Iannis Xenakis: Electroacoustic Works Album Review

As a composer, Iannis Xenakis had a fraught relationship with emotion. Blame childhood trauma: His mother died when he was five, and the memories tied up with the Romani folk songs he heard as a boy were too much to bear. As an adult he would burst into tears upon hearing sentimental melodies, then begrudge his own response: “Music should not be listened to in this way,” he would admonish himself. He viewed such mawkish reactions as a response to “subjective coloring”: the frames of reference that alter music’s effect on each person, be it their cultural upbringing or the century in which they lived. He wanted timelessness, universality. “Something that remains in the past,” he once declared, “is dead.”

For the late Greek-French artist, the beauty he sought in art could not be attained via religion, emotion, nor tradition. His path to understanding this was arduous. After his mother’s death, he was sent to boarding school on the Greek island Spetses. He was miserable, bullied by classmates and considered stupid, so in his loneliness he turned to books, learning about astronomy. At 16 he moved to Athens for bigger dreams, eager to attend the Polytechnic School. He loved math and physics so prepared for the entrance exam, but also studied harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration under the composer Aristotle Koundourov; these ostensibly disparate fields were always of simultaneous interest. Xenakis’ innovative compositions, ranging from chamber works to computer music, would be based on game theory, apply stochastic processes, and look to inspiration from concepts such as kinetic molecular theory.

The day Xenakis learned of his passing test result, the university closed: Italian forces had invaded the country, prompting him to join the Greek Resistance in 1941 and then the Communist Party. While he obtained a civil engineering degree in 1947, he could no longer stay in Greece — his country’s government was sending Communists to concentration camps. The ideals Xenakis fought for had been, in his words, “senselessly, hopelessly defeated.” He relocated to France, but doing so became a tremendous source of guilt — some of his friends who stayed behind were imprisoned, and others died — and felt an excruciating need to do something important with his life. He could never be content with heartstring-tugging ditties; at the very least, his music needed to capture the entire sweep of the cosmos.

Listening to the five-disc box set Electroacoustic Works, it’s clear that Xenakis succeeded. These 13 compositions date from between 1957 and 1994 but could easily shock audiences today — their sonorities are strange for the unacquainted and immensely energized compared to similar works today. (There are discrepancies in the dating of Xenakis’ pieces; Bandcamp and the compilation’s liner notes offer competing years. The dates in this review come from Conversations with Iannis Xenakis, by Bálint András Varga.) Xenakis was not interested in mere provocation, though; he wanted a listener to “los[e] his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous, and perfect. ” In other words: ecstasy. Take Orient-Occident (1960), a two-channel tape-music piece that soundtracked Enrico Fulchignoni’s short film of the same name. As sonic accompaniment, the work is diluted by the images and voiceover, but heard alone, its intensity is palpable. Fulchignoni’s project compared art from different countries and centuries; Xenakis’ piece makes more elusive connections. There are meditative drones and bowed strings, animal roars and percussive bursts, all manipulated in nuanced fashion. Despite its straightforward structure, Orient-Occident uses juxtapositions to help these sounds transcend specific cultures and eras; every noise extends beyond easy representation, and invites listeners to dig deeper.

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