You might have heard of him, you might have heard some of his music. But who exactly was Iannis Xenakis? Where did he grow up? What was his training? In his centenary year, here’s everything you need to know about the Greek 20th century composer.
When and where was Iannis Xenakis born?
Born to Greek parents in May 1922, Xenakis grew up in Braila, southwestern Romania – the site of a large Greek community. His father was the managing director of an English export-import agency and one of the richest men in the city. His mother was a pianist, who died after giving birth to a stillborn daughter – a traumatic experience for the then-5-year-old Xenakis that in his own words left him ‘deeply scarred.’
What was his early education?
After his mother’s death, Xenakis was educated by a series of English, French and German governesses, before being sent to boarding school in Greece, where he sang in the school boys’ choir, studied notation and was introduced to a great deal of classical music. But he also had a keen interest in physics and mathematics, and, after graduating from school, went on to train as a Civil Engineer in Athens.
The Greco-Italian War hit in October 1940, beginning with the Italian invasion of Greece. Xenakis joined the National Liberation Front, later becoming part of the armed resistance - a painful experience which he refused to discuss until the much later in his life. Following the end of the Second World War, he continued to fight for his homeland as part of the Communist resistance, suffering a horrendous facial injury when shrapnel from a British tank blast hit his cheek, blinding him permanently in one eye. Later he was sentenced to death in absentia (a sentence that was finally revoked in 1974), having fled, in 1947, to Paris.
What did he do in Paris?
He became an architect! And a pretty eminent one, working with the great Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier on architectural projects including the the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, as well as housing developments in France and government buildings in India.
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So how did Xenakis become a composer?
Alongside the day job, Xenakis continued to study composition in Paris, and soon met some of the most famous composers of the day, including Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen, whom he approached for composition lessons. But Messiaen, recognising Xenakis’s originality, turned him down, advising him to steer clear of formal training and instead continue with his own musical experiments. Which he did with great gusto.
How would you describe Xenakis’s music?
Oof, that’s a tricky one. This, after all, was a man who, over the course of his life, took inspiration from mathematics, Greek mythology, architecture, pointillism, the sound of rain, the song of cicadas, the patterning of the stars and of gas molecules, as well as the post-war developments in electro-acoustic music. People have variously compared his music to the sound of an alien species, or someone on the receiving end of root canal treatment. They have also commented on its visceral power, its elemental ferocity, as well as its complexity (Xenakis wasn’t one to make life easy for performers). But if there’s one thing that’s universally true about his work is that it sounded like absolutely nobody else’s.
What is his most famous piece of music?
He wrote many! Metastasis for Orchestra, his first major composition, stands out for its grandeur and complexity. Concret PH, an electronic work, showcases Xenakis’s novel approach to orchestral and electronic music based on dynamic sound masses, rather than notes and chords. Tetras for string quartet is eye-wateringly virtuosic, while Jonchaies for orchestra, is thrilling.
Was Iannis Xenakis married?
Yes, he married the French novelist and journalist Françoise Gargouïl in 1953. She died in 2018.
Did he have any children?
One daughter, the artist and sculptor Mâkhi Xenakis.
When did Xenakis die?
He died in Paris after a long period of illness, on 4 February 2001. Among the many tributes that poured in from around the world was one from the French President Jacques Chirac lamenting, ‘France loses one of its most brilliant artists today.’
Metastasis (Paris Contemporary Music Instrumental Ensemble)
Tetras (Arditti Quartet)
Jonchaies (Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra)
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.