Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001)

I have an anecdote about Xenakis. I have this very good friend who’s a conductor and once worked as an assistant of Boulez at Ensemble Intercontemporain, in the early or mid-1980s. Somewhere around that time we were discussing the music of Xenakis and he pronounced: “c’est n’importe quoi”, it’s total crap. I liked the music of Xenakis, found it extremely powerful. I asked him, “why?” “- because he writes music on the computer, and it’s simply unplayable” “- okay, I replied, but don’t you think that the very unplayability is precisely part of the effect that Xenakis seeks, that a formidable tension arises from that unplayability, from the sense that he’s pushing the performer to his limits and beyond, and from the performer’s superhuman effort to get never all but as much as he can?” He was unconvinced and stuck to it: “non, c’est n’importe quoi”.

We lost sight of each other for a while (not, mind you, over our differences of opinion on Xenakis! just life…) and met again years later. And the conversation at one point rolled again on the subject of Xenakis, which he mentioned having conducted in his past activities. So I asked, very cautiously: “well?…”

“- C’est génial”, he replied, “he’s a genius”. Well, wasn’t I astounded. “Don’t you remember that conversation we had years ago?”, I started stuttering. “What’s extraordinary about Xenakis, he went on, is the way his music pushes the performers beyond their limits. Sure it’s computer-designed and sure not all of it is playable. But it’s precisely from that very unplayability, and from the effort of the performer to get as many notes as he possibly can, that the formidable tension arises…”

That day, I felt vindicated, not only in my appreciation of the music of Xenakis, but in my understanding of it.

Here’s the Xenakis I’ve reviewed so far:

Okho for djembés (1989), recorded August 1990 at Radio France, in The Arditti Quartet Edition: Arditti String Quartet & Trio Le Cercle play Compositions for String Quartet & Percussion Trio by Georges Aperghis, François-Bernard Mâche, Iannis Xenakis, Allain Gaussin. Disques Montaigne 782002 (1991)

Comments are welcome