This one-eyed Greek composer relied on his math genius

The title means something like ‘energy accomplished’ and refers, the composer Xenakis noted, to ‘the overwhelming battle between the human brain and the infinite obstacles it raises itself’. That doesn’t suggest any obediently lyrical swooning music. What is called: to heighten the acoustic battleground, the student uprisings of 1968 also resonate in the work craneerg

Visitors to the Saturday Matinee are therefore warned this coming weekend. Then the modern music specialists of Klangforum Wien, led by Sylvain Cambreling, set out on a concert performance of craneerg, the deafening beech ballet that the Greek avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) completed in 1969. For five quarters of an hour the strings screeched, the wood section screeched and the brass screeched. And then there’s that electronic soundtrack, which grinds like rusty tram wheels on twisting rails. Turbulent is an understatement.

The violent sound world of Xenakis is often interpreted biographically. He was eighteen when the Second World War interrupted his engineering studies at the Polytechnic University of Athens. What followed were years in the resistance, during which he lost an eye to a flying shrapnel. After the liberation, he took on as a communist against the English and was sentenced to death in absentia by the Greek colonel regime.

Xenakis fled to Paris and miraculously found a job with master architect Le Corbusier. His biggest job was his design for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958. For the futuristic gabled roof, he returned to the ‘hyperbolic paraboloids’, curving geometric figures, with which he used earlier in his orchestral work. metastasis a dense web of string glissandi.

Because next to the drawing board the composing pen beckoned more and more emphatically. In the Paris conservatory class of Olivier Messiaen, Xenakis became acquainted with post-war newcomers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. He quickly rejected their serial composition techniques, based on complex tone and rhythm sequences. What good is such rhetoric, he wondered in 1955 in the razor-sharp article La crisis de la musicif the sounding result is an amorphous sound mass?

Rather than as an unintended result, Xenakis decided to take sound masses as a starting point. His war past also played a role here, he once said in an interview with the German pianist Volker Banfield. Rhythmically chanted slogans during mass demonstrations, which suddenly degenerated into frantic screams from gunfire, was one such process. The change from order to chaos and vice versa inspired him.

Relying on his math skills, Xenakis organized his sound cloud music with insights from probability and number theory. He was also a pioneer in composing with computer algorithms and spatial arrangements. Not that you necessarily hear those techno-mathematical principles in his work. Who pieces like pithopraktaEontapersephassa and terretektorh listens, hears a raw, unapproachable sound world that grabs you inexorably by the guts.

How do you listen to music in which Apollonian order is translated into brutal, Dionysian expressiveness? NRC spoke to three Xenakis connoisseurs about their experiences with his music.

Geoffrey Madge Photo Szabo

Geoffrey Madge ‘Don’t let Xenakis sound too smooth or his music will lose its urgency’

Pianist Geoffrey Madge worked closely with Xenakis for over thirty years. He performed his complete work for piano, recorded many of them, and in 1980, together with Aad van ‘t Veer, was one of the founders of the Xenakis Ensemble.

„I first met Xenakis in 1971. I played herma in London, Xenakis himself would come to listen. We agreed in advance at a hotel. That’s where I played the piece, on a dilapidated, slightly out-of-tune hotel piano. Can you imagine? He could laugh about it himself, thankfully. We clicked right away.

Four years later I was invited by him to a Xenakis festival in Athens. The colonel’s regime had been overthrown a year earlier, so he was allowed to re-enter the country. Three evenings of his work were programmed in the Herodes Atticus Theater next to the Acropolis. Afterwards he said: ‘You can feel that this is where the roots of my music lie.’

That statement has always stayed with me. Xenakis has often been portrayed as a radical modernist, but I’ve never seen him like that, his work is too earthly and the links with the past too numerous. Ancient Greek philosophy was an important source of inspiration for him, as was the classical tradition. I once asked him what his main musical influences were. Bach, Brahms and Bartók, he said.

In Bartók he admired folk music. With Brahms he was mainly concerned with his First Symphony† That colossal, rough start, that appealed to him. The link with Bach lies in his fascination for polyphony. Xenakis’ music is very polyphonic, but on a large scale. He does not put individual voices, but whole masses of sound in counterpoint with each other.

He was extremely critical of performances of his music. I remember a recording of synaphaicfor Decca. We had three hours. Was going to be easy, the producer thought. Well, we knew that. Xenakis first started sifting through the orchestral parts. There the trombones a bit louder, there the strings a bit more prominent. In the end there was barely half an hour left for the actual recording. We did it in one take.

I am convinced that his war past played a part in that severity. Music was a matter of life and death for him and he demanded the same dedication from his performers. A piece like synaphaic borders on the unplayable. At one point, the piano part spans ten staves, one for each finger. But also Eonta is a physical war of attrition. In a good performance you should be able to hear that struggle. Xenakis should not sound too smooth, otherwise his music will lose its urgency and power.”

Bas Wiegers Photo Marco Borggreve

Bas Wiegers ‘I try not to approach Xenakis as just another avant-garde’

Bas Wiegers, as a conductor and violinist, performed much of Xenakis’ work: „Xenakis to me is like a kind of extraterrestrial meteorite that fell from the sky at a certain moment. He was suddenly there, bringing with him music that no one else could have written. There are of course points of contact, such as the Byzantine tradition and folk music. As a violinist I have played a lot of chamber music and solo works by him. In a violin piece like mikka you can clearly hear those influences.

I’ve always tried not to approach Xenakis as just another avant-garde. Of course, his work is partly the product of a radical post-war urge to experiment, but at the same time it carries a kind of mythical primal force. His music wants to express something, tell something. I don’t mean a literal story, but rather an abstract dramaturgy. His sound world is about struggle, about catharsis. Then it doesn’t matter which god plays chess which nymph, if you know what I mean. It’s about playing chess.

Xenakis had a background as an architect and that’s essentially how he composed. In his hands, sound becomes a material with which he starts sculpting. More than with harmony or melody, he worked with texture, colour, volume and density. Preferably in several layers at the same time and with a lot of contrast. His work has moments of brutal, volcanic power. But he can also write very quietly, almost lyrically.

When I conduct Xenakis, I try to magnify those contrasts. I find that I often fall back on my passion for photography. Conducting Xenakis is like editing photos in Photoshop: adding some color here, sharpening the contrast there, removing some noise. That plastic approach to his sound world is much more important to me than the mathematics behind his work. Those sums and equations, that was his recipe book. You don’t always have to know which ingredients were involved in order to enjoy the meal.”

Janco Verduin Photo R. Brands

Janco Verduin ‘That brute physical strength, no other composer comes close’

Composer Janco Verduin wrote a new work for piano and orchestra for the NTR Saturday Matinee, in which he explicitly relates to Xenakis. MASS will premiere on Saturday, April 23.

„When Kees Vlaardingerbroek, the director of the Saturday Matinee, said that he would like a piece with a link to Xenakis, I immediately thought: ‘Hooray!’ I’ve always been a big fan of Xenakis’ work. It must be my metal background, but the raw and unpolished sound world really appeals to me. One of my favorite pieces is roai: as if two planets are rubbing against each other. That brute physical strength, no other composer comes close.

An interesting paradox is that Xenakis’ music is highly structured on the one hand. Books have been written about the complex mathematics he used. On the other hand, his music has a very direct physical expressiveness, which also grabs people from outside the contemporary music world by the guts. I have often experienced that people went into the hall unsuspectingly only to come out completely taken by surprise. Avant-garde composers do not often have that effect.

When I started MASS, I definitely didn’t want to do one thing: to make a Xenakis-esque style copy. Actually MASS quite light in sound, also lighter than my previous work. While composing I did look for common ground with Xenakis’ method. He often started from mathematical concepts that he translated into sound. By analogy I have based myself on physical quantities. For example, I have used Boltzman’s constant to create a sound cloud that comes under increasing pressure. Until the music finally explodes. The constant for entropy underlies a passage that fades out very gradually.

In addition, I quote literally from Xenakis’ work in certain places. There is a passage where I take material out Eonta on top of a fragment from roai put. Those are originally quite heavy pieces, but I play them very pianissimo. What you then have left is a beautiful ethereal sound world. While it is actually a Big Mac of Xenakis nuts.”

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