Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary at the Drawing Center

January 15 through April 8
35 Wooster Street, between Grand and Broome,
New York City, 212-219-2166

Iannis Xenakis, Study for Metastaseis 1954. Ink on paper, 9-1/2 x 12-1/2 inches. Iannis Xenakis Archives, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
Iannis Xenakis, Study for Metastaseis 1954. Ink on paper, 9-1/2 x 12-1/2 inches. Iannis Xenakis Archives, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, consider the remarkable resemblance some musical scores bear to architectural drawings.  The quintessential example of this phenomenon is composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), whose complex ideas sprouted from a natural love of architecture and mathematics.  In a tightly constructed show now at the Drawing Center curators Sharon Kanach and Carey Lovelace have created a heady glimpse of the visual side of Xenakis, the composer who worked for Le Corbusier.

There are over 100 documents on view—including a letter from Corb informing Xenakis that his services are no longer needed—many borrowed from the composer’s papers at Bibliothèque nationale de France.  These latter show a complex mind fleshing out musical ideas in blizzards of dots, robotic rows, glyphs that waver and shimmer, and storms of tiny lines and colored boxes.  The collective brilliance of these is that they remain powerful statements on their own, even if they were to be completely disconnected from the music they ultimately represent.  Many are derived from Xenakis’s love of stochastic (i.e., chance-generated) principles, which became evident in his landmark orchestral work Pithoprakta(1956).  Other drawings are derived from computer programs, then in their infancy. James Harley observes, in notes for the JACK Quartet’s CD of the four string quartets (on Mode), that the IBM-France computer used by Xenakis in 1962, may have been the only one operating in Paris.

For one of his most renowned compositions, Metastaseis (1953-54), Xenakis used ink, pencil and colored pencil to map out hyperbolic paraboloids resembling fragments of suspension bridges, with each line representing a different instrument.  These sketches later became traditional notation, yet the flavor of the music is evident in their swooping curves.  Terretektorh, from 1966, was composed for 88 musicians “scattered among the audience,” and one striking study (ink on paper) resembles a beehive of scribbles, with every instrument and the conductor floating within.  Erikhthon (1974), one of Xenakis’s dazzling piano concertos, pits the pianist against the orchestra’s waves of rising and fallingglissandi—one of the composer’s favorite devices, in which musicians slide from one pitch to another.  His visual representation of these ideas resembles tiny, gnarled branches, or perhaps lightning spikes, etching the air.  It is not surprising that some of his scores are infrequently played, as musicians must learn an entirely new language to do so.

In the early 1960s, Xenakis contributed sketches for Francoise Choay’s Urbanism, Utopia and Reality (1964), and envisioned Cosmic City, a set of vast communities with gigantic structures resembling nuclear cooling towers, each with a capacity of 5 million people.  Not surprisingly, this project, like some others, remains unbuilt. Some of his ideas did come to fruition; a handful of photographs show Xenakis’s elaborate installations called “polytopes” (Greek for “many places”) in the 1960s and 1970s, combining architecture, light and music.  One of the studies for Polytope de Montréal, a vast installation from 1966, sprawls over one of the show’s largest pieces of paper.  The confluence of the medium (blueprint) and the size, all gently weathered by the passage of more than 40 years, gives it the aura of a map unearthed from a long-entombed civilization.

The Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair, 1958
The Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair, 1958

Some of these site-specific events, such as the glittering six-story environment in Montréal, cry out for a larger photograph, but the peephole effect is tantalizing, and makes one long to turn back the clock.  The most celebrated of his environments was the Philips Pavilion, a collaboration with Le Corbusier, designed by Xenakis for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.  The building’s soaring peaks housed an elaborate array of loudspeakers inside, playing Edgard Varèse’s Poème Electronique, commissioned for the occasion, accompanied by graphics and colored lights devised by Le Corbusier.  In addition to photographs of the exterior of the pavilion, the show includes a gem of a colored pencil sketch from 1957, disarming in its spiral notebook, in which Xenakis envisions the sound world inside the building.  It is as if Alexander Calder were having a mild hallucinatory episode.

Other artifacts include a clutch of LPs from the period, many with detailed liner notes containing illustrations and arresting graphics, and a cover of the Swiss music journalGraveseaner Blätter, to which Xenakis contributed essays.  Also included is a page from unpublished comments on Wagner’s opera, Die Meistersinger, one of many items from the collection of Françoise Xenakis, the composer’s widow.  A few well-chosen photographs round out the show, including a shot showing the composer as a Greek resistance fighter atop a truck, and from years later, a casual portrait with two special guests: Seiji Ozawa and Olivier Messiaen.