Spotlights 22.03.2022

The Philharmonie de Paris is devoting an exhibition to the pioneering work of Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) to mark the centenary of his birth, thus completing a trilogy on the contemporary repertoire after "Pierre Boulez" in 2015 and the opening of the Pierre Henry Studio in 2019. 

"Adhering to military pacts or trade conventions does not directly concern the peoples who are dragged along by often monstrous determinisms. On the other hand, to create artistic filaments linking the populations of all countries is to establish a new direct contact, over languages, interests, civilisations, races, local cultures. This is now possible provided that the form of this art produces the spark of immediate contact."
Iannis Xenakis, Polytope Mondial (intercontinental network of light and sound actions), 1974

The title of the Musée de la Musique's exhibition " Xenakis Revolutions" immediately sets the tone. The aim of this short and dense 400m2 exhibition is to demonstrate how the life and work of the Greek-born, naturalized French composer is a model of aesthetic and political radicalism deeply rooted in the architectural and musical avant-gardes of the second half of the 20th century. Thanks to the fruitful trialogue between Thierry Maniguet, curator in charge of the 20th century collections, Mâkhi Xenakis, daughter and biographer of the composer, both in charge of the curatorship, and Jean-Michel Wilmotte, architect and designer, in charge of the scenography, the exhibition succeeds, in a synthetic and even dazzling way, in tackling the primordial facets of the work and in drawing a historical, intimate and audiovisual portrait of Iannis Xenakis. 

Supported by archives and fetishes, the first section of the exhibition, Intimate Pantheon, looks back at the key events of Xenakis' youth, like so many conditioning factors sublimated by his future work. Born in Romania of Greek parents, in 1922 therefore, unless it was in 1921 as a second passport in the display case attests, or even if it was "twenty-five centuries too late" as he wrote, Xenakis bears both the imprint, the scar even, of the historical upheavals of the last century and the philosophical and mystical heritage of ancient Greek culture. After a childhood overshadowed by the premature death of his mother, who taught him the piano and of whom he was told he was the reincarnation, struck by Beethoven's Fifth Symphony "like an apocalypse", and with a passion for science and mathematics, he began engineering studies at the Polytechnic School of Athens, which were interrupted by the Second World War. He then joined the resistance against the Nazis, first on the side of the nationalists and then with the communists. In 1945, during the civil war opposing royalists and communists, at the command of the Lord Byron Company, he was disfigured by a shrapnel fired by the British side, losing the use of his left eye. Hospital, prison, political persecution, exile, death sentence in absentia. Xenakis took refuge in France, was hired by Le Corbusier as an engineer and at the same time attendedOlivier Messiaen's composition classes, real lessons in ornithology that he meticulously recorded in red spiral notebooks. Messiaen's anti-academic teaching, which invited him to listen and compose and above all to find and use sounds elsewhere than in music, left a lasting impression on him. He composed his first piece, Metastaseis, in 1954, which, consisting of sound masses constructed through mathematics, the famous glissandi, carries "the memories of bullets fired during the Resistance". 

With the biographical foundations laid, the exhibition continues under the dual patronage of music and architecture, because, according to the curators, "engineer, architect, composer, mathematician, computer scientist, Iannis Xenakis was not one and then the other, nor one without the other. A combination of arts and sciences, his musical and architectural work is the reflection of complementary dynamics. Thus, the original model of the Philips Pavilion, a grandiose and avant-garde ephemeral attraction "with hyperbolic paraboloid walls" designed by Xenakis under the aegis of Le Corbusier for the 1958 Universal Exhibition in Brussels, in which an electronic poem byEdgar Varèse is diffused on "sound paths" of 325 loudspeakers during a show of images and lights, is enthroned. In order to recreate the conditions of collective listening to Xenakis' Polytopes, these pioneering immersive and multimedia installations, and thus give the public an extract of the sensation of the 'unheard of', the exhibition space is short-circuited at thirty-minute intervals by the general broadcasting of the sound of theaccelerando from The Legend of Eer (1977), a composition that is as technological in its format as it is ancient in its subject, coupled with flashes of light and fleeting appearances on the wall of architectural drawings. 

Rejected by the pomp of opera as much as by serial music, whose compositions he judged to be too limited, an admirer from the outset of the concrete and acousmatic music of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and familiar with "the extra-European music of India, Laos, Vietnam, Java, China and Japan", Xenakis developed a singular and experimental work that escaped a narrow musicological classification by movement and whose eminently original scope was immediately recognised. The musicologist Makis Solomos reports that in May 1968, students at the Paris Conservatoire wrote on the names of their classrooms: "Xenakis, not Gounod! 

But what are Xenakis's revolutions and utopias made of? First of all, his interdisciplinary alliances. The contribution of mathematics underlies his musical compositions, just as architectural principles inspire his compositional concepts. In this respect, always with a view to visual demonstration, the exhibition places in parallel the drawing of the façade of the convent of La Tourette made in Le Corbusier 's office with the musical scores ofAchorripsis (1956), just as the walls of the Philips Pavilion with the glissandi of Metastaseis (1953). Then, continuing the reflection begun at the Philips Pavilion, he was above all one of the first to take an interest in the spatialized diffusion of sound by creating his Polytopes, which metabolize all of his sound and visual research on the active part of the décor (or space) in the creation and reception of the work. After the Polytope created for the French pavilion at the 1967 World Fair in Montreal, the first of its kind, the exhibition highlights the Diatope at Beaubourg (1978), a fully automated musical show designed especially for the inauguration of the Centre Pompidou, whose interior views show listeners lying on the floor, under flickering flashes of light, lasers and reflective mirrors, in communion with the electroacoustic music. One is transported back to the 1970s at the heart of the collective utopia and almost wishes one could have relived the experience intensely and completely in the space of this exhibition. If the Philharmonie de Paris did not consider this, perhaps the Centre Pompidou would still have time to reinstall the Diatope in the piazza on the occasion of the Xenakis year? For in the Diatope we also find texts "conveying the image of a human being doomed to struggle eternally in the abysses of a hostile and impenetrable universe " (Mihu Iliescu, Un éclaireur d'abîmes inRévolutions Xenakis), not without resonance with the violence of the armed conflicts that surround and despair us. 

Finally, and it is perhaps this aspect of the work that resonates most with contemporary creation, Xenakis, as an engineer on the lookout for, or rather in search of, the very latest technologies, anticipated the computer revolution of the 1980s by creating theUPIC (for Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu). A sound synthesis and musical composition device, "a machine in which, by combining a drawing board and an electric pencil, a computer and a loudspeaker, anyone can compose music by drawing and correcting the drawing after listening to it", the UPIC, which can be seen in the permanent collections thanks to a copy bequeathed to the Musée de la musique in 1992, can even be used by visitors. A revolutionary educational tool, it offers a method of composition "accessible to all those who do not know computers, music theory or how to play an instrument" and thus enables them to "confront their creation and their taste without delay". A true technophile of the 20th century, Xenakis declared: "In the end, all the experiences I have had in recent years lead me to the conviction that the future of music lies in the progress of modern technology. This will change both the creation and the listening of music. 

By composing a portrait of the composer that is as sensitive as it is historical, and by offering stimulating reference points, "Xenakis Revolutions" succeeds in the challenge of visually making Xenakis's work sparkle in a short space of time, but above all in making us want to dive into this catalogue of nearly 150 opuses, of which we have only a glimpse here and now, to surf on the glissandi, to lie down under the vault of a Polytope... I wonder whether the importance of the work might not have merited the Philharmonie's larger exhibition space, but I console myself with the extension of the tour in the permanent collections on the upper floors, which offers a display of kinetic artworks, and especially with the live events from 17 to 20 March. And then I start dreaming about the possibility of creating the world Polytope, a project for an intercontinental network of light and sound actions, left unfinished by Xenakis, perhaps already in the pipeline for a cooperative of institutions in Greece, Mexico and Japan on the occasion of the bicentenary in 2122... 

Tristan Bera

Photos © Iannis Xenakis family DR
Photos © Gil Lefauconnier
Photos © Sabine Weiss
Photos © Philips collection DR
Photo Xenakis © Ulf Andersen (Getty Images)


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