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Xenakis, Iannis (29th May 1922-4th February 2001)

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 of Greece.

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 1944.

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 scarred.

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 triptych.

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 composition teacher.

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.