Xenakis, Iannis

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Iannis Xenakis


Born: May 29, 1922 - Braïla, Romania

Died: February 04, 2001 - Paris, France

Country: Greece

Studies: private college in Spetsai, Athens Polytechnic; Ecole Normale de Musique, Paris

Teachers: Arthur Honegger; Darius Milhaud

Iannis Xenakis was a composer of Greek heritage and Romanian birth, known for his revolutionary ideas regarding the systematic, mathematical organization of music and its structural parallels with architecture, and for his pioneering work in electronic music. Xenakis' initial exposure to music came in the first ten years of his life, when he was surrounded by the folk music of the Romanian countryside and the liturgy of the Byzantine Orthodox Church. In 1942, when his family moved to Greece, he was exposed to the music of Beethoven and Brahms for the first time.

His life grew turbulent when he entered Athens Polytechnic with the intent of becoming an engineer. When Greece was invaded during the World War II, Xenakis became passionately involved with resistance and liberation groups, first protesting against Nazi rule and, later, opposing the British, who, in 1944, drove out the Germans but sided with right-wing politicians against the Greek National Liberation Front. Xenakis was seriously wounded, his face disfigured, when he was hit by a British shell; he also lost vision in one eye. As a member of the resistance, he was eventually arrested and sentenced to death. He escaped in 1947, hoping to reach the United States. He ended up settling in Paris, however, and taking French nationality. In Paris, Xenakis made numerous important contacts, befriending Messiaen, Honegger, Mihaud, and the celebrated architect Le Corbusier, who were all impressed by his innovative and brilliantly intellectual approach to music. Working with Le Corbusier, Xenakis was highly involved with civil planning and architecture, designing some landmark sites throughout the world. For him, architecture was musical, and music was architectural. He frequently used one to inspire the other, basing pieces on computer programs and complex mathematical equations. This approach resulted in highly theoretical, systematic music characterized by intricately calculated rhythms, dense and often explosive textural fields, extended timbral effects, and "clouds" of sound that contain countless "particles." Some of his most important works include the orchestral Metastasis (1954), Pithoprakta (1956), Nomos Alpha for solo cello, and groundbreaking electronic works such as Bohor I, and Concret P-H. Xenakis was the founder of the EMAMu in Paris and its American counterpart, the Center for Musical Mathematics and Automation in Bloomington, Indiana.[1] - Graham Olson

Iannis Xenakis was born in Braïla, Romania in 1922. His family moved back to their native Greece in 1932. Xenakis began composition lessons at the age of 12 and studied music intermittently during his engineering studies at the Athens Polytechnic. His university years were largely interrupted by the events of World War II. The year he entered the Polytechnic, 1940, was also the year that Italy invaded Greece. Xenakis became increasingly active in the student demonstrations of the Greek Resistance and was incarcerated several times. He was eventually forced to go into hiding after being sentenced to death by the government. In 1945, Xenakis suffered a shell wound to his face that disabled his left eye.

After the war, Xenakis planned to flee to the United States. His stopover in Paris, however, became a permanent one. In 1947, Xenakis was hired by the famed architect Le Corbusier as an engineering assistant and helped design, among other projects, the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Xenakis concedes, however, that he was more interested in studying composition than in being an architect during this time. A series of auspicious meetings enabled Xenakis to pursue that interest. He briefly studied with Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud, and was later referred to Olivier Messiaen in 1951. Messiaen encouraged Xenakis's uncommon background in architecture and mathematics, saying, "Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music." Conductor Hermann Scherchen, who would become a lifelong confidant and supporter of Xenakis's music, said the following when he first encountered Xenakis's music in Paris, "I find it interesting that you don't approach music as a musician. You look at it from a different point of view, from the outside." Xenakis, whose name means "gentle stranger," became a French citizen in 1965.

Xenakis began adapting principles of mathematics and probability to his instrumental music around 1954. Works such as Metastasis (1953-4), Pithoprakta (1955-6) and Eonta (1963-4) were composed according to these principles, an approach Xenakis called stochastic music. The premiere of Metastasis at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1955 drew criticism particularly from the serialists who described the work as "protoplasm-like" and "crammed with

glissandos." Xenakis answered his critics in a bold article that same year, "The Crisis of Serial Music," in which he articulated his formalized techniques. In his stochastic works, statistical methods were used at every level of the musical process, from score composition to sound synthesis. Xenakis also pioneered a unique approach for using the same mathematical procedures in creating both the micro- and macrostructure in electroacoustic music.

From 1957 to 1962 Xenakis composed at Pierre Schaeffer's electronic studio. In the electroacoustic works he created there, Diamorphoses (1957-8), Concret PH (1958), Orient-Occident (1960), and Bohor (1962), Xenakis continued to explore a texture concept that he had been exploring in his instrumental works, what he calls "cloud" or "galaxy" technique, manifested by slowly evolving, granular sound masses in which the internal details are constantly moving, often by way of glissandi, repetition, or tremolo. Xenakis departed from the purer, more transparent appropriations of musique concrète that prevailed at Schaeffer's studio and instead explored the deeper structures of his sound materials, preferring extremely rich sounds or extremely faint sounds highly amplified. Bohor (1962) not only marked a new level of sound exploration but also a severe split between him and Schaeffer, though the work was dedicated to Schaeffer.

Xenakis established the School of Mathematical and Automated Music in Paris (CEMAMu) in 1966 and later a sister institution at Indiana University. Xenakis has also created, among other things, a tool for writing electronic music called UPIC. He has taught at Tanglewood, Indiana University, and the Sorbonne. In addition to his orchestral and electroacoustic works, he has written several choral, dramatic, and chamber works, as well as sound and light shows known as polytopes.

"That is the music of our age," said Varèse after hearing Xenakis's breakthrough work Metastasis.[2]

Works for Percussion

Aïs - Multiple Percussion; Voice; Orchestra
Dmaathen - Multiple Percussion; Oboe
Komboï - Multiple Percussion; Harpsichord
Okho - Percussion Trio - Djembe
Oophaa - Multiple Percussion; Harpsichord
Persephassa - Percussion Sextet
Pléiades - Percussion Sextet
Psappha - Multiple Percussion Solo
Rebonds - Multiple Percussion Solo


  1. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/iannis-xenakis-q8133/biography
  2. http://www.music.columbia.edu/masterpieces/notes/xenakis/bio.html