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Exhibitions: Iannis Xenakis and the UPIC
He came from a prosperous Greek family based in Rumania, and was a happy little boy until he was five years old. Then, the death of his mother changed everything. Yearning for her tenderness while in the care of impersonal governesses and nurses, he kept her memory alive by taking a keen interest in the music she had enjoyed.
At the age of ten he was sent to a select Greek boarding school where he did not fit in with the other boys.
With few school friends he was intensely unhappy socially, but a natural talent for mathematics and classical Greek literature nevertheless made him blossom in the classroom and gave him the courage to sign up for piano lessons and the school choir. He graduated from high school in , and eager to shake off his loneliness, he refused his father's offer to send him to England to study naval engineering.
Instead, he chose to stay in Athens to attend the Polytechnic School and earn an engineering degree. For his first two years as an undergraduate everything went as expected, and Xenakis was able to immerse himself in the physics, law, mathematics, and ancient literature which were basic curriculum requirements. The Polytechnic was closed.
However, its students had no intention of submitting quietly to the famine and the collapse of the economy that accompanied the war. Instead, they quickly organized an underground resistance movement. Ignoring his father's protests, Xenakis initially joined the Greek Resistance but soon switched to the Communist party. Fervent and idealistic, he even volunteered for a student battalion when savage protests erupted against the British occupiers in His enthusiasm did not serve him well. During one skirmish he was caught by a shell from a British tank and was left to cope with the loss of an eye and a disfiguring facial scar.
Meanwhile, his worried father had been searching all over Athens for him. As soon as the two were reunited, the wounded warrior was whisked into the hospital, where he remained until March, By the time he was well enough to leave the hospital, the war was practically over.
Without enthusiasm, because he had privately decided that his heart lay with music, Xenakis returned to the Polytechnic in April to finish his engineering degree. He graduated in , but was afraid to stay in his shattered homeland and wait for whatever punishment the new anti-Communist government might devise for him. With his father's help he stowed away on a cargo ship bound for Italy, where the French Communists met him and smuggled him into Paris. By chance, he had his engineering diploma in his pocket, and was therefore qualified to take a job with an architect named Le Corbusier , who happened to be recruiting both engineers and architects to design a large government housing project.
The spare, modern architecture favored by Le Corbusier suited Xenakis. Despite the fact that he had entered Paris illegally, he managed to enjoy his work, revelling especially in the rational mathematical calculations which ruled the principles of building design.
At night he wasted no time in frivolous pursuits, but absorbed himself in the music that had been on hold for so long. He studied and wrote, but he was far too intelligent and rational to assume that he could learn everything without the benefit of a teacher. He realized that his knowledge of musical history was sketchy and his understanding of counterpoint and harmony still sadly lacking. He was determined to educate himself, but his own stubborn nature was to prove a real stumbling block. His first attempt to find a teacher took him to the Ecole Normale de Musique, where the distinguished Arthur Honegger was on the faculty.
Unfortunately, this association was doomed. At one class Honegger listened to part of a composition Xenakis had written and dared to point out some structural rule-breaking. Xenakis refused to accept the well-meant criticism with grace. Furiously gathering up his music, he accused Honegger of being far too traditional to appreciate such original work, then left the building.
He next tried to find a teacher in when he started classes with Darius Milhaud , a composer so inventive that he often wrote music set simultaneously in several keys. But Milhaud, too, fell short of Xenakis' expectations.
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Meticulous in his own creativity, he advised changes to Xenakis' works which Xenakis thought unimportant. These lessons, too, soon came to an end. Torn between his need to learn and his yearning to be taken seriously as a composer, Xenakis seethed to his boss in frustration. Le Corbusier listened sympathetically, thought about this problem, and eventually suggested a teacher who was to change Xenakis' life.
Olivier Messiaen was a renowned organist and a composer far ahead of his time. When confronted by Xenakis' questions about whether he should heed all his critics, disregard his previous work, and start learning harmony and counterpoint from the beginning, Messiaen gave him a thoughtful answer. According to Nouritza Matossian, who interviewed Messiaen for the biography Xenakis , Messiaen said, "No, you are almost thirty. You have the good fortune of being Greek, an architect, and having studied special mathematics.
Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music. Xenakis took his advice and began to compose music based on the mathematical laws of probability. Rather than start with a melody, he began with one sound and then developed it according to the probability that certain sounds, rhythms, and pitches would recur in the piece a set number of times. To describe this completely new type of music he invented the word "stochastic. His first publicly presented piece, Metastis , was first heard in As musicologist David Ewen suggests in his book Composers of Tomorrow's Music, "Here, and in Pithoprakata, a composition that followed a year or so later, Xenakis explored the possibilities of simulating electronically produced sounds and sonorities with conventional instruments.
From here, it was a natural progression for him to electronic music.