Iannis Xenakis; Avant-Garde Composer


Iannis Xenakis, a leading figure in the post-World War II avant-garde and a composer of some of the most formidably complex works ever written, died Sunday at his home in Paris. The 78-year composer had been in failing health for several years.

Xenakis was an uncommonly romantic figure in modern music. Born in Romania to Greek parents, he was blinded in one eye and bore prominent facial scars from five years of fighting in the Greek Resistance during World War II.

An engineer, mathematician and architect as well as a composer, he was known not just for making music based on arcane mathematical and scientific theories but also for berating musicians for their lack of scientific sophistication. He even suggested that musicians, had they been brighter, should have discovered the Third Law of Thermodynamics before physicists did purely from an understanding of musical principles.


Xenakis’ earliest pieces, written in the 1950s with the help of probability theory, were his most extreme, often supplying every member in the orchestra with a different part, with each one of those parts containing fantastic rhythmic difficulty. Although few in the musical world, or in his audiences, knew exactly what he was up to, Xenakis achieved a sound--almost primeval in its visceral and emotional impact--that was all his own.

Later, while still writing complicated works for traditional and electronic instruments, Xenakis seemed less concerned with theory and more with immediacy of expression. And the sheer elemental power of these later works, which often bore a thematic relationship to ancient Greek drama or myth, brought him a fanatical devotion among musicians and audiences.

Claude Hellue of the Assn. of Friends of Xenakis in Paris called the composer, who became a French citizen in 1965, “one of the greatest geniuses of the century.” Learning of Xenakis’ death, French President Jacques Chirac said, “France loses one of its most brilliant artists today.”

Xenakis was born May 29, 1922, in Braila, Romania, into a wealthy Greek family. At age 16, he moved to Athens to study music and engineering. But the Italian fascists occupied Greece in 1940 on the day he passed his examinations for the Polytechnic School, which was shut down for a year. By the time it reopened, Xenakis had entered into the armed struggle of the Resistance. In 1945, he was hit by the tank shell and lost an eye along with part of his face.

After the war, Xenakis again resisted the new, totalitarian regime in Greece and was sentenced to death in absentia. After a harrowing escape to Italy and then France, he applied his engineering skills to helping the architect Le Corbusier plan a housing unit in Marseilles. Xenakis spent 12 years working for the famed Modernist, during which time he designed parts of the Indian parliament and general secretariat in Chandigarh. He also was responsible for the Philips Pavilion of the 1958 world fair in Brussels, which was constructed entirely of flat surfaces in the shape of hyperbolic parabolas.

But many of Xenakis’ radical ideas in architecture actually grew out of his musical studies and experiments that he simultaneously pursued, working with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. In fact, it was a technique for using probability calculus to manipulate glissandi, or sliding tones, in his first orchestra piece, “Metastasis” in 1953, that was also applied to the hyperbolic parabolas in the Philips Pavilion.


In “Metastasis” and the musical works that followed, Xenakis did not think of composition in terms of melodies, rhythms or traditional forms, but as the manipulation of sonic “clouds” and “galaxies.”

After 1958, Xenakis devoted most of his energies to music, in which he further pursued the uses of probability calculus and set theory in instrumental and electronic music. An innovator in his use of the computer to make his musical calculations and draw up his musical models, he also jumped in when the computer began to be used to make actual musical sounds in the early 1960s. He founded the Centre d’Etudes de Mathematique et Automatique Musicales (CEMAMu) in Paris and was a resident at the electronic studios at Indiana University (where he founded the Center for Musical Mathematics and Automation), UC San Diego and CalArts.

Xenakis’ catalog of compositions is large. He is best known for orchestral works, some of which were conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Georg Solti and Zubin Mehta with such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris. The scores of these pieces are a sight to behold--fantastically notated and enormous in size, overwhelming the eye and the music stand. But the sound of the music can be surprisingly coherent and focused to the ear, as the constellations of instruments weave in and out of their complex patterns.

The titles of Xenakis pieces are almost as striking as the musical notation, for instance “Persephassa” is Xenakis’ own conflation of Persphone, Perseus, Persians, Parsifal and Persepolis. “Kraanerg” is a 75-minute ballet score for orchestra and tape. Other pieces have names such as “Ikhoor,” “Oophaa,” “Gmeeoorh” and “Waarg.”

He was particularly devoted to percussion music, and he also wrote an extensive amount of chamber music, solo pieces and music for the theater. His electronic music was elaborate, often designed to fill large spaces with dozens of loudspeakers.

And despite all the mathematical modeling and electronic experimentation, Xenakis was strongly drawn to the humanistic philosophy and ritual theater of Greece, and those elements took increasing hold on his later works. His biographer Nouritza Matossian described him as never having stopped being a Resistance fighter. “He simply moved his field of battle into music,” she wrote.

Xenakis is survived by his wife, Francoise, and daughter Makhi.