Monday, July 4, 2016

Iannis Xenakis [Part 1 of 3]

"The soul is a fallen God. Only the ek-stasis (the exit out of the Self) can reveal its true nature. We need to escape the Circle of Birth (reincarnations) through purifications (katharmoi) and sacraments (orghia), tools of the ekstasis"
-- Iannis Xenakis, "La voie de la recherche et de la question", 1965

It's 1958. Architect Le Corbusier and his scholar Iannis Xenakis are working on commission at the Philips Pavillion for the Bruxelles Fair. Composer Edgard Varèse is engaged in the sequence of sonic events that will compose his Poème Electronique, whose name comes from a statement of the architect when he had the assignment: "I will not create a building, but an electronic poem in which colors, images, sounds, and architecture will merge so that the audience will be completely dominated" [A. Capanna, "Il Padiglione Phillips a Bruxelles", Turin, 2000]. Xenakis, assistant of Le Corbusier since ten years, is working on the analytical study, and his work is based on the same ideas that led him few year before to give life to music works starting from the intuition – inversely pythagorean – of making music using mathematical formulas, until the definitive overtaking of seriality and the creation of the first 'stochastic' works as Metastasis (presented for the first time to the Donaueschinghen Festival in 1955), Pithoprakta (1956) and Achorripsis (1957).

Those are the years in which Xenakis issues some articles in the magazine “Gravesaner Blätter” by Hermann Scherchen, later published on the volume "Musiques Formelles" (1963, reedited and expanded in 1971 and in 1990), writings that mark the decade that is more related to the 'formalization' of the vast theoretical and musical work of the Greek composer. Twenty years later, during an interview, at the question "Doesn't mathematic interest you anymore?", Xenakis answers "It was an idea, today we need new ones, maybe more disturbing, more strong" [Anne Rey, "Expliquez-Vous Xenakis", Le Monde de la Musique no. 71, october 1984]. The 'disturbing' Xenakis hint at is the movement through time and space, and the primal chaos, and the energy under the phenomenic coordinates of time and space. In the same historical period who produced structuralism and the phenomenology of perception, both signs of the evanescence of Décartes and his self-consciousness, one of the two cornerstones of the last centuries along with Newton physics. A link between Apollo and Dyonisus, science and nature, whose analysis, as Makis Solomos underlines in his essay included in the Italian version of "Universi del Suono. Scritti e interventi 1955-1994" (Ricordi, 2003) is far from being understood in its own complexity, gives life to the art of Xenakis, as long as Nietzsche's philosophy.

Born in Braila, Romania, on May 29, 1922, at the age of twelve Iannis Xenakis move with his family in Athens. Here, he study architecture and engineering, quitting in 1941, when the Nazis occupy Greece. Soldier for the national Resistance, and after for the Communist Resistance, in 1945 the future architect and composer refuses to enter the national military guard created by the British protectorate in order to defeat the partisans, and he becomes a clandestine and is condemned to death in 1947 as a terrorist. That same year in September he leaves Greece for Paris, initially a stage befor going in the U.S.

In the European capital he starts studying composition under Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger, then he leaves to study with Olivier Messiaen. Graduated in engineering in 1947, the following year Xenakis enters in Le Corbusier's studio, and with him he designs different works applying on architecture the same principles of his research on composition. Since his "The Crisis of Serial Music" (1955) Xenakis attracts resentments and critiques, first of all for being not satisfied with a way to think about music whose crisis at the time was not completely evident. Between the lines, his personal vision emerges: "Music is a message conveyed by the matter between a man and another man, or a message of men to other men, so it has to speak to all the range of perceptions and human intelligence [...]. We need to establish a constant flow between the biological nature of the man and the buildings of his intelligence, otherwise the abstracts developments of the music of today are at risk of loosing themselves into a desert of infertility." ["La crise de la musique sérielle", 1955]

If the first works of the composer, from 1948 to 1953, are still ideally linked to the ideas developed by Gyorgy Ligeti and Franco Evangelisti, recovering popular tradition, it's the conflict with serialism to push Xenakis to develop new compositional tools. About serialism, its more evident limit is, for him, the predominance of the frequency of sound over intensity and timbre, and the predominance of quality and geometry of sound, whose result is a shape consisting primarily in a multilinear manipulation of the fundamental series. This is very limiting for Xenakis, at the point that, when in 1958 he will dedicate a text to Alban Berg, noticing the affinity with his first steps, he will riaffirm that "it is an error to say that dodecaphonic music abolished tonal functions replacing them with other functions. It is possible instead to evoke the influence of the Renaissance's polyphony." ["Alban Berg le dernier romantique", Le Figaro, february 7, 1985]

Between his contemporaries, Xenaki has affinities with Varèse – according to whom music is "the intelligence of the sound becoming body" [Edgard Varèse, "Ecrits", 1983] – since both are researching a rationality not foreign to the inner and visceral sense of the sound matter. This necessity has been also interpreted biographically, since the composer himself made statements as the following: "Everybody has observed auditory phenomenons of a great politicized crowd of dozens or one hundred thousand people. The human river articulates one rallying cry with an unvarying rhythm. Then another rallying cry is launched from the head of the demonstration spreading to the end of the crowd, and it substitutes the first rallying cry. A wave of transition [...]. Dozens of thousands machine guns and the whistles of the bullets add themselves to that total disorder. [...] Stochastic laws of those events, emptied of their political or moral content are the laws of cicadas or rain. They are the laws of the passing from pefect order to total disorder, in a continuous or explosive way. They are stochastic laws".[Iannis Xenakis, "La musique stochastique: éléments sur le procédé probabilistes de composition musicale", 1961]  

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