Vol. 26 Issue 1 Reviews
Makis Solomos, editor: Presences of Présences de Iannis Xenakis

Centre de Documentation de la Musique Contemporaine, 2001, softcover, ISBN 2-9516440-1-9, 268 pages, illustrated, notes, catalog of works, annotated bibliography; CDMC, 16, place de la Fontaine aux Lions, 75019 Paris, France; telephone (+33) 1-47-15-49-85; electronic mail cdmc@cdmc.asso.fr, World Wide Web www.cdmc.asso.fr/

Reviewed by Martin Laliberté
Paris, France

Yet another publication on Iannis Xenakis?! One might think that this “well-known” composer had been properly studied over the last 30 years, especially after the significant impact his music had in the 1960s and 1970s. Clearly, this is not the point of view of the younger generation, of Xenakis’s children rather than his brothers, so to speak. An international symposium on Xenakis was held in Paris in 1998, under the leadership of Makis Solomos and Marianne Lyon. It included presentations by 25 specialists, most of them Europeans. The proceedings of the symposium were published last spring by the Centre de Documentation de la Musique Contemporaine (CDMC, the French Performing Rights Documentation Center), slightly after the composer’s demise.

These proceedings are already regarded in France as a major contribution to the field of “Xenakian studies” and must by signaled to the English-speaking community. Reflecting the symposium’s organization, the 27 contributions of this book, eight written in English, are grouped in five parts: Sources and Late Works, Theories, Aesthetics, Analysis, and Architecture and Polytopes. The book also contains two important annexes: a complete list of the composer’s musical works and a comprehensive annotated bibliography, including a discussion of all of Xenakis’s own writing. If, in fact, the annexes alone justify buying the proceedings and making the effort of reading technical French, it would be a pity not to detail the main contents.

After reading the book, one gathers that the study of Xenakis’s music has evolved significantly in the last decade. The contributions signal that the musical community is now getting over the shock of Formalized Music and the other theoretical writings of the composer. Obviously, the theoretical and technical aspects of Xenakis are still very much part of the field, but most of these contributions depict and discuss another Xenakis, closer to the real, multifaceted man, perhaps. It is now well known in Europe that for this composer, algorithmic and formal processes were only a means to attain a much more important objective: creating significant and original music. In fact, in his own late writings and teaching, Xenakis was surprisingly distant from the formal aspects of his music (the calculations evidently bored him) and preferred to discuss aesthetics and philosophy. The second generation appears to have followed his lead in this regard.

The first part of the book deals with the origins of Xenakis’s music. It includes an early text (1955) of the composer in its first French translation, discussing the specifics of Greek music; in turn, the ideas included in this article are used by Makis Solomos as a conceptual grid shedding a most interesting light on the quite sudden acceleration of Xenakis’s music from his Bartókian early pieces to Metastaseis, his striking “debut” piece. Mr. Solomos also discusses the relationships of young Xenakis with serialism and with Olivier Messiaen. That discussion is amplified by Ricardo Mandolini’s text in the second part of the book, as we will see. Another starting point for Xenakis was his contact with Pierre Schaeffer and the early musique concrète group. François Delalande and Evelyne Gayou, of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel/Groupe de Recherches Musicales (INA/GRM), present several useful historical facts on the first years of that studio and Xenakis’s work there between 1954 and 1962. For instance, they underline that, in 1958, as an associate member of the group, he took part in a sub-group pondering the relationship of music and mathematics, clearly a forerunner of the essential EMAMu, Xenakis’s own research center. The two authors also discuss the gradual divergence of the composer from Schaeffer, especially because of the latter’s attitude towards cybernetics and computers, and his leaving the group, yet on rather good terms. This article offers a second conceptual grid needed for an understanding of Xenakis’s formative years.

That part of the proceedings also focuses upon the lesser-known late period of the composer’s output. Typical of the distance underlined in the introduction of this review, James Harley proposes an esthesic, rather than the usual poïetic, analysis of the orchestral works starting with Jonchaies (1977). He presents (in English) Xenakis’s concept of “sonic event,” akin to Schaeffer’s “objet sonore,” as an analytical tool, in order to put forward the global and perceptive (esthesic) aspects of the music, rather than its inner micro-levels and the composer’s (poïetic) point of view. This detailed and solid communication is filled with graphs and excerpts of important works, as well as useful analyses. The illustrations, belying the book’s nice cover, encounter an editorial problem: for economical reasons the proceedings were printed in small type on lesser quality paper, which is a shame. The quality of the contents of this book truly begs for a proper edition. However, neither the authors nor the editors are to be blamed. The problem, rather, is that of academic financing. Let us hope that the success of this first edition will finance a better quality hardcover one.

Mihu Iliescu studies the works of the 1980s onward. In his provocative view, the last evolution of the composer can be linked to postmodernism or, even, neoclassicism: the striking glissandi of the 1950s become melodies, the sound clouds become chords, and the arborescences become polyphonies, thus revealing the relationships of those “strange” musical objects to their “ancestors.” But, he argues, despite the fact that the musical works may thus seem less “extraterrestrial” than thought at first, Xenakis’s music did bring a significant shift of the musical universe by truly expanding the traditional western musical categories. This part of the book ends with an analysis of the last period by Mr. Solomos. In this rather short contribution, the author gives aesthetical keys to the late works and points out many paths of further study. He mainly discusses the new “asceticism” of the composer, his abandonment of effects for a much simpler and homogeneous, often homophonic in a constant fortissimo, writing, as in Ittidra (1996). Mr. Solomos interestingly suggests that Xenakis had evolved from a world where “sonority” dominates towards a gestural approach.

The second part of the book, Theories, opens with a discussion by Ricardo Mandolini of the similarities of the Boulezian and Xenakian utopias. Again, this is typically a second-generation point of view, in the sense that a reconciliation of antitheses is attempted. The Parisian art-scene is famed for its “chapel wars,” its often very tense conflicts between artistic points of view. As is well known, Pierre Boulez and Xenakis were the leaders of such vehemently opposed groups in the 1970s. It is thus surprising and provoking to see such an attempt at reconciliation. Despite the personal and seemingly aesthetic opposition of the two composers, Mr. Mandolini underlines the closeness, in truth, of generalized serialism and formalized music. In his view, both are formal discourses hiding an inner core of unformalizable musical intuition. The later evolution of both composers toward a simplified language, allowing much more “artistic free will,” appears as a confirmation of this hidden proximity. This was, perhaps, confirmed by the recent recordings of Xenakis’s music by Mr. Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain.

Agostino Di Scipio’s text (in English) studies some cybernetic aspects of Xenakis electroacoustic music, especially in the recent GENDY series. It also includes technical discussions of Analogique A+B, Concret PH, as well as some stochastic procedures. The author convincingly demonstrates that the algorithmic and formalized systems were means to unify all the compositional levels, from the microforms to the macroforms, in a single artistic gesture. Close in spirit to Mr. Mandolini, he also suggests an evolution of the composer from the “noise” of Information Theory towards a “deterministic chaos” point of view. He ends his discussion by a heart-felt appeal to reach for equilibrium between the humanistic and scientific study of the composer: “To orient ourselves toward the one, we have to stand up well rooted into the other.”

Benoit Gibson then proposes a concise and generally clear discussion of sieve theory, including some analytical materials for Persephassa, Terretektorh, and a few other pieces. This paper competently fills a serious gap in French about the theory; it is both clearer and simpler than Xenakis’s own discussion. For instance, the author proposes the matrix as a simpler and more powerful analytical tool than the usual graph paper and equations.

Angelo Bello presents (in English) a personal view of the UPIC computer music system that does not add much to what is already known, besides a few details concerning the peculiar and rich implementation of Frequency Modulation in the 1995 version of the UPIC. Sadly, his discussion of spatial issues is quite unclear. Jean-Luc Hervé tries to underline Xenakis’s relevance for contemporary music by the use of the “sound image” concept and a global, macroscopic approach. He also puts forward the proximity of Xenakis and Schaeffer. The author’s reasoning does not always convince me, but I do find worth mentioning his disdain of the tools (he compares the musical computer to a useful but unexciting washing machine!) to focus instead on the aesthetic results.

The third part contains the texts dealing with aesthetical and philosophical aspects of Xenakis. Joëlle Caullier’s paper proposes an Adornian, “content of truth” point of view regarding Xenakis’s attempt to unify art and science (the saying in France goes that Xenakis “spoke music with the scientists and mathematics with the musicians”). She elegantly argues that Xenakis tries to express a truly contemporary view of humanity’s place in the universe, that he manages to create a music in his image, a music with (roughly translated): “a great dignity in intensity, a relativized presence of humanity within the cosmos, a subtle use of time, both moving and expanded to a universal time-scale.”

Carmen Pardo Salgado analyses the role of abstraction in Xenakis’s work. This dense and well thought out text puts Xenakis forward as a philosopher and, thus, relates him with others, especially Aristoxenus, Parmenides, and Plato. She also discusses his work in the light of philosophical aesthetics and critically describes his approach to the visual arts. In her view, Xenakis has successfully tried to use abstraction as a way to understand and order the essential discontinuity of the world, or, at least, of man’s discontinuous perceptions.

Matthieu Guillot proposes another philosophical text, attempting a cross-study of Xenakis’s music with philosopher Michel Serre’s views of the late 1960s, especially those gathered in Music and Background Noise. Mr. Serre suggests that Xenakis’s music constitutes an “aleatoric protomusic,” a music of the noises of the world. This contribution may be on the whole worth reading, but the discussion would be more convincing if the author had been a bit less certain that we are still that much surprised by Xenakis’ music and if he had been more critical of his neo-mimetical point of view.

Cãndido Lima’s paper attempts a sociological study of the Xenakis phenomenon, especially his popularity with young or unskilled audiences. The UPIC system is used as an example. Some of the author’s arguments and ideas are worth notice but this text is unfortunately undermined by a generally unclear and fuzzy style.

The fourth part is much more technical and analytical, which, in agreement with Mr. Di Scipio, I find is necessary for a balanced view. Antonio Lai uses some concepts derived from Thomas Kuhn as a conceptual grid for a detailed study of Nomos Alpha. Mainly, he proposes that Xenakis has brought a solution to the crisis of the tonal paradigm with his sieve theory, a good alternative to dodecaphony or serialism. However, the author is not always convincing, particularly on the notion of “musical progress.” This study is nonetheless useful for one who wishes to get under the surface of this complex piece, and it makes good use of some of Mr. Solomos’s prior study.

Helena Santana has studied the orchestration and movements of sounds in Terretektorh. This text constitutes a good starting point for further study of the piece, clear and abundantly illustrated, but remains too much on the descriptive side for my taste. I would have whished a deeper study of the aesthetics involved.

Ronald Squibbs raises (in English) important and convincing questions about the methodological aspects of analyzing a piece by Xenakis. He uses Evryali as an example. This study is answered (again in English) by another of the same piece by Linda Arsenault, which looks at the work in a programmatic way, a depiction of the fight of Perseus and Medusa. Her article is based on interviews with pianists Marie-Françoise Bucquet and Claude Helffer.

Ellen Rennie Flint then studies the experience of time in Psappha. This text (in English) combines a clear description and use of sieves and of Greek poetical metrics, as well as some ideas of Jean Piaget, in order to study some psychoacoustical problems about time.

Beatrix Raanan analyses N’Shima, in particular the result of the convergence of two formal approaches: one based on the text and the other on the breath, noises, and singing. This is a well-illustrated and analyzed contribution, showing the relationship of the noises and extraneous sounds with similar effects asked of instruments. Saxophonist Serge Bertocchi then looks at XAS, for saxophone quartet. This detailed study even raises the matter of potential “mistakes” in the score, or is it just another case of “warping the results” of a system for musical reasons?

Finally, Peter Hoffmann discusses the use of resynthesis as an analytical tool for electroacoustic music in general and for Gendy3 in particular. This is a fine example of this most interesting and fruitful trend in recent musical analysis. It also gives a good insight on an important non-standard synthesis method. I am convinced that this well-illustrated text will be of much interest for Computer Music Journal readers.

The last part of the book is comprised of a text by Xenakis from 1980, previously unpublished in French and three studies of his architectural works and his Polytopes. All contributions are from architects, thus helping to put that aspect of his work into perspective. The three architects underline the premonitory aspects of Xenakis’s work and its relevance for today’s architecture. Xenakis’s text deals with the correlations between the public and the sources, theatrical and auditory. Five aspects are examined: size, spatio-temporal relationships, the nature of the sources, types of “receptacles” for the sources, and the public and technology. The examples are taken from his Polytopes. This text is illustrated by the author, and thus constitutes a primary source that can prove useful, despite its modest ambitions.

Elisabeth Sikiaridi’s contribution examines (in English) the concept of “morphologies” in Xenakis’s architecture, the Philips Pavilion in particular. The author, after explaining why the Pavilion long remained minor for architectural studies, proposes a new examination of it in the light of the computer-aided evolution of the field and, even more importantly, its recent attempts to include multimedia and to create hybrid spaces. The study also includes a needed comparison between the architectural approaches of Le Corbusier and Xenakis. For the author, Xenakis’s main contribution to the field is of aiming for a transfer of concepts and procedures. As an example, she describes the façade of the La Tourette monastery as being musical, closely related to the composer’s ideas, while Metastaseis makes a clear use of the hyperbolic paraboloids then fashionable with architects.

Philipp Oswalt devotes his communication (in English) to the notion of densities in Xenakis’s architectural works. He is interested in the artist’s dynamic and ever-evolving conception of space. Examples are taken from the Polytopes and the Philips Pavilion. The last text, by Sven Sterken, studies the ruled surface as a theme in the work of Xenakis. For the author, this aspect reveals a search for a parametrization of space. The illustrated examples are taken from the Philips Pavilion, the Polytopes and Diatope, the Cosmic City, and his little-known design for the Cité de la Musique in Paris.

To conclude, I found reading these proceedings globally rewarding and enriching, despite my few criticisms. They, simply, must be consulted for any serious work on Xenakis.