Electro-classical pioneer Iannis Xenakis – the elements unleashed

Xenakis in his Paris studio - pic: Françoise Xenakis.

Xenakis in his Paris studio – pic: Françoise Xenakis.

As Karl Records re-release Xenakis’ La Légende d’Eer, Getintothis’ Jono Podmore takes a look at the genius of the electro-classical pioneer. 

The power of music is such that it transports you from one state to another. Like alcohol. Like love. If I wanted to learn how to compose music, maybe it was to acquire this power.” – The power of Dionysus (Xenakis, 1987)

The excellent German label Karl Records has released for the first time on vinyl a stereo version of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’ electro acoustic composition La Légende d’Eer.

Shortly before he died in 2001, Xenakis wrote this short autobiography. Touchingly frank and concise, it reveals a life that draws a line connecting all the major points and most of the major players in post war classical and electronic music – all in the context of the war, advances in technology, and the cultural shifts of the 20th century. Picking through his life and the people he worked with is an introduction to the whole genre.

He escaped Greece after the civil war caused by the vacuum left after the retreat of the axis powers. He had been imprisoned, sentenced to death, and had been injured, losing a large part of his face including an eye. He ended up in Paris and as a trained architect and engineer he was taken in by leading modernist architect Le Corbusier, eventually working together with him on classics such as The Convent of La Tourette.

He then went on to design the Philips Pavilion for the Brussels Expo in 1958 and there he worked with another giant of modernism, the composer Edgard Varèse.

Getintothis’ Jono Podmore regularly ponders intellectual minefields. Read his enlightening archives here. 

Varèse, who was already in his mid 70’s with a history of ground-breaking pieces such as Arcana and Ionisation for 13 percussionists behind him, had been commissioned to compose a piece of electronic music specifically for the pavilion, expanding on a whole series of new creative avenues: spacialisation, tape composition, multi-media and site-specific composition. The piece he composed was Poème Électronique – a classic of the genre and the forerunner of so much to follow.

Whilst working with Le Corbusier, Xenakis continued his music studies and was taken in by composers Boulanger, Honecker, Milhaud and another central figure: Olivier Messaien. Messaien had become the go to teacher for composers at the time, and although he introduced Serialism and the other techniques of contemporary classical composition to him, Messaien had this to say about the young Xenakis:

I understood straight away that he was not someone like the others. […] He is of superior intelligence. […] I did something horrible which I should do with no other student, for I think one should study harmony and counterpoint. But this was a man so much out of the ordinary that I said… No, you are almost thirty, you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music.

While studying with Messaien, Xenakis met another of his students: Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen was to become the controversial, charismatic leading light in German post-war music, developing (not unlike Messaien) a spiritual world as the backdrop and inspiration in his music, which is both purely emotional and highly theoretical. Stockhausen’s work is still relevant and questioning and continues to inspire devotion.

In 1954, Xenakis was accepted into the Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète. This was group created by composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry to produce and study Musique Concrète: a particularly French branch of electronic music concentrating on using recordings of natural and environmental sounds – what we’d call today sampling. The GRM was pivotal in the development of electronic music and technical advancement and produced astonishing work from a long list of great composers. One of my all time favourites in all styles of electronic music is from the GRM: Bernard Parmegiani’s De Natura Sonorum

Although he was still composing pieces for classical orchestra and large ensembles, as Xenakis became more established as a composer he became a pioneer of computer-assisted composition, which has developed into the central method for all forms of electronic music today. He founded the Equipe de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (EMAMu) as early as 1966. He applied mathematical models to music such as set theorygame theory and stochastic processes, laying down principles for computer music still in use today. If you can imagine how painstakingly slow and cumbersome it was to work with computers 50 years ago, you’ll get an idea of how deep a conviction he must have had of the future importance of computers in music. The EMAMu still exists, now with the slightly more snappy name of the Centre Iannis Xenakis

The last stage on this star-studded trip through the origins of electronic music brings us back to La Légende d’Eer. The piece was mixed and largely realised at the WDR Studios in Cologne. This studio, set up, staffed and maintained by the Westdeutsche Rundfunk – the state broadcaster based in Cologne – became the home of German Elektronische Musik. In contrast to the GRM, the WDR studio had an ethos of concentrating on synthesized sound and became a world centre for research into synthesis. Composers including György Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel and of course Karlheinz Stockhausen realised their electronic pieces there.

So from the very beginnings of electronic music through to computer generated composition, Xenakis had been there at almost every major step – and this is all apparent in La Légende d’Eer. But still there is something unique about Xenakis’ work. All the techniques and influences of the creative world around him are there but the voice is unmistakeably his. In an interview in The Wire, Ben Watson referred to Xenakis‘ work as “an alien shard, glimmering in the heart of the West”.

La Légende d’Eer is the music from a multi media event called Diatope, premiered in Paris in 1978. The entire piece comprises of text, music, light and architecture. The first performances took place in a tent like structure next to the Pompidou Centre, text by Plato and Blaise Pascall were handed out, and the music was synchronised with a light show, which included lasers.

It all sounds a bit Jean Michel Jarre but this is quite a different beast. On paper a sophisticated and seemingly academic exercise, this piece has the visceral impact of the darkest rock, or Concorde taking off in your living room.

Iannis Xenakis Pic - Karlrecords' Facebook page

Iannis Xenakis Pic – Karlrecords’ Facebook page

It is composed on seven tracks of an eight track multitrack tape, the eighth track is set aside for control of the light show and spatialisation, panning the audio around a multi-speaker sound system – the same technique employed in Poème Électronique and complete performances of Disney’s technical masterpiece, Fantasia.

Spatialisation was becoming an intrinsic part of composition, and as an architect Xenakis was, again a pioneer in this aspect. Not just spreading sound though loudspeakers, his piece Terratektorh is scored for an orchestra of 88 musicians sitting amongst the audience in a circle to create the impression of a “Sonotron: an accelerator of sonorous particles.” For a stereo release the seven audio tracks of La Légende d’Eer need to be mixed down in such a way as to recreate an impression of the spacialisation. In the past this has caused lots of quite disasterous problems, but the new mixdown by Martin Wurmnest for the release on Karl Records is spectacular.

The title La Légende d’Eer comes from a myth told by Plato at the very end of The RepublicStrongly resonant of Xenakis’ own experience, it tells of a killed soldier who after miraculously coming back to life, tells of what he saw in the afterlife: the judgement, punishments and rewards; how the souls of the great heros choose the forms of animals; the processes of rebirth; the Plain of Forgetfullness and the River of Unmindfullness. It’s just a few intense paragraphs but filled with primordial imagery of life and death.

The piece uses every available technical resource to bring this to life. Xenakis gathered at the WDR studio computer generated recordings he’d created with mathematical functions and added to this a huge range of instrumental sounds and electronics. Synth fanciers will be glad to hear the high-pitched sound which becomes the drone at the beginning and end of the piece was created on the fabulous EMS 100 system installed at the WDR studio. You can hear waves of orchestral strings played col legno (tapping on the strings with the wooden side of the bow), along with rattling crockery. Instruments from other cultures appear: African Mbira and Japanese Tsuzumi. These instruments were an important source of inspiration for Xenakis:

…in the 1950s, I discovered music from outside Europe: from India, Laos, Vietnam, Java, China and Japan. Suddenly I felt I was in my own world. At the same time, I also saw Greece in a new light, as the crossroads of surviving elements from an ancient musical past.

There is also an “extended technique” double bass improvisation about halfway though the piece, just at the beginning of side 2 on the vinyl release. A similar technique was used by composer Akira Ifukube to create the sound of Godzilla’s roar.

For this writer, this is a prime example of my own fascination with Xenakis’ music. Whatever the intellectual, detached, highly structured, mathematically coherent framework of his music, expressively it always manages to carry raw emotion; a super organised structure that carries the emotional content of a monster’s roar.

There’s a parallel here with perhaps the most revered of all composers, J S Bach. Virtually every composer in the Western tradition (and beyond, Cameroonian musician Francis Bebey once said to me that his favourite music was Bach) including Xenakis, has at some point paid homage to Bach. Part of the fascination and love for Bach is that his highly organised, mathematically constructed music – especially the Fugues – carry with them such a strong and complex emotional profile. His work can be incredibly touching and profound, and yet under the hood is an abstract set of functions and processes that seem totally divorced from the human condition. It’s as if paradoxically, the clear minded analytic structuring actually enhances the emotional impact of the music.

La Légende d’Eer is one of the most intense listening experiences you’ll have. Truly cathartic, you feel somehow cleansed afterwards, “purged of pity and fear”. Wave after wave of super dense, exhilarating sound. It is awesome, but it is awe of nature and the principles behind nature: awe almost to the point of fear, of horror. At times touching upon terror of the infinite, of primordial nothingness.

“[in La Légende d’Eer]I wanted to deal with the abysses that surround us and among which we live. The most formidable are those of our destiny, of life or of death, visible and invisible universes… These abysses are unknowable, that is to say, knowledge of them is an eternal and desperate flight, composed of milestones-hypotheses across the epochs

What is the source of this emotional intensity and emphasis on the almost terrifying power of nature? It may be glib to try to psychoanalyse Xenakis, but his early life was truly traumatic.

His mother died when he was five, which “deeply scarred” him as he put it himself, and the traumas of the occupation and the subsequent civil war in which he was imprisoned and horribly wounded, doubtlessly inform his music. He wrote himself of how for him the wartime events in Athens composed an “extraordinary musical phenomenon”:

“During the cold nights of December, as we fought against the English, I heard another music. It wasn’t a pitched battle but a series of skirmishes, in which people took shots at each other from house to house, with long intervals of silence, and each detonation reverberated on and on through the town, accompanied by tracer bullets, which added to the echo the spectacle of gunfire. All these memories would surge up years later in my first composition, Metastaseis, and those that followed.”

When everything seemed tired and stale, Getintothis’ Rick Leach discovered and was enthused by classical music. Read his personal journey here. 

Even his escape from the horrors of war was itself traumatic:

For years I was tormented by guilt at having left the country for which I’d fought. I left my friends—some were in prison, others were dead, some managed to escape. I felt I was in debt to them and that I had to repay that debt. And I felt I had a mission. I had to do something important to regain the right to live. It wasn’t just a question of music—it was something much more significant.”

Surely, these experiences must inform his music at a deep, almost irrational, expressive level?

But his music isn’t programmatic. It’s not of anything, in the way the tone poems of the romantic composers are. His pieces aren’t about the war, his loss, his guilt, his agony or disfigurement. Quite the opposite – but the emotional impact is unmistakeable. In the physicality of Xenakis’ music you get the sense of the understanding of mass and density that an architect must have. As if the music is a physical object created with natural processes and forces and importantly not a representation or a symbol of something else. In this analysis of La Légende d’Eer they come to the conclusion that:

…one can regard Xenakis’ approach as a new form of naturalism in music. It does not seek to represent or paint images of nature or communicate messages. Rather, Xenakis seeks to immerse the listener in the underlying undetermined processes found in Nature.”

– and Xenakis himself:

When I composed La légende d’Eer, I thought of someone finding himself in the middle of the ocean. All around him, the elements are unleashed, or not, but they surround him anyway.

As an introduction to classical electronic music it is not an easy listen, it can be daunting for the hard core. But setting aside the time to really get immersed in La Légende d’Eer is truly rewarding, exhilarating even, not just as an experience in its own right, but because It also opens doors to some of the fabulous and more advanced ideas in electronic music.

  • La Légende d’Eer was released on Karl Records in July and is available on 180gr vinyl and download.