Iannis Xenakis – Gentle Stranger

Written by: Colin Anderson

A composer with a style all his own, Iannis Xenakis is showcased on the South Bank Centre between 7-9 October – and without the need of an anniversary! Jonathan Cole and Rolf Hind help introduce the weekend…

One of the most distinctive 20th-century composers, Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), is being celebrated by the South Bank Centre through concerts and film, an intensive focus on the Romania-born Greek musician who fought in the Greek Resistance during World War II, escaped a death sentence, and became a French citizen in 1965. For all the influence of mathematics and architecture, Xenakis’s music is direct and vivid and, it is said, a huge influence on later generations.

Pianist Rolf Hind, whose Saturday afternoon recital includes two Xenakis pieces, says, “I can think of some very cutting-edge radical composers who would credit him, but that’s more to do with the way that Xenakis put his music together.” Rolf plays Xenakis’s Mists and Evryali. “They’re both quite wild and there’s no allowance made for what’s actually possible. There’s a weird conflict between precision and very broad strokes; the tension between the two is physically exciting. I have big hands but I have to make editorial decisions. I played for him once and he was very happy with the physical directness and that the dynamics and pedalling were right – that’s all marked very clearly.”

And as composer Jonathan Cole, who takes part in a live discussion on Xenakis, informs, “he composed standing up, a very physical thing. He represents an alternative to the crystalline, beautifully formed music that has come from Boulez and others. Xenakis has roughness and there’s a big heart; you can tell that in the way some pieces don’t quite work. That’s something that Tippett had as well.”

Rolf develops Xenakis’s architectural influences. “It’s a means to give some sort of unity; as far he was concerned, functional harmony was dead. Yet, even using mathematical processes, a lot of the same notes return and there are even things that are strikingly like development in the old-fashioned sense. His music is clearly, almost crudely structured, and you know its Xenakis through the sound. Despite all the maths – which looks forbidding on the page – the effect can be very simple and effective. He’s one of the few composers that get booed, which I quite like!” For Jonathan, Xenakis’s attraction to architecture “translates itself musically into his interest in filling space, and the maths was a means towards writing the music he wanted to write.”

The opening concert is by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Xenakis’s orchestral output is handsomely recorded on the Timpani label, 4 CDs of music of emotional energy and scrunch; try Volume 4, which includes Ata (“an amazing piece” confirms Jonathan). Timpani is distributed in the UK by Discovery Records. And Jonathan describes La légende d’Eer, a tape piece to be heard late on Sunday night, as an “electronic score with samples from Mongolian and Chinese instruments, and a trip into hell.”

During these three days other composers are also heard – Messiaen, Stravinsky (“it’s interesting that Canticum sacrum has been chosen because Xenakis didn’t like late Stravinsky”, quips Jonathan) and Varèse. In his recital, Rolf Hind includes the “very still, very quiet” Palais de mari by Morton Feldman, a composer that Xenakis believed did similar things to himself, albeit in a totally different – spare and economic – soundworld. Rolf, a dedicated champion of contemporary music, takes great pleasure in telling me that he is announced as “the artistic director of the spnm for the next two seasons.” Much to look forward to. For the moment let Jonathan Cole cue the Xenakis weekend. “It’s a mistake to get too hung up on the idea of Xenakis being an architect and mathematician. He was very influenced by mass demonstrations and concerned about common causes. He was also an individualist, and a humanitarian, but he was not interested in pandering to people. His music needs performers who throw caution to the wind. And although he explored chance elements he also took responsibility; the things that he was aiming for are very specific. His is very giving music that communicates directly. Did you know that Iannis Xenakis is Greek for gentle stranger?”

  • Xenakis: Architect in Sound – 7, 8 & 9 October; Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room
  • SBC
  • Discovery Records
  • spnm
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 5 October 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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