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Iannis Xenakis: Regard, disregard; liberation.

INDULGE MY REMINISCENCE: one Fall day in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was sipping Drambuie and doing calculus homework with the radio on. The oleaginous announcer's voice turned into--Metastasis! My head snapped up from the homework. The sounds were an entirely new musical world, totally and instantly engaging. But in fact it wasn't the sounds themselves that felt so different--the glissandi, for example. The sounds were put together with an audacious disregard for all compositional conventions--but this was not simply "bad boy" music either. What riveted my attention was the new regime of musical organization which so patently inhered, obvious on the surface but not limited to the surface of the music. The newness was about time at least as much as it was about pitch. The pitch-and-time blackboard had been wiped clean, then rewritten.

It was the music, as music, that captured and retained one's attention, but the hint of a novel--and a "formal"--means of underlying organization had a fascination of its own. At the end of the Sputnik and H-bomb era, spurred by our fear of annihilation, technology was valorized throughout our American culture: a techno-mathematical hegemony. The value of formal methods went without saying. It was natural to try to be formal.

In 1966, now a bassoon student at Juilliard I had obtained a copy of Xenakis's book, Musiques Formelles, and a tutor who was a French graduate student in mathematics. We went through the book, but ultimately I was disappointed. My tutor and I could not make perfect sense of all of the mathematics in the book. To the extent that we could--this is an interesting book of early essays by Xenakis--the formalisms did not account for the musical part of the music. That is, yes, there was a relation between the mathematics and the music, but the excitement generated by the music was not, in turn, generated by the mathematics behind the music. Between the mathematics and the music was a crucial intervention by Xenakis-the-composer. The mathematics was not irrelevant--Xenakis used mathematics for conceptual tools, and with these tools, he fashioned the music. In the end, the music was so good because Xenakis was a good composer, not because of any underlying formalism.

There is a sense of wildness in Xenakis's music which is part of its liberating effect. Initially at least, Xenakis used stochastic laws as part of his set of formal tools. Xenakis was fascinated by phenomena described by such laws, turbulent throngs which now would probably be described by flavors of "chaos theory" still unknown in the 1950s. I believe that it was not any faith in the mystical powers of "chance"--or any concomitant letting-go of oneself, ecstasis, or abnegation of will--which attracted Xenakis to stochastic laws, but rather a positively plastic working with stochastically describable matter. Large numbers of things, such as people or molecules, behave differently from just a few of those things. Such collective behavior is often bimodal. A gas at a certain temperature, filling a volume, uses its energy within those bounds, an energetic stasis; but a gas rushing through a bottleneck to fill a volume exhibits turbulence. Stasis and change.

For an individual, there is something frightening about the behavior of collectivities of which one may, will-he nil-he, form a part. Danger is exciting.

I once lived in a Greek village which had no streets. Every house was oriented in some way that appealed to its builder, but, apparently, no builder cared to align any house with any other house. A fundamental anarchy. Xenakis was a Greek, and a Communist (in the Greek and French contexts), who as a student had lived through violent social turbulence. This all forms part of his sensibility as a composer.

Xenakis was also an architect, of course, an associate of Le Corbusier who designed and executed important buildings. In Musiques Formelles (later translated and expanded into Formalized Music), the musical thought is not only mathematically informed, but patently visual. The imagination works in three-dimensional spaces, represented by two-dimensional sections. The x-y planes are the basis of the time-pitch thinking in the music. Later, this was to become even more explicitly emphasized in Xenakis's UPIC environment for graphic composition of music aided by computer.

Visual spaces are continuous spaces. Mapped onto musical space, a visual construct will disregard musical chunking by meter or scale. If a visual construct is mapped into meter and scale, the underlying disregard remains in the creation of the construct outside of those strictures. With the UPIC machine, Xenakis could extend such disregard into the realm of sonic micro-structures and timbre. The usual hierarchical stacks of harmonic partials fusing into individual "notes" with a certain "timbre" and "pitch" must have seemed too tidy--Fourier as the compulsive housewife, bundling all energy into harmonic organization. Xenakis painted his x-y plane directly into time-frequency. Since nonharmonic frequency relations are heard as "noise," this music is "noisy."

But Xenakis would be misrepresented as one who was concerned to plot music onto an x-y plane, peering myopically at the coordinates. There is something confining about a square, or computer screen, even about the x-y plane itself. And there is something small-minded about a concern for translation, on perhaps dubious premises, from one two-dimensional representation of music (the score idea) to another two-dimensional representation of it (in two-dimensional geometric space). Xenakis was never confined, and always large-minded. The distinguishing feature of his music is always liberation, from conventions, traditions, rules, and pettiness of any kind. What the visual contributes to this sense of liberation is a sense of sweeping, curved movements in spaces of at least three dimensions. For a while, the working studio Xenakis kept (on the top floor of an apartment building near the Pigalle in Paris) had a rope hanging from the ceiling, on which he could swing around. This makes sense as a working tool for Xena kis. So much of his music has a not only visual but kinesthetic sense of movement, swoops, arcs, projections, halts--very physical.

The affection so many composers feel for Xenakis's music springs from many sources. There is the sheer musical appeal of the music. There is the go-for-it, what-the-hell wildness clearly evident in and behind the composition. There is the radical disuse, disregard of all musical convention, showing itself in musical time at least as much as in pitch. There is the invasion of the visual into the musical, manifesting itself as complex visual designs behind the sounds which give the sounds a new kind of organization. There is the radically abstract and magisterial thinking and compositional care which always controls and informs the wildness. There is this kinesthetic, physical feel to the music which appeals to anyone who has experienced a body, playing on a swing, skiing, swimming, standing on a street corner.... In the end, I think Xenakis realized an ideal of liberation in music, for himself and for the rest of us, which will inspire us for a long time to come.

-- April 2001

JOHN RAHN is Professor of Music at the University of Washington, and an Editor of this journal. His personal webpage is
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Author:Rahn, John
Publication:Perspectives of New Music
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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