IANNIS XENAKIS (b.1922)


Kottos 1977

 

Iannis Xenakis is a Romanian-born French national of Greek ancestry and is at once composer, architect and mathematician. A fighter in the Greek resistance during World War ll he lost an eye to a grenade but was later, in one of those tragic twists of fate and politics, condemned for his political activities and forced to flee Greece. Displaced to Paris he met and ultimately collaborated with the architect Le Corbusier but also attracted the attention of Olivier Messiaen. Xenakis then turned seriously to musical cornposition with study at the Paris Conservatory. In 1954 he originated the parameters for a music based upon mathematical probability and the principles of indeterminism: Musique Stochastique. Xenakis became an early user of computers as tools to assist in this compositional process but rarely employs them as sound-generating instruments.
 

Mr Xenakis visited the Banff Centre during one of my periods of study there. With two of my fellow students I prepared his string trio Ikhoor - a work I found to be of mind-bending complexity but incredible drama. Mr. Xenakis was most kind about our efforts and proved to be a wonderfully warm and soft-spoken human being (characteristics somewhat at odds with the wild brutality of his music!).
 

Kottos is one of three giants the sons of Ouranos, the sky, and Gaia, the earth. Each had one hundred arms and fifty heads and was the ally of Zeus in his successful fight against the Titans. A friend prepared kottos for the composer’s visit to Banff and gave a magnificent performance making me promise myself would learn this piece. All events in the music are specifically notated (there is no freedom to improvise on the part of the performer) and the composer instructs that the sounds used should never be beautiful but rather rough, harsh and full of noise. This is emphasized at the very beginning with “bridge sound” a grinding, irregular noise with no definite pitch at all. Extreme virtuosity is required to perform the furious sonic effects but the challenge for both performer and listener is priceless. My opportunity to take on the titanic struggle occurred coincidentally at a master class given by Siegfried Palm in Toronto a couple of years after my Banff adventures. The experience of performing this huge work for such a 20th century champion is something I will always carry with me.
 

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