10 November 2012

Xenakis Matters

 Xenakis, photo (c)1999 Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

T   he Demiurge (1) creates from an intuition of Good; (2) takes disorder and friction and waste and makes it orderly and efficient, so far as is possible to do; (3) places Reason within the soul, and the cosmic soul within the cosmic body; (4) models the cosmos on the form of a generalized sentient lifeform, i.e., an animal with moral standing; (5) creates the cosmic body on principles of geometric proportionality; (6) creates the world soul out of population-level sameness and difference; (7) blends these into a durable alloy; and (8) divides the alloy into useful, value-generating harmonic intervals.”
  — Plato’s ‘Timaeus’, quoted by Eric Lewis in Kanach, p. 81.
U   nlike Schoenberg, who controls and organizes his music at the level of the individual note, Xenakis works at the level of the whole population [of all notes, taken together, as a sound-mass].”
  — Brian Kane, in Kanach, p. 97.

T he new book, ‘Xenakis Matters’, the latest in the multi-author, multi-volume series edited by Sharon Kanach and published by Pendragon, provides a superb and many-faceted view of the enduring impacts of composer-artist-architect-engineer Iannis Xenakis, who died in 2001. Sharon Kanach is Vice-President of Centre Iannis Xenakis in France and Founder and President of the Xenakis Project of the Americas of the Brook Center at CUNY. She served as Xenakis’s assistant for two decades prior to his death in 2001.

 Sharon Kanach

X enakis was an iconic, formative influence on me, even though I encountered him and his teaching only for a short while in 1972. Xenakis was then still on the faculty at Indiana University at Bloomington in 1972... IU with its beautiful-and-powerful-and-then-new Control Data 6600 computer, sylvan wooded paths of the campus, and its quiet, clear-flowing limestone creek so incongruous with the intensity of the University and the minds gathered there.

S pringtime 1972 was, I suppose, before many of us recognized that the Sixties were over. It was when students at the University of Minnesota were protesting the War and barricading Washington Avenue with piles of lumber set on fire, an incendiary deconstructionist action undertaken not far from the School of Architecture where I attended Xenakis’s lectures.

S pring 1972 was when my life still straddled music and engineering equally—and when Xenakis, his music, his cross-disciplinary, fusion-avid compositional methods and materials, and his talks and writings were the epitome of innovation—his compelling, unifying vision a convergence of nature, science, engineering, and art.

H is mathematical models as automatic generating functions—not only for making music but for representing it—where equations accomplished this in a manner so much more compact than mere notes on paper could ever do: so crystalline, the beauty of this.

T   he idea becomes the machine that makes the art .”
  — Sol Lewitt.

H is programmatic transformations of acoustic forms and found-sounds—embodying a mode of creativity beyond pitch and rhythm and traditional music pedagogy—a random and happenstantial process can nonetheless have statistical self-similar or fractal properties across the ensemble of parts/voices and across time, and can manifest and evoke specific, real meanings.

C   an order be established from noise? Well, your music was the first to discover this.”
  — philosopher Michel Serres, remark during Xenakis’s PhD thesis defense.

H is physicality and love of ‘immersive’ media and sonic productions—in which the raw and elemental and cranked-up challenged us to (re-)discover the boundaries between Nature and the human.

H is famous book, ‘Formalized Music’, wherein he referred to some of his work as the musical equivalent of the “phenomena of a political crowd... protesters forming a human ‘river’, and their shouted messages propagating from front to back, comprehensible to an observer situated at a distance from the crowd but often not coherent, as such, to individuals within the crowd”.

I ’ve spent the 40 years since then in very different ways than I would have imagined, most of them doing software engineering. But the maieutic* debt that I owe to Iannis Xenakis as an important teacher in my life is great. [*uncovering through analysis; eliciting knowledge by provoking or questioning; assisting-in-coming-into-being; midwifing]

I  suppose only as we get older do we really begin to appreciate/apprehend the entire cycle of Life. There is a sense of totality to life and its review, a summing-up. The emphasis is on the ‘examined life’, on how we assess our life and how we have lived it, and assess what truth we have synthesized from the events that have accumulated, from our own efforts and decisions, and from the acts of others and how they have filled and inhabited our lives.

A  powerful mixture of emotions—happy memories; regret; guilt; 40 years’ longing and loss—is part of what this book caused to well-up in me—part of what will lead me to read and re-read this volume in years to come. The poignancy of what is remembered so vividly across the decades is staggering. I become reattached to my past as it is reanimated by these authors on these pages.

S ignificant for many readers besides me, though, is how this book works as historiography—revealing how life crystallizes itself in the artifacts that remain in us, emblems of the impact that others have had on us.

I n hindsight, it’s impossible to exaggerate Iannis’s importance to my development, as a person and as an engineer. While insisting on holding students to high standards, he also took an active, personal interest in each one’s well-being. Puckish and provocative, but always seeming to accurately gauge the limits of each. Xenakis’s legendary generosity/hospitality/charity is part of his legacy and, no doubt, a major reason why he is remembered so vividly by so many people, even ones like me who only encountered him briefly.

R emembering now Iannis Xenakis’s smiling face, remembering his exuberance and enthusiasm—how he confided his uncertainties about what some of his music meant, while he simultaneously professed that each motive and pattern did have meaning(s), however ineffable those meanings may be; how he excitedly expressed his ideas and showed his students how to make them work, or, at a minimum, how to believe sufficiently in the possibility so that they fearlessly strived to make it happen—redeems me a bit from my long history of sinning by transience and forgetting.

G   enuine problems are... both necessary and impossible. Possibility arrives right when you no longer expect it. That is what an ‘event’ really is.”
  — Alain Badiou, quoted by Olga Touloumi in Kanach, p. 101.

I n summary, reminiscence can be dynamic and creative—it can be productive of new discoveries; reminiscence does not have to be reductionistic or static—and I thank Sharon Kanach and her co-authors for this gift.

A ll of the essays in ‘Xenakis Matters’ are engaging and a joy to read. Each essay advances the scholarship regarding the composer’s ideas and influence. And each conveys the kindness, humanity, and something of the humor and kindly nature that are what I remember of him. Robert Wannamaker’s chapter (pp. 127-141), especially, on math exhorts composers to emulate Xenakis’s use of ‘discretion’ in humanizing the combination of mechanical/programmatic musical elements with human ones, to achieve a synthesis that can touch the heart and move us in valuable or even life-changing ways.

M   usic is a mathematical exercise, disguised in such a way that the mind does not realize it is counting.”
  — Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

I  love this book—for reasons noted above, universal as well as personal. Whether or not you have personal memories of Xenakis as an excellent human being, you will, I’m confident, love the book too.

Recording of Pianist Yuji Takahasi performance of Xenakis’s ‘Herma’
I   n 1963 I became [Xenakis’s] composition student. When I showed him my piano piece, he pointed to two sections in the piece and offered me a big eraser... I can still feel the notes of ‘Herma’ at my fingertips. Performing ‘Herma’, I discovered the gravity-free state of sound. It was the feeling of lightness, rather than the violent movement other people surmise from the pianistic virtuosity of the work... I hear through those hundreds of notes—and I sense from them at unexpected moments—something like a voice of the inexplicable.”
  —  pianist Yuji Takahashi, quoted by Roger & Karen Reynolds in Kanach, p. 13.
 Takahashi album cover

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