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Iannis Xenakis, the Greek Composer Who Revolutionized Music

Iannis Xenakis
Greek Composer Iannis Xenakis in Paris. Credit: Friends of Xenakis Organization/ CC-BY-SA-2.5

Greek composer Iannis Xenakis has an enduring legacy as one of the foremost composers of avant-garde music in the twentieth century. He came to music composition through many diverse passions and integrated them all throughout his work.

At once an engineer, architect, and mathematician, Xenakis had the multifaceted genius that Greek culture is so well-known for. He also lived through some of the most trying times in Greek history.

Born in 1922 to wealthy Greek parents living in Romania, he came back to Greece at the age of ten to attend a boarding school on the island of Spetses.

By the time Xenakis was eighteen and ready to pursue a more advanced education in architecture and engineering, Italy had invaded Greece at the outset of World War II. The invasion soon led to the Nazi occupation of Greece, which wrenched him from his scholarly pursuits and thrust him into the strife of life during wartime.

The Nazi Occupation in Greece

Greece was divided into three zones after it fell to the Germans in April of 1941.
Of course, it was the Germans who ruled parts of Athens along with Thessaloniki, most of the island of Crete, and areas in the Aegean.

However, it was the nation of Bulgaria which controlled the region of Thrace and eastern sections of Macedonia. Italy was the nation in charge of most of mainland Greece under occupation.

Xenakis overcame violence

Xenakis joined the Greek National Liberation Front during the years of Nazi occupation. The Front was a communist organization resisting the occupation through protest as well as armed conflict.

He struggled psychologically with the violence that was part of his role in the resistance. He also suffered an incredibly traumatizing injury when a British projectile exploded on him, leaving his left eye blind and his face greatly disfigured thereafter.

Xenakis was able to finish his degree in 1947, but at that time, the Greek government sought to persecute former members of the National Liberation Front, and he was given a death sentence for his affiliation with communism.

Xenakis then fled to Paris in order to escape his fate at the hands of Greece’s new government.

Rise to prominence in Paris

Xenakis’ training in civil engineering landed him his first job in Paris assisting the renowned architect Le Corbusier. He quickly proved himself to be a visionary in his own right, eventually becoming a lead project manager and even collaborator of Le Corbusier’s.

Xenakis managed the entire construction of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair Pavilion, known as the “Philips Pavilion,” adapted from Le Corbusier’s idea.

Le Corbusier Philips Pavilion greek composer
The Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, designed by Le Corbusier and executed by Iannis Xenakis. Credit: Herbert Behrens/ CC-BY-SA-3.0

Xenakis, ever the polymath, studied music while working as an architect. He longed for the tutelage of a professional composer, but when he initially showed them his work he faced rejection and misunderstanding, one even claiming that his mathematical compositions were “not music.”

Finally he approached renowned French composer Olivier Messiaen, who immediately recognized a flash of brilliance in Xenakis’ incorporation of mathematics into his compositions. He also associated this idiosyncratic strength with Xenakis’ Greekness:

“[Y]ou 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.”

Iannis Xenakis’ Hybrid Masterpieces

The Greek composer studied intensely with Messiaen from 1951 to 1953 while maintaining his post at Le Corbusier’s architecture studio. As he mastered musical rhythm, he began to understand the precise balance between statistical mathematics and music composition.

He produced his first work, Anastenaria (1953–54), a triptych, or three part piece, inspired by the Northern Greek dance ritual of the same name. The third part of the piece, Metastaseis, is considered Xenakis’ breakthrough and the earliest example of the style he became known for.

It stands so singularly that Xenakis decided to remove it from the triptych.

Xenakis’ mathematical proficiency led him to developing computer programs, algorithms, and synthesizers to create unique sounds.

The polymath also created a computer program called UPIC that allowed users to draw musical waveforms with a tablet that would then be translated by the program into corresponding sounds.

The Greek genius’ health severely diminished toward the end of the twentieth century. In 1999, just two years prior to his death, he was given the Polar Music Award.

The distinction was bestowed on him, as the organizers stated, “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.”

Xenakis passed away at the age of seventy-eight on February 4, 2001.

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