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  • Innis Xenakis:1922-2001
  • Roger Reynolds

Iannis Xenakis: a musical voice without precedent. Born of Greek parents in Braïla, Romania, 29 May 1922, he was sent to a boarding school on the island of Spetsai at the age of 10. There began the steeping in ancient Greek philosophy and drama that ignited and illuminated his creative acts throughout his life. Although he had early lessons in piano and music theory, his formal education culminated, rather, in science, at the Athens Polytechnic Institute, which he entered in the fall of 1940. A year later, the impact of WWII was growing, and he joined the communist-led National Liberation Front, resisting first the German invasion and later the British occupation of Greece.

Xenakis's music embodies inferential dimensions no other composer has managed to harness, dimensions only knowable, I think, to one whose very identity was branded by the indiscriminate violence of shrapnel during the demonstrations in Athens on the last day of 1944. Three years later, after he had received his engineering diploma, political realities forced him to flee Greece and to relocate illegally in France. There he began an association with the master architect Le Corbusier—at first as a draftsman, then gradually also as a contributor to the design of, notably, the convent of La Tourette (1955) and the fanciful, tent-like Philips Pavilion (for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels). Xenakis was a fiercely proud and egocentric being. A dispute over what he felt was a denial of appropriate recognition for the design of the Philips Pavilion resulted in a rupture of his relationship with Le Corbusier in 1959. Only then did he determine to focus his energies on music composition—though architecture always remained, it was clear to me, an essential fascination for him.

His musical aspirations had been encouraged by contact with Messiaen in an analysis course at the Paris Conservatory (1950-1952). But it was his own Metastaseis, for chamber orchestra (1953-1954), that marked the emergence of a signature originality. It gave substance to his realization—nourished by architectural engagements—that sonic surfaces and masses could be generally asserted (as he would have it, "out of time," which is to say as relationships not yet fixed in a concretization) as concatenations of straight lines, as statistical distributions of points (brief sounds such as string pizzicati). He made these surfaces concrete not only through the unprecedented sonorities of Metastaseis (by webs of glissandi—tendrils of sound with continuously varying pitch), but also in the hyperbolic paraboloid surfaces of the Philips Pavilion and, later, in the conception of his other "polytope" structures.

In the 1950s, Xenakis's work attracted the attention of Swiss conductor Hermann Scherchen, who championed his music and also began publishing (in his periodical Gravesaner Blätter) the dense and daunting series of Xenakis's theoretical articles—on probability, stochastic processes, logic, sieves, etc.—which were eventually collected in Formalized Music (French edition, 1963). In 1962, Xenakis, who had been given limited access to an IBM computer, and began exploring the first of the two distinctive compositional algorithms he devised: Free Stochastic Music (FS). The continuing need for a research environment in which he could test his musical theories led him to found EMMAMu (1966). This facility metamorphosed, by 1972, into the Centre d'Études de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (CEMAMu).

The particular insight that Xenakis told me he considered his signal originality—that the continuous variability of all of the dimensions of sound could be addressed in music—was [End Page 353] manifested not only in the unique compilations of vibrant, implacable sonic textures that characterize his compositions, but in an original interfacing concept (the UPIC System, 1978). This device allowed him—and untrained school children as well—to draw directly on an electronically monitored surface, describing to an attached computer not only the variation of pitch over time, but also the wave-shape identity (affecting the timbre) of the sound material itself.

Xenakis's work manifests an audacious and often a supreme command of materials and time; it bridges the humanely intuited and the mathematically engendered. It asserts the comprehensive, integrative vision that came naturally to him—that...


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