Xenakis, Yannis

Xenakis, Yannis or Iannis yänˈĭs zānäˈkĭs [key], 1922–2001, Greek-French composer, b. Brăila, Romania. Xenakis studied civil engineering in Athens (1940–47) and was active in the anti-Nazi resistance. He fled Greece when he was sentenced to death by the postwar royalist government and worked as an architect in Paris (1947–59) with Le Corbusier. He was also a composition pupil of Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Olivier Messiaen. He returned to Greece after the fall of the junta (1974). Xenakis used both Greek folk elements and twelve-tone technique in his music. He also developed a “probabilistic” technique of composition, based on the mathematical probability of the recurrence of notes and rhythms. Despite its highly intellectual theoretical basis, his extremely original music has been described as raw and wild. He also developed “polytopes,” multimedia events combining electronic sound, performance, light, and his own temporary architectural constructions. His compositions include Métastasis (1953–54) for orchestra, Pithoprakta (1955–56) for strings, and Achorripsis (1958) for 21 instruments. In 1958, Xenakis collaborated with Edgar Varèse on the Poème Electronique. His later compositions often include electronic sound, as in Bohor (1962) and Polytope de Cluny (1972), or virtuoso percussion, as in Psappha (1975), the complex string quartet Tetras (1983), Rebonds (1988), and his last piece, O—Mega (1997). He was a founder of the Centre d'Etudes Mathématiques et Automatiques in Paris and of the Center for Mathematical and Automated Music at Indiana Univ. Xenakis wrote several treatises explaining his various theories, e.g., Formalized Music (1971, tr. 1972, repr. 2001).

See interviews by M. Bois (1967, repr. 1980) and B. A. Varga (1996); J. Harley, Xenakis: His Life in Music (2004), I. Hewett, Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary (2010), and S. Kanach, ed., Performing Xenakis (2010).

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