Iannis Xenakis: Architect of Sound

Resounding walls and audible spaces: in the work of Iannis Xenakis, music and architecture merge.

What an entrance! To this day, the listener can imagine only too well what excitement and confusion the young composer must have caused over 60 years ago when he soared to sudden fame with a piece of music just eight minutes long in the midst of the post-war avant-garde. With the help of a 60-piece orchestra, he set vivid sound masses in motion, creating resounding walls of swelling clusters and glissandi that rub against each other in whirling orbits.

Iannis Xenakis: Metastaseis

»Metastaseis« (reshaping, transformation) is the name of the piece with which the 32-year-old Iannis Xenakis burst into the venerable Donaueschingen Music Festival in 1955, at the same time catapulting himself out of the illustrious company of composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. For his work ignored all the established practices of the prevailing style, namely serialism based on twelve-tone series. »Metastaseis« was based on a geometric construction, and it did not convert meticulously layered, carefully placed tones into sound, but rather a complete continuum – music conceived not as a structure, but as a body in space. A resounding contradiction of the principles of serial technique that were so dogmatically defended by its advocates.

Iannis Xenakis: Studie zu »Metastaseis«, 1954
Study of »Metastaseis«, 1954 © Iannis Xenakis Archives / Bibliothèque nationale de France Paris

In the German-speaking countries in particular, it took decades for Xenakis to gain general acceptance: his ideas and his music were too far removed from the continental European tradition, they were too strongly bound by the monumental heritage of ancient Greece and by Byzantine art. His works were scarcely performed at all until well into the 1970s. Xenakis fared better in France, his adopted country, but here too he remained an outsider and a lone wolf. And the fact cannot be ignored that both aesthetic and biographic factors were responsible.

Caught Up in the Turmoil of War

Iannis Xenakis was born into a middle-class Greek family in the Rumanian town of Braila in 1922. His mother died when he was young, and his father sent the ten-year-old lad to an elite school back in Greece, where Xenakis made an intensive study of classical Greek art and architecture, laying the foundations for what later became an important source of inspiration for his music. In 1938 he moved to Athens to prepare for life as a student of engineering.

Iannis Xenakis in seinem Studio, Paris um 1970
Iannis Xenakis in his studio, Paris ca. 1970 © Michèle Daniel / iannis-xenakis.org

His enrolment at university in October 1940 coincided with the invasion of Greece by Mussolini's troops. Xenakis was caught up in the turmoil of (civil) war, and joined a communist resistance group. In December 1944 he suffered a critical injury from a British grenade which exploded right next to him during urban warfare. His girlfriend died at his side, and the explosion tore half his face apart, leaving him marked for life. His jaw was later patched up in a makeshift way, one eye could not be saved, and his hearing was permanent damaged: Xenakis suffered from impaired balance henceforth and couldn't hear high frequencies anymore; he had to live with a constant rushing sound in his ears.

Nonetheless, he managed to complete his degree in the summer of 1946. When he received his conscription papers from the Greek junta, he chose to go into hiding rather than do military service. He was thereupon sentenced to death in his absence. In the spring of 1948 he managed to escape to Italy using a forged passport, and from there he travelled on to Paris, where he was to remain until his death in 2001.

Iannis Xenakis Iannis Xenakis © Centre Iannis Xenakis

»I felt that I needed to do something important to regain my right to continue living.«

»Something Much More Important«

As if in a confession, Xenakis wrote many years later about these formative experiences of his youth:

»For years I was tormented by pangs of conscience because I had left the country I fought for. And I left my friends as well: some of them were in prison, others were dead, and just a handful managed to escape. I had the feeling that I was indebted to them, and that I needed to pay off the debt. And I also felt that I had a mission. I needed to do something important to regain my right to continue living. I believe it was my injury that made me what I am.

»It’s as if I were at the bottom of a well shaft. My impaired senses mean that I can’t take in the world around me directly. I think this is why my mind turned more and more to abstract thought. I had to learn to estimate how far away an object is using my mind. At every step. And this way, I got into the habit of abstract thought in other areas as well.«

Elbphiharmonie Explains: Iannis Xenakis’s »Embellie«

Elbphilharmonie Explains / Iannis Xenakis
Elbphilharmonie Explains / Iannis Xenakis

Archaic and Ecstatic

Xenakis’s autobiography is the key to understanding his music, far more so than a knowledge of all the philosophical and mathematical disciplines whose theories and techniques he made use of, sometimes with the help of computer programmes he had developed himself: stochastics, Boolean algebra, chaos theory, Markow chains, Maxwell-Boltzmann chance distributions, normal or Gaussian distribution. It’s hard to believe that such a cool scientific mind can be behind this archaic and ecstatic music.

Iannis Xenakis
Iannis Xenakis © Adelmann Collection of Françoise Xenakis

The listener is struck in particular by the music’s physical presence, by its exceptionally plastic shaping and the way it tangibly fills a space. These are not glass bead games, but moving musical sculptures of monolithic power. Iannis Xenakis was an architect of sound in the true sense of the term: the young refugee had hardly arrived in Paris when he found a position with the famous architect Le Corbusier. The great master let the Greek engineer calculate various possible applications of reinforced concrete – not a popular task, it’s true, but one that enabled Xenakis to pay for composition studies parallel to his job: his teacher was Olivier Messiaen.

Dynamic and Elegant

Xenakis was also successful in his bread-and-butter job. Numerous conflicts with the conceited and difficult Le Corbusier notwithstanding, he was given increasing opportunity to work on his own, and was involved in prominent projects such as the planning of the Capitol Complex for the Indian state capital Chandigarh, of a stadium in Baghdad, of the Dominican monastery Sainte-Marie de La Tourette near Lyon, and last but not least, a pavilion for electronics manufacturer Philips at the 1958 Brussels world exhibition – his most important project as an architect.

Iannis Xenakis: Philips-Pavillon für die Expo 1958
Iannis Xenakis: Philips Pavillon for the World Expo 1958 © Wouter Hagens / Wikimedia Commons

Shock to the Senses

Read more about the musical history of the 20th century.

Architectural categories in music, musical categories in architecture – in Xenakis's work, the boundaries between the two disciplines are fluid. For the glass facade of the monastery La Tourette, he designed undulating walls of glass (Le Corbusier called them »verres musicaux«) where the glass itself is not actually curved, but recreates the movement of waves as a visual effect. This was a genuinely rhythmic aspect with which he also experimented in some pieces of music. And when, as in »Persephassa«, Xenakis placed six percussionists not on the stage, but distributed them around the auditorium, he was aspiring to a three-dimensional sound in a musically structured space.

But Iannis Xenakis never set any store by the knowledge or understanding of such theoretical background. On the contrary: »The listener must be gripped and, whether he wants to or not, be sucked into the orbits of the sounds without needing some special training. The shock to the senses must be as intense as that triggered by the sound of thunder or by looking down into a bottomless chasm.«

Text: Carsten Fastner, last updated: 11 Nov 2019
Cover picture: Iannis Xenakis © Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

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