Drumming in Summer with Xenakis

Classic Arts Features   Drumming in Summer with Xenakis
Fiercely iconoclastic composer Iannis Xenakis receives extraordinary tributes in New York City and Montreal this month. Composer and writer Raphael Mostel profiles the artist himself and the various offerings staged in honor of the late musician.


June 17 to October 17 in Montreal, the Canadian Centre for Architecture will present the landmark exhibition "Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary," which this past winter broke all previous exhibition attendance records in its first stop at the NYC's Drawing Center in Soho. And as part of the June 21 "Make Music New York" three free performances of major Xenakis works were heard in NYC's Central Park, thanks to funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

The major Central Park Xenakis performance was "Persephassa," for six percussionists, performed outdoors as originally intended, with the audience in rowboats on the lake. This piece, for six percussionists, has never before been performed in the US outdoors. The six percussionists were placed in a roughly hexagonal arrangement around the west side of the lake : two in lakeside gazebos, one on a rock outcropping and three on floating platforms built especially for the event. The percussionists included renowned performers Steven Schick and Doug Perkins. In addition to listening from rowboats, audience members gathered on paths and bridges surrounding the lake.

Xenakis composed "Persephassa" for the first Shiraz Festival in 1969 held within the ancient desert ruins of Persepolis. The title refers to the goddess Persephone, "the personification of telluric forces and of transmutations of life." The work makes considerable use of spatial effects, as when accents or imitative rhythms are passed around the ensemble, or layers of sound are rotated in different directions, each at its own tempo, in a kind of space-time collision. Throughout "Persephassa," the percussionists use a wide range of instruments and sound effects, including sirens, maracas, and pebbles, along with an arsenal of drums, wood blocks, whistles, cymbals, and gongs.

For Iannis Xenakis, "composition, action are nothing but a struggle for existence. To be. If, however, I imitate the past, I do nothing, and consequently I am not. In other words, I am sure that I exist only if I do something different. The difference is the proof of existence, of knowledge, of participation in the affairs of the world."

And different he was. Not only as composer, but also as architect, he stood out as having striven for : and achieved : things not even dreamt of by others. The astonishments he conjured are now the subject of a traveling exhibition which opened last January 15 - April 8 in New York City at the Drawing Center in Soho: "Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary."

Montreal is the second stop of this exhibition. It will then travel to its third and final destination, Los Angeles MoCA - Design Center. It is causing quite a stir, with a wide range of people. In fact, the Director of the Drawing Center in New York marveled that this exhibition consistently attracted ten times their usual number of visitors!

Since Xenakis' death in 2001, interest in his work has only increased. There are always performances of his works wherever new music is heard. This past year in London, a series of concerts of his music drew the largest throngs of the season. There are hundreds of recordings of his works, and they keep proliferating. And dozens of concerts and events are celebrating the exhibition.

Like his most famous architecture, the 1958 Brussels World's Fair's Philips Pavilion* : created while working for Le Corbusier, and which with good reason he called "a glissando in space" directly modeled on his manuscript calculations of the famous glissando of his composition Metastasis the manuscript of which is included in the exhibition : Xenakis' fierce, expressive music attracts curiosity just because it is so different yet in startling ways recognizable despite its abstraction.

Launched from imaginative use of statistics, logic, intuition and passion, observations from patterns in nature and ideas from ancient Greeks _ the exhibition shows the minutely detailed labor, experimental concepts and calculations behind his compositions : his works are so deliberately difficult to perform, only the most extraordinary performers even try. Strangely though, the effect of the music is not at all difficult for the audience. There is nothing lyrical or lulling in his music. Instead it is bracingly elemental and brutal, with a vitality, a clarity, a sustained tense high energy, that can't help but fascinate.

"[Savageness] is part of our everyday life," Xenakis asserted. "Too much music is nice. No really great music is tender. ... [Schubert] is full of violence and charm at the same time. The two can't be separated.... in general really great music combines peace and struggle, serenity and pain. ... I do lack lyricism. Maybe life killed it in me‹but it's also possible that I was born without it."

In the 1960's, just as Czech writer Milan Kundera was learning the poisonous truth of Carl Jung's assessment of sentimentality as "a superstructure covering brutality," he discovered an antidote in Xenakis' music. Kundera wrote, "Music has played an integral and decisive part in the ongoing process of sentimentalization [in European civilization]... [Other] music appeared to me as the ear-deafening noise of the emotions, while the sound-world in the works of Xenakis became beauty; beauty purified of the dirt, purified of sentimental barbarism. ...Xenakis opposes the whole of the European history of music. His point of departure is elsewhere; not in an artificial sound isolated from nature in order to express a subjectivity, but in an earthly 'objective' sound, in a mass of sound which does not rise from the human heart, but which approaches us from the outside, like raindrops or the voice of wind."

Xenakis' early experiences marked who he became. Trained as an engineer, his student days coincided with the tumultuous years of World War II. A staunch Greek patriot, Xenakis joined the communist partisans fighting for Greek liberty, battling the fascists, and afterwards, against the British. In one demonstration an exploding shell killed two people standing on either side of him and blew away part of his face, including one eye.

Against all odds, he survived. Much later, he startlingly compared the sequences of sounds that led up to his wounding to the rhythms of the events to that of the song of cicadas, or of raindrops : probabilistic, or stochastic, laws. Indeed, he claimed the experience was the inspiration for Metastasis. He managed to escape to Paris although sentenced to death in absentia.

By good luck, he immediately got a job in Paris working for Le Corbusier as an engineer, and soon demonstrated his talents on numerous projects. Wanting also to pursue study of music too, after a few false starts : he tried and had disastrous experiences with Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud : he was accepted to study with Olivier Messiaen.

Messiaen had the great inspiration to tell him he was too old to learn music the normal way, and that he should use his knowledge of engineering and architecture. Xenakis seized the idea to create a union : or what he called an "alloy" : of music and science. His books, like his classic, mathematics-saturated "Formalized Music," offer bracing challenges to standard music theory.

A key concept of his work is that of 'outside time.' Xenakis explained "I suddenly realized it is not true that music is only time, as Stravinsky claims... In fact, music is basically outside time, and time serves only for it to manifest itself. Whatever we think is by definition outside time because it is in our memory and doesn't disappear with the passage of time (unless we forget it). We have no power over the time-flow but we feel it passing: the notion of time is also outside time. Notions‹such as time interval, ordering structure‹are all in our mind, they don't disappear. Consequently in music the question of form, structure, harmony, counterpoint and so on are all outside time. If we take a duration‹let us say three seconds‹where are those three seconds? In the music I wrote yesterday, in the music I am going to compose tomorrow. It has nothing to do with the passage of time."

Outside time, not just music, and not just architecture. Xenakis also created a number of Polytopes : spectacles of sound and light and structure, Total Artworks, completely abstract, the technologies of which were as startling as all the other elements. Completely fascinating, and certainly different!


Ô©Raphael Mostel

Raphael Mostel is a composer based in New York City. He writes on the arts, and has often taught "Architectonics of Music" in tandem with architect Steven Holl. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Ensemble recording of his "Night and Dawn," commissioned for them to commemorate the anniversary of the Netherlands' liberation from the Nazis, is to be released on CD in the fall. His website is www.mostel.com

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