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Xenakis

Author(s): Thomas DeLio


Source: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 231-243
Published by: Perspectives of New Music
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/833540
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XENAKIS

THOMASDELIO

N HIS BOOK

The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (1978) Jacob

Brownowski has written:


I believe that we need to review the whole of our natural philosophy
in the light of scientific knowledge that has arisen in the last fifty
years. It really is pointless to go on talking about what the world is
like (as much of philosophy does) when the modes of perception of
the world which are accessible to us have so changed in character.
And we become more and more aware that what we think about the
world is not what the world is but what the human animal sees of
the world.1

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Those who are deeply involved with the arts of our time will understand
immediately the significance of Bronowski's deceptively simple observation. If recent art, music and literature teaches us anything it is that our
understanding of the world is a reflection of the way in which we appropriate the things around us; that, in the end, what we understand is not
what we perceive of the world, but rather, howwe perceive it.
Composition, of course, is an act of exploration. What this exploration
reveals (as it is undertaken time and time again by innumerable composers) is just how complex and seemingly contradictory our perceptions can
be. Each new discovery reveals previously hidden dimensions. Each new
work reveals the world from a different perspective, and represents one of
many ways to give it meaning.
With the death of Iannis Xenakis on February 4, 2001, the music
world lost one of its greatest explorers. Truly, for Xenakis, the process of
composing was a process of investigation and discovery, an ongoing
search for new sonic materials as yet untested as musical matter, and for
new tools with which to engage those new materials within the artistic
enterprise. I can think of few composers of the twentieth century who
have so radicallychanged our way of thinking about music. In every one
of his works we sense a passion for discovery, the discovery of previously
hidden or even completely unimagined facets of our aural experience.
When we allow his music into our lives, it rewards us in rich and unexpected ways.
Of all the changes that have swept across our musical landscape, it
seems to me that none has been more significant than the simple fact that
what we now accept as material for making music includes virtually anything that we hear in our daily lives. The joy of bringing new sounds into
the world of music is truly one of discovery; the discovery of new and
previously unimagined connections between things always believed
unconnected. As we embrace the full diversity of sonic matter in the
world and seek to integrate this diversity into our creative lives, we reconfigure our culture itself. For almost fifty years Xenakis's music has vivified this fact.
In order to work with wholly new types of sounds (new to music, at
least) a composer must find new tools with which he can engage those
sounds. Hence the famous (infamous, to some) mathematical tools that
Xenakis uses to work with the materials of his sonic universe. Of course,
his music is no more "mathematical"than Mozart's (or Babbitt's for that
matter). After all, a sound wave is a sound wave. But new sounds engender new compositional tools. In turn, the creation of new tools leads to
original musical designs and ultimately to a fresh evaluation of the ways
that the world appears to cohere, even if only momentarily. As poet and

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233

literary critic Charles Bernstein has put it, form is "how any one of us
2
interprets what's swirling so often incomprehensively about us ... .
Our culture provides a framework through which we experience and
interpret the world. It is this framework that shapes our understanding of
the world. As our materials and tools change, this framework changes
and our entire worldview takes on new dimensions. I find it impossible to
hear one of Xenakis's works and then not attend to the sounds of every
day life in new ways; not just the sounds themselves, but the ways that I
perceive those sounds. The world, at least the part that we hear, becomes
malleable after Xenakis; we feel that we can shape it as we wish. In this
sense his music is truly empowering.
Xenakis's work has been immensely important to me as a composer,
teacher and scholar. Indeed, my own music has been deeply influenced
by that of Xenakis. Certainly, as with many others, I can cite the influence
of his techniques, his early explorations with computer technology, and
his philosophical outlook. But there are also more specific influences.
Whenever I use pitches in a piece (a truly rare occurrence these days) I
instinctively feel the need to add noise of some kind to that piece. If I
don't, I feel that I have cheated nature-the listener included. (I am far
from alone in feeling this impulse.) Of course, we know that what we
loosely label "noise" is really just another manifestation of what we call
"pitch." At one point in music history the boundary for Western music
consisted of a set of twelve pitch classes. Thanks to composers like
Xenakis, such boundaries seem to have disappeared;we hear every sound
of a musical work in the context of the entire world of sounds. In addition, when designing a composition I also find it essential to embrace
fully the seemingly opposite worlds of determinism and indeterminism.
(Again, I am far from alone in feeling this impulse.) Thanks to composers
such as Xenakis we are today fully cognizant of the fact that there is no
single, optimal conceptualization of musical design. Materials have multiple implications and invite a wide range of creative responses. Each new
composition arises from some integration of these multiple responses
and, hence, becomes an expression of the very existence of such multiplicity. No single perspective will suffice for the creation of music today.
For me, as a composer, this has been one of the great lessons of Xenakis's
work.
As I have written on a number of occasions, one of the endlessly fascinating aspects of the music of our time is its diversity. Our world consists
of a vast collection of seemingly incompatible musics. With respect to
what we commonly refer to as art music alone we find composers as different as John Cage, Gyorgy Ligeti, Elliott Carter, Luigi Nono, Alvin
Lucier, Morton Feldman and, of course, Xenakis sharing time and space

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(literally and creatively, as we will see); each providing one panel of the
mosaic which has become our musical landscape. Xenakis's own body of
work itself reflects this remarkable diversity to an extraordinary degree.
Indeed, if we follow carefully his remarkablyvaried career we can begin
to comprehend the meaning of this diversity, and we can begin to understand that the multiplicity of ideas, sounds and tools that make up the
music world today are all part of a larger framework of understanding,
one whose very guiding principle itself is multiplicity. From Xenakis's
music we learn to distrust any false sense of unity that may result from
simplistic reductive thinking; we learn, instead, to favor the kind of unity
that comes from an acceptance of the world's inherent contradictions. As
the poet William Carlos Williams once wrote: "by multiplication a reduction to one."3 In this regard Xenakis's own career reflects the state of
music itself in the twentieth century, the hallmarkof which is its staggering diversity. Composers today have come to understand that there are
no barriersseparating serialism from indeterminacy, acoustic music from
electronic sound, Western music from Eastern music, pitch from noise.
Their music world is not the product of any one, overriding teleology. It
consists rather of a multitude of evolutionary paths. No composer has
contributed to so many of these different paths than has Xenakis.
As a teacher I have often taken great delight in presenting analyses of
Xenakis's Achoripsis (1956-57) and Cage's Music of Changes (1951)
alongside one another. Their mutual impulses to create statistical designs
("stochastic" in Xenakis's terminology) as evidenced by these (and many
other works) are remarkably similar; the results truly complementary.
From the beginning of his career Xenakis seems to have been eager to
embrace chance and chaos and to try to understand what role these concepts play in our world, and hence, what role they could play in the creation of music. As the composer himself once wrote:
Since antiquity concepts of chance (tyche), disorder (ataxia) and disorganization were considered the opposite and negation of reason
(logos), order (taxis), and organization (systasis).It is only recently
that knowledge has been able to penetrate chance and has discovered how to separate its degrees-in other words to rationalize it
progressively, without, however, succeeding in a definitive and total
explanation of the problem of "pure chance."4
In a revealing set of interviews with Cage, Daniel Charles touched upon
the interconnection between these two composers' statistically based
compositions:

Xenakis

235

Daniel Charles.If I compare your position to Xenakis, for example, I


see that you begin much the same as he. Xenakis uses probability
formulae to describe, and to make his music describe, in the graphic
sense of the term, the movement of a crowd, or the tapping of hail
on a window pane. But he controlsthesemovementsby collecting them
into a rule which controls the direction of thegeneral, statistical tendency.You, yourself, do not attempt to control or orient these movements.
John Cage: What I hope for is the ability of seeing anything whatsoever arise. No matter what; that is, everything, and not such and
such a thing in particular. The problem is that something occurs.
But the law governing that somethingis not yet there ...
Daniel Charles ... Your music is not opposed to Xenakis's music. It
is situated beforeit; it describes its condition ofpossibility.
John Cage: Yes.. .
Cage and Xenakis encounter chance at different points at which this concept becomes part of our experience. Each perceives chance and chaos
through a different teleological framework. Hence, their compositions
reveal remarkable similarities as well as striking differences vis-a-vis their
individual ways of engaging the world. The question of whether either
composer was fully cognizant of the other's work in this area is irrelevant.
Each composer's work sheds light upon that of the other, which is all that
matters for those of us who benefit from their explorations.
Similar revelations abound when comparing the more deterministic
designs Xenakis creates in such works as Nomos alpha (1966) and Nomos
gamma (1967-8), with the serial structures of any number of Milton
Babbitt's compositions. Again, we find both remarkable similarities and
striking differences. Nomos alpha and Nomos gamma were both composed with the aid of mathematical group theory which influences the
design of both their micro- and macro-structures. The various mappings,
permutations and transformations by which he organizes his sonic materials are drawn from the structural properties of groups. Babbitt's structures too reflect many of these design properties. The differences,
however, are significant. Most significantly, Babbitt's procedures are an
outgrowth of the specific properties of specific collections of sonic materials. His structures arise organically from certain properties inherent in
these materials, a fact which is, of course, essential to understanding the
function of more local, group-derived properties of his compositions.

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Xenakis, in contrast, uses mathematical groups as higher-order abstractions, to be imposed upon materials regardless of their specific physical
properties, as if from above. Xenakis gravitates toward permutation
groups precisely because these allow him to create more abstract, generalized structures. Indeed, his works vividly demonstrate how the abstract
nature of the mathematical groups can be imposed upon a vast array of
radically different materials. Thus, the works of Xenakis and Babbitt are
also deeply complementary.
On other occasions I have directed my students' attention to the curious relationships that exist between such seemingly different compositions as Xenakis's Duel (1958) and Christian Wolff's For 1, 2, or 3 People
(1964). The structure of Xenakis's work constitutes a type of interactive
contest fashioned with the help of mathematical game theory (a branch
of probability theory). Specifically, a mathematical game enables the
composer to create a dynamic situation in which all parties involved select
courses of action that will optimize their possibilities of reaching a
desired goal. Xenakis introduced the first musical applications of such
games. In contrast, the interactive design of this, and, indeed, many
other compositions by Christian Wolff consists of a set of blueprints that
enable a group of performers to interact with one another. Thus, both
compositions involve the formulation of a framework for interaction
among a group of performers. One, however, is based upon mathematical rules; the other is not. In their respective works each composer shifts
the focus away from himself-away from his own personal experiences
and internal conflicts-toward the literal interactions of the performers
on stage. Consequently, these interactions no longer reflect the composer's personal tastes and biases. Rather, the interactions themselves are
transferredto the performers as abstractions. The subject of each of these
works is the nature of interaction itself; not the specific responses, (emotional, intellectual) of one person to a specific set of stimuli, but the generalized give and take that accompanies any gathering of individuals
regardless of the particularities of the situation. Each work, then,
becomes an examination of the nature of discourse, and each composer
reveals a different dimension of discourse. Xenakis's work, since it is
based upon a model provided by mathematical game theory, is goal oriented. It externalizes a conflict of oppositions. His performers literally
become opponents. In contrast, the indeterminate designs of Wolff are in
no way goal oriented. Performers connect with one another within the
framework of a musical design the sole purpose of which is to aid in and
encourage the discovery of new points of intersection. The performers
remain in a perpetual state of renewal. Each of these compositions reveals
a very different facet of human interaction. The polarities of directed and

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237

nondirectional interplay (and all that they represent: competition vs.


cooperation, etc.) reflect very different views of behavior. Once again,
composers who might initially appear to be radically different from one
another actually complementone another.
The foregoing comparisons reflect similarities and differences of a conceptual nature, relating to general issues such as determinism, chance, et
al. It is, however, also revealing to look at parallels that arise from more
specific, concrete interactions with sound. I have found it most revealing,
for example, to compare works that share as a common source the microstructure of a single tone: Xenakis's Empreintes(1975) for orchestra, and
the first movement of Gyorgy Ligeti's Cello Concerto (1966)-not to
mention such equally important works as Giacinto Scelsi's Quattro Pezzi
(su una nota sola) (1959) and the seventh etude from Elliott Carter's
Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (1949). Any structural similarities exhibited
by these very different works are therefore not so much the result of
overlapping conceptual frameworks as they are a product of each composer's direct interaction with the same particular sonic matter. As such
we will discuss these works from a slightly different perspective.
Empreintes opens with one note sustained by brass and strings for
ninety seconds, prolonged through a succession of crescendos and
diminuendos, as well as a variety of rhythmic articulations. The elaboration of this tone constitutes the most important thread in the
multilayered texture of the piece. Whenever it grows louder upper partials are introduced. Conversely, whenever it gets softer these partials disappear.The composition, then, opens with a succession of ascending and
descending waves of sound, resulting from the repeated crescendos and
diminuendos (Example 1).6 These somewhat "hidden" contours,
embedded within a single tone, are soon enlarged into a stream of
ascending and descending string glissandi (examples of what Xenakis has
labeled arborescences).In a sense, the subtle arching shapes produced by
the rising and falling partials of that first tone are made concrete by the
ensuing glissandi. As the piece develops, these shapes unfold in counterpoint to one another. Near the end of the composition, the partial structure of the opening tone is rendered concrete in yet another way. As
we've noted, whenever the initial tone grows louder its higher partials
grow stronger and more audible. At its loudest moments we actually start
to hear a dense cluster of overtones forming in the upper registers. The
work ends with a long succession of repeated pitches and clusters (fundamentals), which seem to resemble those dense bands of upper partials.
The distribution of both pitches and intervals in these clusters resembles
that of the upper partials of the initial tone, leaving the listener with the
sense that the composer has taken those bands of upper partials down a

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few octaves, removed their fundamental and turned them into a series of
repeated chords. Thus, the clusters first introduced as internal components of a single tone are rendered concrete, as actual chords. The form
of the piece traces a transformation of the inner life of a single tone into
complex masses of sound, articulated as both continuous and discontinuous gestures (glissandi and repeated chords respectively).
The first movement of Ligeti's Cello Concertoalso opens with a single
tone, sustained for a little over a minute and a half, first by the soloist
alone, then by a steadily growing array of instruments. As with
Empreintesall that follows is an outgrowth of the timbre of this opening
note (Example 2).
Here too the sweeping arches of ascending and
that
descending partials
repeatedly appear and disappear inform the rest
of the composition. For example, the sustained octaves that become so
prominent later in the movement literally emerge from the overtone
series of the opening pitch; each time it grows louder its component
octaves become more audible. Though the literal octaves heard later in
the piece are of a different pitch class than those of the opening tone,
they still bear a strong auralconnection to them. Thus, over the course of

239

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this movement, we hear, not a shift from a single pitch to a set of octaves,
but a shift from a set of octaves buried within the overtone series of a single fundamental frequency to a set of fundamental frequencies themselves spaced in octaves.
To be sure, the opening of each of these compositions, though derived
from the same basic materials (the overtones of a single tone), imprints a
different sonic signature. One begins with the fragile sound of a single,
nearly inaudible cello that seems to pull a tone out of thin air. The other
opens quite forcefully with massed brass dominating. Also, each evolves
in quite different ways. Here again, we encounter two composers whose
general intentions are similar-to explore the inner life of one tone and
to transform that rarefied sonic world into a large-scale musical designbut whose intentions are realized in very different ways.
Many other connections can be found between the music of Xenakis
and that of his greatest contemporaries. Indeed the list of such connections goes on and on. One thinks of his earliest computer-assisted

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Perspectives

compositions which still today influence many working in algorithmic


composition; the unique spatial designs of Terretektorh(1965) which
beautifully complement those of Stockhausen's Gruppen (1955-7),
revealing another, very different way of integrating space into our experience of sound; the total theater (Xenakis's term) of Oresteia (1965),
which resonates in so many interesting ways with Harry Partch's similarly
conceived music/theater works; the arrayof vocal colors and textures of
the textless choral work Nuits (1967) which traverses a path similar to
that of Ligeti's beautiful Aventures (1962); and, of course, his Polytopes
(1967, 1972, 1977), those unparalleled interpenetrations of sound, light
and space to which virtually all multimedia experiments of the present
day are indebted. Of how many other composers can it truly be said that
their work touches our musical experiences in so many different ways,
and resonates in the work of so many, diverse contemporaries?
Of course, Xenakis did not necessarily inspire these composers. Nor
did their work necessarily inspire his. This is not the point. The question
of influence is not a particularly interesting one, even from a historical
perspective. Ideas are often "in the air."Frequently, we hear of physicists,
artists, philosophers and writers, in different parts of the world, reflecting
very different cultural perspectives, working along the same lines unbeknownst to one another. The more diverse the group of individuals
exploring a specific idea, the more sharply that idea comes into focus.
Clarity is achieved when each facet of a problem is examined from an
array of different perspectives. This is certainly true when a number of
great composers touch upon the same idea (chance, determinism, et al.).
Our understanding of the world comes, not from the work of one or two
composers, but from the work of many, very different composers as they
complement one another in often startling and unexpected ways. That
Xenakis's work resonates so deeply with that of so many others is, in my
view, a tribute to his greatness.
In pointing out these and many other similarities I in no way wish to
suggest that Xenakis was merely eclectic. Achoripsis, Nomos alpha, Duel,
Empreintes, Oreteia, Terretektorhand the rest, could never be mistaken
for the work of anyone else. The foregoing comparisons reveal that, for
Xenakis (perhaps alone among the great figures of twentieth-century
music) the larger picture does not end with chance alone, to the exclusion of determinism. Nor does it end with non-linearity alone, to the
exclusion of linearity.Rather, it includes all of these principles, and more.
As his music eloquently teaches, it is through the interweaving of each of
these seemingly contradictory ideas that we begin to comprehend our
world. "Everything happens as if there were one-to-one oscillations

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241

between symmetry, order, rationality, and asymmetry, disorder, irrationality in the reactions between epochs and civilizations."7
In my view, a musical composition is not an expression of a preordained worldview, but a record of the processof a mind working toward
the formulation of a worldview, a formulation that can never be fully realized for, I think, obvious reasons. This process begins with an interaction
with the physical world. The nature of that interaction determines the
particularities of each artist's work. When a composer such as Varese,
Cage, or Xenakis embraces sounds new to the world of music, his ability
to shape those sounds is necessarily challenged, for a composer's way of
acting on materials is, first and foremost, determined by what he chooses
as materials.As Xenakis's biographer Nouritza Matossian has rather poetically put it: "Certainly it is hard to imagine how Herma [Xenakis's first
piano piece], complete and newly formed as though from a state of
nature, could have been born in a composer's imagination without some
strange parentage such as the unlikely terra firma of logic."8 For music
theorists, the task posed by Xenakis is immense. To conceptualize processes, wherein both materials and methods are so radicallynew requires
a virtual tabula rasa. (Of course, Xenakis's own writings do help in this
regard, but, as anyone who has tried to analyze his compositions understands, those theoretical writings provide only a point of entry into the
complex structural designs that one encounters in his music.)
Composers like Xenakis challenge us to reevaluate from scratch our
most basic assumptions about music-a very good thing for us to do
periodically. Every generation produces a few artists who force us to
return to the beginning, to strip away all existing notions of art and
reconceptualize it from the ground up. In my view, every time a new
composer forces us to undertake such a complete reevaluation we have
reached one of the pinnacles of music's evolution. Xenakis was just such a
composer. He leaves us a body of music staggering both in its intellectual
depth and its emotional range.
At the time of Varese's death Xenakis noted:
Vareseworked on the very flesh of sound .... His music is color and
sonorous force. No more scales, no more themes, no more melodies, to the devil with music called "musical," he delivers in the flesh
that which is more generally called "organized sound." His dimension is not in the proportion of the combinatory elements. It is in
those parts of music which are not yet utterable.9
The music of Xenakis conveys much of the same elemental force as that
of Varese. Not merely because its sounds may seem harsh to our ears, nor

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because its forms are riddled with deliberately discomforting contradictions and disruptions; but because his music teaches us that those contradictions and disruptions form the basis of our understanding. It teaches
us that any attempt to comprehend and explain our experience of the
world must be rooted in that fabric of discontinuities which constitutes
the very essence of that experience. It is for this that we mourn the passing of Xenakis, one of our greatest explorers.

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NOTES

1. Jacob Brownowski, The Origins of Knowledgeand Imagination (New


Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 4-5.
2. Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1992), 1.
3. William Carlos Williams, Paterson (New York: New Directions,
1963), 2.
4. lannis Xenakis, Formalized Music (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1971), 4.
5. Daniel Charles, For the Birds, (London: Marion Boyars Ltd., 1981),
147.
6. Spectrographs allow us to examine the internal components of each
sound and to view each work more in terms of what is actually heard
than only what is notated in a performance score. The spectrographs
used in this paper were created with the aid of the Sound Technology Inc., Spectra Plus FFT SpectralAnalysis System. The vertical axis
of each of these graphs represents frequency in Hz, while the horizontal axis represents time. The relative darkness of the various
images in each picture reflects their relative amplitude levels (a
lighter image reflects a soft sound; a darker image, a louder sound).
On these spectrographs frequency is plotted logarithmically. The
spectrographs used is this paper are based upon the following
recorded performances: Iannis Xenakis, Empreintes, Orchestra Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Arturo Tamayo, Timpani 1C1057,
2000; Gyorgy Ligeti, Cello Concerto, Siegfried Palm, Hessischen
Rundfunks, Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen, Wergo
60163, 1967.
7. Xenakis, Formalized Music, 25
8. Nouritza Matossian, Xenakis (London: Kahn & Averill, 1986), 156.
9. lannis Xenakis, "Article on Varese," Tribune de Lausanne, 14
November 1965, as cited in Matossian, Xenakis, 179.