by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 1, 2010
Many twentieth-century artists played with images of violence. The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who lived from 1922 to 2001, was one of relatively few who experienced extreme violence at close range. In December, 1944, Xenakis was skirmishing in Athens, as a member of the Communist forces, when a British shell exploded almost on top of him. (The British had turned from fighting Nazis to fighting Communists.) Two people beside him were killed instantly. Xenakis’s jawbone was shattered, his palate pierced, his left eye destroyed. “There were bits of teeth, flesh, blood, holes,” Xenakis recalled. “I was choking in my own blood and vomiting.” Surgery restored his face, but for the rest of his life he exhibited fearsome scars. Olivier Messiaen, who taught Xenakis in Paris, remembered seeing that visage in class for the first time. Here was a man, Messiaen thought, “not like the others.”
Indeed, in the chic, brainy world of postwar avant-garde music, Xenakis was the odd man out. He was a thinker of uncommonly esoteric tendencies—a trained engineer and a mathematician whose primary theoretical text, Formalized Music, contains nearly as many equations as sentences. To understand fully how his pieces are put together, you need a good working knowledge of probability theory and combinatorial mathematics, among other disciplines. Yet Xenakis cannot be described as a cerebral artist. A master of sensation and surprise, he produced some of the rawest, wildest music in history—sounds that explode around the ears. Rarefied methods were employed to release primordial energies. Milan Kundera, who listened obsessively to recordings of Xenakis’s works in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, heard in them a “noise of the world, a ‘sonorous mass,’ which, instead of gushing from the heart, comes to us from the outside, like the steps of the rain or the voice of the wind.”
A composer of such fierce originality will always compel attention. In fact, Xenakis has become almost a pop classic on New York’s new-music scene, his music drawing healthy crowds. Currently adding to the hubbub is an exhibition of his compositional, mathematical, and architectural sketches, at the Drawing Center, on Wooster Street. The fact that Xenakis was not only a major composer but also an architect of some talent places him in a rare category: he expanded the possibilities of two distinct domains. Whether the physical damage inflicted on the young Xenakis affected his subsequent work is unknowable, but with his one eye he saw things that no one else imagined.
Xenakis escaped to France from Greece in 1947, a death sentence on his head. Upon arriving in Paris, which became his permanent home, he landed a job as an engineer for Le Corbusier. His love of curving forms and irregular patterns—and his skill in bringing them to life—had a perceptible effect on two major Le Corbusier structures: the monastery at Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, with its undulating glass façade, and the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, with its paraboloidal shape. Yet music ultimately exerted a stronger hold. Messiaen, whose Catholic mysticism might seem far removed from Xenakis’s radical rationalism, played a pivotal role in his development. Messiaen advised his student not to choose among his diverse interests but to unite them: “Be Greek, be a mathematician, be an architect, and out of it all make music!”
The exhibition at the Drawing Center offers a striking demonstration of how Xenakis worked out his musical and his visual ideas side by side. In preparing Metastasis, his breakthrough orchestral piece of 1953-54, he drew ruled parabolas on graph paper, then translated the shapes into music, mapping them as expanding webs of glissandos. (The Beatles roughly echoed that effect in the orchestral crescendos of "A Day in the Life.") A few years later, when Xenakis worked on the Philips Pavilion, he cast similar shapes in prestressed concrete. (Though the design was largely his, Le Corbusier initially refused to give him credit, and subsequently fired him when he protested.) Xenakis also studied the emergence of large-scale forms from minuscule, ostensibly random movements, as in gas clouds and insect swarms. You can see that effect in the rippling windows at Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, and you can hear it in the seething textures of Pithoprakta (1955-56).
After breaking with Le Corbusier, Xenakis attempted to establish his own identity as an architect, but, except for a few vacation homes and renovations, his projects went unrealized. Some, in fact, were unrealizable: his Cosmic City would have consisted of various three-mile-high towers, each accommodating five million people. He did, however, mesmerize large crowds with a series of “polytopes,” or multimedia experiences, which blended electronic sound, live performance, light shows, and temporary structures. The settings included the Roman baths of Cluny, the ruins of Mycenae (Xenakis returned to Greece after the fall of the military junta, in 1974), and Persepolis, in Iran. Empress Farah, the wife of the Shah, admired Xenakis and regularly invited him to her arts festival in Shiraz. At one point, she asked him to design a vast arts complex for that city. The plans are intriguing: one notation calls for a ten-thousand-square-foot Hall of Nothingness. In 1976, however, Xenakis stopped working in Iran, citing its “inhuman and unnecessary police repression.”
He went on making music, his choices as unpredictable as the motions of his beloved particles. Sometimes he set aside buzzing textures for austere, chantlike melodies evocative of ancient Greece: this style is particularly prominent in his feverish setting of The Oresteia, which emerged between 1966 and 1992. He also found new ways of translating images into sound, favoring branching patterns that he called “arborescences.” His final works tend toward extreme density, with rough chorales that are like the rumbling of sullen mobs. He retained his love of nature, spending part of each summer in Corsica, where he eventually designed a little home for his family. His daughter, Mâkhi, describes him cooped up in a tent during a thunderstorm, counting the seconds between lightning flashes, and then running out into the storm to exult in the divine chaos.
At Xenakis concerts in recent months, two moments stood out. One was Steven Schick’s hyperathletic interpretation of the percussion piece Psappha (1975), in a generally excellent program at the Miller Theatre, last October, featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble. The other was the JACK Quartet’s howlingly beautiful rendition of Tetras (1983), at the Morgan Library, earlier this month. Both performances conveyed the earthy complexity of the composer’s aesthetic—what Schick, in his book The Percussionist’s Art, calls a “state of grace,” where “the vehicle of the score is synonymous with the vessel of a human being who seeks to embody and communicate it.”
Psappha, which pays homage to Sappho’s incantatory rhythms, is scored for six groups of instruments, the choice of materials being left largely to the player. Schick used woodblocks, bongos, a tom-tom, congas, a bass drum, steel pipes, a frying pan, and two Xenakis specialties: simantra, resonant wooden bars modelled on Byzantine church instruments; and sixxen, or bars of metal. The music proceeds from gently purring, interlocking patterns to an apocalyptic episode of bass-drum thwacks interspersed with silences, then rises to a shimmering, accelerating finale. The score presents various riddles, not least a multilayered passage that apparently requires the player to grow a third arm. Xenakis often inserted such “impossible” moments: the piano piece Evryali notoriously includes a C-sharp that is a half step higher than the highest note on the instrument.
Schick, a master percussionist who has played Psappha some six hundred times, has called such moments “koans.” They don’t so much frustrate the performer as draw him into the creative process, dangling possibilities that remain just out of reach. By now, Schick inhabits Psappha so thoroughly that the piece seems little more than a firing of his synapses, a negotiation between his mind and his body. There’s nothing remotely intellectual about the experience; you feel that he could play the work on any street corner or subway platform and draw a cheering crowd. Certainly, Schick elicited a happy roar from the audience at Miller, although what was most striking about the performance was not its physical energy but its emotional acuity: there was something lonely and questing about the quarter-hour ritual, as if those ever-changing pulses were coded messages of the soul.
If Psappha came across as a personal utterance, Tetras seemed a riotous celebration of sound. It begins with Xenakis’s signature glissando, oscillating on the first violin. The players do all manner of ungodly things to their instruments: draw the bow behind the bridge or across the tailpiece, tap the wood, trail a fingernail on the string. In one ear-bending section, these noises pop up on a strict rhythmic grid, in a kind of toneless fugue. The formal plan is crystalline, with the music falling into crisply defined sections and building to finely controlled climaxes. In contrast to many experimental scores, nothing goes on an instant too long. Tetras is a late-twentieth-century masterpiece, worthy of comparison to the quartets of Berg, Ives, Bartók, and Shostakovich.
The JACK Quartet, whose name is an acronym of the first names of its members (John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, and Kevin McFarland), specializes in the pricklier end of contemporary music. Like Steven Schick, these young players render abstruse ideas as organic gestures. At their Morgan concert, they presented all four of Xenakis’s pieces for string quartet—a program they have also recorded on the Mode label. Xenakis once announced that he sought “a total exaltation in which the individual mingles, losing his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous, and perfect.” If these performances didn’t quite achieve that transcendent goal, they came exhilaratingly close.