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The Atonal pays tribute to Iannis Xenakis: Making Music by Numbers

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Moby Dick the whale never appears in full in Herman Melville’s tale. In the gaze of the whaler Ahab, it appears only as an amorphous white, sometimes fragmented, sometimes as a horizon, encircling the ship, everywhere at once. Like some kind of white noise fog. Moby Dick is never a mere animal with a head, abdomen and fins, but the almost disembodied embodiment of all Ahabian uncertainty. If you wanted to describe Moby Dick mathematically, you would have to try at least the probability calculation.

In the fight against fascists critically injured

Seen in this way, there is a whole lot of Moby Dick in the music of the composer Iannis Xenakis, whom the current edition of the Berlin Atonal festival is honoring with the program “X100” – on the occasion of the composer’s 100th birthday. Born in 1922 in the small Romanian town of Braila, Xenakis grew up in Greece, where he experienced the fascist occupation at the age of 18. As an engineering student, he soon finds himself at the forefront of demonstrations against the occupying forces.

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The rhythmic shouting of anti-fascist slogans from thousands of voices and its sudden eruption to chaotic screams as the Nazis begin firing into the crowd are burned into his memory forever. He will later describe the auditory impression as a “cloud of sound” and compare it to the quiet background noise of camping in nature at night, when thousands and thousands of very different-sounding insects create a homogeneous background noise. Like Moby Dick, a disembodied whole whose individual components cannot be understood at all by listening.

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It is precisely this impression that will later determine his music: the sound of the masses did not exist in the music before Xenakis.

At the end of 1944, the British first came to Athens as liberators. However, it soon becomes apparent that Churchill’s troops are also occupying the country and want to determine its political future. And once again, Xenakis finds himself at the forefront of the resistance. As he is holed up in a building with a group of civilians, a British shrapnel shell explodes nearby, decapitating a friend and ripping the left side of his face to pieces. He loses his left eye, half his jaw and part of his hearing.

“I was always trying to find the sound of the bullet hitting my face,” he says in a later interview. Under the British occupation, all of Greece soon sinks into civil war, the military junta hunts down communists and sentences Xenakis to death as one of them in 1947. He flees to Paris just in time.

In their work “Ride of Discomfort” Puce Mary & Bill Kouligas refer to Xenakis.
© Photo: Atonal Promo

When he was pardoned by the new Greek government in 1974, after the end of the military dictatorship, he had long been a well-known figure in public life in France. He first gained notoriety as an assistant to the star architect Le Corbusier, for whom Xenakis worked from 1947 to ’59. At the same time, with the help of his teacher Olivier Messiaen, he is still looking for his own musical language. Le Corbusier gives Xenakis more and more responsibility, so that the assistant soon becomes an architect himself.

Architecture and music are mutually dependent

Architectural ideas flow into his scores written on graph paper. At the same time, musical principles are reflected in the architecture. When the office was commissioned to build the Philipps Pavilion for the 1958 Expo in Brussels in 1956, Le Corbusier left the project largely to Xenakis.

He derives the form of the pavilion from his graphic score “Metastaseis” written in 1953/54, for the interior he designs a complex loudspeaker system that floods the visitors with Edgar Varèse’s “Poème électronique”, and in the entrance area he has his own composition “Concret PH sound. When Le Corbusier claims sole authorship, there is a break between the two.

However, Le Corbusier’s successes also rub off on Xenakis, so that he can increasingly turn to music. As a composer and teacher, he is best known for his markedly mathematical way of working, with the help of which he translates non-musical ideas into music. The close relationship between music and mathematics, he said, had always been obvious to him.

Composer Kali Malone presents her piece “Living Torch” at the Atonal Festival.
Composer Kali Malone presents her piece “Living Torch” at the Atonal Festival.
© Photo: Atonal/Promo

With the help of probability calculation, game theory and the use of early computers, as early as 1960 he formalized phenomena such as the “clouds of sound” consisting of thousands of individual events at the anti-fascist demonstrations in Athens, making “stochastic music” with them. While other composers are still working with the sound as a fixed characteristic of the instrument, he begins to break down the sound itself into countless individual parts, so-called grains, and to compose with them.

A music like Moby Dick, without repetitive rhythms, catchy melodies or traditional voice-writing, but like an all-enveloping sound of the sea that can appear in countless ways.

As one of the first artists, Xenakis creates immersive total works of art from sound, light, architecture and movement that still have a new effect in the 21st century and shape generations of composers. After a long illness, he died in Paris in 2011. His remains are cremated, the ashes, according to his wishes, thrown into the sea where they float around the planet in a kind of grayish white noise.

Twenty original compositions by Xenakis can now be heard at the Berlin Atonal Festival, some true to the original, some in adaptations. With purely electronic, ensemble and solo works, the program gives a broad insight into the composer’s work and contrasts it with contemporary works that have been influenced by him.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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