- Presences of/Présences de Iannis Xenakis
The passing of John Cage in 1992 and of Iannis Xenakis in 2001 brought to a close a century of musical creation that, in the hands of many composers, valued experience over object, discovery over predictability. Although the musical end results of the two composers' work were quite different, Cage's use of compositional process in denial of intention and Xenakis' use of mathematics to create musical experience unavailable through any other means had more in common than one might at first suspect. This is but one interesting thought that surfaces after reading the collection of essays Présences de Iannis Xenakis.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the composer and architect Iannis Xenakis integrated musical creativity and architectural thinking, bridging the two with mathematical processes. Présences de Iannis Xenakis is comprised of 27 articles presented in 1998 at a symposium organized in Paris by the Centre de Documentation de la Musique Contemporaine and Radio France. This was the first symposium completely devoted to the work of Xenakis. The resulting book is divided into five sections, each focusing on a different aspect of Xenakis's music: "Sources and Late Works," "Theories," "Aesthetics," "Analysis" and "Architecture and Polytopes." The 27 articles are presented in their original languages, 18 in French and nine in English. The book closes with a complete list of Xenakis's music compositions written between 1949 and 1997, and an extensive bibliography collected and annotated by Makis Solomos.
The articles in the first section trace some of the early influences on Xenakis' music, such as Greek folk music and the music of Bartok. They also explore Xenakis' early interest in electronic music and his involvement with the GRM (Groupe de Recherche Musicale), positioning his later works in the context of these early influences. James Harley's article, "Formal Analysis of the Music of Iannis Xenakis by Means of Sonic Events: Recent Orchestral Music," provides a useful overview of Xenakis' orchestral music from 1957 to 1997. Harley's approach is more descriptive than analytical, but the result is a survey of orchestral writing that reveals a significant evolution of material and proposes an analytical approach based on sonic elements. Makis Solomos's well-documented and illustrated article, "Du projet bartókien au son. L'évolution du jeune Xenakis," deserves a special mention. It exposes in a clear and concise fashion the composition techniques used by Xenakis in his early pieces, making the article an excellent preparation for the articles on his later music.
In the "Theories" section, the articles explore some of the mathematical techniques used by Xenakis to generate musical elements. The scope of these articles varies widely, from the general and holistic approach of Jean-Luc Hervé's "Les images sonores xenakiennes: actualité de la pensée de Xenakis pour la création musicale aujourd'hui" to the complex and more technical "Théorie des cribles" of Benoît Gibson (one may want to brush up on one's math before dealing with this inspiring and challenging article). In "Clarification on Xenakis: the Cybernetics of Stochastic Music," the composer Agostino Di Scipio takes a close look at the role stochastic processes played in the composition of Xenakis' electroacoustic works (Concret PH, Gendy3, etc.) and proposes an "order from non-order" theory, finding a "rich experience where the scientific and humanistic elements meet and confront each other."
It is not surprising that all the articles in the "Aesthetics" section are in French. While not exclusive to the French culture, aesthetics has always been one of its prime considerations. These four texts, which fit very well within that tradition, consider the sonic phenomena in Xenakis's music as an abstract element and comment on its cultural and historical contributions.
The strength of the "Analysis" section comes from the fact that each article has essentially one point of focus, so that the articles together provide a broad perspective on Xenakis' compositional techniques...