On Xenakis

20 October 2014 in Heather

I remember how I held my breath as my dad pounded each nail halfway into the square piece of wood we’d covered in black felt. I watched as two nails became three, then five, then eight, until the last completed a perfect circle. Dad handed me the board and I returned to my desk to consult my math book, which described how to wind string from nail to nail at measured intervals around the circle. The lines of string began to create a web around the perimeter of an inchoate circle, this one hovering magically in the center of the board over the black felt. I repeated the process twice more, using different colors of string to mark intervals of greater distance between the nails, forming two larger, colorful circles around the first one. The resulting design was beautiful. I kept my fourth-grade foray into parabolic string art on prominent display in my room until the day I moved to college, never outgrowing the wonder and satisfaction of seeing the straight lines yield to a curve.

Iannis Xenakis certainly understood the beauty and perfection of the parabola. Of Greek heritage, he studied engineering in his home country during the political upheavals of the 1940s; eventually, his leftist political sympathies drove him away from Greece, to Paris, where he worked for more than a decade for Le Corbusier. Xenakis nurtured an extracurricular interest in musical composition and began to merge his two passions. Metastaseis (1953-54), for orchestra, attempts to realize—musically—the sweeping parabolic shapes of an architectural sketch: in the opening minute, the string section divides into entirely separate parts, and each player’s taut glissando threads itself into a mass of sound that in turn wraps around the listener. The music revels in seductive and spacious arcs, even though it is built on the principles of linear algebra, that is, of straight lines.

Xenakis explored the relationship of math and musical composition throughout his career: Jonchaies, written almost 25 years after Metastaseis, sounds like a refined, grown-up version of the earlier work. The orchestra comprises over one hundred players who slither into and out of dense rhythmic chaos through Xenakis’s hallmark glissandi. In one particularly effective passage, brass players bend pitches as if caught between a jazz club and the fires of hell. Where Metastaseis envelops, Jonchaies consumes.

His investigation of architecture, mathematics, and music consistently produced music of extreme density, and an exclusively aural experience of Xenakis’s works can be overwhelming. The early tape piece Concret PH (1958) is as astonishing in its three minutes of obsessive sonic manipulations as the later Persepolis (1971) and La Légende d’Eer (1977) are in their explorations of extramusical worlds. Concret PH puts a single sound source—burning charcoal—through the technological blender to create an uncomfortable symphony, something akin to stepping into a cold shower of hungry insects or walking through a blizzard of broken glass. The metallic scrapyard of Persepolis is no more fun, suggesting, as it does, the shrieking and wailing of tortured souls. And La Légende—which begins and ends quite beautifully, with high-pitched bell-like tones bouncing from channel to channel—spends a solid seven minutes making burbling 70s computer noises reminiscent of Dr. Who’s T.A.R.D.I.S. Here, the ethereal meets the absurd.

The music is visual, visceral, and almost invariably begs to be included with other media. In fact, Xenakis composed Concret PH for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World Expo in 1958, and he conceived La Légende as accompaniment to a light and laser show for the opening of the Centre Pompidou. Did other media—architecture, light, or imagery—temper the aural fever of Xenakis’s compositions? I can only imagine.

Certainly, the percussion works invite an appreciation of instrumentation and technique regardless of a mediated experience. In these pieces (Persephassa, Psappha, and Pléiades) one can hear the counterpoint of skins, wood, and metal and appreciate the musical parts form a dynamic whole. And yet Persephassa, the first significant percussion piece (1969), calls for the six players to be dispersed around the audience. Xenakis’s consideration for sound in space is ever present.

Mathematical formulas, musical composition, spatialization, and multimedia. I remember my piece of parabolic string art, and why I prized it for so many years. From across the room, the impact of the design—three colorful circles around an omniscient black eye—pleased me with its grace and simplicity; up close, I could witness the hundreds of steps—the process—it took to craft it. Like nature, the bones of architectural renderings remind us of the beauty derived from mathematical models: both the nautilus shell and the blueprint for a spiral staircase reveal a theoretical system to which Xenakis gave sound. It is a musical system where nothing is superfluous, where every part relates precisely to the whole.