Born on May 29, 1922, in Braila, Romania; died on February 4, 2001, in Paris, France. Education: Engineering degree, Athens Polytechnic, Greece. Addresses: Business--Center for Composition of Music Iannis Xenakis (CCMIX), 18, reu Marcelin-Berthelot, 94140 Alfortville, France, website:

From a privileged, yet unsettled childhood to an early career derailed by war, Iannis Xenakis first came to prominence as an architectural draftsman before devoting himself fully to his work as a composer. Combining mathematical probability theory with composition, Xenakis became the originator of stochastic music, in which large-scale compositions were built from discrete individual units linked in precise mathematical sequences. Although few could claim to understand his complex, mathematically derived music theories, the avant-garde composer's prodigious output, technological innovation, and acclaim in the world of modern classical music gave him fame that few other contemporary composers could match. Upon hearing of his death on February 4, 2001, presidents and prime ministers from around the world paid tribute to Xenakis.

Xenakis was born on May 29, 1922, in Braila, a city in southwestern Romania near the Black Sea and the border with the Ukraine. An important shipping point on the Danube River, Braila's elite commercial class was dominated by Greek immigrants and their descendants who controlled much of the shipping trade along the river. Growing up in the Greek community in Braila, Xenakis was the son of privilege, although he would later claim that his status as an outsider would always remain central to his identity. Xenakis' mother died when he was five years old, and he was sent off to a boarding school on the island of Spetsai in Greece to complete his secondary education at the age of ten. Xenakis continued his education at the Athens Polytechnic Institute, aiming for a career as an engineer. Shortly after he was admitted to the school, however, history intervened.

With the invasion of Greece by Italy in 1940 and its subsequent occupation by Nazi Germany to secure the region for the Axis powers, Xenakis' education took a back seat to the immediate demands of the war. The young engineer joined the Greek Resistance and fought against the occupiers for four years in conjunction with British forces. In the last year of the war, however, Xenakis suffered a near-fatal injury that cost him the sight in one of his eyes. Left for dead by his compatriots, Xenakis nevertheless recovered and survived the war, which formally ended in 1945. As in many other war-torn countries, however, a civil war soon broke out in Greece, one which dragged on for another four years. As Communist Party supporters battled the ruling Greek monarchy, Xenakis was captured and sentenced to death by the government. After the death sentence was handed down, the former Resistance fighter fled the country and in 1947 made his way to Paris. Although Greece returned to a semblance of stability with the suppression of the Communists in 1949 and the adoption of a new constitution in 1951, Xenakis' death sentence was not officially revoked by the Greek government until 1974.

Worked with Le Corbusier

Xenakis turned his attention to studying musical composition after his arrival in Paris and soon met some of the most famous composers of the day, including Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). It was Messiaen who advised Xenakis to abandon his formal training in composition in favor of continuing on with his own musical experiments. It was several years, however, before Xenakis premiered his first composition, Metastasis for Orchestra. Completed in 1954 and debuted at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1955, the work was a dramatically new offering in the world of modern classical music. Based on a musical adaptation of the mathematical theory of probability, which the composer labeled "stochastic principles," Xenakis took small musical units and structured them into a compositional whole using mathematical sequences. As he explained in his book Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, "All sound is an integration of grains, of elementary sonic particles, of sonic quanta. Each of these elementary grains has a threefold nature: duration, frequency, and intensity. All sound, even all continuous sonic variation, is conceived as an assemblage of the large number of elementary grains adequately disposed in time."

In terms of theory and the resulting composition, Xenakis' work as a stochastic composer was truly avant-garde. At a time when composers were more interested in breaking down each portion of the composition into discrete elements, Metastasis offered music on a much grander scale. Characteristic of his early works, the piece was a demanding one for musicians with its complex rhythms and explosions of sound. Metastasis was followed by other orchestral pieces, including Pithoprakta for string orchestra in 1956, Achorripsis in 1957, and Syrmos in 1959. During the 1950s, however, Xenakis' international acclaim came not from his compositions, but from his work as an engineer and draftsman for the famed Swiss-born architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), better known by his pseudonym, Le Corbusier.

As Le Corbusier's assistant, Xenakis worked on several influential projects that helped define modern architecture in the postwar world, including housing developments in France and government buildings in India. His most famous work with Le Corbusier, however, was the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium. Designed as a set of parabolas, the building's dramatic set of curved shapes symbolized undulating waves of sound, a fitting structure for the pavilion's sponsor, a leading recording and electronics company. As striking as the building's exterior were the presentations inside. In addition to multimedia works, Xenakis' Concerto PH, which used the amplified sounds of burning charcoal, surprised and delighted visitors. Representing the intersection of cutting-edge architecture, music, and technology, the Philips Pavilion was one of the modernist highlights of the late 1950s.

Electronic Music Compositions

By 1960, Xenakis had gained sufficient acclaim to abandon his engineering work and pursue composing full-time. Increasingly, he turned to composing music performed by electronic instruments, starting with the 1958 work Diamorphosis. Xenakis also composed pioneering works with computer programs that generated pieces based on mathematical programs. In 1966, a year after becoming a French citizen, Xenakis founded a research institution in Paris to encourage the further study of mathematics and music. The composer also taught at the Indiana University School of Music, one of the leading music programs in the world, from 1967 to 1972. The university published his work Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition in 1971, a sign of Xenakis' high standing among music theorists.

Xenakis achieved another breakthrough with his development of a graphic computer interface (UPIC) that allowed users to draw shapes and have them interpreted into musical forms by a computer. In his own work, however, Xenakis gradually veered away from electronic composing. "The stochastic way of composing is something that is innate now," he told the Village Voice in 1996, "I don't need to use the computers anymore." As he further explained to Morton Feldman in an interview at the 1986 Festival Nieuwe Muziek in the Netherlands at the ZeelandNet website, "Whenever I listen to music, I don't want to consider any ideology whatsoever beforehand. I just want to listen and understand what happens.... When you write music, you should have the same naive approach to music as the listener often has." In the place of mathematically generated music, Xenakis derived inspiration from this approach and incorporated traditional Greek dramas and myths to deliver more emotional and expressive works, including Oresteia in 1966 and Medea in 1967.

Resurgence in Interest

Xenakis had not completely abandoned his theoretical pursuits, however. In 1985, he founded the Center for the Composition of Music Iannis Xenakis (CCMIX) with the support of the French Ministry of Culture. Housed near Paris, where Xenakis made his home with his wife, Francoise, and their daughter, the Center devoted itself to encouraging innovative compositions and performances in addition to disseminating information on Xenakis' UPIC system. During the following decade, Xenakis enjoyed a resurgence of interest in his compositions, with a growing number of music festivals performing his challenging works. During the 1990s, Xenakis received several distinguished music prizes, capping off his career with the 1999 Polar Music Prize, which endowed the composer with a cash award of $125,000.

In failing health for several years, Xenakis died in Paris on February 4, 2001. Tributes poured in, with French President Jacques Chirac lamenting, "France loses one of its most brilliant artists today," according to the Los Angeles Times. For his part, Xenakis was convinced that his musical innovations would long outlive him. "Sometimes I think composers talk too much. There is only music, that's it!" he exclaimed to Feldman, adding, "Music is used as acoustical energy. The problem of composition is how to use that energy." While the theories he expounded during his career were complex, the simplicity of his argument embodied the essence of his innovation in modern classical music.

Xenakis died on February 4, 2001, at his home in Paris, France. He was 78.

by Timothy Borden

Iannis Xenakis's Career

Born in Romania and moved to Greece as a youth; fought in Greek Resistance in World War II; studied music in Paris after World War II; worked for architect Le Corbusier, 1950s; became French citizen, 1965; pioneered electronic music compositions and theories; founded Center for Composition of Music Iannis Xenakis (CCMIX) in France, 1985.

Iannis Xenakis's Awards

Induction, Academie des Beaux Arts (France), 1984; Critics Prize of Turin (Italy), 1990; Kyoto Prize (Japan), 1997; UNESCO International Music Prize, 1998; Polar Music Prize, 1999.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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