New York

Iannis Xenakis

Drawing Center

IANNIS XENAKIS, WHO DIED IN 2001 at the age of seventy-eight, was the embodiment of Goethe’s famous quote “I call architecture frozen music.” Trained as a civil engineer, Xenakis went on to study composition with Olivier Messiaen, and his mature work intensified the two forms’ interrelationship: He fashioned musical scores from the notations of advanced mathematics and designed buildings utilizing the geometric shapes incorporated in the scores. While Xenakis’s music is scientific in construction, as Messiaen once observed “the preliminary calculations are completely forgotten at audition. . . . The result in sound is a delicately poetic calm or violently brutal agitation, as the case may be.” The exhibition “Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary,” curated by scholar Sharon Kanach and critic Carey Lovelace, lined up Xenakis’s own handwritten studies for his music (many on architectural graph paper) alongside photos of his architectural sites and audio documents, taking a significant and gratifying step toward an appreciation of Xenakis outside avant-garde classical music circles as a singular artist who took the spatial and interdisciplinary implications of a modern concept of music—as sound moving through space—to their apex.

Xenakis was opposed to so-called graphic scores, which afford a flexibility to performers that had no place in his rigorously calculated music, and he eventually converted all of his studies into standard musical notation. So the studies displayed here are not works in and of themselves, though they are artfully done; they remain essentially blueprints, analogous to a director’s storyboards for a film (albeit more exacting). Yet they prove revelatory. In the studies for his first major composition for orchestra, the forceful Metastaseis (1953–54), multiple glissandi (continuous glides from one pitch to another, a radical orchestral gesture at the time) are rendered as hyperbolic paraboloids. The final score for Metastaseis (also displayed) is realized as an army of single notes repeated from bar to bar, yet it is the graph-paper studies that more accurately transcribe the density that the piece, when performed, conveys. (An MP3 player filled with otherwise hard-to-find recordings of all the pieces was available for consultation.) One study for Pithoprakta (1955–56), an early example of Xenakis’s “stochastic” music, which used probability systems to generate scores (an interesting contrast to John Cage, who used indeterminacy in the service of composition), maps out a series of sonic events using colored symbols—crosses, circles, diamonds, and triangles. Here the drawing, and further studies and calculations for the piece, better illustrates his thinking than the music does. A ca. 1964 illustration of Achorripsis (1956–57) that Xenakis made for a fellowship lecture indicates the music’s construction as well as its sound, using a matrix of colored squares representing levels of instrumental density, from green or white to black or navy blue, with rows and columns assigned to instrumental groupings and fifteen-second increments, respectively. The drawing of wavy lines, generated in part from mathematical “random walks,” in Cendrées (1973) not only delineates the piece’s microtonality but coincidentally corresponds to the walking art of Richard Long and, more recently, Tim Knowles. The dendritelike “arborescences,” drawn freehand, of the following year’s Erikhthon look like rural road maps as much as tree branches, confirming nature as an additional source of inspiration (Xenakis had previously compared Pithoprakta to the sound of cicadas or rain on a roof), although they were also the result of experimentation with Markov chains, another probability system.

Xenakis’s musical and architectural pursuits were first conjoined in the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Xenakis’s then employer, Le Corbusier, was approached about creating a multimedia pavilion and handed off the design work to Xenakis, who created the world’s first freestanding building of hyperbolic paraboloids (inspired by his own Metastaseis). Edgar Varèse composed an eight-minute electronic piece, Poème Électronique; Xenakis added his own tape piece of nearly three minutes, Concret PH, to be played as visitors entered and left the presentation; and Le Corbusier himself contributed a series of projections depicting scenes from the development of Western civilization: The resulting installation was an important forebear of sound art. By 1967, Xenakis was able to follow up on the Philips Pavilion with the first of several sited sound and light spectacles he called polytopes. Polytope de Montréal (1967) made conoids and hyperboloids manifest in steel cable stretched six stories high, while recordings of four orchestras were heard on speakers spread out in different sections of the hall. Given the site-specificity and 360-degree experiential nature of the polytopes, fully documenting them, especially in a gallery context, is nearly impossible, although a virtual re-creation of the Philips Pavilion and a slide show of Diatope (1978) numbered among the exhibition’s accompanying events.

In 1978, as part of Polytope de Mycènes, Xenakis debuted Mycènes Alpha, a music piece created in Paris with the upic machine, a Xenakis invention that allowed him to draw directly onto a board linked to a computer that would then translate the graphics into electronic sound. One of the exhibition’s most valuable displays was a DVD that scrolled through the Mycènes Alpha score as the piece played on the sound track. Here the connection between the music and the drawings crystallized; weblike parabolic mutations mirrored the swoops and soars of massed tone clusters, stacks of vertical lines paralleled jagged bursts of seeming white noise, and a series of a mountainous peaks was transmitted as a low drone with sirenlike glissandi arcing overhead. With the UPIC Xenakis closed the gap between a composer’s intent and the piece’s subsequent notation and performance. Xenakis called his work “music to be seen,” and its astonishing audiovisual realizations in the polytopes and the upic continue to resonate in those intermedia vanguards where the sonic and visual arts are regarded as being in perpetual dialogue.

Travels to the Canadian Centre for Architecture, June 17–Oct. 17;
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Nov. 9, 2010–Feb. 13, 2011.

Alan Licht is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York.