Monday, January 25, 2010

The Mathematical Mind of Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001) was a polymath, a man given to many disciplines including engineering, music, architecture and mathematics. Best known for his avant garde music, Xenakis used the mathematical rules of the natural world to explore the spacial texture of sound, color and architecture. Described by Milan Kundera as "the prophet of "insensibility," his musical pieces had the ability to both unnerve and enrapture his audiences. At the core of his work was his study of mathematics and science, disciplines that he used to explore the visual and sonorous origins of art. A collection of over 60 works on paper by Xenakis including pre-compositional sketches, architectural drawings and graphic mathematical notations are on display in the exhibition Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary at the Drawing Center in SoHo.

Xenaxis was born in Romania to a bourgeois Greek family. At a young age he was educated in European art and music, although his formal studies led him to a degree in civil engineering. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Xenakis joined the armed Greek Resistance. After surviving an injury that caused him to lose his left eye, he arrived as a refugee in Paris in 1947 where he became an apprentice in the atelier of Le Corbusier. Quickly rising to prominence in the studio, he collaborated with the famed architect on major projects in Chandigarh, India and Lyon, France, where he designed the undulating glass surfaces of Sainte Marie de La Tourette.

After establishing himself with some stability at the atelier, Xenakis began to explore a passion for creating music. Although his first compositions were originally met with disdain by the composer Arthur Honegger, he found a mentor in Olivier Messiaen who instructed a number of members of the musical avant garde including Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Just as Russian constructivist Kasimir Malevich rejected representation for geometric abstraction at the beginning of the twentieth century, Xenakis and his contemporaries looked to move beyond the serial harmonic framework of classical music. In 1954, after years of obscurity in the musical community, Xenakis completed his first large-scale work, Anastenaria. The final movement of the triptych, Metastaseis, was characterized by a completely unique approach. When performed for the first time at Donaueschingen in 1955, the piece created a "sound cloud" that consisted of an aural mass built with the strings in the orchestra so overwhelming that it was almost palpable.

In 1958, Le Corbusier, entrusted Xenakis to take charge of the design for the Philip's Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair. The structure, designed using hyberbolic paraboloids, inscribed the sweeping curves of Xenakis' early aural symphonies into actual physical space. Although successful as an engineer, Xenakis left the studio of Le Corbusier in 1959 to focus on music. He continued to write symphonies that attempted to express complicated mathematical ideas such as probability theory and Markov chains. His interest in the geometric mass of sound led to a fascination with theoretical spaces, including optical architecture. In the 1960s and 1970s, Xenakis started designing site specific spectacles known as polytopes that combined elements of sound, color and performance to transform sites, such as the ruins of Persepolis, into otherworldly electro-acoustic realms.

At the very center of Xenakis' work was his hand, the tool that he used to transform the flat surface of paper into the three-dimensional musical, architectural and optical manifestations of his multi-faceted genius.


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