This year marks the centenary of Iannis Xenakis, the Romanian-born Greek-French composer who died in 2001. Architect, mathematician, communist, and composer of both instrumental and electronic works, his music plowed an idiosyncratic furrow in the history of the European avant-garde.
The centenary has happily meant retrospectives of his work. The most substantial was Révolutions Xenakis at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (for whose opening Xenakis created one of his “Polytopes” in 1977), curated by his daughter, in collaboration with the Philharmonie de Paris. Xenakis is performed too seldom in the United Kingdom, but this year has seen focus on his music from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and at the BBC Proms.
On October 8, London’s Southbank Center marks his centenary with performances of his music by many of its leading exponents, including the JACK quartet, percussionist Colin Currie, and the London Sinfonietta. Xenakis’ music can be quite forbidding; he was forbiddingly prolific too, certainly compared to his colleague Pierre Boulez. This playlist offers a bird’s eye plan—an architect’s drawing—of the edifice of his music.
Xenakis called his music “stochastic.” This term has recently resurfaced outside statistics in the phrase “stochastic terrorism,” which describes the way the mass amplification of messages of hatred produces unpredictable and ungovernable acts of violence from individuals.
Xenakis’ metaphor for this music is that of the crowd. In 1944, British tanks were deployed against 200,000 Greek protestors marching to Athens’ Syntagma Square to protest the British-backed suppression of leftist partisans, including Xenakis. The violence was widespread and pitiless; Xenakis was hit in the face with shrapnel from a tank shell. These events provided Xenakis with a conceptual framework for his musical language. He writes:
Everyone has observed the sonic phenomena of a political crowd of dozens or hundreds-of-thousands of people. The human river shouts a slogan in uniform rhythm. Then another slogan springs from the head of the demonstration; it spreads towards the tail, replacing the first. A wave of transition passes from the head to the tail. The clamor fills the city, and the inhibiting force of voice and rhythm reach a climax. It is an event of great power and beauty in its ferocity.
Then the impact between the demonstrators and the enemy occurs. The perfect rhythm of the last slogan breaks up in a huge cluster of chaotic shouts, which also spreads to the tail. Imagine, in addition, the reports of dozens of machine guns and the whistle of bullets adding their punctuations to this total disorder. The crowd is then rapidly dispersed, and after sonic and visual hell follows a detonating calm, full of despair, dust, and death. The statistical laws of these events…are the laws of the passage from complete order to total disorder in a continuous or explosive manner. They are stochastic laws.
“Jonchaies,” for an orchestra of 109 players, is the musical proving ground for this principle. The opening wail gives way to a unified statement that then spreads through new pitches and rhythmic gestures across the strings; interjections from percussion intimate that this material will ultimately fragment and fall away. The piece ends with “detonating calm.” Musical paint-thinner is applied to the texture, the forces shrinking to a pair of piccolos, then one, then silence.
Mathematics—drawn from equations most of us understand with the same level of insight as a labrador—furnishes Xenakis’ compositional process. But it results in music that is both as easy and complicated to grasp as the actions of a crowd.
“Metaux” from “Pléïades” (1978)
I have been pronouncing Iannis Xenakis’ name incorrectly for years, confidently saying “Zen”-ahkis (as in The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). My partner, whose ex-husband is Greek, told me that the first compacted syllables are more properly said KUH-TSEN-ahkis: the first consonant, as she put it, “like a little cymbal crash.”
Getting names right is good manners. In this instance it also allows us to better intuit the nature of Xenakis’ music, with its metallic clashes and impacts—especially in the hiss of excitement that comes with the final consonant of his surname. “Pléïades” for six percussionists (1978) is in four movements, which can be performed in a range of orders, all taking bluff material titles: “Peaux” (skins: drums), “Metaux” (metals), “Claviers” (keyboards: vibraphone, xylophone, etc.), and “Mélanges” (mixtures: all of the above).
Xenakis’ name figures especially in “Metaux,” which is performed on a microtonally-tuned instrument called a sixxen designed specifically for this piece; so-called because it melds “Xen” and “Six” (after the number of players assigned to it).
The tuning system means that the six parts, which coalesce and digress as the piece unfolds, create great clouds of overtones that hover above the clanging below like shifting harmonic weather patterns. As different parts join or drop away the density of this fog thickens and thins.
Kuniko Kato recorded “Pléïades” for Linn records in 2015. She plays all six percussion parts, filmed to create an uncanny spectacle of repetition and difference that tunes into the hazy bleed between the microtonal notes, where the gaps that mark out musical differences are so tiny.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A Major, IV. Allegro con brio
Xenakis’ tract on his compositional method, Formalized Music, begins with a description of “Free Stochastic Music.” Xenakis points to the necessity of going beyond traditional tonality, but equally acknowledges the limitations of serialism’s overly deterministic methods, which hindered the creation of the moments that defined, for Xenakis, aesthetic experience: “a total exaltation in which the individual mingles, losing his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous and perfect. If a work of art succeeds in this undertaking for even a single moment, it attains its goal.”
He continues: “This tremendous truth is not made of objects, emotions, or sensations; it is beyond these, as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is beyond music.”
Music beyond music. Kundera wrote that Xenakis “had to leave music.” In a good performance of Beethoven Seven the strings in the last movement should sound like someone revving a chainsaw. Regrettable as it is to walk in lockstep with the Classic Recording bores, Carlos Kleiber is actually the only person who achieved the requisite effect.
“Polytope de Cluny” (1972-1974)
A Xenakis playlist is only half the story. Xenakis fused the constitutive disciplines of his work in a series of “polytopes”: integrated installations that combined lighting design, architecture, and electronic music. His first was conceived for the French Pavilion at the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967, designed by Jean Faugeron; a second followed for Persopolis in 1971.
“Polytope de Cluny” was conceived for the cavernous Roman baths at the Musée de Cluny in Paris; unlike many of his others this project was not designed for a new or specially-built structure, but rather an archaic space. This aspect tunes in to the raw, ritualistic character of his work, and the way Xenakis welds chrome-edged modernity to the primeval and atavistic.
It was recreated this year by IRCAM and the Centre Pompidou. The original installation used an eight-track electronic score, 600 electronic flashes, and three lasers; these beams and flashes were further multiplied and split by fixed and pivoting mirrors. Between 1972 and 1974 over 100,000 people visited the site. Xenakis called the polytopes “an expression of the childish part of the adult, of what remains of his deep creative purity, the wonder before the play of lights, before a music of light.”
He imagined them on an even grander scale in an essay from 1974, imagining “artistic filaments linking the populations of all countries is to establish a new direct contact, over languages, interests, civilizations, races, local cultures.” The polytopes “will be connected over the oceans and intercontinentally to transmitting centers, installed in other countries, by means of a network of visible (or invisible) laser beams, reflected, to cross colossal distances, on mobile or geostatic satellites,” he wrote, creating “a kind of complex world artistic game, using the previous lights and sounds…This game, followed or played by millions of spectators, will be at the same time a dialogue and an interactive show, of creative and immediate communion between peoples.”
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“Metastaseis” is an orchestral work for 61 musicians. It opens with one of Xenakis’ most recognizable gestures: an enormous ascending glissando in the strings beginning on a single note. After an accretion—Alex Ross likens it to the big crescendo in the Beatles’s “A Day in the Life”—a single bell rings out: perhaps a whisper of the ecclesiastical mysticism of Olivier Messiaen, Xenakis’ teacher at the time (Xenakis’ own aesthetic worldview was ardently rationalist by comparison, though he designed an extraordinary convent near Lyon).
Messiaen encouraged Xenakis to bring together his combined interests in mathematics and architecture in his music. Of these inspirations, curves were especially important. They bridge most obviously his musical, architectural, and graphic practices. The Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair was Xenakis’ last collaboration with Le Corbusier—they fell out because Xenakis took the lead while Corbusier was busy with other projects—but one of his most spectacular and innovative.
Just as Xenakis would take a novel approach to creating his compositions by plotting them on graph paper (with x- and y-axes) before turning them into standard notation, so too would he experiment with the basic materials of his craft with the Pavilion. The cathedral-like vaulting curves presented challenges when it came to using poured concrete to give the structure its desired shape. Consequently Xenakis and his colleagues precast concrete panels suspended in place by high tension wires.
The qualities of these materials—tautness and density—are the same found in a piece like “Metastaseis,” whose title Xenakis translates as “dialectical transformation”; it is music of tension, expansion, and accretion, with sudden moments of austere release.
A 2001 review of “Tetras” (1983) noted that Xenakis’ music “is better than it sounds.” On the one hand this comment grasps the way Xenakis’ pieces seem so idiosyncratically unmoored from conventions of artifice or taste—even in the realms of the avant-garde. But on the other it implies an intellectualism utterly uncharacteristic of what Xenakis’ music is driving at. Indeed, it isn’t driving at anything, in the sense of an idea or theme or point: it is a thing, shatteringly visceral and irrefutably present. Alex Ross captured this in calling a performance of “Tetras” by the JACK quartet as “howlingly beautiful”.
It can tap into the overwhelming, unpredictable, ferocious sensation of a chaotic storm, or have the granite-like immovability and density of a glacier. It’s awesome (in the literal sense) and sometimes disturbing, in the same way that I feel when I see the canyons and rocks in the American Southwest, or the jagged dramatic peaks of the Alps.
You really have to be fully invested in the physical aspect of making every sound, and pushing it all the way to the edge…It feels like it’s about to explode at any moment.
“Tetras” begins with two soliloquies in violin and viola; this relative expressive spareness opens out to music of greater density and pugnacity. Many defining techniques are there: swarming air-raid siren glissandi; jaw-clenching overbowing (especially behind the bridges of the instruments); volcanic outbursts of rapid collective passagework up and down the register.
“Mists,” for solo piano, is in one respect a simple work, alternating between two kinds of material. The first is linear: a series of overlapping, ascending scales and arpeggios. Xenakis sets complex subdivisions of the pulse against each other, which clamber to the very highest reaches of the piano. The effect is dizzying: a series of spirals, rappelling upwards with increasing complexity and floridity.
The second variety of material is the “mists” of the title, which Xenakis also terms “arborescences.” On the page they are bunches of note-stems, extending across both staves, that make only spare reference to pitch and rhythm; these mists are more freely realized in the manner of John Cage or Julius Eastman.
Much is made of the piano’s very highest register—in his previous solo piano work “Evryali” Xenakis notated a top C-sharp that does not exist on the standard keyboard—which generates great clouds of harmonics. Aeronautics calls the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space the “Kármán line,” which is where this music sends you.
Xenakis would often holiday on the island of Corsica, paddling a kayak around the coast and finding a cove to put in. He liked the ancient resonances of the place, thinking of the Greeks and Phoenicians who had passed through it. “It’s the permanence of nature in Corsica that I am looking for,” he said. His daughter Mâkhi Xenakis—a sculptor, designer and writer herself—recalls him fishing by the shore in a recent documentary:
I can still see my father standing there with his harpoon gun, like Poseidon, or Perseus against Medusa. Everything he did was so mythological to me. I don’t know if it was on purpose or he was aware of it, or perhaps I had formed this mad image of him, but I always had these images from Greek mythology when I watched him move. He would say: “I was born 25 centuries too late.”
“Oresteia,” Xenakis’ realization of Aeschylus in music and dance, is not opera. The closest comparison to it in the standard repertoire would probably be Igor Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex,” in both its primordial, ritualistic mood as well as form—as a kind of avant-garde oratorio. The orchestra, heavy with low brass and percussion, and spiked with wailing clarinets, offers demonic interludes between arresting sequences for chorus (children, men, and women). Most of their writing has an unreconstructed quality, with chant-like material and ecstatic choric flare-ups made of bare fourths and fifths.
In this music, which manages to be both new and old, we catch a glimpse of what Milan Kundera so admired in Xenakis, something that both exceeds the history of European music and also supervenes as its arcane precursor. Xenakis describes the ur-condition of music. “His point of departure is elsewhere,” Kundera writes, “not in an artificial sound isolated from nature in order to express a subjectivity, but in an earthly ‘objective’ sound, in a mass of sound which does not rise from the human heart, but which approaches us from the outside, like raindrops or the voice of wind.” ¶
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