You should shut the door behind you as you enter the Iannis Xenakis survey at EMST in Athens, so as to actually savour the onslaught inside. Wherever you progress, you’re assailed by screeches, wails, blasts, parps, groans, snaps, crackles and pops, as a variety from the life’s work of this avant-garde composer is performed over the audio system. It is perhaps thought odd for an artwork museum to be internet hosting an exhibition of a musician, and this isn’t a blockbuster pop-culture present such because the V&A may placed on, however Xenakis’s work stretches effectively past the sounds he made. An exhibition in 2022 on the Musée de la musique in Paris centered extra on his major profession, however a rehang of a lot of the identical materials in Athens permits for a wider view of the works.
The lifetime of Xenakis (1922–2001) is an incredible Twentieth-century story. Born in Romania to a Greek service provider, he was learning engineering in Athens when he was caught up within the final days of the Second World Conflict. A communist partisan, he misplaced his left eye to a British mortar shell and was pressured to flee the nation, ending up in Paris, the place he fortuitously discovered work within the atelier of Le Corbusier. He grew to become indispensable to the grasp, and whereas there he contributed to plenty of essentially the most important buildings of the Twentieth century, such because the monastery at La Tourette. In the meantime, he was indulging his ardour for music by taking night lessons with Olivier Messiaen, and on the finish of the Nineteen Fifties he gave up the day job and have become a full-time composer.
Xenakis’s prime contribution to music was to introduce all kinds of compositional methods derived from arithmetic. The ‘serialist’ method that had been developed by Schoenberg was, to Xenakis, not practically rigorous sufficient. Over his profession, Xenakis used stochastic evaluation (the modelling of processes that seem random), likelihood idea, recreation idea, group idea, geometry and extra, in addition to growing new laptop applied sciences to generate his compositions. They are usually noisy, dissonant and extremely tough to play, that includes all kinds of prolonged methods, akin to his trademark swooping glissandi, that no person had ever heard earlier than.
A part of the enjoyable of partaking with this polymath’s output is seeing the identical concept in a wide range of contexts. For instance, Xenakis primarily designed the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels Exposition, a once-neglected Le Corbusier constructing that now sits proud within the oeuvre, prefiguring because it does the extra formally expressive structure of the twenty first century. This was a brief concrete tent made up of wierd curved surfaces, wherein a lightweight and sound present by Le Corbusier and Edgar Varèse was broadcast usually. A big mannequin of the pavilion, at a scale of 1:20, sits on the centre of the exhibition house, its kind showing to shift from each angle.
Across the similar time as he was engaged on the Philips Pavilion, Xenakis was composing his breakthrough piece Metastaseis (1953–54), which options an extremely memorable – and on the time stunning – opening, as a string orchestra maintain one notice just for it to regularly unfold out to a chord of greater than 40 separate dissonant components. This course of is actually the equal of the paraboloid partitions of the Philips Pavilion, and Xenakis’s diagrams drawn on mathematical graph paper are right here within the present, proper subsequent to the primary web page of the rating, which, together with the piece being heard by the audio system, signifies that we’re supplied the identical concept in no fewer than 4 completely different mediums.
Xenakis lived a profession of residencies, commissions and festivals, profiting from a Chilly-Conflict period when the avant-garde was extra extensively supported. His most formidable tasks have been the Polytopes, multimedia spectacles that fused music, mild and structure, typically going down in dramatic historic places like Persepolis or Cluny. This highlights one other facet of Xenakis’s work – a ardour for historical tradition, notably Greek, that ran by all his creations, regardless of how high-tech or futuristic, from the names of his works to his common behavior of setting fragments of historical poetry. One excessive level of his profession was the Diatope (1978), a brief fee for the plaza of the newly opened Centre Pompidou, the place a laser present and electroacoustic work have been broadcast inside one other swirling parabolic pavilion, a Gesamtkunstwerk visited by tens of 1000’s.
Upstairs, a supplementary present titled ‘Xenakis and Greece’ endeavours to elucidate Xenakis’s relationship to Greece for a youthful technology of gallery guests – regardless of not having the ability to return, on ache of dying, till the autumn of the Junta in 1974, his imaginative and prescient of a Greek identification in tune with its historical previous however trying straight forward to the long run helped make him a big determine in Greek cultural life, if not precisely a family identify. And whereas it’s difficult work, for certain, this present actually manages to look past the po-faced ultra-modernist to see somebody whose work linked to set up artwork, the counterculture, ecology and different extra cosmic issues, an old-school Twentieth-century utopian of the perfect type.
‘Iannis Xenakis: Sonic Odysseys’ and ‘Xenakis and Greece’ are at EMST, Athens, till 7 January 2024.