Iannis Xenakis worked as an architectural draftsman for Le Corbusier before devoting his free time to music composing, revolutionising aural composition along the way.
His complex scores are thrilling and emotionally captivating, drawing inspiration from mathematical sequences, Greek mythology, architecture, pointillism, the sound of coal smoldering, physics and beyond.
Composer, engineer and architect Iannis Xenakis was a refugee when he arrived in Paris as an assistant to Le Corbusier in 1947. While struggling to join the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), Messiaen and conductor Hermann Scherchen advocated on his behalf and eventually were accepted. Recordings such as Diamorphoses (1957) and Concrete PH (1958) demonstrate Xenakis as an early innovator of musique concrete by employing unusual timbres and sounds not common among instrumental composers during that period.
Even though his music may seem alienating to modern classical fans, its effect extends far beyond that realm. His dissolving textures hold sway in 2010s noise and industrial music scene; Pharmakon, Whitehouse and Throbbing Gristle all name him as an influence. This five-disc box set compiles all his early tape compositions together.
While Xenakis explored the limits of what acoustic instruments could produce, he also used computer programs to transform mathematical and musical models into sound. This process became fundamental in developing his electronic music style. Examples include Concret PH and Bohor.
Utilizing only minimal tape snippets glued together, he was able to produce something that sounded like the tickling of coal – an early form of analog granular synthesis. By combining small grains of sound together into complex sounds this approach produced rich, multifaceted sounds, unlike much musique concrete which typically consisted of abrupt changes and juxtaposed sections without transitions.
This work was first presented as a two minute interlude in between continuous repetitions of Edgar Varese’s Poeme electronique at the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair in 1958. Spatializing its compositions throughout this cavernous, reinforced-concrete building created a truly unforgettable musical journey.
This reissue of some of Xenakis’ early electronic music showcases his immense influence. It compiles his early experiments in musique concrete, electro-acoustic music and 20th century classical.
These pieces sound as revolutionary today as they did during their original premieres in the 60s and 70s. Evoking rippled, writhing or swarming effects they produce an immense, cosmic, otherworldly ambience.
Makis Solomos’ liner notes break down his collection into four periods, beginning with works from Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM).
At a time when much electronic music has become oversaturated with long tours of sonorities, this set presents a radical approach to electronic music as Xenakis used his architectural training, background in instrumental classical composition and mathematical approaches to sound as inspiration for his compositions – Diamorphoses, Concret PH, Orient Occident and Bohor being four of Xenakis’ best-known pieces presented chronologically on 5 CD box set from Zeitkratzer and Makis Solomis.
This release includes an engaging booklet detailing Xenakis’ mathematical, scientific and architectural influences in his music; however, his music never feels didactic. From cosmic vortices of “Diamorphoses”, geologic chemistry of “Concret PH”, to Hadean inferno of “Bohor”, Xenakis takes listeners on a magical musical rollercoaster of extremes and depths that’s essential listening.
Mycenae Alpha marked Xenakis’ first work composed entirely on his UPIC system. UPIC (Unite Polyagogique Informatique du Centre de Mathematiques et Automatique Musicales) was an innovative software that transformed hand-drawn graphics into electronic music using “arc scalar,” whereby any line produced sounds with variable pitch based on whether its arc was straight or crooked.
Mycenae Alpha was composed for use with Polytope – an elaborate installation consisting of lights, dancers and sound. Featuring both sober and rough sounds, Mycenae Alpha marks one of Xenakis’ last works to use acoustic instruments before turning to pure electronics compositions.
In 2022, Zeitkratzer celebrated Iannis Xenakis’ 100th anniversary as one of the 20th century avant-garde’s most influential composers by issuing a five-LP box set featuring Mycenae Alpha and other works from UPIC, among others.
Polytope de Cluny
After the success of his multimedia show Persepolis in Iran in 1971, Xenakis began creating massive multimedia performance pieces known as polytopes involving specially designed architectures, light and laser shows, sound and music as well as complex mathematical techniques.
His use of graphs and mathematics expanded, leading to electronic works like Mycenae Alpha being composed on the UPIC computer by translating lines drawn on an electrostatic drawing board into sound – sound that recalls something between an elaborate pen-and-ink drawing with spidery branching patterns and strange linearities.
This CD features some of those pieces, including Metastaseis (an orchestral piece), Plekto (percussion work), and Hibiki Hana-Ma (snare drum solo). All are executed with clarity, excitement and depth as Xenakis would expect his works to be performed; they all represent this corner of his output perfectly.
An outstanding 54-minute vision first released as a vinyl reduction from 1972 (and later CD). Remixed and mastered by Martin Wurmnest, this recording gives a wonderful representation of Xenakis’ sound design.
Polytope de Persepolis was first performed at the Shiraz Art Festival in 1971 in its initial performance venue of a Persian palace ruins, becoming an electroacoustic music classic. Boasting 59 loudspeakers with arresting elements like laser beams, searchlight projections onto crumbling palace walls and children carrying fire-lit torches as part of its performance, Polytope de Persepolis was an unforgettable performance and has since been seen by generations of composers as an indispensable benchmark.
La Legende d’Eer
Composed between 1977 and 1978 when Xenakis was exploring mythology and philosophy through sound, this piece draws its inspiration from Plato’s Republic chapter about Er, Pascal’s Pensees, as well as articles written about supernovas. However, its composition goes far beyond simply programmatic considerations.
Over the course of this piece, pulsing tones alternate between penetrating and shrill, as aggregations of sounds change position. Bleeping arcade game sounds bubble and burst with noise that mimics landfill sit noise while laser modulations surges surge before dissipating into an inebriating swirl of pink noise and static.
Getintothis’ Jono Podmore observes that Xenakis’ microlevel manipulations of sound create a work which not only visually arresting but has an immediate physical response from listeners. Karl Records recently released La Legende d’Eer onto vinyl and download formats for the first time ever – mixed by Martin WURMNEST, mastered by Rashad Becker, with an essay written by REINHOLD FRIEDL of Zeitkratzer fame!
Voyage Absolu Des Unari Vers Andromede
Onassis Stegi is delighted to celebrate Iannis Xenakis’ centennial with this five LP box set containing many of his electroacoustic works recorded using his UPIC synthesizer – an electronic instrument created by him which allows him to manipulate sound curves and (macrocompositional) musical forms using mathematical equations.
Polytope de Cluny’s haunting drones, taurhiphanie’s foghorn blasts and Gendy 3’s fractal mayhem are testimony to the extraordinary imagination of one of the 20th century avant-garde composers most influential composers – one whose work continues to influence conservatory-trained composers as well as non-academic underground aesthetics such as noise music industrialism experimental electronica music – this release should be essential listening for serious collectors of contemporary music.
Gendy 3 (1991) represents the culmination of Xenakis’ lifelong search for automated (i.e., algorithmic) music and is proof that art can be computed. Gendy 3 stands apart from earlier stochastic compositions by being composed solely with self-written programs that not only compose its musical score but also sounding end product itself.
The author provides a mathematical analysis of GENDY3 with the intention of uncovering how algorithmic requirements and artistic freedom have interacted in this last electroacoustic project. Furthermore, they investigate its recursive sound generation process while exploring any similarities with Mikka which was the inaugural piece composed using the “dynamic stochastic synthesis” algorithm developed by Xenakis.
Farahnaz Hatam and Colin Hacklander of Berlin-based duo LABOUR have hosted many events on Iannis Xenakis, including co-curating the X100 Festival hosted by Berlin Atonal in 2022.