Iannis Xenakis, Psappha (1975)
“Psappha” is an archaic form of “Sappho,” a great Greek poetess from the Island of Lesbos, born in the 600’s BC. Her style was sensual and melodic, and she was one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally. This emotion and sentimentality does not seem to manifest in Xenakis’ interpretation. Written for six groups of instruments, three of wood and skins and three of metal, Psappha is sharp, brittle, and even violent at times. This intensely aggressive work seems almost in contradiction to its title. The inspiration here, however, manifests not as aesthetic, but as structure. The work’s rhythmic structures are derived from small rhythmic cells characteristic of Sappho’s poetry. These rhythms pervade the entire work and make both local and large scale appearances. Much of the specifics of instrument choice is left up to the performer: Xenakis writes, “timbre serves only to clarify the rhythmic structures,” suggesting the “words” of this poem are only a secondary color to the structures that contain them.
Iannis Xenakis was born in 1922 into a Greek family residing in Braila, Romania. The sense of being an ‘outsider’ remained integral to his identity, as the title of a recently published book of interviews signals: “il faut être constamment un immigré.” Xenakis lost his mother when he was five years old, then was sent off to boarding school on the Greek island of Spetsai at age ten. He studied civil engineering at the Athens Polytechnic, but the German invasion followed by the British occupation drew him into the Resistance, activities from which he would end up near fatally wounded, losing one eye, then later condemned to death. Forced to escape his country, Xenakis ended up in Paris, wanting to study music, but earning a living working as an engineering assistant for Le Corbusier.
His creative and intellectual intensity attracted the attention of both the renowned architect, who delegated architectural projects to him in spite of his lack of professional training, and the composer and pedagogue Olivier Messiaen, who saw in the music he was struggling to produce in isolation an originality deserving of encouragement. Xenakis had his first major succès du scandale with the premiere of Metastasis at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1955, and by 1960, he was able to devote himself entirely to composition.
Critical of other developments in contemporary music at the time, dominated by the serialists (‘Darmstadt school’) such as Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Xenakis followed his own path, aided by his background in mathematics, engineering and design, and by his interest in complex sonic phenomena (rainstorms, street demonstrations, etc.). He incorporated probability theory into his compositional approach, as a means of generating and controlling large-scale events composed of massive numbers of individual elements. He also adopted the sonic entity (texture) as the primary material for the construction of musical form (rather than themes, or pitch structures).
Along with his acoustic works, he has produced a number of important electroacoustic pieces, and a series of multimedia creations involving sound, light, movement, and architecture (polytopes). In the domain of computer music, Xenakis was a pioneer in the area of algorithmic composition, and has also developed an approach to digital synthesis based on random generation and variation of the waveform itself. In addition, he designed a computer system utilizing a graphic interface (the UPIC), which has proven to be a liberating, provocative pedagogical tool as well as a powerful environment for computer composition.
Iannis Xenakis died on February 4, 2001, at age 78. He had been suffering from a number of serious ailments for several years. His last completed composition, O-Mega, for solo percussion and ensemble, written for Evelyn Glennie and the London Sinfonietta, was premiered at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music in November 1997. The American premiere was given in Alice Tully Hall with Samuel Solomon as soloist with the New Juilliard Ensemble. His “retirement” was enforced by a loss of memory that made it impossible to compose, and by increasingly frequent periods in the hospital, lapses into coma, and so forth. At the same time, however, Xenakis continued to be feted around the world. He was awarded the Kyoto Prize (Japan) in 1997, the UNESCO International Music Prize in 1998, and the Polar Prize (Sweden) in 1999. In December 2000, the world premiere of a couple of his very early works, from the Anasteria triptych based on an ancient Greek rite, took place in Germany, almost 50 years after they were composed (1952-53).
Xenakis’s legacy will be discussed for some time to come, no doubt. His music and thought will continue to exert an important influence on contemporary music. Hopefully, performers and producers will be spurred to program more of Xenakis’s music, and to record more of it for commercial release. There are still a good number of powerful, fascinating pieces that need to be better known.