by Steve Hicken
Most of what you can read about the life and music of Iannis Xenakis (29 May 1922 – 4 Feb 2002) is centered on how the remarkable facts of his biography and his expertise in a wide variety of artistic and scientific fields shaped his music. This narrative is fascinating, compelling, and an important part of Xenakis’ place in late 20th century Modernism.
But the sound of the music—aggressive, abrasive, dense, transparent, jet-fast, and geologically slow—is what stays with me. My favorite Xenakis piece is Pithoprakta (1956; two trombones, xylophone, wood block, strings; ca. 10’). Xenakis composed Pithoprakta (“actions through probability”) using calculations based on Daniel Bernoulli’s “Law of Large Numbers” and Ludwig Boltzmann’s “Kinetic Gas Theory”, which, to make it short, deal with the behavior of large numbers of small, independent objects, like molecules in a cloud. (See David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity for a fascinating pop introduction to some of the ideas and issues surrounding large sumbers.) It is, in my view, a mistake to hear Pithoprakta and other works like it as being “about” these theories and formulas or even being “representations” of them, but rather they are embodiments of the principles involved, turned into music.
Again, it is the sound of Pithoprakta that is so remarkably expressive. Clouds of sound first appear with the string players (there are 46 individual string parts) tapping on the bodies of their instruments in irregular rhythms and with constantly shifting densities. As the piece progresses (questions of musical structure and form are raised in very radical ways by music like Xenakis’s, but I come here today to dig him, not to analyze him), the sound clouds are variously made of pizzicato (plucked) notes, glissandos (slides) both plucked and bowed, clusters of sustained notes, and short angular gestures by the individual string players.
With Xenakis, as with the other artists whose work tasks the age-old assumptions that build up around artforms, what’s needed to “get it” is an open mind and heart. Understanding is beside the point.
Here’s a two-part interview in English, with German subtitles:
And here’s Pithoprakta: