Xenakis Project of the Americas

IX70sJRancy

photo courtesy of J. Rancy

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The Xenakis Project of the Americas was established at the Brook Center in early 2010. XPA aims to become a resource and media center for all things Xenakis in the Americas, and to present public programs of Xenakis’s works in cooperation with recognized new music presenters, as well as the works of others inspired by him and by his unique philosophy of the arts. Those spearheading the project include Sharon Kanach, Joel Chadabe, Claire Brook, and Daniel Cooper, with the support of Françoise Xenakis.

Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001), one of this century’s greatest musical minds, was perhaps a latecomer to the avant-garde scene in the Americas, but the imprint made on him and those he  encountered had motivational as well as inspirational repercussions that are still felt today.

Xenakis’ first visit to the USA was in 1963 in response to Aaron Copeland’s invitation to teach composition at the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood). From that first engagement, many life and career changing encounters ensued and the Americas became a vital link between the composer and his audience until his last active days. Six of his compositions received their premieres in the USA : his epic Oresteia (1965-66), in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the only work of his entire opus to which Xenakis – who pleaded for ‘creative amnesia’ in order to ensure originality – returned throughout his career (adding Kassandra in 1987, and later adding La Déesse Athéna in 1987). The entire cycle received its North American première in 2008 at the Miller Theatre in NYC to unanimous critical acclaim and three sold-out performances. Evryali (1973), for solo piano, was premiered the year of its composition at Avery Fisher Hall, performed by its dedicatee, Marie-Françoise Bucquet; Gmeeoorh (1974) for organ, was first performed at Hartford University; Dmaathen (1976) – with reputedly one of the most difficult percussion parts ever written – premiered by Nora Post (oboe) and Jan Williams (perc) at Carnegie Hall in 1977. His last piano concerto, Keqrops (1986), was presented by Zubin Mehta and Roger Woodward at Lincoln Center; and finally his short duo for violin and cello, Hunem-Iduhey (1996), was premiered at Lincoln Center.

It was in Canada, at the Montreal Expo ’67, that Xenakis realized his first signature “Polytope” (Polytope de Montréal), a ground-breaking spectacle in light and sound that was performed once an hour in the French Pavilion at the World’s Fair. The overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception he received at the time led to a commission from the French Festival d’Automne to write an “opera” for its opening season in 1972. After his experience in Montreal and his subsequent contact with the then-nascent laser technology in Osaka in 1971, he proposed, instead, a Polytope de Cluny. This multi-disciplinary genre, developed over the decade 1967-78 had five such realizations, and is now heralded as the pioneering work of the current darling of the contemporary cultural world, New Media Art. Other important commissions came from our Canadian cousins as well, notably his longest work (75’), Kraanerg (1969), for the inauguration of the National Arts Center in Ottawa, with choreography by Roland Petit, and set design by Vasserely.

Other works of this period included Akrata (1964-65), commissioned by the Koussevitsky Fund, although premiered at the English Bach Festival in Oxford, England. American-based conductors such as Gunther Schuller, Lukas Foss, Juan-Pablo Izquierdo, and Seija Ozawa championed his music both at home and abroad.

Achorripsis (1956-57) for chamber orchestra of 21 musicians, Xenakis’ first work entirely composed using only stochastics (probability theory), was premiered in 1958 by Hermann Scherchen in Buenos Aires, Argentina by one of the 20th century’s greatest advocates of new music. Beginning in 1966, when Metastaseis and Pithoprakta received their Mexican premières, Xenakis became more and more intrigued by pre-Columbian civilization (“where men become gods”) and projected, as of 1978, a mega-polytope at the site of the Teotihuacán pyramids. It was never realized.

After his engagement at Tanglewood, Xenakis became a frequent visiting lecturer at many mainstream institutions, from Princeton University to Mills College; from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México to the Institut Torcuati di Tella in Argentina; at Orford and Banff, as well as the Université de Montréal, among many others. He finally accepted a full-time position at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he taught from 1967-72. During this time and after, scholarly journals such as Perspectives of New Music regularly published his theoretical articles and IU Press brought out the first edition of his seminal Formalized Music (later revised and augmented as published by Pendragon Press). His research and teaching directly influenced an entire generation of composers, from David del Tredici to Curtis Roads, and his place as a visionary of algorithmic music is now incontestable.

Since his death in 2001, several festivals honoring the memory and work of Xenakis have taken place in the Americas: from the inaugural soundaXis Festival in Toronto in 2006, to the monographic exhibition of his working papers at The Drawing Center museum in New York City (Jan- April 2010). The Drawing Center’s exhibition Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary will travel to the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal (June-Oct. 2010) and then to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art – Pacific Design Center (Nov. 2010-Feb. 2011). In January 2010, XPA co-produced with BXMC of NYU Polytechnic a three-day seminar in which thirty Pan-American scholars, performers and architects participated at NYU Polytechnic. A major new recording of his Oresteia took place in Santiago, Chile in April 2010 under the direction of Juan-Pablo Izquierdo.

It is blindingly obvious that  the seminal role of Iannis Xenakis in the evolution of the arts in the Americas is finally achieving its overdue recognition and the Xenakis Project of the Americas intends to record and promote all such developments.

Contact information:

Sharon Kanach
Brook Center
The Graduate Center, The City University of New York
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016

(212) 817-1991 (tel.)
(212) 817-1569 (fax)

skanach@gc.cuny.edu