A time to live, a time to die

Composer, architect, wartime resistance hero, Iannis Xenakis turns 75 on Friday and seems as much in conflict with himself, the world and music as ever.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Paris, Pigalle, fourth floor, first door on the right. The sound of a piano playing a Bach fugue leaks from a neighbouring room. It seems to take an age for the door to be answered, and then the padding footsteps of the occupant approach, locks are unpicked and I am ushered into the studio. Shelves of books cover the walls: a stack of magazines rises precipitously in the centre of the room where I am bidden to sit, as Iannis Xenakis fiddles at a lectern, looking for scores. Behind him, pressed as far into the most obscure of corners as it will go, is an old upright piano. A few antiquated hi-fi speakers stand like sentries at intervals across the room, where at the far end a red-painted steel gantry forms a separate, higher level, stacked with even more books and papers.

Asked about his commission for this year's Proms, a work entitled SEA- CHANGE after Shakespeare's The Tempest, Xenakis professes ignorance. "Yes, I did that already. I think so." He goes and finds the score, passes it to me, and I read its dedication to Proms controller Nicholas Kenyon. "It's very short," he says. "About 10 minutes. For orchestra." It's due to be premiered on 23 July, although Xenakis seems to think it's already been done. The Tempest, and the language of Shakespeare, once held a fascination for him. In Marc Kidel's recent film about the composer's return to the boarding school on the Greek island of Spetses where he spent his youth, Xenakis is shown amid the ruins of an ancient amphitheatre proclaiming blank verse from memory perfectly. "Yes, 'Full fathom five' and so on," he says now. "I was about 15 or something. English and Shakespeare, it's a long time! We had two directors of the school, one Greek and one British. Spetses was very beautiful then. That's it."

That's it! Whenever Xenakis wants to end a sentence or to signal the conclusion of a memory, this is what he says: "That's it." Now nearing 75 years of age (an anniversary that falls on Friday, and will be celebrated by a run of concerts dedicated to him at the Bath Festival this weekend), the Romanian-born composer - sometime resistance fighter, pioneer of "stochastic music" and former architectural associate of Le Corbusier - has not grown old gracefully. "We are poor people," he says; "we are on earth, which is such a distance from the sun - six minutes at the speed of light - and that's it! Outside there are monsters like Jupiter and Saturn - who knows what happens there? I don't care so much, but I'm still interested. The problem with man is that he wants to be a kind of hero sometimes; he thinks he has a purpose even if it's difficult, and he still tries. Most of the people I encounter on the street are people who want to be famous, or who want to have children or to have one wife, two wives, more... We still try, it's inherent in ourselves, and this is why I'm departing from it now. It's a matter of youth and I'm getting very old now and older people don't care any more. They are waiting, maybe not for death, but for something different. I don't know why. Do you?"

Xenakis is one of the most original composers of our century: his music has no clear forebears (although he learnt from both Messiaen, with whom he studied in 1950s Paris, and Varese, with whom he worked on the sound installation for the Philips pavilion at the 1958 World Expo) and has left few apparent heirs. Rather, it is what it is: a strange, often brutal and violent world where massed clusters of sound cohere and then dissolve, like the movements of clouds or flocks of birds on the wing, both of which he still delights in observing. His reputation as one of the most important of post-war European composers rests upon a formidable series of works - over 100 of them, for large orchestra, chamber group, percussion ensemble, string quartet, piano and tape - together with his significantly unorthodox background. Famously, as an engineering student in wartime Athens, Xenakis became embroiled in the Greek liberation struggle, was injured by a bomb and left scarred for life. He refused to have plastic surgery, and his face has remained marked by the visible signs of his bravery ever since, the cheek-long gouge now seeming to have become an inseparable part of his physiognomy, a fissure worn into the natural lines of his face as if through age alone.

"I didn't know what to do," he says of his past in Greece. "I was studying all kinds of things, especially ancient philosophies, and in Athens I had a professor of music from Russia who taught me all kinds of traditional Russian music, though I've forgotten it all. So when I came to Paris [in 1947], I tried doing music because I was interested in it. I was in the class of Messiaen - look, there's his picture on the wall! - and for several years, that's all. I was not an inscribed pupil. He let me in free because I showed him some of my scores and he was pleased with them. That's it. Then I started working on pieces, terrible things, that lasted until today."

Trained (as far as he was trained at all) in science and engineering, Xenakis acted as assistant to Le Corbusier from 1947 to 1959, working on both the La Tourette convent and the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair (this latter, it is often said, owing more to him than to his nominal employer). His first performed composition, Metastasis, was scored for 60 players and caused a scandal on its first hearing in 1955. An attempt to recall through sound the composer's perceptions of an anti- Nazi demonstration held in Athens during the war, the piece (which lasted all of seven minutes) was concerned less with each individual part than with the overall creation of a massive soundscape. It was, as he wrote, "a gigantic rhythm... an enormous chaos of sharp sounds... whistling of bullets... the crackling of machine guns".

Later compositions used theories of probability and calculus ("Stochastic Music"), of games ("Strategic Music") and of logic ("Symbolic Music"), and Xenakis increasingly became seen as the guru of musical collaboration between art and science. In 1975 he founded UPIC, a computer-based electronic music system, in Paris.

It's several years, however, since he abandoned computers to work, as best he can, from his imagination alone. "I did that music because I felt like it," he says of his past. "And, more or less, I continue, except when I am lazy, like now. I don't want to work, I'm tired, and I just read things." He points to the pile of copies of Scientific American lying on the floor in front of us. "I'm interested in that. I am scientific- minded somehow. That's all, that's it." I try to press him on the meaning of science. Didn't it once promise a Promethean answer that it has failed to deliver? "Well, it is not so important now. We try to understand things a little bit better, that's all, but science itself cannot bring understanding, as was the idea in the Twenties. Now I don't think so. I'm sorry. Would you like a cigarette? I think it's possible that the world is not understandable. We thought that science would bring us to absolute mastery, but that's finished, I think. The role of the artist is to do things he's interested in; if not, to change his job. That's it."

He denies that he ever wilfully imposed external patterns on his music. "It was a blend of physics and myself and, while it worked, it took me a lot of time to do. The compositions, there were too many! They were shorter and shorter as time went by, because I think it's a matter of structure, of the piece, and you don't need many words to say something interesting. If somebody doesn't understand it, tant pis, that's it!"

He is equally disenchanted with composing for large ensembles. "No, it's too tiresome, not any more; it's a matter of me getting older, that's why." Has he then attained, I ask, a kind of Zen humility in his approach to work? He laughs. "No, no, I am in conflict with the world but I don't know if I am Zen or not. My conflict represents conflict with music itself; what to write, why and so forth. That's it. What happens in Africa now is terrible but I don't care for that any more. Paris is a quiet place - London too, no? - and I can write or not write. It is the destiny of mankind to think or to be suffering, or to have, from time to time, some nice living days."

Of the new British composers whose works will be heard alongside his own at the Bath Festival weekend (which he plans to attend), Xenakis knows nothing. I mention the music of Graham Fitkin as representing an interesting variation on minimalism, and he flickers briefly into life. "Ah, minimalism! I don't like it much, it's too minimal!" He searches for the name of a composer. Terry Riley? Philip Glass? We settle on Steve Reich. Does he like him? "No, not much. It's void. It's from the past but it is void of the past." And what of listeners to his own music, which is often considered difficult. What do they need to appreciate it? "They have to have open ears and an open mind. And intelligence, of course. That's it!"n

Xenakis at the Bath Festival Contemporary Music Weekend, 30 May - 1 June. Booking: 01225 463362

Comments