The visionary Iannis Xenakis

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) presents an exhibition exploring the fundamental role of drawing in the work of Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) in its Octagonal Gallery. This is the first North American museum exhibition devoted to Xenakis’s paper-based works. The exhibition, which opened on Jan. 14 at The Drawing Center in New York, travels to Montreal, where it will be on display from June 17 to Oct. 17, before being presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in  Los Angeles (MOCA). During itsshowing in Montreal, the exhibition serves as a touchstone for musical performances at the CCA by Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Sixtrum, and Ensemble Transmission, as well as the screening of films touching on Xenakis’s life and work in addition to public programming throughout the city.

Xenakis was one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the late-20th century. He earned international acclaim thanks to his interdisciplinary works and fascinating personal and professional life, having also worked with Le Corbusier on architectural projects. Among his many creations, Montreal audiences are likely to be most familiar with the Polytope de Montréal, the two spectacular sound and light shows Xenakis designed for the central space of the French pavilion at Expo 67.

Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary explores several of the artist’s musical and architectural innovations that first appeared on paper, in the form of hundreds of captivating graphical documents that reveal Xenakis’s profound sensitivity, unique aesthetic, and ability to translate image into sound with exceptional acuity. Influenced by new advanced mathematical concepts exploring the notions of contingency and relativism, he employed probability distributions and stochastic methods to create masses of sound, linear permutations, and sonic pointillism. In conceptualising his meticulously drawn works, he made use of coloured pencils; his training and natural talent in drawing allowed him to compose complete pieces of music through this process of “thinking through the hand.”

Featuring more than 60 seldom-seen documents, dating from 1953 to 1984, the retrospective celebrates the architect, engineer and composer by presenting handwritten and computer-generated musical scores, architectural blueprints, precomposition renderings, notebooks, and archival photographs sourced mainly from the Archives Xenakis at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, and from the personal archives of his widow, the French novelist Françoise Xenakis, who lived with Iannis for more than 50 years. The exhibition also includes conceptual drawings and renderings by Xenakis for his multimedia “Polytopes.” These site-specific installations are advanced explorations of the spatial intersections between light, colour, sound, and architecture. Individualised encounters with Xenakis’s unique musical scores will be made possible through listening stations and portable iPods. The complex graphic sketches for Pithoprakta (1955-1956) will be projected during the playback of the delicately yet primitively textured music. The exhibition will also feature a listening station for Mycenae Alpha, with a projection of the graphic score Xenakis created using the composer’s UPIC interface (Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu). The machine symbolizes the composer’s lifelong fascination with innovation and his ongoing speculation on the transformations brought to late-20th-century life by technological advances.

Sharon Kanach and Carey Lovelace are the curators of Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary. A Paris-based new-music specialist, Kanach worked closely with Xenakis for some 20 years until the end of his life. She has edited and translated several books of his writings. Lovelace is a New York-based critic and co-president emeritus of the U.S. Chapter of the International Association of Art Critics and has written for Art in America, Artforum, and other publications. Lovelace, formerly an avant-garde composer, and Kanach both attended Xenakis’s legendary course at the Université de Paris I, which he led from 1972 through 1989.

A contemporary of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and John Cage, Iannis Xenakis (b.1922, Romania; d. 2001, France) was profoundly affected in his youth by the terror of war, when he served with the Greek Communist Resistance in Athens in 1944. Forever scarred by serious wounds to his face and having lived mainly in exile for life, his work derives its power from the artist’s ability to transpose his experience into a body of work whose intensity is seldom encountered in the history of music. An engineering graduate from the Athens Polytechnic University, he also studied composition at Gravesano under Hermann Scherchen, and at the Conservatoire de Paris with Olivier Messiaen. He worked with Le Corbusier between 1947 and 1959 as an engineer and architect, contributing to projects such as the La Tourette convent (1954-59) and the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair (1958). In 1962, he published Musiques formelles. His sonic, luminous, and sculpture-like architectural pieces include, in addition to the Montréal Polytope de Montréal, the Polytope de Persepolis, in Iran (1971); the Polytope de Cluny, in Paris (1972); the Polytope de Mycènes, in Greece (1978); and the Diatope, created for the inauguration of the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris (1978). Xenakis was the founder (1965) and director of the Centre d’Études de Mathématiques et Automatique Musicales (CEMAMu), in Paris; an Associate Music Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington (1967-1972), where he founded the Center for Mathematical and Automated Music (CMAM) (1967-1972); a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris (1970); Gresham Professor of Music, City University London (1975); and a professor at Université Sorbonne – Paris I (1972-1989). He was awarded the Kyoto Prize (1997) and the Polar Prize (1999).