Iannis Xenakis

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Iannis Xenakis
XenakisMDaniel crop.jpg
c. 1970
Giannis Xenakis

(1922-05-29)29 May 1922
Died4 February 2001(2001-02-04) (aged 78)
OccupationComposer, architect
Years active1947–1997
Notable work
List of compositions
Spouse(s)Françoise Gargouïl (m. 1953)
Partner(s)Françoise Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis (also spelled Yannis Xenakis; Greek: Γιάννης "Ιάννης" Ξενάκης, pronounced [ˈʝanis kseˈnacis]; 29 May 1922 – 4 February 2001) was a Greek-French composer, music theorist, architect, performance director and engineer. After 1947, he fled Greece, becoming a naturalized citizen of France eighteen years later.[1] Xenakis pioneered the use of mathematical models in music such as applications of set theory, stochastic processes and game theory and was also an important influence on the development of electronic and computer music. He integrated music with architecture, designing music for pre-existing spaces, and designing spaces to be integrated with specific music compositions and performances.

Among his most important works are Metastaseis (1953–54) for orchestra, which introduced independent parts for every musician of the orchestra; percussion works such as Psappha (1975) and Pléïades (1979); compositions that introduced spatialization by dispersing musicians among the audience, such as Terretektorh (1966); electronic works created using Xenakis's UPIC system; and the massive multimedia performances Xenakis called polytopes, that were a summa of his interests and skills.[2] Among the numerous theoretical writings he authored, the book Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (French edition 1963, English translation 1971) is regarded as one of his most important. As an architect, Xenakis is primarily known for his early work under Le Corbusier: the priory of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette, on which the two collaborated, and the Philips Pavilion at Expo 58, which Xenakis designed by himself.


1922–47: Early years[edit]

Xenakis was born in Brăila, Romania. He was the eldest son of Greek parents, Klearchos Xenakis, a businessman from Euboea, and Fotini Pavlou from Lemnos. His two younger brothers were named Jason and Cosmas. His parents were both interested in music, and it was Pavlou who introduced the young Xenakis to music. Her early death in 1927, when Xenakis was five years old, was a traumatic experience that, in his own words, "deeply scarred" the future composer.[3] He was subsequently educated by a series of governesses, and then, in 1932, sent to a boarding school on the Aegean island of Spetses, Greece. He sang in the school's boys' choir, where the repertoire included works by Palestrina, and Mozart's Requiem, which Xenakis memorized in its entirety.[4] It was also at the Spetses school that Xenakis studied notation and solfège, and became enamoured of Greek traditional and church music.[4]

In 1938, after graduating from the Spetses school, Xenakis moved to Athens to prepare for entrance exams at its National Technical University. Although he intended to study architecture and engineering, he also took lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Aristotelis Koundouroff.[5] In 1940, he successfully passed the exams, but his studies were cut short by the Greco-Italian War, which began with the Italian invasion on 28 October 1940. Although Greece eventually won the war, it was not long before the German army joined the Italians in the Battle of Greece, in April 1941. This led to the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II, which lasted until late 1944, when the Allies began their drive across Europe, forcing the Axis forces to withdraw. Xenakis joined the National Liberation Front early during the war, participating in mass protests and demonstrations, and later becoming part of armed resistance—this last step was a painful experience Xenakis refused to discuss until much later in life.[6][7] After the Axis forces left, Churchill ordered that British forces step in to help restore the Greek monarchy; they were opposed by the Democratic Army of Greece, and the country plunged into a civil war. In December 1944, during the period of Churchill's martial law,[8] Xenakis (who was by then a member of the communist students' company of the left-wing Lord Byron faction of ELAS) became involved in street fighting against British tanks. He was wounded and facially disfigured when shrapnel from a tank blast hit his cheek and left eye, which was blinded;[9] that Xenakis survived the injury has been described as a miracle.[10][11]

The Technical University operated intermittently during these years. Despite this, and Xenakis's other activities, he was able to graduate in 1947, with a degree in civil engineering.[12] Xenakis was then conscripted into the national armed forces. Around 1947 the Greek government began arresting former resistance members that were left-wing oriented and sending them to prison. Xenakis, fearing for his life, went into hiding. With the help of his father and others he fled Greece through Italy. On 11 November 1947 he arrived in Paris. In a late interview, Xenakis admitted to feeling tremendous guilt at leaving his country, and that guilt was one of the sources of his later devotion to music:

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.[13]

In the meantime, in Greece he was sentenced (in absentia) to death by the right-wing administration. The sentence was commuted to ten years' imprisonment in 1951, and only lifted some 23 years later, after the fall of the Greek junta in 1974.[14]

1947–59: Architecture and music[edit]

The Philips Pavilion at the time of the exhibition. Design by Xenakis

Although he was an illegal immigrant in Paris, Xenakis was able to get a job at Le Corbusier's architectural studio. He worked as an engineering assistant at first, but quickly rose to performing more important tasks, and eventually to collaborating with Le Corbusier on major projects. These included a kindergarten on the roof of an apartment block in Nantes (Rezé) (Also: Unité d'Habitation of Nantes-Rezé), parts of government buildings in Chandigarh, India, the "undulatory glass surfaces" of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, a Dominican priory in a valley near Lyon, and the Philips Pavilion at Expo 58—the latter project was completed by Xenakis alone, from a basic sketch by Le Corbusier.[15][page needed] The experience Xenakis gained played a major role in his music: important early compositions such as Metastaseis (1953–54) were based directly on architectural concepts.

At the same time, while working for Le Corbusier, Xenakis was studying harmony and counterpoint, and composing. He worked long and hard, frequently far into the night,[16] and sought guidance from a number of teachers, most of whom, however, ultimately rejected him. Such was the case with Nadia Boulanger, who was the first person Xenakis approached about lessons. He then tried studying with Arthur Honegger, whose reaction to Xenakis's music was unenthusiastic. As Xenakis recounted in a 1987 interview, Honegger dismissed a piece which included parallel fifths and octaves as "not music". Xenakis, who was by that time well acquainted with music of Debussy, Béla Bartók, and Stravinsky, all of whom used such devices and much more experimental ones, was furious and left to study with Darius Milhaud, but these lessons also proved fruitless.[17] Annette Dieudonné, a close friend of Boulanger's, then recommended that Xenakis try studying with Olivier Messiaen.[18] Xenakis approached Messiaen for advice on whether he once again start studying harmony and counterpoint. Messiaen later recalled:

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.[19]

Francisco Estévez has described this work as "mathematical formulas translated . . . into beautiful, exciting, and above all, convincing music."[20]

Xenakis regularly attended Messiaen's classes from 1951 until 1953. Messiaen and his students studied music from a wide range of genres and styles, with particular attention to rhythm.[21] Xenakis's compositions from 1949 until 1952 were mostly inspired by Greek folk melodies, as well as Bartók, Ravel, and others; after studying with Messiaen, he discovered serialism and gained a deep understanding of contemporary music (Messiaen's other pupils at the time included Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jean Barraqué, among others). Messiaen's modal serialism was an influence on Xenakis's first large-scale work, Anastenaria (1953–54): a triptych for choir and orchestra based on an ancient Dionysian ritual. The third part of the triptych, Metastaseis, is generally regarded as the composer's first mature piece; it was detached from the triptych to mark the beginning of the "official" Xenakis oeuvre.[15]

On 3 December 1953, Xenakis married Françoise Gargouïl, journalist and writer, whom he met in 1950.[22] Their daughter Mâkhi, later a painter and sculptor, was born in 1956. In late 1954, with Messiaen's support, Xenakis was accepted into the Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète;[23] an organization established by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, dedicated to studying and producing electronic music of the musique concrète variety. Shortly after that Xenakis met conductor Hermann Scherchen, who was immediately impressed by the score of Metastaseis and offered his support. Although Scherchen did not premiere that particular work, he did give performances of later pieces by Xenakis, and the relationship between the conductor and the composer was of vital importance for the latter.[24]

By the late 1950s Xenakis slowly started gaining recognition in artistic circles. In 1957, he received his first composition award, from the European Cultural Foundation, and in 1958 the first official commission came through, from Service de Recherche of Radio France.[25][verification needed] In the same year, he produced a musique concrète piece, Concret PH, for the Philips Pavilion. In 1960, Xenakis was well-known enough to receive a commission from UNESCO for a soundtrack for a documentary film by Enrico Fulchignoni.[26]

Later life[edit]

After leaving Le Corbusier's studio in 1959, Xenakis supported himself by composition and teaching, and quickly became recognized as one of the most important European composers of his time. In 1965, he became a French citizen. He became especially known for his musical research in the field of computer-assisted composition, for which he founded the Equipe de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (EMAMu) in 1966 (known as CEMAMu: Centre d’Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales, since 1972). He taught at Indiana University from 1967 until 1972 (and established a studio similar to EMAMu there), and worked as visiting professor at the Sorbonne from 1973 intil 1989.[15] Xenakis frequently gave lectures (for instance, from 1975 to 1978 he was Professor of Music at Gresham College, London, giving free public lectures),[27] taught composition, and his works were performed at numerous festivals worldwide, including the Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran. His notable students include Pascal Dusapin, Henning Lohner, Miguel Ángel Coria, Susan Frykberg, and Robert Carl.

Xenakis in 1975

In addition to composing and teaching, Xenakis also wrote a number of articles and essays on music. Of these, Formalized Music (1963) became particularly known and was later expanded into a full book. A collection of texts on applications of stochastic processes, game theory and computer programming in music, it was later revised, expanded and translated into English as Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (1971) during Xenakis's tenure at Indiana University.

Xenakis was an atheist. Zbigniew Skowron, describing Aïs, wrote "In accordance with his atheist views, Xenakis emphasizes the finality of death as the ultimate event of human life, and this is probably why wild shrieks and moans punctuate his score".[28] Xenakis himself wrote, "Man is one, indivisible, and total. He thinks with his belly and feels with his mind. I would like to propose what, to my mind, covers the term "music": ... 7. It is a mystical (but atheistic) asceticism ...".[29]

Xenakis completed his last work, O-mega for percussion soloist and chamber orchestra, in 1997. His health had been getting progressively worse over the years, and by 1997 he was no longer able to work. In 1999, Xenakis was awarded the Polar Music Prize "for a long succession of forceful works, charged with sensitivity, commitment and passion, through which he has come to rank among the most central composers of our century in the realm of art music, exercising within its various fields an influence which cannot be readily overstated".[30] After several years of serious illness, on 1 February 2001 the composer lapsed into a coma. He died in his Paris home four days later, on 4 February, aged 78; and was shortly after cremated, with his ashes being given to his family. He was survived by his wife, who died in 2018, and his daughter.[31]


Specific examples of mathematics, statistics, and physics applied to music composition are the use of the statistical mechanics of gases in Pithoprakta, statistical distribution of points on a plane in Diamorphoses, minimal constraints in Achorripsis, the normal distribution in ST/10 and Atrées, Markov chains in Analogique, game theory in Duel, Stratégie, and Linaia-agon, group theory in Nomos Alpha (for Siegfried Palm), set theory in Herma and Eonta,[32] and Brownian motion in N'Shima. Persephassa, commissioned by the Shiraz Arts Festival, was performed by Les Percussions de Strasbourg, receiving its world premiere in Persepolis in 1969. Subsequently, he was once again commissioned by the Shiraz Arts Festival and composed Persepolis for the occasion, a "polytope" composed specific to the historic site.[33]

Although electroacoustic compositions represent only a small fraction of Xenakis's output, they are highly relevant to musical thinking in the late 20th century. Important works in this medium include Concret PH (1958), Analogique B (1958–59), Bohor (1962), La légende d'Eer (1977), Mycenae-Alpha (1978), Voyage absolu des Unari vers Andromède (1989), Gendy301 (1991), and S709 (1994).[34]

By 1979, he had devised a computer system called UPIC, which could translate graphical images into musical results.[35] "Xenakis had originally trained as an architect, so some of his drawings, which he called 'arborescences', resembled both organic forms and architectural structures." These drawings' various curves and lines that could be interpreted by UPIC as real time instructions for the sound synthesis process. The drawing is, thus, rendered into a composition. Mycenae-Alpha was the first of these pieces he created using UPIC as it was being perfected.[36]

Xenakis also developed an stochastic synthesizer algorithm (used in GENDY), called dynamic stochastic synthesis, where a polygonal waveform's sectional borders' amplitudes and distance between borders may be generated using a form of random walk to create both aleatoric timbres and musical forms.[37] Further material may be generated by then refeeding the original waveform back into the function or wave forms may be superimposed. Elastic barriers or mirrors are used to keep the randomly generated values within a given finite interval, so as to not exceed limits such as the audible pitch range, avoid complete chaos (white noise), and to create a balance between stability and instability (unity and variety).[37]

Despite Xenakis's reputation as a "mathematical" composer, his works are known for their power and physicality. Alex Ross wrote that Xenakis "produced some of the rawest, wildest music in history—sounds that explode around the ears. Rarefied methods were employed to release primordial energies."[38] Ben Watson expressed admiration for the "terrifying emotional impact of [Xenakis'] sonic objectivity", describing his music as possessing "truly majestic otherness. It is an alien shard, glimmering in the heart of the West."[39] Tom Service praised Xenakis' music for its "shattering visceral power" and "sheer, scintillating physicality", noting its "deep, primal rootedness in richer and older phenomena even than musical history: the physics and patterning of the natural world, of the stars, of gas molecules, and the proliferating possibilities of mathematical principles."[9] Service described Xenakis as a composer "whose craggily, joyously elemental music turned collections of pitches and rhythms and instruments into a force of nature, releasing a power that previous composers had only suggested metaphorically but which he would realise with arguably greater clarity, ferocity, intensity than any musician, before or since," and suggested that his music is "expressive: not in a conventionally emotional way, perhaps, but it has an ecstatic, cathartic power. Xenakis's music – and its preternaturally brilliant performers – allows its listeners to witness seismic events close at hand, to be at the middle of a musical happening of cosmic intensity."[9] Service concluded: "it took Xenakis for music to become nature. On holiday in Corsica, Xenakis would pilot his canoe into the teeth of the biggest storm he and his paddle could manage. When you're listening to his music, you also go out there into the eye of a musical storm that will invigorate, inspire, and awe. See you out there..."[9]


  • Xenakis, Iannis. 2001. Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (Harmonologia Series No. 6). Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press. ISBN 1-57647-079-2


  1. ^ Gagné, Nicole V. (2012). Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-6765-6. p. 299: "Xenakis settled in Paris, becoming a French citizen in 1965."
  2. ^ "Yannis Xenakis' Polytopes: Cosmogonies in Sound and Architecture – SOCKS". Socks. 8 January 2014. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
  3. ^ Matossian, 13.
  4. ^ a b Varga, 14.
  5. ^ Matossian, 14–17.
  6. ^ Matossian, 18–27.
  7. ^ Varga, 14–19.
  8. ^ Gilbert 1966, p. 56.
  9. ^ a b c d Service, Tom (23 April 2013). "A guide to Iannis Xenakis's music". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 23 May 2020.
  10. ^ Harley, 2.
  11. ^ Barthel-Calvet, Anne-Sylvie. (2002). "Chronologie". In Portrait(s) de Iannis Xenakis, edited by François-Bernard Mâche, pp. 25–82. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France. ISBN 2-7177-2178-9.
  12. ^ Baltensperger, André. (1995). Iannis Xenakis und die Stochastische Musik – Komposition im Spannungsfeld von Architektur und Mathematik. Zürich. Paul Haupt. p. 72.
  13. ^ Varga, 47.
  14. ^ Harley, 92.
  15. ^ a b c Hoffmann
  16. ^ Matossian, 37.
  17. ^ Xenakis, Iannis; Brown, Roberta; Rahn, John (1987). "Xenakis on Xenakis" (PDF). Perspectives of New Music. 25 (1–2): 16–63 (20). JSTOR 833091.
  18. ^ Harley, 4.
  19. ^ Matossian, 48.
  20. ^ Thatcher, Nathan. 2016. Paco. New York: Mormon Artists Group. ISBN 978-1-5238-5909-2. p. 116.
  21. ^ For a study of Messiaen's teaching methods, see Boivin 1995,[page needed].
  22. ^ Xenakis, Françoise, and Andreas Waldburg-Wolfegg. "Mme Xenakis in Conversation", translated by Sarah Green and Maro Elliott. International Contemporary Ensemble website (archive from 11 June 2015, accessed 29 April 2016).
  23. ^ Harley, 12.
  24. ^ Matossian, 77–79.
  25. ^ Harley, 23.
  26. ^ Harley, 19.
  27. ^ Cole, Jonathan 2009. "Music and Architecture: Confronting the Boundaries between Space and Sound". Gresham College (21 September, archive from 18 January 2015, accessed 29 April 2016)
  28. ^ Skowron, Zbigniew (ed.). (2001). Lutosławski Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-816660-3. pp. 122–123.
  29. ^ Xenakis, Iannis. (1992). Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, second edition. Harmonologia Series, no. 6. Stuyvesant, New York: Pendragon Press. ISBN 978-1-57647-079-4. p. 181.
  30. ^ "Iannis Xenakis, Laureate of the Polar Music Prize 1999". Polar Music Prize website (accessed 29 April 2016) Archived 8 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ Griffiths, Paul. (5 February 2001). "Iannis Xenakis, Composer Who Built Music on Mathematics, Is Dead at 78". The New York Times, p. B7
  32. ^ Chrissochoidis, Ilias, Stavros Houliaras, and Christos Mitsakis. (2005). "Set theory in Xenakis' EONTA". In International Symposium Iannis Xenakis, edited by Anastasia Georgaki and Makis Solomos, pp. 241–249. Athens: The National and Kapodistrian University.
  33. ^ Gluck, Robert (2007). "The Shiraz Arts Festival: Western Avant-Garde Arts in 1970s Iran". Leonardo. 40: 21–28. doi:10.1162/leon.2007.40.1.20. S2CID 57561105.
  34. ^ Di Scipio, 201.
  35. ^ Hugill 2008, pp. 95, 182.
  36. ^ Di Scipio, 220.
  37. ^ a b Serra, 241.
  38. ^ Ross, Alex (22 February 2010). "Waveforms: The singular Iannis Xenakis". The New Yorker. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  39. ^ Watson, Ben (June 1995). "Iannis Xenakis: Primal Architect". The Wire. No. 136.

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