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With a Sound Forged in War, Iannis Xenakis Embraced Chaos

Xenakis’s relationship with Le Corbusier went on to be both fruitful and celebrated, leading to the creation of the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. And as Xenakis garnered fame, his dramatic past stirred up fantasies for many people, especially during May 1968 protests in Paris. A banner reading “À bas Gounod! Vive Xenakis!” (“Down with Gounod! Long live Xenakis!”) was hung from the windows of the Paris Conservatory, and Xenakis said on television, “It’s not just about sound and music; it’s about transforming people, too.” Unlike his Italian contemporary Luigi Nono, though, Xenakis refrained from sharing strong political statements, and left mixed impressions on the public.

The composer Reinhold Friedl, who directs the Berlin-based contemporary music ensemble zeitkratzer, remembered his discovery of Xenakis in the mid-1980s: “Xenakis has been discovered — liberation! To lose oneself in the sound was intoxicating. He was a freedom fighter against the bourgeois distinction of new music.” The music writer Ben Watson, however, criticized Xenakis’s lifelong commitment to classical instruments: “Ironically, Xenakis’s lack of interest in alternative methods of realizing music — such as free improvisation (which he calls ‘a fashion, like jazz’) — fixes 19th century methods as absolute.”

Xenakis nevertheless was revolutionary in music. “Concret PH” (1958), a short musique concrète piece used for the Philips Pavilion, along with Edgard Varèse’s “Poème Électronique,” is the first known occurrence of granular synthesis, a basic part of any electronic artist’s vocabulary today. As a pioneer of electronic music, Xenakis was also behind the creation of UPIC, a graphic sound synthesizer.

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The relationship between the graphic and the auditory was essential for Xenakis. He typically created a graphic score first, then meticulously transformed it into a traditional one. The means of production notwithstanding, he opened new horizons through the use of clouds or masses of sound. “Do not think in pitches but in sound processes,” said Deforce, who frequently performs Xenakis’s demanding solo cello pieces “Nomos Alpha” (1966) and “Kottos” (1977). “That perspective has been one of the big game-changers Xenakis realized in Western art music.”

The baritone Holger Falk said in an interview that Xenakis’s music “feels like diving into a world of rituals that pushes you beyond your everyday consciousness.” Falk often sings Xenakis’s “Aïs” (1980), a dazzling, sonorous piece about death that makes use of exaggerated falsetto, lip smacks and neigh-like glissandos, accompanied by a large orchestra. John Eckhardt, a double bass player, used the word “ritualistic,” to describe his state of mind when performing “Theraps” (1975-76), along with “focused and heroic.”

Glimpses of these feelings can be reached by listening, too. Heard live, the music pins you to your seat. How did Xenakis manage that? Perhaps it is the urgency with which he tackled the unknown, went beyond known musical idioms and clichés, and thus found something both unique and universal. His works resemble natural events both terrifying and awe-inspiring: storms, the formation of branches, tsunamis. But instead of mimicking the forces of nature, his music is a force of nature on its own.

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