Iannis Xenakis  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Iannis Xenakis (Γιάννης Ξενάκης) (May 29 1922 - February 4 2001) was a Greek composer and architect and major contributor to musical modernism.


Xenakis was born in Brăila, Romania to Clearchos Xenakis and Fotini Pavlou, and studied architecture and engineering in Athens, Greece. Xenakis participated in the Greek Resistance during World War II and in the first phase of the Greek Civil War as a member of the students' company Lord Byron of ELAS (Ethnikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos, Greek People's Liberation Army). He received a severe face wound from a shell which resulted in the loss of eyesight in one eye. In 1947 he fled under a false passport to Paris. In the meantime, in Greece he was sentenced, in absentia, to death. In Paris he worked with Le Corbusier. While his assistant, Xenakis designed the Pavillon Philips in Brussels, home of the première of Edgard Varèse's Poème Électronique at the 1958 Brussels International Fair. The Pavillon's hyperbolic structure was, in fact, based on the formative structure of his musical masterwork "Metastaseis," composed some four years earlier. The dual nature of "Metastaseis" and the Pavillon are an example of Xenakis' theory of meta-art – the concept that an artistic expression can be realized mathematically in any artistic medium. Xenakis performed at many world expositions and fairs, and played annually in the Shiraz Art Festival in Iran.

Xenakis's primary teachers of composition were Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Olivier Messiaen. At the time he began composing in earnest, Xenakis had not had much formal study of music and almost nothing of theory, and so he studied harmony and counterpoint with whoever was willing to accept him as a student despite his vast gaps in knowledge and reluctance to defer to established authority. His own early compositions, however, rarely followed the rules he was being taught. His first meeting with Honegger exemplifies his attitude toward formal instruction: asked to play one of his compositions on the piano, Xenakis was stopped promptly as Honegger pointed out parallel fifths and octaves. Xenakis had written them intentionally and refused to "correct" the piece. Honegger attempted to humiliate Xenakis, who simply left to study with Milhaud. However, he believed Milhaud's teaching also imposed restrictions he found arbitrary and inessential.

Meanwhile, he continued to work full-time as an architect in Le Corbusier's employ, composing only as a hobby. Xenakis was a creative architect, exploring the possibilities of new materials and shapes in construction, and was frequently entrusted with important projects that called on his technical and artistic skills. Le Corbusier, who came from a musical family (and pretended to hate music) also mentored Xenakis as a composer; he regarded Xenakis and Varèse as two of France's most innovative and promising.

Later, Xenakis approached Olivier Messiaen for compositional advice, expecting to have to start his musical studies again from the beginning, but was told "No, you are almost thirty, you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music." Messiaen, whose own compositional style did not follow established precedents, did not try to impose the limitations of baroque counterpoint or serialism as previous teachers had, but rather let Xenakis find his own musical ideas and guided them along. Xenakis attended Messiaen's Paris Conservatoire classes regularly, and his confidence grew along with his compositional skill; he would shortly thereafter combine the mathematical ideas he had been developing in Corbusier's studio with the musical tools he had been honing with Messiaen to produce his first major work.

He is particularly remembered for his pioneering electronic and computer music, and for the use of stochastic mathematical techniques in his compositions, including probability (Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases in Pithoprakta, aleatory distribution of points on a plane in Diamorphoses, minimal constraints in Achorripsis, Gaussian distribution in ST/10 and Atrèes, Markov chains in Analogiques), game theory (in Duel and Stratégie), group theory (Nomos Alpha), and Boolean algebra (in Herma and Eonta), Brownian motion (in N'Shima). In keeping with his use of probabilistic theories, many of Xenakis's pieces are, in his own words, "a form of composition which is not the object in itself, but an idea in itself, that is to say, the beginnings of a family of compositions." Unlike most of his contemporaries (i.e. Milton Babbitt, Schoenberg), Xenakis did not want the listener to be aware of the forms and theories used to produce his compositions.

In 1962 he published Musiques formelles, a collection of essays on his musical ideas and composition techniques. This was later revised, expanded and translated into Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition in 1971.

In 1966, Xenakis founded the Centre for Automatic and Mathematical Music in Paris and subsequently set up a similar centre at Indiana University.

From 1975 to 1978 he was professor of music at Gresham College, London, giving free public lectures.

He died in Paris in 2001.

It is interesting to note that frequently in conversation Iannis Xenakis was keen to distance himself from being seen in too strict terms - like many other composers for whom method and structure were the easiest aspects of music to discuss verbally, he sees the role of such things as relative. One way to envisage this approach is that the method constitutes a thematic germ, a starting-point, and from there the normal musico-aesthetics, personal obsessions and practical considerations play their normal role in finishing and shaping the piece. Indeed from the 1970s onwards Xenakis' use of method became deeply assimilated into his general musical thinking and he reports in interviews from that time that the strict application of statistical processes was no longer necessary to produce the results he was looking for.Template:Verify source

It is also interesting to note that Xenakis appeared easily bored in interviews when people attempted to take an overly simplistic view of him as 'complex' - the various clichés surrounding him appeared to greatly annoy him in interview and he would frequently make recourse to the wider aesthetics of music in general and the other arts, in order to contextualise his contributions to music-making. In a sense his early statements about "looking at music statistically" were a response to what he saw as the mistake of placing too much emphasis on the likely benefits of applying methodology too rigorously.Template:Verify source It is also important to note, however, that this does not constitute any true dichotomy between Xenakis and his peers - the application of single-minded rigour to composition in post-war music was relative and momentary, and as with his own work, the poetic and aesthetic significance of the gesture as a modern equivalent to programme-music, as well as the vital role played by musicality and music-editing/shaping has been widely undervalued in favour of simplistic characterisations of such music as purely intellectual.

Overall then Xenakis' contribution to the modernist aesthetic arose from the understanding that things which happen according to rules can be changed without loss of overall meaning, and developed (immediately) into a freeform polyphonic style focusing on large-scale emotional control and a generalistic approach to melody. Another glaringly obvious but often overlooked aspect of Xenakis' work is the kind of neo-classical naming convention. Many essays have been written about the formula titles of his numbered works but it seems very clear that his obsession in most of his titles was with ancient Greece.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Iannis Xenakis" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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