Liam Cagney

The genius of Iannis Xenakis

Of all the post-war European firebrands, the Greek composer's viscerally wild music remains the most influential today

Greek composer Iannis Xenakis records bulls breathing for his composition 'Tauriphanie' in the Camargue. Photo: Pierre Perrin / Sygma / Getty Images

This year is the centenary of the birth of Iannis Xenakis, the Greek composer-architect who called himself an ancient Greek stuck in the contemporary world. His instrumental music at times suggests an alien species trying to communicate with us through our musical instruments, his electronic music a distressed animal on the receiving end of amateur dentistry. For his part, Xenakis said that music ‘must aim… towards a total exaltation in which the individual mingles, losing his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous and perfect’.

Of all the post-war European firebrands, Xenakis remains the most influential today. ‘Xenakis opened many fields of inquiry that are still vital, undiscovered, and brimming with possibilities,’ says Chaya Czernowin, music professor at Harvard and one of today’s leading composers. ‘These fields observe and listen to nature, beyond our immediate perception and psychological underpinnings, and connect to a primordial view of human existence.’

Born into a bourgeois family, Xenakis grew up to be a migrant. Having fought and lost an eye during the post-war Greek insurrection when shrapnel from a tank blast disfigured his face, he was condemned to death by a government who considered him a violent revolutionary. Fleeing Greece, he ended up in Paris, where in an improbable turn of events he became an architect working for Le Corbusier.

Of all the post-war European firebrands, Xenakis remains the most influential today

At the same time, inspired by the post-war developments in avant-garde and electro-acoustic music, Xenakis worked on becoming a composer. He developed a novel approach to orchestral and electronic music based on dynamic sound masses. The string orchestral work Pithoprakta (1955-56), for example, features shifting groups of pizzicato and struck wood, while the electronic work Concret PH (1958) samples and granulates the crackle of burning ember. Here, music is no longer about notes and chords but about clouds and torrents; no longer about stable harmonies but endless transformations.

Dr Elisavet Kiourtsoglou is an academic based at the University of Thessaly and a Xenakis expert.

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