Historical Fragment: Iannis Xenakis (May 29, 1922 – February 4, 2001)

In the last few months I have become increasingly interested in contemporary classical music (largely from the 20th century like Webern, Schoemberg, Ligeti, Reich, Bussotti etc) and have been attending fantastic concerts at The Music Gallery in Toronto. I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the conservative selections, largely consisting of romanticism, that the TSO puts on (I have been attending the TSO for several years). Don’t get me wrong, Beethoven and co. are still brilliant composers and the music that they wrote s hauntingly beautiful, and one should definitely attend and patronize the TSO (indeed, the city of Toronto should continue to spend tax payer dollars on subsidizing the TSO’s activities and should in fact increase their support to reduce the need for corporate sponsorship. I do not agree with those on the Left who would argue that classical music was not, is not and cannot be working class music, and think that the increasing level of alienation that some sections of the working class feels towards classical music has partly been due to the deliberate production of class differences within the sphere of cultural production through the dismantling of rigorous arts education in public schools, the pricing of tickets because of corporate sponsorship and lack of government patronage etc, but this is a topic for another post). However, like anything else, there have to be new developments in music compositions, performance etc. and we cannot simply remain stuck in the romantic period. Indeed, no one wants to listen to power ballads for the rest of their lives, and most of us welcomed the grunge movement as a healthy antidote to the excesses of “glamour rock”. I have been very reluctant to talk about music, art/film and fiction on this blog, despite the amount of all three that I consume, due to a real feeling of unease to write about something that I am not well-versed in, and am thus trying to broaden my horizons as these are aspects of my life that I do feel are as important to me as politics (and often impact my politics, and vice versa).

So as I have been blindly stumbling through the brand (brave?) new world of contemporary classical music I have come across a very interesting composer, Iannis Xenakis (much of what I am going to write next is based on the wikipedia entry that I have linked to and I do apologize if I get my communist Greek National Resistance history wrong and would appreciate it if anyone could please add or correct me). Xenakis is an interesting figure, not simply because of his training in architecture (which he then applied to music), and his interest in “formalized music”, but also because of his involvement in the Greek communist anti-fascist guerrilla struggle against the Axis occupation of Greece (I do not know my Gr. Xenakis joined the communist-led National Liberation Front. He was first involved in organizing and participation in mass rallies and demonstrations, and then later joined the armed resistance itself (the armed resistance was called the Greek People’s Liberation Army or ELAS). Following the defeat of the Axis, the British government attempted to restore the Greek monarchy but was opposed by the communist-led Democratic Army of Greece (Xenakis by then was a member of the left-wing Lord Byron faction of the ELAS). It was whilst battling against the British that Xenakis lost his eye. He was also attending the National Technical University of Athens and in 1947 graduated with a degree in civil engineering. Also, in 1947 because of the Conservative backlash against the communist guerrillas, which included killing them or sending them to concentration camps, Xenakis fearing for his life fled the country, and went to Paris. It was in Paris where Xenakis was trained as an architect and composer, despite his status as an undocumented immigrant into the country, and quickly came to be recognized as one of Europe’s most important composers in artistic circles due to his application of mathematics and architectural concepts to his compositions. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Xenakis even designed a computer system, UPIC, that allowed him to compose electronic music using a variety of different technical methodologies.


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