Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) – composer, architect, boffin. Fearsomely experimental, he linked his disciplines by writing and designing co-dependent music and listening spaces. He arguably laid the foundations for modern electronica. And he was one of the first composers to use mathematical theory in creating music.
Why does Xenakis belong in a pianist’s alphabet? Because his first longer-form work for the instrument has been called ‘the most difficult piano piece ever written’. Clearly seeing this as underperformance of some sort, 12 years later he produced a second piece for solo piano that is, strictly speaking, ‘impossible’. What’s not to like?
In both pieces, Xenakis uses certain mathematical techniques or theories to shape and generate the music. When I heard about this kind of composition in my teenage years, I was suspicious in my ignorance. 1: If it was all down to maths, was it really composition at all, or just some kind of automated exercise? And contrarily, 2: Surely all music – including the really tuneful, harmonious stuff – has mathematical perfection at its root… so why does THIS have to sound so deranged?
I recently decided to go back to Xenakis’s piano music, purely as a listener. I wanted to satisfy myself that without considering ANY of the scientific background – deploying my ear over my brain – it still worked for me, had something non-clinical to offer.
Here is the earlier piece, ‘Herma’:
and the later one, ‘Evryali’:
I was genuinely surprised by some of my reactions.
* I found both pieces enjoyable and invigorating – but I wasn’t expecting to hear such a world of difference between the two. I think in ‘Herma’ you hear the maths, and in ‘Evryali’ you hear the music.
* The unpredictable dance to the extremes of the keyboard in ‘Herma’ make it feel like performance art – raindrops one minute, rubble the next. As a result, the piece attains a kind of spiky ambience.
* In ‘Evryali’, however, I think the sweeping curves in the structure are audible, the notes – however dissonant – seem to belong together, journey with each other. The images it conjures up in my head are geometric, symmetrical – spirals, waves.
There’s a twist in the tale, however. ‘Evryali’ is ‘impossible’ partly because in places it’s written using more than two staves (as you can see on the YouTube video). The pianist must create their own version based on which notes they want to cover and which they can live with leaving out.
Of all things, this reminds me of jazz. Jazz has very little to do with mayhem; rather it is (as the critic Whitney Balliett put it) ‘the sound of surprise’ – the unexpected choices players make within the established parameters. With ‘Evryali’, we seem to have a truly original hybrid: a composed framework through which the pianist can follow their own unique path. I love the idea that from mathematical principles, Xenakis has created a piece dependent, like so much other music, on flexibility, spontaneity and feel.
Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at http://www.adrianspecs.blogspot.co.uk
(letter picture Dan Tobin Smith)