Today marks the centenary of the birth of the Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis.
This Sunday marks the centenary of the birth of the Greek-born, Romanian-born, French naturalised composer Iannis Xenakis. More than twenty years after his death, the spirit of Xenakis is still alive and well, embodied through the incessant creative dialogue between art and science.
Xenakis was born in Brăila, Romania, in 1922, probably in May, and died in Paris on Sunday 4 February 2001: due to the historical and political circumstances of the time, no relevant registry entry has survived regarding the date of his birth, which he himself chose to commemorate on 29 May because of its significance, referring to the exodus of Byzantine scholars to the West after the fall of Constantinople and the strengthening of the Renaissance, which was already in full swing on the basis of classical civilisation.
Of Greek family origins, he moved with his family to Athens at the age of ten. After his mother’s early death, he was sent to an elite boarding school in Greece, and before he began preparing for his engineering studies in 1940, he took private music lessons with Aristotle Kountourov, a Greek composer born in Tiflis. From 1941, with the Nazi occupation of the country, he became involved in the Resistance against the Germans. In one of these skirmishes, a shell burst disfigured his face and caused him to lose the sight of one eye. After World War II, civil war broke out in Greece between the right-wing monarchist government and the Greek communists. To avoid the threat of conscription and having already obtained his engineering degree from the National Technical University of Athens, Xenakis fled to France in 1947, on a French government scholarship, under the pseudonym Konstantinos Kastroynis.
Once in Paris, he began to work as a calculation engineer in the architectural studio of Le Corbusier, as well as coming into contact with the French world of music, initially taking an interest in the work of Olivier Messiaen, whose analysis courses he attended for two years. The premiere of his orchestral work Metastasis in October 1955 made him suddenly famous. Almost at the same time, he published an article in which he fundamentally criticised the serial music of his time.
Professionally, Xenakis worked on the construction of a residential complex in Marseilles and an apartment building in Nantes, where he placed a children’s playground on the roof of the building. He was also involved in the construction of the Tourette convent near Lyon, where, on the one hand, he applied his idea of “undulating” glazing, combining thin vertical panes of varying width and vertical concrete elements of varying thickness. In 1958, Le Corbusier and Xenakis designed the Philips Pavilion for the Brussels International Exhibition, a work of ephemeral architecture that stood out for the radical nature of its aesthetic approach: an asymmetrical composition made up of nine hyperbolic paraboloids, supported by tensile cables on both sides. At the express wish of Le Corbusier, the Philips Pavilion was the first experience of artistic synthesis of sound, light and architecture, a complete work of art, where Varèse’s Poème électronique could be heard. Xenakis, who had already begun to stand out as an experimental musician with works such as Metastasis, also intervened in this work with an experimental score entitled Concrèt PH, which was played as an interlude during the entrance and exit of each pass to visit the pavilion.
Xenakis had given in his early examples of musical production a transcription of Greek folk music that transcended the rules of traditional harmony and punctuation, seeking freedom from the constraints and conditions of tradition. Ultimately, Yannis Xenakis’ emblematic creation is the so-called “stochastic music”, from the verb stochazomai (στοχάζομαι, in Greek): to form conjectures or speculate, as used by Plato and Sophocles, although Xenakis was also referring to the mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, who first used the word stochastic in the 17th century in connection with the theory of probabilities.
With stochastic music, Xenakis transcends twelve-tone serialist music and uses the theory and calculation of probabilities by introducing a whole series of mathematical functions. In this sense, Xenakis combines in contemplative music the absolute freedom of thought with the law of probabilities, and in a later stage he combines contemplative music with the multipotential electronic world, which he experimented with for the first time in depth in 1964 in Berlin.
Xenakis argued that, in the context of stochastic music, sound has a quantum texture, formed by galaxies of elementary grains defined by frequency, intensity and very short duration. The relationships of these galaxies introduce set theory into music. Within this impressive landscape of creation, Xenakis is led to the axiomatic formulation of the principles that govern this encounter between art and science, such as:
– Art participates in inductive reasoning, which is the basis of Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Philology, Criticism.
– Art is governed by experimentation as is science,
– Art and science are defined by the fact of instantaneous revelation.
With these criteria, Xenakis created his work using sounds from symphonic orchestral instruments, sounds from nature and the industrial world, sounds produced artificially by analogue instruments (e.g. frequency generators), sounds from computers or the human voice itself. Mathematics and physics intervened to achieve the desired dynamics of sound through the architectural arrangement of the orchestra and the surrounding space. In particular, mathematics intervenes in the linear motion of sound, with the alternation of motion and non-motion of large masses of sound events, where the theories of Parmenides and Zeno on the contrast between stasis and motion, or between motion and immobility, are recognised, with the intervention also of probability theory. With the theory of probabilities, clouds are created from small displacements of masses of sound events and point sounds, or even sound dust, according to Xenakis’ vivid description.
The composition of Yannis Xenakis’ music is based on nuclear sound volumes and the intense juxtaposition of these to achieve the musical product. Xenakis drew a parallel between his music and the painting of Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian and the visual effect created by the intense juxtaposition of simple forms in their works. The composer argued that music is a condenser of theories and visions. The main application of his views on music is represented by the Politopos, which are polychrome performances resulting from a combination of music, lasers and elements of the electronic world, and in which the concept of place refers to the sound, visual and technical dimensions of the performances. Xenakis created polytopes in Montreal (1967), in Osaka (1970), in Persepolis (1971), in Paris/Cluny (1972) and, in 1978, for the inauguration of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which he called Diatope to distinguish it from the Cluny Polytope. Also in 1978, Xenakis organised a similar multi-theatre in Mycenae, which he called Mycenae Alpha.
Xenakis claimed that music participates simultaneously in the flow of time and in space-time. The space out of time refers to the concept of memory as the content of personal space-time. And he attached special importance to the so-called deep music: the deep structure of every work of the human intellect (e.g. the deep structure of a literary text) is the place of meanings, harmony and tension. From this point of view, Xenakis can be considered a true descendant of the Enlightenment, with its origins in the Encyclopédie of Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau and d’Alembert.
© Photography downloaded from Wikipedia.