A brief critical, or personal, introduction to the late music of Iannis Xenakis

Modern music: Xenakis

Xenakis' music has become increasingly well-known among people involved in hearing or creating contemporary classical music, and so his relatively unusual circumstances no longer present a barrier to his public reception. Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) had a colorful young life. He was seriously wounded as a Greek resistance fighter, and went on to training in mathematics and architecture prior to music. His early music has its origins there, especially as his works accompanied intricate architectural constructions. Later, he completed a formal music degree under Messiaen at the Sorbonne, turning decisively to music as a profession in 1959. Born in Romania to Greek parents, he worked primarily in France and the United States.

Although equations and formalistic ideas form an important component of Xenakis' musical style, they do not overwhelm it. As music became his sole profession, and especially in the 1970s & 80s, Xenakis' music takes on a more instinctive quality. Indeed, Varèse had long been one of his models, and his music possesses a similar kind of raw or even elemental energy. One thing Xenakis' music rarely lacks is forward momentum, moving as it does from one "place" to another in sometimes bewildering fashion.

To some degree, it is the use of mathematical processes which allows Xenakis to discover patterns and communicable musical ideas out of a totally unrestricted musical vocabulary. The latter is an important aspect of Xenakis' work, and perhaps the main reason for its broad reception: He is not limited by instrumental combinations, by tempered scales, by scales at all or by simultaneity. Into such a sound world, even a stochastic process can inject some audible stability. In essence, traditional notions of musical structure are thrown out, only to be constructed anew, perhaps accounting for the raw creative energy the music possesses. There is an abundance of rhythmic energy, quickly changing harmonies, and usually a strongly visceral quality.

The following list will not survey recordings of Xenakis' music in any comprehensive way, but will hopefully provide a worthwhile overview nonetheless. This is basically a list of the recordings I find most valuable. They include both his earlier, more explicitly mathematical, music and his later more "intuitive" music. I consider the latter to be basically the fruit of his earlier research, although it is research that can certainly be explored further by subsequent musicians, and some listeners value his early work most highly.

Xenakis' output is fairly difficult to classify, especially as he does not use instrumental combinations consistently. There are well over a dozen pieces for solo instruments, more than thirty written for large ensembles of over 50 musicians, plus a dozen for electronic tape, etc. The solo pieces are mostly for strings or keyboard, but the small ensemble pieces make use of all instrument families, with virtually every size of ensemble represented, from two to 50+. There are a handful of hour+ pieces, and a handful of shorter works, but most are in the 10-20 minute area.

Readers who follow some of my other preferences will know that I tend to favor smaller ensembles, and the following recording represents both a wonderful program of Xenakis' cello-centered music and an impressive achievement in performance practice:

Xenakis: Complete Cello Works
Arne Deforce / Ensemble musikFabrik
Aeon 1109

The above program contains pieces featuring the cello from the five main decades of Xenakis' production, providing an opportunity to view a cross-section of his output through the lens of one performer. It includes the solo cello music, duos with cello, and one small ensemble piece. Xenakis' duos are often some of his most interesting music.

A recent orchestral series has also set new standards for the performance of Xenakis' large-scale music, illustrating some of his amazing variety:

Xenakis: Orchestral Works
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg - Arturo Tamayo
Timpani 1177 (5 CDs)

Although orchestral music is not necessarily the first place I turn for musical ideas, Xenakis' writing in this arena is very much not routine. His choice of instruments (or soloist, in some cases) and ensemble size varies widely in different pieces, meaning that the parts are there to serve a particular musical purpose and not to fit a pre-determined orchestra. Xenakis was also the first to write individual parts for all players in such large ensembles. Of course, with the orchestra, one is also able to have the loudest and most energetic music, a mode that suits Xenakis.

Prior to the orchestral series above, and particularly the solo cello disc, the easiest Xenakis recording to recommend was:

Xenakis: Musique de chambre (1955-1990)
Arditti String Quartet / Claude Helffer
Naïve Montaigne 782005 (2CDs)

Although perhaps not the indispensable issue it was at one time, the set continues to include many amazing performances. Dikhthas, uniting Xenakis' amazing & distinctive writing for violin & piano, for instance, is still a classic. The solo piano playing here also continues to be some of the most appealing, plus the two short solo violin tracks. The precision is impressive in this pioneering interpretation.

String music seems to suit Xenakis particularly well, especially when it comes to smaller ensembles. For one, it allows music to be written on a linear continuum, as contrasted e.g. with the piano's restriction to particular notes. Additionally, the string quartet is a standard ensemble from European classical music that Xenakis actually embraced. One could name another handful of works written for classic chamber configurations, but not repeated. The Xenakis Edition on Mode Records features many worthwhile performances, and two in particular address Xenakis' string music:

Xenakis: Complete String Quartets
Xenakis Edition, Volume 10
JACK Quartet
Mode 209
Xenakis: Music for Strings
Xenakis Edition, Volume 6
Ensemble Resonanz - Johannes Kalitzke
Mode 152

The first disc above, obviously, concentrates on the string quartets, partly duplicating the recording by the Arditti Quartet. However, the newer piece Ergma is included, and the stochastic piece ST/4-1 takes on more of a life of its own here. The latter disc extends all the way from the contrabass solo Theraps (and the performance is not especially distinctive) to Voile for 20 strings. It's interesting to note that Xenakis tackled the string sextet near the very end of his oeuvre.

What neither of those recordings does, however, is provide much of a glimpse of the vast array of sonorities that Xenakis' mixed chamber works contain. There is no clear divide between chamber and orchestral music in Xenakis' oeuvre, as he uses and combines forces freely, but there remain many smaller settings which combine winds & strings, many recorded. Perhaps a program of this music will particularly appeal in the future.

Finally, a large-scale work, based on the Greek tragedy:

Xenakis: Oresteïa
Strasbourg Festival - Dominique Debart
Salabert Actuels 8906

In a way, this item seems especially appropriate because it is so explicitly Greek. However, it's really the Kassandra piece for voice & percussion that motivates me to list it. As noted above, Xenakis' music for duos of very different instruments is among his most interesting, and perhaps no duo is as different as voice & percussion. The duo format seems to challenge Xenakis, especially when asked to unify completely different musical modalities.

I will continue to make updates to this list as warranted.

To new essay, A brief critical, or personal, introduction to the late music of Iannis Xenakis.

To supplementary Xenakis recording listing.

To Iannis Xenakis Association page.

Back to Modern music page.

Todd M. McComb
Rewritten: 5 January 2010
Revised: 14 November 2011