• Aram Yardumian, Persepolis (Bloomsbury)
  • Erinn E. Knyt, Ferruccio Busoni as Architect of Sound (Oxford University Press)

It’s my first time visiting Berlin in springtime. Incapable of shaping my own destiny, I find a tongue-in-cheek itinerary for a couple of politics-themed hours in the German capital, designed for irony-addled people with time to burn. I decide to follow the plan with slavish sincerity, heading from Alexanderplatz down Karl-Marx-Allee towards Cafe Sibylle, a self-styled “Cold War hangout.”

Before reaching the cafe, I stop to admire two large square basins. On this street, there’s a lot of stopping and admiring, or remarking at least: at the enormousness of the apartment blocks in the middle distance, and the sheer ambition of the city planning in the background. These basins, by contrast, are remarkable for what was there, rather than what remains. Today, they look like elementary-school sandboxes, the sort that might fill stricken “Toy Story” characters with fear. But their original function was as foundations—for a 60-foot statue of Joseph Stalin that stood from 1951 to 1961. They remain as blank spaces, encouraging the viewer to fill in the gaps.

“It touches not the earth with its feet. It knows no law of gravitation. It is well-nigh incorporeal. Its material is transparent,” Ferruccio Busoni wrote in 1911. Though specifically addressing music in his study, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, Busoni could easily have been writing about this vacant moment in Berlin’s architecture too: both are structures that people can imagine, visit, attach meaning to, and ultimately never grasp. It’s this kind of space where two strangers—Busoni and Iannis Xenakis—align, gazing thoughtfully at the gap between bricks and metaphor.

Like Steve Reich and Philip Glass’s furniture-removal company, or Charles Ives’s insurance agency, Iannis Xenakis is one of those composers who will always be deployed by those arguing the case for artists getting real jobs. But Xenakis’ route to stability was certainly more dramatic than most paths to the 9–5 grind. A Marxist schoolboy turned resistance organizer, Xenakis fought first against the Axis powers, and then against the Allied “liberators,” losing an eye from an Allied mortar attack on Athens in the Dekemvriana battles of 1944. When Xenakis found out, in 1947, that he was to be sentenced death for desertion (members of the resistance were later conscripted into the Greek army, but Xenakis went into hiding, in fear that his history would be discovered), he fled the country with a fake passport under a false name, and eventually settled in France. His hopes lay in a diploma of engineering from Athens Polytechnic, which he used to apply for jobs in his new country. The job he landed just so happened to be with the firm belonging to Le Corbusier, one of the most influential architects and urban planners of the century.

Xenakis retreated into composition as his way “to regain calm” after the rage and anxiety of war. His early fusion of architectural and compositional aesthetics immediately opens comparisons with Busoni. Informing the geometric parabolas of “Metastaseis” (meaning moving beyond the perceived stasis of serialism, compared with the number of sounds offered by physics and mathematics) were the both the Fibonacci sequence and Pythagorean theory that “all things are numbers,” with Xenakis later advocating for advancing music to the point where it can “guide physics and mathematics again, as in the days of its Pythagorean birth.” For Busoni, where Bach represented Gothic architecture (“the master Cathedral builder in music”), Mozart represented Hellenic ideals of youth, proportion and symmetry. (Busoni, the sketcher, studier and critic of architecture, would have loved to become an architect more than anything, but, ironically, felt forced into the family business: music.)

Both composers idealized structure, ratio, and proportion, though it’s hard to imagine two styles more dramatically opposed. To the surprise of Schoenberg, Busoni never really wavered from his metatonal compositions, while Xenakis veered off towards the coarse textures of “Metastaseis,” collaborations with Busoni pupil Edgard Varèse on “Poème électronique,” and the 1971 son et lumière work “Persepolis,” the focus of Aram Yardumian’s new cultural history of the same name. That diversion is part of the beauty of what Erinn E. Knytt, in Ferruccio Busoni as Architect of Sound, calls the period’s “multiple modernisms.” Though other scholars have tried to reconcile figures who collided with the time period but not the schools and ideals of early modernism (Edward Elgar, Modernist, anyone?) Knyt certainly makes the case for Busoni’s future-focused ideas, which included experiments in microtones, electronic music and spatialized sound in theatrical contexts.

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It’s in the coagulated mess of what scholar Daniel Albright calls the “panaesthetic whole” —as temporal and spatial arts in the early modernist period conversed—where Busoni and Xenakis come closest to meeting, as both sought an understanding of musical architecture in practice past the metaphoric, and in conversation with other artforms. As Knyt details, some of Busoni’s most radical ideas came in the reconsidering of theater architecture, and how that might transform an audience experience. In 1915, he proposed a reimagining of the theater stage, with two floors—one overhead, and one underneath—converging in a half circle so the audience was effectively seated in surround-sound.

It’s interesting to note the long history of such a music practice against a backdrop of buzzy “immersive experiences” in the contemporary art world. (If you’d like a comprehensive guide on just how storied a tradition that is, turn Knyt’s book on its side as she relays a nine-page table featuring the many different ways composers from Liszt to Respighi demanded spatialized considerations in their performances.) Xenakis continued in that interdisciplinary vein, coining the term “polytopes” (a neologism meaning “many places”) to describe his son et lumière works tethered to spaces, of which “Persepolis,” first performed at Iran’s Shiraz Festival in 1971, was among the most ambitious.

Yardumian gives a sense of the scale: “Xenakis had initially hoped to outfit the ruin with 800 speakers in a grid pattern, as well as employ a helicopter as part of the lighting.” He and three technical staff had just a few days to spread their 8-track album across the 2,500 year-old ruins of Persepolis, the former capital of the Achaemenid Empire, while also organizing 130 local school-children, who appeared in the performance bearing torches spelling out “We Bear the Light of the Earth.” 

The ambition is incredible, particularly given how distinctly nonplussed the audience was. Like the Philips Pavilion that housed Varèse’s “Poème,” these works were tethered to a space as an essential lifeblood that vanished soon after, never to be properly recreated again. While the Pavilion was demolished in 1959, a year after it was built, as Yardumian notes, “Xenakis’ team were instructed that fifty-nine speakers, ninety-two spotlights, and two lasers had to be integrated into the space without so much as a bolt or a nail.” If you visit Persepolis today, there’s nothing to suggest the piece existed, though you could maybe imagine a laser flying through the air, or trace the shape of a loudspeaker in the sand. Even in his most ambitious meeting of music and architecture, Xenakis still could only make a memory building: a work of art you can imagine, remember, but not touch. ¶

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Hugh Morris is a freelance writer and editor based in London.