a sense his early statements about "looking at music statistically" were a response to what he saw as the mistake of placing too much emphasis on the likely benefits of applying methodology too rigorously.
Composers who have acknowledged the influence of Xenakis include Krzysztof Penderecki and Toru Takemitsu.