Iannis Xenakis


In late 1947, amidst a government crackdown on former resistance members, Xenakis fled Greece, initially intending to reach the United States via Western Europe, but decided instead to stay in Paris. He found a job in the studio of modernist architectural giant Le Corbusier, beginning as an engineering assistant but soon working his way up to collaborating directly with Le Corbusier himself. Much of his focus in architecture was in the realization of mathematical structures and patterns in three-dimensional space. Xenakis’ greatest independent architectural achievement was the Phillips Pavilion at the Expo ‘58/Brussels World Fair.

During his years working with Le Corbusier, Xenakis continued his compositional studies. He approached many of the major pedagogues in Paris, including Nadia Boulanger,Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and eventually Olivier Messiaen, whose classes Xenakis attended from 1951-1953. Messiaen encouraged him to forego a traditional musical education, in part because of his age, and to instead look for inspiration and technique from his unique experience with mathematics and architecture.

Over a wide-ranging body of work, both in instrumentation and technique, Iannis Xenakis revolutionized new music. His integration of mathematics, architecture, and technology created compositions with a severely intellectual basis, yet simultaneously as emotionally overwhelming as anything written before or since. His influence is still found in the music of many young composers today, who find in his work fresh and endless possibilities.

Header image courtesy of CD and LP Other image courtesy of D.I. Tsomokos

A composer of some of the most monolithic works of the 20th century, Iannis Xenakis had an unusual and dramatic path to composition. His background in engineering and advanced mathematics as well as his experiences as a resistance fighter during the turmoil in Greece during and following the Second World War were essential in the development of his unique and incredibly powerful compositional voice.

Xenakis was born in Romania to Greek parents. His mother, who was responsible for first exposing her son to music, passed away when he was only five years old. At the age of ten he was sent to boarding school on the Greek island of Spetsai; here he had his first important musical education, singing in a boys’ choir and studying theory and solfège. After secondary school, Xenakis moved to Athens, intending to enter the Polytechnic University to study architecture and engineering.

The same year that he was admitted to begin studies, the Greco-Italian War broke out, beginning years of turmoil and leading to the occupation of Greece by the Axis forces the following year. This lasted until the last months of the Second World War, after which the British attempted to reinstall the monarchy, prompting a fierce civil war. Xenakis participated in the leftist armed resistance, first against the Axis powers and later against the British.  In 1945 he was gravely wounded by shrapnel from a British tank shell. Although he miraculously survived he was left without sight in one eye and with dramatic scarring of the left side of his face. Despite the chaos, he managed to complete his engineering degree in 1947, and began composing during the same period, initially as a form of emotional relief or distraction from the violence around him. He noted that the sounds of the time – chanting protesters, gunshots, and explosions – were an early inspiration for his unusual musical structures.

His first recognised mature work is Metastaseis for orchestra, premiered at the 1955 Donauschinger Festival. Written for an orchestra of 61 musicians, each player with an individual part, with the strings providing the primary material. They begin in unison, before, one by one, individuals begin glissandi, creating a massive sustained harmony, then collapsing into sparser textures. The string glissandi return at the end, as the piece finishes with the strings returning to unison. The structure ofMetastaseis, incorporating, notably, Einstein’s concept of time and the Fibonacci sequence, was a bold departure from other trends of composition during the postwar era. Rather than adhering to what Xenakis referred to as a deterministic or motivic development, Xenakis instead creates static atmospheres, referred to in the score as Order, Complexity, Disorder, Order, which evolve from one to the next.

Xenakis, with his affinity for mathematics and technology, proved to be an equally revolutionary figure in electronic music. His two earliest works in the genre are his most influential.Diamorphoses (1957-1958) was his first experiment in the medium. It was created in the Radio France studio established two decades earlier by Pierre Schaeffer, and is also very much inspired musically by his work, with recordings of natural, mechanical, and musical sounds. Despite the similarities to the earliermusique concrete style, Xenakis avoided treating his recordings in a musical/linguistic manner, instead juxtaposing them in form similar to his instrumental music. At the same time as he was finishingDiamorphoses, Xenakis was working on Concret PH (1958). This tape work, in contrast to the first, utilizes a recording of burning charcoal as the sole sound source. This work was created for the Phillips Pavilion that Xenakis himself had designed, amplified through four hundred and twenty five loudspeakers.  

Another genre in which Xenakis proved to be particularly influential was music for percussion, both solo and ensemble and chamber music. An early major work wasPersephassa (1969) for a group of six percussionists. Written for Les Percussions de Strasbourg, the work was premiered at the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival at the historic site in Iran. The audience is surrounded by the percussionists, whose dense patterns and complex rhythmic relationships seem to distort space and time within the circle.

For performers, the role of extra-musical concepts in Xenakis’ music leads to massive technical demands.  Two of the most notorious examples areSynaphaï (1969)for piano and orchestra, and the later Tetras (1983) for string quartet. InSynaphaï the piano part is notated in ten different staves, one for each finger, with stunningly complex results. InTetras, dedicated to the Arditti Quartet, striking effects are passed from instrument to instrument in vertiginously precise rhythms, blurring the perception of the quartet into a single instrument.

From an oeuvre full of monumental pieces, one of the most massive, at least in orchestration, isJonchaies (1977), for one hundred and nine musicians. The title translates to “Strewn Branches”, a reference to complex and stochastic nature of the score. Partly inspired by his work in electronic music, the pieces is one of his most colorful and surprising. His trademark string glissandi and explosive percussion and brass writing frequently dissolve into lyrical melodies, beautiful harmonies, or Stravinsky-esque frenzied dances.

One of Xenakis’ later ensemble works is A l’île de Gorée (1986) for harpsichord soloist with a small ensemble of four wind instruments, three brass, and strings. The Senegalese island of Gorée, with its complicated history of European colonialism, was a departure point for slaves being sent to Europe. The piece is dedicated to them. Compositionally, with the relatively quiet solo instrument, the instrumentation is more delicate than in most of Xenakis’ music. The short, percussive sound of the harpsichord, utilised both in violent chords and mechanical and complex wandering lines, is punctuated with the richer and more sustaining strings and winds.