With a Sound Forged in War, Iannis Xenakis Embraced Chaos

September 23, 2022

The 100th anniversary of the birth of the revolutionary Greek-French composer and music theorist, Iannis Xenakis was the subject of a remarkable tribute in the New York Times written by Jiri Slabihoudek on September 22.

While born in Romania – he fled to France in 1947 after the Greek Civil War – he felt his Hellenism – and the pain of the tragedies of the 20th century – strongly and deeply. The article quotes him saying in 1967: “Greeks are like that…They are a people continually in search of themselves, always ready to launch out into all kind of rapid, violent actions, and end up by not finding themselves.”

Slabihoudek writes that, “he was in his prime when he made that comment, known internationally for his music and collaborations with, for example, Le Corbusier,” the great architect whom Xenakis, also an architect and an engineer, worked for. She continues: “Yet the search never stopped, and Xenakis managed to stay elusive until his death in 2001, along the way building a legacy that is being observed this year, the centennial of his birth.”

‘Metastaseis’, which premiered in 1955 in Germany, put Xenakis on the classical music map. “Admirers and opponents alike were struck by the work’s sheer violence of the masses of sound… It was something new and exciting. The composers of the Darmstadt School, then the powerhouse of avant-garde music, had been focused on serialism, and the belief that every aspect of composition should be under control, measured and organized in a highly abstract manner.”

“Xenakis, for his part,” Slabihoudek continued, “embraced chaos. A Greek French artist born in Romania, he went to explore it through philosophy and science, as the ancient Greeks did…in an article titled ‘The Crisis of Serial Music,’ he took issue with the likes of Pierre Boulez Stockhausen, essentially accusing them of leading music into an impasse.”

In his 1971 book Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, he provided vivid examples of inspirations for “his concept of stochastic music, an approach to writing music that was concerned with large numbers, chance and probabilities, which were manipulated to achieve a particular goal. (‘Stochos’ means ‘target’ in Greek).

“Imagine a large crowd of people,” he said, “demonstrating in the streets. They chant slogans in waves from front to rear, determining where to go next. Suddenly, the enemy attacks, dispersing the crowd by firing machine guns into the air and into the crowd itself… After sonic and visual hell,” Xenakis wrote, “follows a detonating calm, full of despair, dust and death.”

Xenakis experienced what he speaks of. He joined the Greek Communist resistance in WWII, fighting the Italian and German occupying forces.

According to Slabihoudek, during the Greek Civil War that followed, “on Jan. 1, 1945, a shell from a Sherman tank scarred Xenakis for life…’He told me once,’ the composer Pascal Dusapin recalled in a recent documentary, ‘that he keeps trying to reproduce the sound he heard when the shrapnel went into his face.’”

The article notes that, “he talked about his wartime experience with sinister overtones. And if one thing stands out in his music, it is what cellist Arne Deforce described in an interview as the absence of ‘human pathos and emotional compulsion.’”

Slabihoudek writes, “that style, leaning toward the extreme, egoless but at the same time natural – in the way a deafening storm is natural – had its origins on the streets of Athens.”

Just as Xenakis’ experience of war, occupation, and civil war impacted the emotional dimension of his music, his training and work as an engineer and architect affected the execution of his work.
“The relationship between the graphic and the auditory was essential for Xenakis,” writes  Slabihoudek, who explained that, “he typically created a graphic score first, then meticulously transformed it into a traditional one.”
Xenakis, after graduating as a civil engineer, wanted to go to the United States “but never made it beyond Paris,” the article notes. Slabihoudek writes that, “after a few harsh, depressing weeks of getting to know the city, he found a job with the architect Le Corbusier. He also studied with the composer Olivier Messiaen from 1951 to ’53, whose interest in non-Western music inspired Xenakis to follow suit… Xenakis’s relationship with Le Corbusier went on to be both fruitful and celebrated, leading to the creation of the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.

Nevertheless, it is through his music, as a god of the avant garde, that Xenakis made his impact on the world – music that needs to be heard to be grasped.

Baritone Holger Falk says that Xenakis’ music “feels like diving into a world of rituals that pushes you beyond your everyday consciousness.”

The article relates that, “Falk often sings Xenakis’s ‘Aïs’ (1980), a dazzling, sonorous piece about death that makes use of exaggerated falsetto, lip smacks and neigh-like glissandos, accompanied by a large orchestra. John Eckhardt, a double bass player, used the word ‘ritualistic’, to describe his state of mind when performing ‘Theraps’ (1975-76), along with ‘focused and heroic.’”

Slabihoudek concludes her tribute by writing, “glimpses of these feelings can be reached by listening… Heard live, the music pins you to your seat. How did Xenakis manage that? Perhaps it is the urgency with which he tackled the unknown, went beyond known musical idioms and clichés, and thus found something both unique and universal. His works resemble natural events both terrifying and awe-inspiring: storms, the formation of branches, tsunamis. But instead of mimicking the forces of nature, his music is a force of nature on its own.”




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