The Greek-French composer, who was born 100 years ago, created a revolution in music.
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“Greeks are like that,” the composer Iannis Xenakis said in 1967. “They are a people continually in search of themselves, always ready to launch out into all kind of rapid, violent actions, and end up by not finding themselves.”
He was in his prime when he made that comment, known internationally for his music and collaborations with, for example, Le Corbusier. Yet the search never stopped, and Xenakis managed to stay elusive until his death in 2001, along the way building a legacy that is being observed this year, the centennial of his birth.
The premiere of “Metastaseis,” in 1955 in Germany, put Xenakis in the company of the era’s respected composers. Admirers and opponents alike were struck by the work’s sheer violence of the masses of sound, which were constructed not by notes, but by ever-changing glissandos going up and down, and landing briefly into visceral clusters of pitches.
It was something new and exciting. The composers of the Darmstadt School, then the powerhouse of avant-garde music, had been focused on serialism, and the belief that every aspect of composition should be under control, measured and organized in a highly abstract manner. But Xenakis, in an article titled “The Crisis of Serial Music,” took issue with the likes of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, essentially accusing them of leading music into an impasse.
Xenakis, for his part, embraced chaos. A Greek French artist born in Romania, he went to explore it through philosophy and science, as the ancient Greeks did; “I felt I was born too late — I had missed two millennia,” he used to say. In the first chapter of “Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition,” a dense 1971 treatise on compositional technique and methods, he wrote about the “collision of rain with hard surfaces” or “the song of cicadas in a summer field” as inspirations for his concept of stochastic music, an approach to writing music that was concerned with large numbers, chance and probabilities, which were manipulated to achieve a particular goal. (“Stochos” means “target” in Greek.)
Another example he gave: Imagine a large crowd of people demonstrating in the streets. They chant slogans in waves from front to rear, determining where to go next. Suddenly, the enemy attacks, dispersing the crowd by firing machine guns into the air and into the crowd itself. “After sonic and visual hell,” Xenakis wrote, “follows a detonating calm, full of despair, dust and death.”
DURING WORLD WAR II, Xenakis joined the Greek Communist resistance and fought against Italian and German occupying forces. That was short-lived, however: In late 1944, Winston Churchill ordered British troops to suppress the Communists and keep Greece within the Western sphere of influence. Their ideals were crushed within a few weeks. On Jan. 1, 1945, a shell from a Sherman tank scarred Xenakis for life.
“He told me once,” the composer Pascal Dusapin recalled in a recent documentary, “that he keeps trying to reproduce the sound he heard when the shrapnel went into his face.”
There is no shortage of explosions, at extremities of force, in Xenakis’s music — whether in “Terretektorh” (1966), one of the first modern spatial compositions, or “Jonchaies” (1977), in which the full dynamic power of 109 musicians slowly builds up after a surprisingly melodic introduction. “Keqrops” (1986), on the other hand, starts with a sonic blast, with a solo piano trying to catch up and penetrate the massive orchestral sound.
It wasn’t just the sound of war that shaped Xenakis. He spoke with vigor about the “fantastic spectacle” created by the German occupiers when, while the air was filled with echoes of whistling bullets and explosions, enormous military searchlights lit up the night. Those memories directly affected the “Polytope” series, a daring journey toward a creative assemblage of architecture, light show and electronic music, usually on a grand scale.
He talked about his wartime experience with sinister overtones. And if one thing stands out in his music, it is the absence of “human pathos and emotional compulsion,” said the cellist Arne Deforce in an interview. But that style, leaning toward the extreme, egoless but at the same time natural — in the way a deafening storm is natural — had its origins on the streets of Athens.
Xenakis left Greece in 1947, while the country was being torn apart by civil war, after hiding in Athens. He was sentenced to death, officially for political terrorism. (A pardon came only after the end of the right-wing junta, 27 years later.)
A young civil engineering graduate, he initially wanted to go to the United States but never made it beyond Paris. After a few harsh, depressing weeks of getting to know the city, he found a job with the architect Le Corbusier. He also studied with the composer Olivier Messiaen from 1951 to ’53, whose interest in non-Western music inspired Xenakis to follow suit. (In 1978, having exploring the music traditions of Southern and Eastern Asia, he created “Pléïades,” a 45-minute, multicultural tour de force for six percussionists.)
Xenakis’s relationship with Le Corbusier went on to be both fruitful and celebrated, leading to the creation of the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. And as Xenakis garnered fame, his dramatic past stirred up fantasies for many people, especially during May 1968 protests in Paris. A banner reading “À bas Gounod! Vive Xenakis!” (“Down with Gounod! Long live Xenakis!”) was hung from the windows of the Paris Conservatory, and Xenakis said on television, “It’s not just about sound and music; it’s about transforming people, too.” Unlike his Italian contemporary Luigi Nono, though, Xenakis refrained from sharing strong political statements, and left mixed impressions on the public.
The composer Reinhold Friedl, who directs the Berlin-based contemporary music ensemble zeitkratzer, remembered his discovery of Xenakis in the mid-1980s: “Xenakis has been discovered — liberation! To lose oneself in the sound was intoxicating. He was a freedom fighter against the bourgeois distinction of new music.” The music writer Ben Watson, however, criticized Xenakis’s lifelong commitment to classical instruments: “Ironically, Xenakis’s lack of interest in alternative methods of realizing music — such as free improvisation (which he calls ‘a fashion, like jazz’) — fixes 19th century methods as absolute.”
Xenakis nevertheless was revolutionary in music. “Concret PH” (1958), a short musique concrète piece used for the Philips Pavilion, along with Edgard Varèse’s “Poème Électronique,” is the first known occurrence of granular synthesis, a basic part of any electronic artist’s vocabulary today. As a pioneer of electronic music, Xenakis was also behind the creation of UPIC, a graphic sound synthesizer.
The relationship between the graphic and the auditory was essential for Xenakis. He typically created a graphic score first, then meticulously transformed it into a traditional one. The means of production notwithstanding, he opened new horizons through the use of clouds or masses of sound. “Do not think in pitches but in sound processes,” said Deforce, who frequently performs Xenakis’s demanding solo cello pieces “Nomos Alpha” (1966) and “Kottos” (1977). “That perspective has been one of the big game-changers Xenakis realized in Western art music.”
The baritone Holger Falk said in an interview that Xenakis’s music “feels like diving into a world of rituals that pushes you beyond your everyday consciousness.” Falk often sings Xenakis’s “Aïs” (1980), a dazzling, sonorous piece about death that makes use of exaggerated falsetto, lip smacks and neigh-like glissandos, accompanied by a large orchestra. John Eckhardt, a double bass player, used the word “ritualistic,” to describe his state of mind when performing “Theraps” (1975-76), along with “focused and heroic.”
Glimpses of these feelings can be reached by listening, too. Heard live, the music pins you to your seat. How did Xenakis manage that? Perhaps it is the urgency with which he tackled the unknown, went beyond known musical idioms and clichés, and thus found something both unique and universal. His works resemble natural events both terrifying and awe-inspiring: storms, the formation of branches, tsunamis. But instead of mimicking the forces of nature, his music is a force of nature on its own.