He was a composer, music theorist and architect born
in Braili, Romania, to a family where his father was a Greek businessman.
He became introduced to music from a very young age
because both of his parents had an interest in the subject and his mother
gave him a flute. This changed
somewhat after the death of his mother when he was five and being given his
education through a string of governesses.
Once 1932 came along the governesses were no longer
required and he was sent to Spetsai in Greece where he entered boarding
school. While here he was
there he gained a lot of musical experience by performing as a member of
the school choir, memorising Mozart’s Requiem and studying solfege and
notation and gaining a great interest in the sacred and traditional music
He graduated in 1938 and travelled to the Greek
capital to prepare to enter the National Technical University of Athens
where he studied architecture and engineering along with counterpoint and
harmony. Although he managed
to pass the initial entry exams, he could go no further than the first day
of classes due to the place being closed due to the Greco-Italian War. It would open sporadically during
the next few years. After the Battle
of Greece in 1941 the country found themselves under Axis occupation until
During these war years he was an active member of the
communist National Liberation Front culminating in him becoming involved in
the armed resistance. Once the
Axis forces had left in 1944 and Britain had tried to assist in the restoration
of the monarchy with opposition of the Greek Democratic Army, the country
found itself dealing with martial law and civil war. Xenakis fought against the British and
after taking part in a street fight in 1945 he was hit in the face by shrapnel
from a tank shell. Against all
the odds he survived although losing his left eye and remaining badly
Somehow he still managed to gain a civil engineering
degree in 1946 but then had to enter the armed forces on conscription. The following year he became a
deserter when the Greek government began a hunt for the previous members of
the resistance. Aided by
his father along with several other people managed to make it to Italy
before finally getting to Paris in November 1947. Although now an illegal immigrant in France, he was
aware he would not be able to return to Greece because he had been given a
death sentence in his absence.
However 4 years later in 1951 his sentence was reduced to a 10-year
prison sentence and much later in 1974 it was finally overturned.
He managed to secure a job in Paris as an engineering
assistant at the architectural studio of Le Corbusier and after climbing up
the ranks became involved in several important projects including being the
designer of the Philips Pavilion for Expo 58.
He approached several music teachers but was dismissed
many times. These included
Nadia Boulanger, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger, who had made scathing
remarks about one of his pieces as “not music”. Eventually a
friend recommended Olivier Messiaen.
This time proved to be successful when his abilities were recognised
straight away and he studied with Messiaen from 1951 to 1953. He wrote several works for piano
and voice and some of his compositions reflected his influences of Greek
folk music, such as the 1953/4 triptych Anastenaria based on a
Dinysian ritual. Others reflected
his architectural and engineering background with a case in point being his
1953/4 Metastasets B which had actually been the last part of the
He married in 1953 and a year later became a member of
Group de Recherches de Musique Concrete. A little while later he became acquainted with the conductor
Hermann Scherchen who championed his works and premiered several of them
that included Achorripsis and Pithoprakta. The latter was later performed in
San Francisco under the leadership of Aaron Copland.
Becoming recognised over time he was given the
European Cultural Foundation composition award in 1957 and gained his first
commission the following year from the Radio France’s Service de Reserche. Also in 1958 he released his Concret
PH and in 1960 was commissioned to write the soundtrack for a
documentary by UNESCO.
He began to be able to support himself financially as
a composer and teacher so left his position with Le Corbusier in 1959. He began writing articles in the
early 1960s and one that was widely noted was his 1963 Musique formelles. He was involved in a festival in Tokyo
Japan in April 1961 where he met up with several other European and
Japanese composers and musicians.
Yuji Takahashi remained a performer of his works and performed the
Japanese premiere of Herma in Tokyo.
His status as a major European composer was becoming
evident and in 1966 he established the Equipe de Mathematique et
Automatique Musicales which later changed its name to the Centre d’Etudes
de Mathematique et Automatique and was recognised for his research into
compositions using computer assistance.
He went to the United States in 1967 to teach at
Indiana University and during his years there his writings on various
aspects of theory and programming in music were revised and published in
1971 as Formalized Music: Thought and Mathemetics in Composition. He stayed there for 5 years before becoming
a visiting professor at the Sorbonne in 1973. He taught there for the next 16 years. During his association with the
Sorbonne he was also a professor at London’s Gresham College and a
Recognised for his contribution to music he was made
an Honorary Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and
Letters in 1975. The next year the French Ministry of Culture awarded him
the National Grand Prize for Music and in 1979 he was presented with the
Beethoven Prize by the City of Bonn.
Three years later in 1982 he was made a Knight in the French Legion
of Honor and three years later was named Officer in the French National
Order of Merit. 1989 saw more
awards when he was made a foreign member of the Swedish Music Academy and given
an honorary doctorate by Edinburgh University.
In 1997 he finished his final work, O-mega for
chamber orchestra and solo percussion, but had to stop working after that
due to ill health. He battled
with the illness for a few years before falling into a coma in 2001. He passed away in February 2001
when he was 78 years old.
He left behind him the legacy of being a pioneer of electronic
and computer music and applying mathematical, statistical and physical aspects
to music and its theory. He
was also an influence to contemporary composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki.