From a privileged, yet unsettled childhood to an early career derailed by war, Iannis Xenakis first came to prominence as an architectural draftsman before devoting himself fully to his work as a composer. Combining mathematical probability theory with composition, Xenakis became the originator of stochastic music, in which large-scale compositions were built from discrete individual units linked in precise mathematical sequences. Although few could claim to understand his complex, mathematically derived music theories, the avant-garde composer’s prodigious output, technological innovation, and acclaim in the world of modern classical music gave him fame that few other contemporary composers could match. Upon hearing of his death on February 4, 2001, presidents and prime ministers from around the world paid tribute to Xenakis.
Xenakis was born on May 29, 1922, in Braila, a city in southwestern Romania near the Black Sea and the border with the Ukraine. An important shipping point on the Danube River, Braila’s elite commercial class was dominated by Greek immigrants and their descendants who controlled much of the shipping trade along the river. Growing up in the Greek community in Braila, Xenakis was the son of privilege, although he would later claim that his status as an outsider would always remain central to his identity. Xenakis’ mother died when he was five years old, and he was sent off to a boarding school on the island of Spetsai in Greece to complete his secondary education at the age of ten. Xenakis continued his education at the Athens Polytechnic Institute, aiming for a career as an engineer. Shortly after he was admitted to the school, however, history intervened.
With the invasion of Greece by Italy in 1940 and its subsequent occupation by Nazi Germany to secure the region for the Axis powers, Xenakis’ education took a back seat to the immediate demands of the war. The young engineer joined the Greek Resistance and fought against the occupiers for four years in conjunction with British forces. In the last year of the war, however, Xenakis suffered a near-fatal injury that cost him the sight in one of his eyes. Left for dead by his compatriots, Xenakis nevertheless recovered and survived the war, which formally ended in 1945. As in many other war-torn countries, however, a civil war soon broke out in Greece, one which dragged on for another four years. As Communist Party supporters battled the ruling Greek monarchy, Xenakis was captured and sentenced to death by the government. After the death sentence was handed down, the former Resistance fighter fled the country and in 1947 made his way to Paris. Although Greece returned to a semblance of stability with the suppression of the Communists in 1949 and the adoption of a new constitution in 1951, Xenakis’ death sentence was not officially revoked by the Greek government until 1974.
Born on May 29, 1922, in Braila, Romania; died on February 4, 2001, in Paris, France. Education: Engineering degree, Athens Polytechnic, Greece.
Born in Romania and moved to Greece as a youth; fought in Greek Resistance in World War II; studied music in Paris after World War II; worked for architect Le Corbusier, 1950s; became French citizen, 1965; pioneered electronic music compositions and theories; founded Center for Composition of Music Iannis Xenakis (CCMIX) in France, 1985.
Addresses: Business —Center for Composition of Music Iannis Xenakis (CCMIX), 18, reu Marcelin-Berthelot, 94140 Alfortville, France, website: http://www.ccmix.com.
Xenakis turned his attention to studying musical composition after his arrival in Paris and soon met some of the most famous composers of the day, including Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) and Darius Milhaud (1892–1974). It was Messiaen who advised Xenakis to abandon his formal training in composition in favor of continuing on with his own musical experiments. It was several years, however, before Xenakis premiered his first composition, Metastasis for Orchestra. Completed in 1954 and debuted at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1955, the work was a dramatically new offering in the world of modern classical music. Based on a musical adaptation of the mathematical theory of probability, which the composer labeled “stochastic principles,” Xenakis took small musical units and structured them into a compositional whole using mathematical sequences. As he explained in his book Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, “All sound is an integration of grains, of elementary sonic particles, of sonic quanta. Each of these elementary grains has a threefold nature: duration, frequency, and intensity. All sound, even all continuous sonic variation, is conceived as an assemblage of the large number of elementary grains adequately disposed in time.”
In terms of theory and the resulting composition, Xenakis’ work as a stochastic composer was truly avant-garde. At a time when composers were more interested in breaking down each portion of the composition into discrete elements, Metastasis offered music on a much grander scale. Characteristic of his early works, the piece was a demanding one for musicians with its complex rhythms and explosions of sound. Metastasis was followed by other orchestral pieces, including Pithoprakta for string orchestra in 1956, Achorripsis in 1957, and Syrmos in 1959. During the 1950s, however, Xenakis’ international acclaim came not from his compositions, but from his work as an engineer and draftsman for the famed Swiss-born architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret (1887–1965), better known by his pseudonym, Le Corbusier.
As Le Corbusier’s assistant, Xenakis worked on several influential projects that helped define modern architecture in the postwar world, including housing developments in France and government buildings in India. His most famous work with Le Corbusier, however, was the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium. Designed as a set of parabolas, the building’s dramatic set of curved shapes symbolized undulating waves of sound, a fitting structure for the pavilion’s sponsor, a leading recording and electronics company. As striking as the building’s exterior were the presentations inside. In addition to multimedia works, Xenakis’ Concerto PH, which used the amplified sounds of burning charcoal, surprised and delighted visitors. Representing the intersection of cutting-edge architecture, music, and technology, the Philips Pavilion was one of the modernist highlights of the late 1950s.
By 1960, Xenakis had gained sufficient acclaim to abandon his engineering work and pursue composing full-time. Increasingly, he turned to composing music performed by electronic instruments, starting with the 1958 work Diamorphosis. Xenakis also composed pioneering works with computer programs that generated pieces based on mathematical programs. In 1966, a year after becoming a French citizen, Xenakis founded a research institution in Paris to encourage the further study of mathematics and music. The composer also taught at the Indiana University School of Music, one of the leading music programs in the world, from 1967 to 1972. The university published his work Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition in 1971, a sign of Xenakis’ high standing among music theorists.
Xenakis achieved another breakthrough with his development of a graphic computer interface (UPIC) that allowed users to draw shapes and have them interpreted into musical forms by a computer. In his own work, however, Xenakis gradually veered away from electronic composing. “The stochastic way of composing is something that is innate now,” he told the Village Voice in 1996, “I don’t need to use the computers anymore.” As he further explained to Morton Feldman in an interview at the 1986 Festival Nieuwe Muziek in the Netherlands at the ZeelandNet website, “Whenever I listen to music, I don’t want to consider any ideology whatsoever beforehand. I just want to listen and understand what happens…. When you write music, you should have the same naive approach to music as the listener often has.” In the place of mathematically generated music, Xenakis derived inspiration from this approach and incorporated traditional Greek dramas and myths to deliver more emotional and expressive works, including Oresteia in 1966 and Medea in 1967.
Xenakis had not completely abandoned his theoretical pursuits, however. In 1985, he founded the Center for the Composition of Music lannis Xenakis (CCMIX) with the support of the French Ministry of Culture. Housed near Paris, where Xenakis made his home with his wife, Francoise, and their daughter, the Center devoted itself to encouraging innovative compositions and performances in addition to disseminating information on Xenakis’ UPIC system. During the following decade, Xenakis enjoyed a resurgence of interest in his compositions, with a growing number of music festivals performing his challenging works. During the 1990s, Xenakis received several distinguished music prizes, capping off his career with the 1999 Polar Music Prize, which endowed the composer with a cash award of $125,000.
In failing health for several years, Xenakis died in Paris on February 4, 2001. Tributes poured in, with French President Jacques Chirac lamenting, “France loses one of its most brilliant artists today,” according to the Los Angeles Times. For his part, Xenakis was convinced that his musical innovations would long outlive him. “Sometimes I think composers talk too much. There is only music, that’s it!” he exclaimed to Feldman, adding, “Music is used as acoustical energy. The problem of composition is how to use that energy.” While the theories he expounded during his career were complex, the simplicity of his argument embodied the essence of his innovation in modern classical music.
Medea, Erato, 1969.
Mycenae-Alpha, Nonesuch, 1990.
Pleiades/lshii: Concertante Op. 79, Denon, 1990.
Jonchaies, Col Legno, 1991.
Thallein, Neuma, 1995.
La Legende d’Eer, Montaigne, 1995.
Kraanerg, Asphodel, 1997.
Psappha/Okho/Persephassa, Stradivarius, 1998.
Media/Nuits/Knephas, Hyperion, 1998.
Works for Piano 4, Mode, 1999.
Electronic Music, Electronic, 2000.
Pleiades, Harmonia Mundi, 2000.
Ensemble Music, Vol. 1, Mode, 2000.
Ensemble Music, Vol. 2, Mode, 2000.
Ensemble Music, Vol. 3, Mode, 2000.
Chamber Music: 1955–1990, Montaigne, 2000.
Palimpset/Epei/Dikhthas/Akanthos, Wergo, 2000.
Richardson, Dan, and Tim Burford, Romania: The Rough Guide, The Rough Guides Ltd., 1995.
Xenakis, lannis, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, Indiana University Press, 1971.
American Record Guide, March/April 1995, p. 31; September/October 1998, p. 254.
Billboard, March 6, 1999, p. 50.
Canadian Press, February 4, 2001.
Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2001.
The Times, February 5, 2001.
Village Voice, November 12, 1996, p. 50.
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Infoculture, http://www.infoculture.cbc.ca/archives/musop/musop_02231999_polar.html (July 2, 2001).
Center for Composition of Music—lannis Xenakis, http://www.ccmix.com (July 2, 2001).
Leonardo Online, International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology, http://www.mitpress.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/isast/spec.projects/Xenakisbibhtml (July 2, 2001).
"Xenakis, Iannis." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/xenakis-iannis
"Xenakis, Iannis." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/xenakis-iannis
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Iannis Xenakis (born 1922), Greek-French composer and architect, was one of the first to react against the post-Weberian serialists and pointillists who dominated music in the 1950s. Initially, his most notable achievement was the invention of "stochastic" music based on the mathematical laws of probability. This is a method of composition which uses mathematical formulae to calculate the length and intensity of each sound. As his career has progressed, he became one of the world's best-known composers of electronic music, or music generated by computers.
Iannis Xenakis was was born into a cataclysmic time in pre-World War II history, and like many others who were forced to put their ambitions aside until the world was at peace again, he had to wait until his middle twenties before he was able to follow the desire of his heart and become a composer.
He came from a prosperous Greek family based in Rumania, and was a happy little boy until he was five years old. Then, the death of his mother changed everything. Yearning for her tenderness while in the care of impersonal governesses and nurses, he kept her memory alive by taking a keen interest in the music she had enjoyed.
At the age of ten he was sent to a select Greek boarding school where he did not fit in with the other boys. With few school friends he was intensely unhappy socially, but a natural talent for mathematics and classical Greek literature nevertheless made him blossom in the classroom and gave him the courage to sign up for piano lessons and the school choir. He graduated from high school in 1938, and eager to shake off his loneliness, he refused his father's offer to send him to England to study naval engineering. Instead, he chose to stay in Athens to attend the Polytechnic School and earn an engineering degree.
World War II: Underground Activities
For his first two years as an undergraduate everything went as expected, and Xenakis was able to immerse himself in the physics, law, mathematics, and ancient literature which were basic curriculum requirements.
But World War II was blasting its way across Europe, and in April 1941, Hitler's soldiers marched into Greece. The Polytechnic was closed. However, its students had no intention of submitting quietly to the famine and the collapse of the economy that accompanied the war. Instead, they quickly organized an underground resistance movement.
Ignoring his father's protests, Xenakis initially joined the Greek Resistance but soon switched to the Communist party. Fervent and idealistic, he even volunteered for a student battalion when savage protests erupted against the British occupiers in 1944. His enthusiasm did not serve him well. During one skirmish he was caught by a shell from a British tank and was left to cope with the loss of an eye and a disfiguring facial scar.
Meanwhile, his worried father had been searching all over Athens for him. As soon as the two were reunited, the wounded warrior was whisked into the hospital, where he remained until March, 1945.
By the time he was well enough to leave the hospital, the war was practically over. Without enthusiasm, because he had privately decided that his heart lay with music, Xenakis returned to the Polytechnic in April to finish his engineering degree. He graduated in 1946, but was afraid to stay in his shattered homeland and wait for whatever punishment the new anti-Communist government might devise for him.
Starting Afresh in Paris
With his father's help he stowed away on a cargo ship bound for Italy, where the French Communists met him and smuggled him into Paris. By chance, he had his engineering diploma in his pocket, and was therefore qualified to take a job with an architect named Le Corbusier, who happened to be recruiting both engineers and architects to design a large government housing project. The spare, modern architecture favored by Le Corbusier suited Xenakis. Despite the fact that he had entered Paris illegally, he managed to enjoy his work, revelling especially in the rational mathematical calculations which ruled the principles of building design.
At night he wasted no time in frivolous pursuits, but absorbed himself in the music that had been on hold for so long. He studied and wrote, but he was far too intelligent and rational to assume that he could learn everything without the benefit of a teacher. He realized that his knowledge of musical history was sketchy and his understanding of counterpoint and harmony still sadly lacking.
A Difficult Student
He was determined to educate himself, but his own stubborn nature was to prove a real stumbling block. His first attempt to find a teacher took him to the Ecole Normale de Musique, where the distinguished Arthur Honegger was on the faculty. Unfortunately, this association was doomed. At one class Honegger listened to part of a composition Xenakis had written and dared to point out some structural rule-breaking. Xenakis refused to accept the well-meant criticism with grace. Furiously gathering up his music, he accused Honegger of being far too traditional to appreciate such original work, then left the building.
He next tried to find a teacher in 1949 when he started classes with Darius Milhaud, a composer so inventive that he often wrote music set simultaneously in several keys. But Milhaud, too, fell short of Xenakis' expectations. Meticulous in his own creativity, he advised changes to Xenakis' works which Xenakis thought unimportant. These lessons, too, soon came to an end.
Torn between his need to learn and his yearning to be taken seriously as a composer, Xenakis seethed to his boss in frustration. Le Corbusier listened sympathetically, thought about this problem, and eventually suggested a teacher who was to change Xenakis' life.
Creativity Comes to the Fore
Olivier Messiaen was a renowned organist and a composer far ahead of his time. When confronted by Xenakis' questions about whether he should heed all his critics, disregard his previous work, and start learning harmony and counterpoint from the beginning, Messiaen gave him a thoughtful answer. According to Nouritza Matossian, who interviewed Messiaen for the biography Xenakis, Messiaen said, "No, you are almost thirty. You have the good fortune of being Greek, an architect, and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music."
Xenakis took his advice and began to compose music based on the mathematical laws of probability. Rather than start with a melody, he began with one sound and then developed it according to the probability that certain sounds, rhythms, and pitches would recur in the piece a set number of times. To describe this completely new type of music he invented the word "stochastic."
His first publicly presented piece, Metastis, was first heard in 1953. As musicologist David Ewen suggests in his book Composers of Tomorrow's Music, "Here, and in Pithoprakata, a composition that followed a year or so later, Xenakis explored the possibilities of simulating electronically produced sounds and sonorities with conventional instruments." When completed, Ppithoprakata featured tapping of string instruments by the players' hands, staccato claps from the woodblock, and Xenakis' characteristic arpeggios played by strings.
From here, it was a natural progression for him to electronic music. At first working with doctored tapes and then, in time, on a computer, he meticulously calculated the interrelationship of elements such as each sound itself, its length and intensity, the instrument on which it was to be played, and its frequency. All these separate components were then combined into suitable musical groups by the computer and retranslated into musical notes by Xenakis himself.
He did not stop there. When synthesizers became available, he made use of them too. Here, because the synthesizer has a battery of switches which can each produce and fine-tune a sound immediately, he was able to work faster on his compositions and produce a huge variety of works.
Between the 1960s and the end of the 1980s Xenakis wrote more than 100 musical compositions. He also authored several books, including his Formalized Music which appeared in English in 1970. In addition, he held faculty appointments at the University of Indiana, the University of London, and the University of Paris. He also found time to present selected compositions in extremely unusual ways.
In 1971 for instance, in order to show the harmony between his music, history, and a natural topography, he chose to present a light and sound show featuring his composition Persepolis at the real Persepolis, a ruin which had been destroyed in the third century by Alexander to avenge the burning of the Acropolis by Xerxes in 480 B.C. Persepolis is in present-day Iran, and transporting all the necessary technological equipment from Europe was extremely difficult. Nevertheless, Xenakis achieved the desired effect.
By the 1990s Xenakis was a musical legend whose music was no longer appreciated only by other avant garde composers. Audiences, always leery of ultra-modern music, were now starting to understand that he had invented an entirely new method of composition.
In 1994 he was the featured composer at the Oslo festival of contemporary music's Ultima 94. A large selection of his music was played, including Okho, a 1989 composition for three middle-eastern drums, as well as a 70-minute long concert version of his Oresteia. Its performers included a chamber chorus, a children's chorus, an ensemble of winds and percussion, and a cello.
Each of these is now a cherished part of the contemporary music repertoire, as well as a milestone in music's entry into the electronic age.
Bois, Mario, Iannis Xenakis, the Man and His Music: A Conversation with the Composer and a Description of His Works (1967). Xenakis is discussed in Peter S. Hansen, An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music (3d ed. 1971).
Ewen, David, Composers of Tomorrows's Music, Dodd, Mead &Company, 1971.
Matossian, Nouritza, Xenakis, Kahn & Averill, 1986.
American Record Guide, March/April 1995; January/February 1997. □
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