Iannis Xenakis


Greek composer, architect, civil engineer and philosopher, was born in 29-5-1922, in Braila, Romania. He start to gain an increasing international prominence as an avant-garde composer in the early ‘50s.

He was the first-born son of Clearchos Xenakis (a representative for an English import-export company and an opera lover, originally from the island of Naxos and one of the richest men in Braila) and Fotini Pavlou (an outstanding pianist from the island of Lemnos). He went to a Romanian school, studying Greek at the same time with a tutor.

In 1932 his father sent him to Greece, where he continued his elementary and secondary studies in the Anargyrios and Korjaleneios School at the island of Spetses (until 1938). There, he received for the first time lessons in harmony and piano and listened to records of Beethoven’s string quartets, Brahms et al.

After a two-year preparative course, during which he also studied classic Greek literature and piano, he entered the Athens Polytechnic University (1940-46), at the same time studying harmony and counterpoint with a pupil of Alexander Skryabin, Aristotle Kundurov. Inspired by the Marx and Plato altogether, he joined the Greek Resistance and took part in anti-Nazi protests, was imprisoned by the Italians, the Germans and, later, the English, joined a student battalion for the Revolutionary Youth Organisation, became “political leader” of the “Lord Byron” fraction, and in the end of 1944, while fighting in the civil war, he was injured by a mortar, which destroyed his left eye and disfigured his face.

In 1946 he joined the Greek army, then defected in order to avoid a recantation, and was sentenced to death in absentia. He escaped to Italy in 1947, and ended up in Paris, where he worked as an architect with Le Corbusier from 1948 to 1959, participating in many designs, projects and constructions: the Nandes-Reser settlement (1949), the 800-home competition in Strasbourg, the Chadigar Parliament building in India (1951), the Touret monastery (1953), homes at Briais-en-forêts and Charlottenburg, Berlin (1954), the “Philips” pavillion for the 1958 Brussels Exhibition, the Baghdad Stadium etc. He became a French citizen since 1965.

In 1950, Xenakis met his future wife, the decorated heroine of the French Resistance, Françoise, whom he married in 1953 and who later became a famous writer. At that time, he turned once more and for well to music. In 1951 he met Olivier Messiaen and started taking lessons from him.

The latter, despite his own principles, encouraged him to fill the gaps in his music education by employing mathematics in music - his childhood dream. A series of his works at the time try to blend the Greek folk tradition with western music: Spring Symphony (according to Ritsos, 1949-50), Zygia (for violin and cello, 1951), Zygia kathisto (piano, with 4 hands, 1952), Trio (1952), Anastenaria and Procession to the clear water (1952-53), The dove of peace (Bucarest, Aug. 1953), Sacrifices (for voices, strings, brass, percussion, 1954). Though renounced, these works might throw some light on the transitional stages that led to his subsequent creations.

Xenakis became famous with his first published work, Metastaseis (for orchestra, 1953-54, premiered in October 1955 at the "Donaueschingen Festival" in Germany) and with his articles against “total serialism” (rejecting its tendency to process sound as isolated points) in the "Gravesaner Blätter". These were published by his fervent advocate (whom he met in 1954) Hermann Scherchen, the first in a series of conductors (Constantine Simonovic, Michel Tabachnik et al.) who specialised in his music.

Scherchen premiered several of Xenakis’ famous works: Pithoprakta (orchestra, 1955-56), Achorripsis (21 players, 1956-57), Polla Ta Dhina (according to Sophocles, for orchestra and children’s chorus, 1962), Terretektorh (1966). He first became internationally acclaimed with his trip to Japan, in 1961. In the same year, he founded in Paris the center for research of avant-garde music “EMAMu” (Equipe de Mathématique et d’ Automatique Musicales, which subsequently moved to the Center of Nuclear Research of the French College).

Since then, he has been travelling around the world, giving lessons and presenting new works, among which the notorious Polytope, very extensive spectacles of sound (instrumental, vocal or taped) and light (spotlights, laser beams), usually with a vast number of participants: Montreal (1967), Persepolis (1971), Cluny (1972), Mycenae (1978). From 1967 to 1972 he taught for several months a year at the University of Indiana (Bloomington, USA).

In 1983 he was elected member of the French Academy and in 1986 he was honored by the French government with the high order of the Gold Cross of the National Order of Value. His relations with the Greek state were restored in 1974, after the fall of the dictators’ regime and the amnesty for political refugees.

The starting points for Xenakis’ creations are usually abstract conceptions, often mathematical models which describe the operating laws of physical systems:

Theory of probability.
Random (aleatory) distribution of the points of one level (Pithoprakta).
Law of Maxwell - Boltsman from the kinetic theory of gasses (Diamorphoses).
Minimal limitations (Achorripsis).
Gauss distribution (ST/10, Atrees).
Marcovian chains (Analogiques).
Random walks - Brown motion (Noomena, Khoai).
Theory of games (Duel, Strategie).
Group theory (Nomos Alpha, Nomos Gamma).
Set theory and Boole’s algebra (Herma, Eonta).
Organic evolution forms - arborescences (Evryali, Erikthon).
Number theory (Ikhoor, Pleiades). The model is applied, imposed on sounds (musical composition) and on visual features (architectural designs), light effects (laser beams, “Polytope” etc.).