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.
Further Reading on Iannis Xenakis
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).
Additional Biography Sources
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.