Iannis Xenakis and the Laws of Chance

28.01.2022
Foto: © Courtesy of Xenakis Family
The Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis was one of the greatest radicals of the 20th century. His music revolted against the zeitgeist and a traditional understanding of Western music as a whole.

Athens, the early forties: the young student Iannis Xenakis joins the street struggle against Italian and German military forces trying to invade Greece, and after the fall of the fascist Axis powers he fights against the British occupiers. He is hit in the face by an errant shell splinter and barely survives, bearing the scars on his face for the rest of his life and never regaining the sight in his left eye. But there is also something else from those days in the resistance that he will carry with him for the rest of his life: a revolutionary idea of what music can be.

Xenakis was born in Romania in 1922 to a wealthy Greek family. He grows up in a musical household: his father takes the family to the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth several times, and his mother, who died early, gives him a flute when he is still a toddler. He continues to pursue his musical interests while studying at a boarding school in Greece. He sings in the choir, learns Mozart’s »Requiem« in its entirety by heart and is just as occupied with learning about the canon of Western classical music as with traditional Greek music. Even when he begins his architecture and engineering studies in Athens in 1938, harmony and counterpoint are part of his curriculum.

His interests in forms, physical laws and sound however only really find a meeting ground on the city’s streets. In 1963, in his book »Musiques formelles« (»Formalized Music«), he writes about the rhythm of slogans shouted in unison by demonstrators; about how different slogans coming from different ends of the procession start overlapping. »The clamor fills the city, and the inhibiting force of voice and rhythm reaches a climax. It is an event of great power and beauty in its ferocity.« Principles of order that permeate the physical world express themselves dynamically in the interaction between people.

The rhythm changes, however, as soon as protesters meet hostile forces. The shouts get out of sync, the scattering crowd carries the sound of protest in every conceivable direction. »Imagine, in addition, the reports of dozens of machine guns and the whistle of bullets adding their punctuations to this total disorder«, writes Xenakis dryly. Polyphonic harmony gives way to aleatoric cacophony, beauty to violence.

What lies behind it, however, is one and the same for Xenakis: »The statistical laws of these events, separated from their political or moral context, are the same as those of the cicadas or the rain. They are the laws of the passage from complete order to total disorder in a continuous or explosive manner. They are stochastic laws.« It is these laws of mathematical probabilities of physical and acoustic phenomena in time and space (or even outside these categories) that are to become the guidelines of his work in the coming decades. He invents »stochastic music«.

Music on Graph Paper: »Metastasis«

After Xenakis was forced to leave Greece for France in 1947 because of his activities in the resistance, he became an assistant to the architect Le Corbusier, but continued to work with music. The composer Olivier Messiaen became a key figure for the young student, advising him to combine his background in architecture with his interest in music. Xenakis threw the music sheets into the dustbin and began to think about art in mathematical-physical categories on graph paper. Little by little, he bid the zeitgeist farewell and also started to leave behind the notion of time as the organising principle of music.

The year 1955 marked his breakthrough as a composer. On the one hand, he published the pamphlet »La Crise de la musique sérielle« (»The Crisis of Serial Music«), in which he reproached the leaders of Western avant-garde music for the fact that their polyphonic and temporal-linear compositions were perceived by the audience as little more than a »surface or mass« – static blocks, complex by design, but not in aesthetic terms.

On the other hand, his composition »Metastasis« (»Beyond Standstill«) was premiered at the Donaueschingen Festival in the same year. The piece, too, could not break away from the paradigms of the serial music yet, but it was clearly marked by the attempt to create real disorder on the basis of mathematical concepts. It’s the kind of music that is supposed to take place outside of time.

The first part of »Metastasis« is a roaring howl: 46 string instruments play elongated glissandi, moving from one note on the traditional Western scale to another one. Because of the sheer number of instruments, the superimpositions of the individual voices evoke a sense of disorder like Xenakis had once experienced in the streets of Athens.

But pure stochasticity, i.e. a method of composition truly influenced by chance, was still not a possibility. »Chance can be constructed a little, but never improvised or intellectually imitated«, Xenakis admitted less than a decade ago in »Musiques formelles«. And even that would require »complex reasoning which is summarized in mathematical formulae«, as he put it To come closer to his goal of composing purely stochastic music, he needed a little technological help.

From Composer to Sound Worker: »Concret PH«

The first performance of »Metastasis« was followed by many working hours in the studios of the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) led by Musique-concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer. Parts of the short piece »Concret PH« were created there and saw Xenakis cutting recordings of burning coal into individual parts, changing their speed and glueing them together again in a different order. The finished piece sounds like the recording of a rain shower made of the smallest metallic parts.

From today’s point of view, it is probably difficult to detect a drastic break with everything that had existed before in those sounds, but Xenakis was both revolting against the dramaturgical leaps in the then already established musique concrète while also laying the foundation for granular synthesis. For him, the sound event and its seemingly random distribution in time and space were in the foreground. This way, and as if in passing, he also buried the composer a good decade before the publication of Roland Barthes’ groundbreaking essay »La mort de l’auteur« (»The Death of the Author«), or at least assigned him the role of a mere sound worker. A little less than three minutes long, »Concret PH« was nothing short of a revolution against long-standing conventions and traditions.

Furthermore, the piece was part of a multi-sensory spectacle that Xenakis conceived almost single-handedly: the Philips Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958. To this day, Le Corbusier continues to be named as the architect of the Philips Pavilion, constructed from nine so-called hyperbolic paraboloids. However, it was Xenakis who took over the bulk of the work. Furthermore, the building’s unique design can also be directly traced back to the graphic notations of »Metastasis«. In that work, Xenakis had already experimented with so-called ruled surfaces, which in turn make up hyperbolic paraboloids. Whether architecture or music: Xenakis freed both from the all-too-human cult of genius by referring to geometric laws that permeated the world beyond all aesthetic judgements.

While serial music presented itself to its audience as »surface or mass«, Xenakis started with drawing surfaces to compose music and space at the same time in order to make it possible to experience true sound masses in a multi-dimensional way. Both »Concret PH« and the audio-visual piece »Poème électronique« by Edgar Varèse were played in two different parts of the Philips Pavilion through numerous loudspeakers mounted at various points – a multimedia spectacle covered in asbestos. Like »Metastasis«, however, this too represented only the still insufficient starting point of much more ambitious projects.

A Great Disorder, the World

In the years following his joint work with Le Corbusier, Xenakis designed further buildings, the so-called polytopes, which were intended to integrate light, sound and space. The »world polytope« planned in the mid-1970s was even to consist of several interconnected locations on earth; a kind of proto-metaverse, conceived as a multi-layered aesthetic experience guided by principles of probability. While others were still fighting over their space on the stages of concert halls, Xenakis wanted to open up new rooms for everyone. But the world was not ready yet: The »world polytope« was never built and even Xenakis’ less ambitious projects could not be realised easily or at all due to purely physical constraints.

With the advent and rapid spread of sound synthesis and affordable computers, however, new possibilities arose for Xenakis. In 1977, he completed the Unité Polyagogique Informatique CEMAMu (UPIC), a composition tool in the form of an oversized graphics tablet. On it, people could compose with a stylus while a computer in the background converted the drawn instructions into sound after they were entered, or even in real time. Composition and performance became one – essentially, UPIC was a rudimentary preliminary version of a digital audio workstation. Even Aphex Twin went on record to express his admiration for the programme some twenty years later.

However, these forays into computer-based experimenation were also preceded by a series of compositions that applied mathematical and physical laws and principles and sometimes still relied on human sound production – chamber ensembles, orchestra, percussion and so on. The piece »Pithoprakta«, for example, written around the same time as »Metastasis«, draws its inspiration from the statistical mechanics of gases, Gauss’s law and Brownian motion, but is performed by a string orchestra, two trombones, a xylophone and a wooden block. The result sounds as if a handful of musicians had met in a highly contaminated area and then appointed a Geiger counter as their conductor. Even for ears trained in the traditions of Western classical music and the various avant-garde movements, this was difficult to understand – precisely because there was little to understand about it, apart from the thought underlying the composition of course.

Throughout his life, Xenakis sought a form of expression beyond the standstill of Western musical traditions, that is, all-too-human categories such as compositional ingenuity, interpretive virtuosity or pleasure-oriented attitudes to reception. His break with all this was as radical as it was flawed, at times even adhering to a way of thinking that he had rejected as outdated. Not infrequently though, he was also so far ahead of his time that his theories were impossible to realise. Yet his various forms of expression, whether in architecture or music, convey the attempt to apply universal formulas instead of using culturally sedimented aesthetic categories. Xenakis wanted to find a general expression for the great disorder that we call the world. He found it in the absolute abstraction of life.

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