Iannis Xenakis: Metastasis

by tigermanifesto

Forgive me for taking on a rather impersonal voice these last many months. Transitional times are always hard on the more instinctual animals, and long periods of turmoil and uncertainty are bound to mute the strongest voices after awhile, especially if they’re inclined to sleep all day rather than work hard on writing projects. Nonetheless, my life has resumed a modicum of order, as I continue to stalk the same college campus, picking off hapless squirrels for fun and subsisting on beef imports from the southern states.

In any case, stability has brought a return to my curiosity for modern classical music. Marginalized by declining public patronage of the arts and the indifference of the Romantically-inclined ruling class, its experimental methods tend to be lost on people who, like me, were given a subpar arts education at the primary level. Nonetheless, I acquired a taste for serialism late in my adolescence, and have wanted to explore further into the music that developed after Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Living in an animal-friendly apartment complex means I have to keep the volume low, lest I disturb my neighbors, but a keen sense of hearing compensates rather nicely. On the other hand, my editor has had several serious outbursts  because of I play music on repeat for hours.

To our subject: Iannis Xenakis’ life sounds like that of a 20th century Renaissance figure. Accomplished architect who studied under Le Corbusier, trained mathematician, and innovative composer tutored by Olivier Messiaen, and, what’s more, a former Greek partisan who achieved all of this as an undocumented immigrant in France. His partisanship had been for the Greek communists, and in the White Terror after the war he was condemned to death for his socialist politics and forced to flee.

Listening to interviews with him can be trying since I don’t grasp some of the basic concepts in which he works––especially mathematical ones––and yet I find myself compelled by the music. The piece posted above is Metastasis, which attempts to break with traditional music using Einstein’s conception of time as a model. The piece works in density of sound developing in a more flexible time structure. What you see in the video is the piece’s progression mapped out in a preliminary sketch, composed not in notes but in an architectural diagram. Nothing is resolved in a linear way, and despite some scattered melodic fragments one can discern in the second part of the piece, it remains decidedly unconventional. On the second listen, I noticed that the dynamics of volume in the piece were especially interesting, speaking as a non-expert whose anatomy doesn’t allow for much experimentation with musical instruments. In any case, the piece defies my attempts to understand it, though I can’t help but return to it.

I’m hoping that further study will broaden my knowledge and understanding of “new” music like this. It’s a testament to the continuing hold of Romantic music on our imagination that a piece almost five decades old can still inspire bemusement. Our capitalist societies have not yet digested music like this except in the avant-garde itself, and I’m curious about the political and historical importance of music even when it’s listeners tend to be intellectuals. Call this a first step, a somewhat coherent jab at a target cloaked in shadow.