Iannis Xenakis: the Engineer and Composer who Pioneered Electric Music

Iannis Xenakis was a brilliant musical composer who used his mathematical skill to pioneer electronic music.

You might not know Iannis Xenakis, but if you've ever listened to elecronic music, then he's probably had an effect on your life.

Xenakis first started his career as an architectural draftsman before he pursued his true passion of becoming a composer. Xenakis was the first person in the world to develop stochastic music theory where he would base his compositions on mathematical sequences. 

It was through his combination of mathematics with music that he achieved musical acclaim across the world. 

Escaping Death Twice

Xenakis was born in the spring of 1922 in Romania. Where he grew up in Braila, Romania, there was a large Greek community and Xenakis was born into money.

His family was heavily involved in the merchant trade in the area, but this privilege didn't spare Xenakis from trial. At the age of five, Iannis lost his mother and was sent off to boarding school in Greece at the age of 10. After completing his primary education he went on to study to become an engineer, but history got in the way of him working in that field.

Greece was invaded by Italy in 1940 and thanks to the subsequent German occupation, Xenakis was forced to join the Greek Resistance to fight back. 

This eventual great composer actually almost died in the war though as in the final year of WWII, he suffered an injury that nearly killed him and made him blind in one eye. Having survived that, it was only 4 years later that Xenakis was caught up in the Greek Civil War and sentenced to death by the government. In 1947, right after he received a death sentence, he fled to Paris to escape.

After reaching Paris in the escape of his death sentence, he started to study musical composition.

The Pursuit of Music Through Math

Being that Xenakis was now in Paris, he met some of the world's most famous composers of the day such as Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. These two famous composers encouraged Xenakis to pursue his own musical style through the means of mathematics and in 1954, he debuted his first composition, Metastasis for Orchestra.

Iannis Xenakis: the Engineer and Composer who Pioneered Electric Music
Xenakis notes on Metastasis Source: Flickr/Cea+

This first composition was unique because it was a musical rendition of the mathematical concept of probability. It was the first time that practical mathematics had been turned into practical artistry. 

These "stochastic principles" that Xenakis created took musical units and structured them into larger mathematical sequences. In fact, Xenakis went on to write a book about it called Formalized Music: Through and Mathematics in Composition. 

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Xenakis really stood out during his time as it was a period when composers were used to breaking down compositions artistically, not mathematically.

Ironically, while Xenakis was making waves in the musical composition world, that aspect of him is not what made him famous. He gained international acclaim through his work as an engineer working for the architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret. 

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Xenakis as an Engineer

Working as Jeanneret's, known as Le Corbusier, assistant, Xenakis was able to help influence modern architecture in the reconstruction of Europe post war.

One of his most famous works was the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 World's Fair. He designed the structure as a parabolic set which was perfect for musical performance. Inside of the Pavillian during the fair, Xenakis' Concerto PH was played. In totality, this pavillion served as a great representation of the impressive polymath that Xenakis was.

Iannis Xenakis: the Engineer and Composer who Pioneered Electric Music
Phillips Pavillion Source:  Wouter Hagens

His Work in Electronic Music

By early 1960, fans were calling on Xenakis to abandon his profession as an engineer and start composing full time. He eventually took the cue but turned to a new medium – electronic music. 

He worked with computer programs that generated mathematical pieces to compose his work specifically for playing on electronic instruments. 

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Xenakis even went on to found an institute in Paris for researching mathematics and music.

Another thing you might not know about Xenakis? He is actually the creator of the graphic computer interface (UPIC). His interface let users draw shapes that would be interpreted into music by the computer. It was revolutionary at the time and graphic interfaces are now prominent in computing today.

Later Years

In Xenakis' later years of his career, he had shifted focus away from composition research and more into practical efforts. 

He would go on to found the Center for the Composition of Music Iannis Xenakis near Paris. During the 1980s and 1990s, Xenakis' compositions saw a resurgence in popularity with the composer even winning a variety of prizes in the late 1990s at music competitions. 

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By the early 2000s, Xenakis' health was failing and on February 4, 2001, the engineer and composer passed away. 

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