Iannis Xenakis (Greek: Ιωάννης Ιάννης Ξενάκης) (May 29, 1922 – February 4, 2001) was an ethnic Greek, naturalized French composer, music theorist, and architect-engineer. He is commonly recognized as one of the most important post-war avant-garde composers. Xenakis pioneered the use of mathematical models such as applications of set theory, varied use of stochastic processes, game theory, etc., in music, and was also an important influence on the development of electronic music.
Among his most important works are Metastaseis (1953–4) for orchestra, which introduced independent parts for every musician of the orchestra; percussion works such as Psappha (1975) and Pléïades (1979); compositions that introduced spatialization by dispersing musicians among the audience, such as Terretektorh (1966); electronic works created using Xenakis’s UPIC system; and the massive multimedia performances Xenakis called polytopes. Among the numerous theoretical writings he authored, the book Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (1971) is regarded as one of his most important. As an architect, Xenakis is primarily known for his early work under Le Corbusier: the Sainte Marie de La Tourette, on which the two architects collaborated, and the Philips Pavilion at Expo 58, which Xenakis designed alone.
1947–1959: Architecture and music
Although he was an illegal immigrant in Paris, Xenakis was able to get a job at Le Corbusier’s architectural studio. He worked as engineering assistant at first, but quickly rose to performing more important tasks, and eventually to collaborating with Le Corbusier on major projects. These included a kindergarten on the roof of an apartment block in Nantes (Rezé), parts of government buildings in Chandigarh, India, the “undulatory glass surfaces” of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, a Dominican priory in a valley near Lyon, and the Philips Pavilion at Expo 58—the latter project was completed by Xenakis alone, from a basic sketch by Le Corbusier. The experience Xenakis gained played a major role in his music: important early compositions such as Metastaseis B (1953–4, also known as Metastasis) were based directly on architectural concepts.
At the same time, while working for Le Corbusier, Xenakis was studying harmony and counterpoint, and composing. He worked long and hard, frequently far into the night, and sought guidance from a number of teachers, most of whom, however, ultimately rejected him. Such was the case with Nadia Boulanger, who was the first person Xenakis approached about lessons. He then tried studying with Arthur Honegger, whose reaction to Xenakis’s music was unenthusiastic. As Xenakis recounted in a 1987 interview, Honegger dismissed a piece which included parallel fifths and octaves as “not music”. Xenakis, who was by that time well acquainted with music of Debussy, Béla Bartók, and Stravinsky, all of whom used such devices and much more experimental ones, was furious and left to study with Darius Milhaud, but these lessons also proved fruitless. Then, Annette Dieudonné, a close friend of Boulanger’s, recommended that Xenakis tried studying with Olivier Messiaen. Xenakis approached Messiaen for advice: should he once again start studying harmony and counterpoint?
Unlike Honegger and Milhaud, Messiaen immediately recognized Xenakis’s talent: I understood straight away that he was not someone like the others. […] He is of superior intelligence. […] I did something horrible which I should do with no other student, for I think one should study harmony and counterpoint. But this was a man so much out of the ordinary that I said… 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.
Xenakis attended Messiaen’s classes regularly in 1951–53. Messiaen and his students studied music from a wide range of genres and styles, with particular attention to rhythm. Xenakis’s compositions from 1949–52 were mostly inspired by Greek folk melodies, as well as Bartók, Ravel, and others; after studying with Messiaen, he discovered serialism and gained a deep understanding of contemporary music (Messiaen’s other pupils at the time included, for example, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jean Barraqué). Messiaen’s modal serialism was an influence on Xenakis’s first large-scale work, Anastenaria (1953–54): a triptych for choir and orchestra based on an ancient Dionysian ritual. The third part of the triptych, Metastaseis, is generally regarded as the composer’s first mature piece; it was detached from the triptych to mark the beginning of the “official” Xenakis oeuvre.
In 1953 Xenakis married Françoise Xenakis (née Gargouïl), journalist and writer, whom he met in 1950. Their daughter Mâkhi, later a painter and sculptor, was born in 1956. In late 1954, with Messiaen’s support, Xenakis was accepted into the Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète, an organization established by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, dedicated to studying and producing electronic music of the musique concrète variety. Shortly after that Xenakis met conductor Hermann Scherchen, who was immediately impressed by the score of Metastaseis and offered his support. Although Scherchen did not premiere that particular work, he did give performances of later pieces by Xenakis, and the relationship between the conductor and the composer was of vital importance for the latter.
By late 1950s Xenakis slowly started gaining recognition in artistic circles. In 1957 he received his first composition award, from the European Cultural Foundation, and in 1958 the first official commission came through, from Service de Recherche of Radio-France. In the same year he produced a musique concrète piece, Concret PH, for the Philips Pavilion, and in 1960 Xenakis was well-known enough to receive a commission from UNESCO, for a soundtrack for a documentary film by Enrico Fulchignoni.