All Images from Les Amis de Xenakis

Révolutions Xenakis: A life in Sound and Light

Révolutions Xenakis at the Gulbenkian is showcasing some of the best examples of this Modernist pioneer’s genius and innovation from a career spanning 50 years.

Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and the associated Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation of Music, longstanding and stalwart supporters of cutting-edge creativity from around the globe, are currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of a truly singular figure in modern art.

Iannis Xenakis is a Greek-French composer, architect, and engineer who may not be familiar to everyone, but his impact on modern music and art at large cannot be understated. More than simply a multi-talented composer and architect, Xenakis can be considered the progenitor of the electronic, mathematical music, the dazzling displays of lights and lasers that so frequently accompany it, and the seamless marriages of sound to space, nature to technology, and disarray to composure that have come to define generations of artistic evolution.

Révolutions Xenakis, an exhibit showcasing some of the best examples of this modernist pioneer’s genius and innovation from a career spanning 50 years and no less than 150 major works, is on display at the Gulbenkian until the end of March. The show includes correspondence, musical scores both traditional and spatial, sketches and studies of the artist’s various graphic and architectural projects, and a breathtaking excerpt of one of Xenakis’ famous “polytopes,” and dazzling works of concurrent light and sound.

Sinking into Xenakis’ often cacophonic musical pieces and the frantic, dizzying light constructions that accompany so many of them can reveal remnants of his tumultuous journey to adulthood. From his birth in Romania to Greek parents in 1922 until his eventual relocation to France in 1947, the young artist’s life was filled with trauma and tragedy that would inform his creative sensibilities for the rest of his life. Suffering the sudden death of his mother at the age of five, moving to Athens just in time for the outbreak of the Greco-Italian War in 1940 and the subsequent fascist occupation of Greece, and later fighting against violent British occupation all caused Xenakis to develop not only an intimate relationship with chaos and dissonance but also an insatiable desire to isolate and manipulate the most basic building blocks of that chaos. 

All Images from Les Amis de Xenakis

A member of the militant Greek National Liberation Front, Xenakis fought first against the fascists of World War II and immediately after tried to protect his country against Churchill’s British occupation forces that pushed to reinstate the Greek monarchy in the months following Germany’s retreat from the country. On New Year’s Day, 1945, while Xenakis was attempting to ward off British tanks in the streets of Athens, a 72 mm shell fired from an M4 Sherman tank burst next to him, disfiguring the left side of his face and permanently blinding his left eye.

French composer Pascal Dusapin, a pupil of Xenakis, said in the 2022 documentary “Xenakis Revolution,” that his teacher once told him “that he [kept] trying to reproduce the sound he heard when the shrapnel went into his face.” 

Many of the artist’s most innovative compositions may sound incomprehensible on first listen but are in fact the result of painstaking mathematical calculation and musical translation. Tools such as game theory, geometric equation, and novel techniques of visually mapping out a world of intertwined mathematical and musical possibilities supported Xenakis in his quest to develop what he called “stochastic music,” referring to music that is procedurally created but the musical structure of which is impossible to mathematically predict — or, in a word, random.

Finding the method in the madness, and the madness of the method, was often central in Xenakis’ compositions. Xenakis himself cited “the song of cicadas in a summer field” and the impenetrable rhythm of raindrops as prime examples of stochastic music in his 1971 musical theory discourse, “Formalized Music.”

Xenakis fled Greece for fear of persecution and found himself in France, where he worked under the employ of renowned architect and urban planner Le Corbusier. These experiences in architecture added new dimensions to the composer-in-exile’s artistic vision and allowed him to consider music as a spatial experience, not simply a sonic one. Early architectural works such as the Philips Pavilion, based on a preliminary sketch of Le Corbusier’s and constructed by Xenakis for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, incorporated two pieces of spatialized music. At the entrance and exit, Xenakis’ “Concret PH” was played through speakers hidden in the walls; inside the pavilion, Edgard Varèse’s “Poème électronique.” The spatialization of these compositions throughout the tall, cavernous, reinforced-concrete building created a unique journey through sound that seemed to breathe in and out as visitors passed through the pavilion. A scale model of the Philips Pavilion, along with numerous original sketches and studies showing the evolution of Xenakis’ finished creation, can be viewed in intimate detail at the Gulbenkian.

Concret PH” stands as a watershed moment in the history of electronic music, as it is the first known use of what’s known as “granular synthesization.” The single source material for the piece is a recording of burning charcoal, which Xenakis cut into samples of a duration of a second, or fractions of a second, before rearranging, splicing, and transpositioning them into a new and transformed piece, which is more reminiscent of thread-thin glass needles breaking into innumerable pieces than a burning ember. The piece can be heard in its entirety while walking through the exhibit at the Gulbenkian. 

The true potential of Iannis Xenakis’ innovative and experimental spirit was fully realized in the development of his “polytopes,” his works that married sound and light. Begging in 1967 with “Polytope de Montréal,” the projects were Xenakis’ attempt to reconcile the two poles of the senses that fascinated and preoccupied him most. Painstakingly choreographed collections of lights accompanied original compositions of spatial music by Xenakis, all of which were developed for specific buildings and shapes of environments. “Polytope de Montréal,” for example, utilized no less than 1,200 flashbulbs attached to steel cables crisscrossed through the eight-story-tall open atrium of Montreal’s French Pavilion. The lights, which flashed every 1/25th of a second, created the illusion of a fluid movement across the steel cables and could be viewed from any level or angle of the building. The musical piece, written for four ensembles of identical composition, was carefully spatialized throughout the atrium, allowing new shapes and textures to be felt in relation to the light show as visitors moved throughout the building. 

Iannis Xenakis and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Music Department fostered an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship over the decades. The Music Department, first under the direction of Maria Madalena de Azeredo Perdigão and later that of Luís Pereira Leal, funded and commissioned numerous works from Xenakis and helped the avant-garde composer establish his Equipe de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (EMAMu) institute for musical experimentation in 1966. With the help of EMAMu and funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation, Xenakis was able to develop the groundbreaking UPIC composition hardware, which allows composers to draw sounds on an x/y axis and paved the way for innumerable music production programs considered indispensable today.

The dedication to fostering creativity shared by Xenakis and the Gulbenkian Foundation and the mutual affection between them makes the Gulbenkian Museum a perfectly fitting place to explore the life and work of a genius put on Earth just over a century ago. Curated with admirable knowledge and affection for the subject, Révolutions Xenakis presents a valuable opportunity for longtime admirers and those looking for an introduction alike to take an intimate and informed look into the life, mind, and art of one of the 20th century’s most renegade and renowned artists.

Révolutions Xenakis is open Wednesdays through Mondays at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum until March 27, 2023. Visit the Gulbenkian’s website for more information.

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