2022 brings centenary celebrations for composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), one of the most radical figures of the European avant-garde in the post-war era, whose creativity spanned music, mathematics and architecture.
Born in Romania and educated in Greece, Iannis Xenakis came to maturity during the Second World War and its turbulent political aftermath. Training for a career as a civil engineer in Athens, he became actively involved in the resistance movement leading to imprisonment, horrific injuries and ultimately his flight to France in 1947.
Settling in Paris, the 1950s saw Xenakis collaborating with Le Corbusier on a number of architectural projects, including the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. This decade also witnessed his first published compositions, inspired by his attendance at Messiaen's classes in 1952 and the older composer's suggestion that he develop an individual style based on his scientific training. The highly original music which resulted, with its roots in architectural structures, mathematical processes and game theory, soon attracted attention, not only from outraged audiences, but also from fellow composers, establishing Xenakis at the forefront of the European avant-garde.
The Xenakis works published by Boosey & Hawkes span the years 1953-69, a period containing many of the composer's formative and most celebrated scores. His stylistic parameters were defined in the two orchestral works Metastaseis and Pithoprakta, and were then applied to varied forces such as large ensemble (Achorripsis), solo piano (Herma), string quartet (ST/4), brass ensemble with piano (Eonta) and wind ensemble (Akrata).
This series of pieces culminated in two large-scale stageworks, Oresteia and Kraanerg, both running over an hour. Xenakis's music for the classic Greek triptych Oresteia was first composed for a theatrical production. The composer revised the incidental music throughout his life, incorporating two additional scenes: Kassandra and La Déesse Athena (published by Salabert). Scored for baritone - frequently stretched into a falsetto register, solo cello, two solo percussionists, ensemble and choir, the work is highly dramatic with its stark instrumentation, microtonal inflections, and additional percussion played by the choir and distributed to the audience as a final act of communal celebration. Oresteia has continued to hold its position in the repertoire, both as a concert piece and in theatrical presentation, often combined with spoken text from the Aeschylus plays as in the recent staging by Calixto Bieito.
The title of Kraanerg is a composite of two Greek words: kraan (accomplishment) and erg (active energy). The composer drew links between the work and the Paris student riots of 1968 which "typified the struggle between the generations which through revolution hoped to bring about a restructuring of society and life itself." Originally composed for ballet presentation, the work has also been effectively performed in concert, placing a stronger focus on its remarkable electronic music on tape combined with powerful writing for ensemble.
Xenakis's centenary in 2022 offers a reappraisal of one of the most original thinkers of the last century. While his music's virtuoso deployment of serialism, glissandi, microtones and electronics is very much part of its time, the sheer energy and bracing radicalism reaches beyond traditional new music circles to embrace a wider audience drawn from across the arts and sciences. The composer's engagement with music and movement in space also connects with the world of dance. Balanchine created a striking dancework for New York City Ballet choreographed to Metastaseis and Pithoprakta in 1968, and other choreographers drawn to his music have included Roland Petit, Graeme Murphy, Maurice Béjart, Paul Taylor, Lucinda Childs and Joachim Schlömer.
If you would like to discuss Xenakis repertoire published by Boosey & Hawkes, please email [email protected]. Later works by Xenakis are published by Editions Salabert.
Events for the Xenakis 2022 celebrations are being co-ordinated by Les Amis de Iannis Xenakis. Please visit their website: www.iannis-xenakis.org.
> Further information on Work: Oresteia
Photo: Ralph Fassey
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