Iannis Xenakis is one of the leaders of modernism in music, a hugely influential composer, particularly in the later 1950s and 1960s, when he was experimenting with compositional techniques that soon entered the basic vocabulary of the twentieth-century avant garde.
Xenakis was born, not in Greece, but in Braïla, Romania, of Greek parents, on 29 May 1922. His initial training, in Athens, was as a civil engineer. In 1947, after three years spent fighting in the Greek resistance against the Nazi occupation, during which time he was very badly injured (losing the sight of an eye), he escaped a death sentence and fled to France, where he settled and subsequently became an important element of cultural life.
Xenakis was first active as an architect, collaborating with Le Corbusier on a number of projects, not least the Philips Pavilion, designed by Xenakis, at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. It was in the 1950s, too, that Xenakis’ compositions began to be published. In 1952 he attended composition classes with Olivier Messaien, who suggested that Xenakis apply his scientific training to music.
The resulting style, based on procedures derived from mathematics, architectural principles and game theory, catapulted Xenakis to the front ranks of the avant garde – although there was never any suggestion that he was a member of a clique or group: he was always his own man. He never, for example, embraced total serialism, and he also avoided more traditional devices of harmony and counterpoint; instead, he developed other ways of organizing the dense masses of sound that are characteristic of his first compositions. These stochastic, or random, procedures were based on mathematical principles and were later entrusted to computers for their realization.
But for all the formal control in their composition, Xenakis’ scores retain an elemental energy, a life-force that gives the music an impact of visceral effectiveness: works like Bohor for electronics (1962), Eonta for piano and brass quintet (1963-64), Persephassa for six percussionists, placed around the audience (1969), and the ballet Kraanerg, for 23 instrumentalists and tape (1969) all exhibit a primitive power that belies the complexity of their origins. The Sydney Morning Herald said of Kraanerg, for example, that it “remains staggeringly powerful and clamorous, an essay in constantly renewed energy that shows not the least sign of faltering”. Married with this primordial power is the composer’s fascination with ritualism, most often that of ancient Greece, finding fullest theatrical form in his setting of the Oresteia (1966).
Iannis Xenakis is published by Boosey & Hawkes.