Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), who fought in the resistance against the Axis powers during World War II, during which he lost an eye, and then moved to France, where he remained for the duration of his life was a trained architect and engineer, an enthusiast of mathematics and computers, and a composer. This remarkable combination of skills and interests marked him as one of the most formidale and controversial of postwar music.
Born to Greek parents in Romania, Xenakis entered a boarding school in Greece at ten and was just preparing his college work in architecture and engineering, while also expressing an interest in music, when the war broke out and Greece was occupied by German forces until 1944. Xenakis actually lost his left eye from a shell when the British occupation of Greece took place and he was protesting against their presence, despite England's role in ousting the Axis powers, because the British favored restoring the Greek monarchy while Xenakis and others preferred another path (he was then a Communist.)
Xenakis was able to continue his university studies, completing his engineering degree in 1947, but the Greek government's program to round up former members of the resistance, led him to flee the country and settle in France. In the militaristic Greek postwar period, Xenakis was sentenced to death, then to a long prison term (of course, in absentia) before being pardoned when civilian government returned in the 1970s.
In Paris, Xenakis found work with the famed architect Le Courbusier and worked on some major architectural projects, while simultaneously studying harmony, counterpoint and composition. After such major figures as Nadia Boulanger, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud rejected his unusual approaches to music, a sympathetic soul was found in Olivier Messiaen, who encouraged his student to apply his architectural and mathematical skills to the serialism that was embraced by Xenakis.
By the mid-1950s, Xenakis was becoming recognized for his work, including Metastaseis (1953-54.) He also began working with electronic sound, in what was generally called musique concrete. He also became a noted teacher as well as a composer and was deeply interested in the use of computer programming and complicated mathematical formulas to develop scores. Even though this mechanical approach might appear to have the makings of producing music absent of human feeling, Xenakis' ability to program mathematical formulas did not leave that impression, unless modern music leaves the listener cold, regardless of how the composition is created.
Although most of his work was done in France, Xenakis did have a several-years stint teaching at Indiana University in the late 1960s and early 1970s and for three years in the later 70s in England. He also wrote several treatises on musical concepts.
Xenakis referred to his complex, densely rhythmic, heavily timbral music as "stochastic," meaning that there was a major element of indeterminacy, perhaps in open scoring or alternate systems of notation as well as the complex mathematical equations used, often fed into computers, within an overall structure. So, unlike John Cage's sense of indeterminacy, where randomness completely rules the roost, Xenakis has a logical ordering of a piece based on mathematical and other scientific models but with a measure of chance operations.
At the same time, Xenakis considered himself an ancient Greek soul in a modern body and was heavily influenced by Greek and Byzantine music, the latter coming from his youthful exposure to the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as ancient Greek mathematical concepts from the great Pythagoras, who related music and numbers in his work.
Later in his career, Xenakis, who used logical concepts involving game theory, algebraic ideas, vector analysis, and other methods previously, began to use visual imagery, called "arborescences" in his compositions and the images of sound were shown as roots, branches and other tree-like components that found a way to tie in his unusual ideas in a form distinct from traditional scores and also paved the way for a composition technique called UPIC, in which an electromagnetic pen was used on a specialized table for creating shapes that were computer manipulated into sounds immediately. He also composed using light and lasers in some works.
For this rank amateur, the finer points of Xenakis' many techniques is almost always elusive, but the reaction to the music is still one of wonder, surprise, awe and, occasionally, exasperation in trying to read about the technical aspects while trying to listen and appreciate the powerful mind of the composer.
One way, perhaps, to best fuse the challenging music of Xenakis with an emotional reach is through his works for piano, an instrument that seems to best connect intellectually and emotionallly for the listener. Part of a fine series of the composer's work from the Mode label is the Works for Piano compilation, rleased in 1999. Featuring the work of a longtime student and friend, Aki Takahashi, this recording presents six pieces, most from the 1970s and 1980s, excepting the solo "Herma" from the early 1960s. Four of the works are solos for Takahashi, while one pairs her with violinist Jane Peters and the other, "Palimpsest," finds her with percussion, strings and wind instruments.
For this listener, the first three pieces are the best with "Herma" and "Evryali" allowing Takahashi to use her formidable talents bringing these complicated works to life in a way that taps into the emotional expressiveness of the piano, even with highly complex, modern compositions. Similarly, the duet of piano and the emotive violin of Peters on "Dikhthas" is notable and the nearly 15-minute piece moves so well that it seems far shorter, at least to these ears, than that. Truthfully, the other works are also fine, with the combination of varied instruments on "Palimpsest" providing a needed break and contrast to the solo and duet work found elsewhere. And, the closer, the short "A.R. (Hommage a Ravel)," gives Takahashi the environment for virtuoso work in chains of extremely rapid notes with breaks of long extended chords and then finishing with more fast runs ending with a jarring low cluster of notes at the end.
Iannis Xenakis was a prolific composer with a varied portfolio employing a wide range of techniques and applications--his work will be featured here again several times. If there is a way to get "introduced" to his music to new listeners, this piano-centric release might be the best avenue, although, truthfully, its very modern approach might be forbidding regardless. If a listener is up for the challenge, though, the music can be very rewarding and enlightening.