The Music of Architecture—How revolutionary was Iannis Xenakis?

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Iannis Xenakis was a revolutionary, both in politics and in art. His innovative approach and the impact that his music had on the following generations mean that any history of electronic music should position Xenakis as a central figure. His involvement in multimedia spectacles brought wide exposure, but the nature of his un-compromising aesthetic vision meant he did not achieve fame and fortune on a wide scale. Xenakis’ electroacoustic music was clearly influential, but below I will try to determine just how revolutionary his work was by focusing on three distinct stages: one: early influences on his work in relation to Musique Concret, two: his work stochastic mathematical techniques, and three: I locate Xenakis innovative experiments in his writing. What I conclude is that Xenakis revolutionary development was based on his visualization of the creative process: through this he freed himself to work with new plastic qualities.

Xenakis was an architect prior to moving into musical composition, and sound as an environmental sensual experience appears in his earliest sketches: blueprints of the revolutionary potential of his ‘hyperbolic paraboloid’ to reshape the spatial and harmonic frame. Metastasis (1953) was one of his first musical works using the parabola to signify the sliding glissandi (the glide from one pitch to another) that features prominently in his subsequent compositions (Morse, 2011). Although he became a contemporary of Stockhausen, Boulez and Cage; Xenakis was an engineer and architect who created revolutionary designs with Le Corbusier. Several of Xenakis’ innovations in music and architecture were realized on hundreds of striking graphic documents and in his study Musique Architecture. But it was in the early 1950s when he studied with Olivier Messiaen (who also taught Stockhausen and Boulez) that he was to develop the approach of fusing architecture music, and mathematics together in a revolutionary approach to the compositional process.

Messiaen offered an understanding of two key aspects of avant-garde music: the historic perspective needed to place musical language; and the provisional temporary validity of any stage in the evolution of that language. Rather than teaching Xenakis traditional techniques of music, Messiaen advised Xenakis to seek out musical inspiration in a mixture of his Greek roots, engineering background and his work as an architect (Sterken, 2006). It would be Messiaen who pinned the award of Chevalier de la légion d’honneur onto Iannis Xenakis’ lapel in Paris in 1977. Sterken (2006) asserts that Xenakis took his teacher’s advice almost literally. His first pieces rely on the use of graph paper that he used to organize time in a rational way, and Le Corbusier’s ‘Modulor’ metric system to shape pitch envelopes and musical form based on the Fibonacci series and the Golden Section. Xenakis began to create an aural picture of the Fibonacci series by means of a magnetic tape with electronic pulse intervals defined by the Golden Section that would become Le Sacrifice (1953). What marks this simple early innovation is that it goes against traditional Western music, wherein the pulse of time is externally determined as a fixed element. In Xenakis’ work, the innovation is that time varies throughout, becoming intimately linked with the sequential development.

Xenakis had arrived in Paris in 1947, as a 25-year-old refugee, having barely escaped alive from Greece where he was condemned to death as an insurgent, having fought in the Greek Resistance in World War II and later opposing the British. From now on he would devote himself to music as a dream he had held within himself that had been side lined by political and personal turmoil. But arriving in Paris he found himself working in the architectural studio of Le Corbusier, only able to pursue music in his free time. Fortuitously Le Corbusier was acquainted with Edgar Varese, and although Xenakis knew very little of contemporary music, the milieu he worked in led him to listen to Pierre Schaeffer’s early Radio-France presentations of his experiments with musique concrete (Harley, 2002: 33). By 1951 Messiaen occupied a central place in the Parisian new music world. Messiaen visited Schaeffer’s studio (to produce the short Timbres-durees) and Stockhausen sat with Xenakis in Messiaen’s class during 1951-1952, and also moved towards tape studies at this time.

By 1954, Xenakis’ assimilation into the contemporary musical culture was enhanced when he became one of the first members of the Groupe de recherches de musique concrete (GRM) and in the same year completed his first major orchestral score, Metastaseis, exploring the new sonorities constructed from complex configurations of string glissandi (Harley, 2002: 35). Metastaseis also incorporated Einstein’s concept of time with the Fibonacci sequence with Xenakis creating architecture-like static atmospheres, referred to in the score as: Order, Complexity, Disorder and Order, that evolve from one to another. Clearly Xenakis had impressed important revolutionary figures by his own innovative and intellectually brilliant—yet simultaneously emotionally overwhelming—approach to music.

From these numerical proportions the moved to the transfer of models in his compositional process, whereby he employed stochastic mathematical techniques, including probability theory and the Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of the Brownian motions of gases, Markov chains (Analogiques), game theory (Duel and Stratégie), group theory (Nomos Alpha), Boolean algebra (Herma and Eonta). These would typify his revolutionary ideas on the systematic, mathematical organization of music together with the structural parallels with architecture. Possibly Xenakis’ greatest architectural achievement also came at this time (1958) with the Phillips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair.

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Xenakis’ affinity with mathematics, architecture and technology seem destined to steer him towards becoming a revolutionary figure in electronic music. Early work such as Diamorphoses (1957-1958) represent development of the experiments inspired by Schaeffer’s Radio-France studio using recordings of natural and mechanical sounds. Xenakis approach to the musique concrete style was to make them similar in form to his instrumental music. At the same time as he was working on Diamorphoses, Xenakis was working on the tape work Concret PH (1958) that used a recording of burning charcoal as a single source created for the Phillips Pavilion that Xenakis had helped design, taking advantage of Philips’ multi-layered amplification technology with 425 speakers (Primephonic, 2001). For Harley (2002: 37) Concret PH’s was utterly unlike any other electroacoustic music of the time. Concret PH’s crackling and hissing of burning charcoal emerged from the study of density and the application of stochastic functions to the calculation of articulation points for each layer of sound. The crackling texture evolves in a continuous fashion with a sense of spatial movement as the music moved along the trajectories through the loudspeakers of the pavilion with primarily mid- to high-register grains of sound.

Luque (2009) views Xenakis’ interest and innovation of the stochastic synthesis of random probability distributions or patterns as related to the fact that they may be analysed statistically, but, may not be predicted precisely. In 1954, mainly in Pithopra, Xenakis introduced ‘Stochastic Music’ and explored its innovative possibilities in terms of:

(a) A solution to what he termed the ‘impasse’ of serial music.

(b) A technique for creating and articulating sound masses inspired by aspects of natural events.

(c) An opportunity to incorporate concepts from modern science into the field of music composition.

(d) To address the problem of ‘what is the minimum of logical constraints necessary for the construction of a music process?’

As if these were not revolutionary enough, by 1962 Xenakis had also started to innovate with his use of computers to accelerate the numerous calculations his stochastic approach required. This included a move towards a digital-analogue converter with the computer that moved towards composition. Luque (2009) outlines numerous features of this process that highlighted what Xenakis’ termed ‘New Proposals’: including mixing ‘pure’ electronic sounds with ‘concrete’ sounds (whereby the transient part of the sound is more important than the permanent part in timbre recognition) and numerous other developments. These would be showcased, again with reference to a specific architectural location, set in a Parisian Roman Baths, and again with multiple loudspeakers, but now combining 600 flashbulbs with 400 programmable mirrors, lasers and the first in France to use digitally synthesized sounds.

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The collective name for this series of multimedia installations, that included sound, light and architecture, are ‘Polytopes’ as conceived by Xenakis during the 1960s and 1970s. The word ‘poly’ means many (or a lot) while ‘topos’ means ‘place’ because every Polytope has the name of the site or the city where it has been installed. But the term ‘multimedia’ had not yet been used to designate this kind of work as we might today and this innovation represents another example of Xenakis’ forward thinking. In this respect the combination of these spatialized light and sound elements relates to Wagner’s conception of the total art work (the Gesamtkunstwerk). They also link to contemporary notions of ‘cyberspace’ and the creation of an immersive environment as a quest for a space-time art (Sterken, 2001).

For Sterken (2001) Xenakis’ architecture was an explicit manifestation of the deconstruction of Cartesian space—instead of establishing a link between place and space, Xenakis creates a rupture that isolates a fragment of space by creating an opposition between an inside, virtual world and an outside, real world. Xenakis’s Polytopes added new elements in the interaction between space, architecture and the body that began to influence the new art forms that emerged in the 1950s. Happenings, performances, installations and environments shared this general tendency towards the dematerialization of the art object and a blurring of the distinction between the space of the spectator and that of the artwork itself. The Polytopes layers of light, space and sound allow Xenakis to draw, to construct a superimposed, immaterial space that transposes his abstract and geometrical vocabulary. In Mycenae-Alpha (1978) the Polytope occupied an entire archaeological site and included laser beams, electroacoustic music, huge campfires, children’s choirs, animals, and a giant anti-aircraft light projector. This followed a precise scenario, guided by Xenakis with the help of a walkie-talkie to create atmospheres where energetic waves provoke a dynamic and spatial experience (Sterken, 2001: 267-269).

The electroacoustic practices of the 1950s of Ligeti, Stockhausen and Berio discovered radical new ways of conceiving music in general. Solomos (2001) distinguished Xenakis using a comparison with Varese, who wrote radically new music before the introduction of the new technology: they both produced a music that was no longer composed with sounds but composes the sound. The new composers of the 1950s saw the introduction of new technology, but for Solomos (2001) the music did not introduce a historical or stylistic rupture: works were very similar in their conception, whether they use this technology or not. What makes Xenakis exceptional in the late 1960s and 1970s is how he transposed his instrumental music with an experience with electronic music where the compositional idea resulted directly from an experience with technology. To realise this vision Xenakis first used a computer for sound synthesis at Indiana University in the US, as early as the end of the 1960s. He re-established his probabilistic stochastic way to conceive a radical new method of synthesis. This is set out in his ‘Proposals in Microsound Structure’ where he argued that in harmonic analysis:

…lies in the improvised entanglement of notions of finity and infinity [ …] To summarize, we expect that by judiciously piling up simple elements (pure sounds, sine functions) we will create any desired sounds (pressure curve), even those that come close to very strong irregularities—almost stochastic ones. […] In general, and regardless of the specific function of the unit element, this procedure can be called synthesis by finite juxtaposed elements. In my opinion it is from here that the deep contradictions stem that should prevent us from using it.

We can see this synthesis in Xenakis’ Mikka commenced from the image of Brownian movements to conceive of a new way of sound synthesis. Clearly Xenakis shared the composers of the second modernist period intention to produce previously unheard of sounds through experimentation. Xenakis could not hear these sounds in his imagination: he invented them by the means of graphs—by hand.

Kanach (2003: 192) locates Xenakis innovative experiments in his writing. She quotes Xenakis as having made a clean sweep of most of his subconscious or acquired traditions, but feeling that the new points of reference had to be put on record, in the same manner as his works: “that result from or are provoked by the same, in order to not forget”. Xenakis scrupulously kept everything in his archives but pages of documentation are not fully formed written sentences, but sketches, calculations, indications such as single words. For Kanach this is what enables Xenakis to elaborate the new concepts he developed. It also gave him the freedom to apply established concepts to different and unlikely domains to enlarge his field of investigation and to surpass his own or imposed limitations. She breaks Xenakis’ urge to create written traces into the need:

(1) To produce a global overview

(2) To establish physical proof or record of activities involving third parties

(3) To record his intellectual or creative itinerary

(4) To free himself from contingencies

(5) To work with new plastic qualities

What makes Xenakis’ approach unique is that a work’s realization whether it is musical, architectural or theoretical goes through several or all of these processes before finding its definitive form, indicated by his dictum: “Write and keep writing until you find what you are looking for!” (Kanach, 2003: 191). This theme of self-surpassing is primal to Xenakis’ theoretical writings and teaching and the basis of his paradigm of creativity, leading to true originality. His last project was to be a compilation of the bulk of his texts, projects and realizations concerning architecture called The Music of Architecture.

 

Bibliography

Harley, James (2002) ‘The Electroacoustic Music of Iannis Xenakis,’ Computer Music Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 33-57.

Kanach, Sharon (2003) ‘The Writings of Iannis Xenakis (Starting with “Formalized Music”’, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 154-166.

Luque,
Sergio (2009) ‘The Stochastic Synthesis of Iannis Xenakis,’ Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 19, pp. 77-84.

Morse, Erik (2011) ‘Iannis Xenakis,’ Frieze, No. 138, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/iannis-xenakis/

Primephonic (2001) ‘Iannis Xenakis,’ http://www.primephonic.com/iannis-xenakis

Solomos, Makis (2001) ‘The Unity of Xenakis’s Instrumental and Electroacoustic Music: The Case for “Brownian Movements”’, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 39, No. 1 , pp. 244-254.

Sterken, Sven (2006) Music as an Art of Space: Interactions between Music and Architecture in the Work of Iannis Xenakis, https://lirias.kuleuven.be/bitstream/123456789/340882/1/Sven+Sterken-+Proof+09+12+2006+FINAL.pdf

Sterken, Sven (2001) ‘Towards a Space-Time Art: Iannis Xenakis’s Polytopes,’ Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 262-273.