Xenakis: The Continuing Composer

A Personal Reflection on Iannis Xenakis

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

February 19, 2001

Copyright ©2001 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

There are startling moments of existence that, with age, one rediscovers. No, I never thought I'd use the word 'age' in a self-referential way, but there it is. Though forever young in my own mind, I tipped the scales of five decades many months ago. My mentors are releasing their hold on mortality.

I never met Iannis Xenakis--nor most of the composers who formed my art. Not their flesh, at least.

But there was the day I encountered Xenakis, the X-Man. On vacation from the chemical wasteland that was my home state of New Jersey, I walked into the French pavilion at Terre des Hommes, the 1967 Montréal Expo, as a wide-eyed but self-assured 18-year-old composer whose most recent creation was a (pitiful) Symphony in C.

It was Expo, one hell of a party, man, in a foreign country, yee-hah! And then something happened. Sure, any exposition is intended to be a Land of the Future, but this French pavilion was a real future. There was new music--no, new sound, new freakin' sound!--around me. I had no idea whose music/sound it was, or even what it was, but I was taken over. Enchanted. Humbled. Confused. Challenged. And in love.

As with most students attending artistically trivial universities in the 1960s, I was pressed to learn only the traditional sounds and forms--Mozart and Bach, mostly, with the occasional foray into the 'contemporary' music of Richard Strauss, which was as far as the limited theory they taught could stretch without breaking. Incomprehensible and hence unworthy of study were Stockhausen, Cage, Partch, Ayler, and marginally, even Stravinsky. Far more to their detriment, all had the arrogance to be alive. (As was Xenakis, whose name was unknown, along with the alphabet-ending Zappa.)

So my true studies began to diverge from the university, a place I left behind long before I actually walked out its doors.

But even within its dreary halls, I learned through my insolent questioning that the shape and direction of musical compositions were always, in a sense, capricious. Where once the connections had been familiar, perhaps based on dances or songs, the formal traditions had become so disconnected from their origins that they might as well have been arbitrary. Patterns, variations, changes, stasis, development, color, threads, texture, even purpose--the whole repertoire of musical composition is indeed infused with an uncertain balance of the vaguely traditional and the personally arbitrary.

So it was 1967. I learned later that this soundscape (Polytope de Montréal, a light and sound spectacle for four identical small orchestras) and many other pieces had a mathematical basis. Oh, yes, that's a simplistic way of saying it, but nevertheless it was a revelation to a just-post-angst teenager sloughing through the emotional swamps of Die Götterdämmerung and Gürrelieder and even Gesang der Jünglinge on the way to the (seeming) dry land of HPSCHD and Bohor and Synchronisms. (I also learned, with considerable not-so-secret pleasure, that Bach and other traditional composers were no strangers to the number-as-guide.)

But what was new to me were space and time and control. The young and already-world-buffeted composer within me longed for the control that performers enjoyed--the ability to conduct an entire weather system of sound from one's hands ... the clouds, the storms, the sun, the wind and rain and hail and fog, the tides and the spinning of the planets, the ebb and flow of the continents, the moments of perfect calm.

Surely these are poetic terms. And they're terms I once found embarrassing, unattractive, even ugly. I explained away (to myself and others) the reasons Xenakis moved me in terms of fascination with The New, an intellectual camaraderie, a lesson taught to & learned by a heathen world, a Tothian smashing of the old and dull Pietàs of music.

And there was objective New to be found: Computers. Their absence then is hard to imagine from here in our bold, bright 21st Century. That era's high-tech was the dial telephone, the stereo LP, the office fax, the electric typewriter (low-tech myself, I had a manual one), and the rubber tires on Montréal's new subway. Pearson was Prime Minister (when de Gaulle came by to say "Vive le Québec libre"), Johnson was President, Martin Luther King was campaigning across the U.S. The Doors put Light My Fire on the music charts, Star Trek was in its first season, and everybody loved Cool Hand Luke.

Computers were reserved for special rooms. But in a splash of sound in an ephemeral building, computers disrobed to become another source of ideas, another set of paths along which to lead a composition, another palette of color and texture. And finally, they offered a way to conduct the weather, the wind and the rain--and to let it splash and blow without leading each individual drop along its path. Control set free from control.

Home again, I sought this name. This 'X' composer. This X-Man. The only one. Oh, thank you, Theresa Sterne, for that record. You (who have also recently gone on from this world) had the foresight to bring Bohor and Concret P-H and Orient-Occident and Diamorphoses to vinyl. And then Akrata and Phithoprakta. And even the staid Musical Heritage Society (before its double-retro spasm, and probably by accident of contract) plied listeners with Nuits and Medea.

Density and mass structure, set theory and symbolic logic, probabilities and calculus, laws of numbers and theories of sieves, stochastic (ah, sweet mystery) music. It was aleatory with a mind, or perhaps methodological Zen, and definitely outside the figures of I-IV-V-I or boom-boom-bap.

Not being a mathematician, you see, I invented words to translate what Xenakis did into my own understanding.

And something else was present: Ritual. Despite its rigorous adherence to serialism, the post-war avant-garde believed itself to be an objective, anti-ritualistic movement. Not so Xenakis. He called upon unabashed ritual and even bacchanal. Fellini's crowds and clowns and mimes were pale ghosts beside the fleshy bodies, terrifying whips, and metallic streamers of Oresteia.

Which brings me back to those poetic terms I once abhorred. No one can objectively terrify. No, it was not the New Romantics that brought emotion back into music; it never left, especially in the mathematical abstractions of Xenakis which were but his search--a successful one--for rejuvenated sources of shape and form.

Yes, I was one of those composers moved by Xenakis's death. And I didn't expect that, for I believed him to be a composer-who-continued, a kind of immortal on earth. In the ensuing decades since Polytope de Montréal, he was always background to my thinking, and his well was among those I visited when in need of renewal.

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