Composer  Iannis  Xenakis
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Make the most of your opportunities.  That admonition is likely given to everyone on this planet at least once.  My interview guests are among those who have taken that idea to heart and succeeded.  Most of them have given their creations to the world and have helped push the civilization forward. 

Iannis Xenakis, the person with whom I had this conversation, certainly fulfilled his destiny, and the contribution he left to society is even greater when we realize that he was nearly lost to us before he even had a chance.  Many of the remarkable details are contained in the two biographies at the end of this interview. 

What transpires here is the meeting we had in late March of 1997,
a couple of months before his seventy-fifth birthday.  He allowed me to telephone him at his home in France, and we chatted for about a half hour.

He wanted to be very sure I comprehended what he was driving at, and several times he asked me directly if I understood.  In most instances, I did.  My aim here, of course, is to allow him to present his thoughts as clearly as possible.  His English was quite
good, and even when words or structure were a bit convoluted, the chat moved along freely.  I have made a few corrections, but in some instances I have left intact his charming and quaint way of articulating a phrase. 

Bruce Duffie:    How do you divide your time between composing and those other activities of your life such as mathematics and architecture?

Iannis Xenakis:    I do not know.  I cannot tell you.

BD:    You are also a teacher?

IX:    Yes, I was at the University of Indiana in Bloomington teaching for five years.  That was twenty years ago.  Then I came back to Paris and here I am writing music.

BD:    You are only writing music now?

IX:    For the moment yes.

BD:    Now that you have all of your time to yourself, is that enough time to compose?

IX:    I try to compose but it is not very productive because it takes time.  I do not want to copy myself so I have to find different things each time that I have to write a piece.  I have commissions from England, Germany and France.

xenakisBD:    When you are offered a commission how do you decide to accept or reject it?

IX:    If I have time to do it, I accept; if I do not have time I say, “Not now, try again.”

BD:    Do you know when you begin writing a piece how long it will take to complete the compositional process?

IX:    I have no idea because it takes time to think and to write down the things.  It is for orchestras, usually, but I have also done pieces for tape in my studio near Paris.

BD:    A taped piece of course is always going to be the same ‘performance,’ but a live piece is going to have little differences each time.

IX:    That is right.  This is why perhaps I prefer writing pieces for an orchestra.

BD:    When you write the piece for the orchestra, how much extra do you expect from the conductor and from the players?

IX:    Maximum!  I write pieces which are difficult for the musicians to perform sometimes; also for the conductor, but who cares.

BD:    Well, who does care?

IX:    I have to write the piece as I conceive it, but with some limits of course.

BD:    When you come up with a musical idea, have you created the idea or have you discovered the idea?

IX:    I have to discover each time what will be next, and then I try to write it down, sometimes by pitches on a millimeter, how do you call that?  I do not know how it is called in English, I forget.

BD:    [Note:  He continued along the same vein in hopes that I would comprehend his idea, but it was not until after our conversation was finished that I realized Xenakis was speaking about microtones.  Had I know this at the time, I would have followed up with a few questions about this topic.]  I  am sorry, I am missing this point.  Let us move on to other ideas.  As you are composing and you are working with the music on the paper, how do you know when you have finished the piece?

IX:    When I have decided.  Sometimes there are unfinished pieces, but I go on to the next composition.

BD:    Does it sometimes surprise you to discover the piece is finished?

IX:    I decide it; I make a last point.

BD:    As you are writing, there must be some ideas that you think do not fit into this piece.  Do you save them for other pieces?

IX:    I do not know.  Perhaps some ideas.  Yes, could be.

BD:    My question is, are you always in control?

IX:    No, I am not in control.  I am controlling the work that I am doing on a piece, and from that I can have some ideas for the next piece or another piece.  You see what I mean?

BD:    Sure.  Are all of your pieces, then, different aspects of you?

IX:    I think so.  There are different aspects of my ideas, my constitution or whatever.  You have to put yourself inside a piece, so that is the problem.  If you are copying from other pieces, other music or from other composers, then you are lost.  You can do that of course.  There are many composers who do that, but I cannot.  I cannot support that idea.  I have to be different.  It has to be different of myself, also.

BD:    Each piece has to be different from the other pieces?

IX:    That is right, yes.

BD:    Does each piece have to be different from anything else that has ever been written in the world?

IX:    That is right, yes.  It has to be.  It is very difficult, but I try to do that.  Otherwise, why should I write?

BD:    Is there a common thread that links your music to the other music that is been written today and the other music that has been written over the centuries?

IX:    No, I do not think so
except for the instrumentation.  If I write for the orchestra, then you have the same instruments that were valid a century ago.  But the way that they are played and what they play should be different.  Otherwise it is no use, for then I am copying other people.  I do not wish that.

BD:    I understand that you do not want to copy people, but you are part of a lineage?  Is there something that can connect you, or are you creating something brand new out of stone?

IX:    I have to create something brand new, yes.  That is very difficult, but I try.

BD:    It seems that you have succeeded very well over the years.

IX:    Oh, you are very kind, thank you.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have heard many performances of your works.  Are you basically pleased with what you have heard?

IX:    Not always, but it depends.  Sometimes the conductors and the orchestra discover things in what I have written
— more than just the pitchesbut sometimes they do not do that.  They are prone to, how do you call that, inertia.

xenakisBD:    Oh I see, they go along but they are not seeing what they are playing.

IX:    That is right, yes.

BD:    Are there times when they put maybe too much into it?

IX:    Sometimes.  And sometimes I like that and sometimes they are out of the music.

BD:    Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

IX:    No, but it approaches to sometimes.  It approaches to a good performance and I like it.  That is the main problem; if I like it, it is OK, otherwise it is not.  But if I like it, that does not mean that it is perfect.  That depends on many things
the acoustics, the hall, the public also.

BD:    Do you feel that the public appreciates and understands your music better and better as we go along?

IX:    Yes, especially the younger people.  The old people maybe do not understand because they are old.

BD:    Do you try to catch the old people anyway, or do you just ignore them and write for the young?

IX:    No, I do not care.  I write whatever I want to, but I notice that the young people are much more close to my music than are older people.

BD:    The big question then is why do you write music?

IX:    I do not know.  That comes from inside.  I have no idea.  There are many years that I am writing music and I do not know why.  I started writing music very late.  I
was over twenty already, and it was a good motivation to exist.  I was trying to do something different also.  Otherwise, you do not exist.

BD:    You have to do something different or you do not exist?

IX:    That is right.

BD:    Was this the same when you were designing buildings?

IX:    Yes.  When I was with Le Corbusier I designed buildings that were not too complicated, but he accepted them.  For instance, the Monastery of La Tourette.  I did all the plans including windows with vertical separations.  But he accepted my ideas.

BD:    It was his building but you did part of the work?

IX:    Oh yes.

BD:    Is that in any way the same as taking a piece for piano and someone else orchestrating it?

IX:    It is not the same thing because orchestration has to follow the thing that you have done for smaller instruments, for the ensemble.  But then you have to be very faithful with the instruments that you have chosen; they have to be by themselves to express what your ideas are.

BD:    So each individual instrument must be by itself in your composition; do they not all have to come together to perform the composition?

IX:    Oh yes.  The instrumentation is a part of what you conceive, and therefore each instrument has to be agreeable with what you conceive; otherwise you lose the struggle.

xenakisBD:    Music is always a struggle?

IX:    It is always a struggle.  For me it is, yes.

BD:    Do you usually win?

IX:    I do not know.  I try.

BD:    Let me ask you another big question
what is the purpose of music?

IX:    I do not know.  I think that the music that I write is not important for most of the people.  It is like an island.  Sometimes very few people like it and other people no, but it takes time.  So maybe after my death they will be more interested in what I have done during my life.  But that is not a problem because I cannot do anything else.  I am writing music.  I do not care what and when it will be accepted by the public.  The important thing is that I have commissions, so I try to fulfill them and try to do something different from what I have done in the past.

BD:    Obviously then, if people continue to commission you they are appreciating at least some of what you have done.

IX:    Yes, I think so.  The people that are appreciating it are much more in Germany and England than in France for instance.

BD:    Do you have any idea why, or is that just the way it is?

IX:    I do not know.  There are more people that are interested in new things and difficult things in Germany and England.

BD:    Is that because they have the tradition?

IX:   Yes, there is a tradition of discovering new things and promoting new things in Germany and also in England.

BD:    Do you have any advice for audiences who will come to hear your pieces?

IX:    No.  Do you also mean advice from people?

BD:    Yes.

IX:    No.  They cannot advise me; I am master in what I am doing.  I propose things, and if they like it OK; if not all the worse.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have done quite a bit of teaching.  What advice do you have for younger composers coming along?

xenakisIX:    To be independent.  I have taught in Bloomington, at Indiana University.  I taught music composition for the students, and I do not know what the result is because I left and came back to Paris.

BD:    While you were there were you pleased with what you saw coming off the pages of the students?

IX:    Well, no.  Not so much.  I was teaching and I did not care about what the students were doing.  Of course I could tell them that is not important or that is more interesting and so on, but I did not want to put myself in between what they are doing and what the result was.

BD:    So you were guiding rather than leading?

IX:    Yes, that is right.

BD:    You are about to be seventy-five…

IX:    [Interjecting]  I am sorry, yes.

BD:    Well, I am not!  It means you have had a long and distinguished career!  Are you pleased with what you have accomplished so far?

IX:    No!  I am never pleased.  But when the people tell me that they are very interested, that makes me feel that I have done something.  But that is not important.  The thing that is important is that I have to write.  If I do not have to write
that is, if I am not pressed by the commissions to write, then I am finished.  You could say that my career is terminated.

BD:    So if you had no commissions you would not continue writing?

IX:    I do not know; I have no idea.

BD:    Are there some pieces that you write without a commission?  Are there things that you just have to get out of your system?

IX:    I have noticed that I have to invent each time something different.  So if I do not have any commission to write a piece, I can continue by what I am disposed to think of a new piece without it being performed.  I have to write it.

BD:    You have to write it?

IX:    Yes.

BD:    By getting it out of your system, getting it out of your soul, out of your mind, and getting it out of your imagination
it is something that you just simply have to do?

IX:    Yes.  I feel it like this.  I do it like this.  In the near future, maybe, I will not have to.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In your music there is an artistic achievement.  Is there also entertainment value?

IX:    Ah, entertainment.  No, I do not care for entertainment.  I have to write the ideas that I get, and so the ideas are above the entertainment.  If the people understand that as entertainment, all the best for them.  I do not care.

BD:    But you do care about the performance?

IX:    Ah, the performance yes.  It has to be a good performance.  I write in order to have a good performance, and I mean good for myself but also for the public, the conductor, the musicians performing.

BD:    So you write for the musicians rather than for the public?

IX:    No, I write, yes that it should not be too difficult because otherwise it will be, but I write difficult pieces.  So the musicians are satisfied when they conquer and when they are winning the difficulties.  That is another point of writing music.  If you are slack or too easy for them, they do not care.

BD:    But that is not why you write it difficult, is it?

IX:    Both.  It is for them and also for me.

BD:    You have been involved in mathematics, correct?

IX:    I did attend a polytechnics school.  I enjoy making calculations and things like that.  I was also an engineer and an architect, so that was part of my training and also part of my discoveries.  But also music, so I have three things that were going together.

xenakisBD:    Why does there always seem to be a connection between mathematics and music?

IX:    Oh because music is based
the acoustics for instanceon something that is mathematical.

BD:     You have written pieces which use electronics.

IX:    Yes.  They were played, but not so often because the people do not like tape music as you call them.

BD:    Why not?

IX:    I do not know.  It is a matter of training.

BD:    Have you written some works for the voice?

IX:    Yes I have, especially for the voice with ancient tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, singing with new ways, of course.  I was not trying to imitate tradition at all.  A little bit, yes.  It was something that I was feeling and I did that.

BD:    Did it meet your expectations?

IX:    Yes.

BD:    Good.  Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

IX:    I do not know.  I think it is now a period which is very low for real music.  You have all sorts of people composing insignificantly.  The orchestras do not care; they prefer playing the music of the past because they have other singers in their souls and it is easier for them to do that.  When you ask something new
— a different thing — of  an instrumentalist, they do not do it.

BD:    But you are trying to get them to do new things.

IX:    I try to do whatever I like, and I think that this is the project of a composer
certainly of a worthwhile composer.  But it does not mean that people should like that.  They do not care most of the time.  When I was in New York last time, there were people who were happy with what they heard in New York especially, and that pleased me because it was a different music that they have a habit to listen to.  And they were with me, I mean with the music.

BD:    Being with the music is being with you, is it not?

IX:    It is up to a point, yes, because they hear, but I do not know.

BD:    You used a word I want to ask about.  Is your music worthwhile?

IX:    Worthwhile, I do not know.  That I will tell you in fifty years.

BD:    Are you pleased that works that you wrote almost fifty years ago are all still being played?

IX:    I do not listen to them because I do not want to be influenced by them.  I have to write something different, absolutely new.

BD:    But some people do perform your older works.

IX:    Yes, I do not care.  Sometimes I hear them say, “He is intelligent; he did that correctly or not correctly at all.”  It is difficult because then I cannot trust myself.  You see?  Because time is passing by and your ideas at the given time are different from the ideas that you have later on.

BD:    Should your music change, or should it be the same year after year?

IX:    It has to change because I try to make things different each time.

BD:    I do not mean the new pieces, but a piece which you have already written.  Should that piece change and evolve?

IX:    It depends on the skill of the musicians, but I cannot control that.

BD:    Would you want to control it?

IX:    No, it is a surprise.

BD:    You like the surprises then?

IX:    Sometimes, yes, when they are good.

BD:    One last question.  Is composing fun?

IX:    No.  It is very painful.  I am trying hard to do something different and new, so it is like running 100 meters and being at the same time very fast.  You have to try without any conquest, without trying to be the maximal of yourself when you are doing something.

BD:    I want to thank you for all of the music you have given us so far, and we look forward to all the new pieces still to come.

IX:    You are very kind.  Thank you very much.

xenakisComposer, architect, civil engineer; Iannis Xenakis was born 29 May 1922, in Braïla (Romania). Son of Clearchos Xenakis and Fotini Pavlou; married Françoise Gargouil 1953; one daughter, Mâkhi. Fought in Greek Resistance, World War II, was condemned to death; became a political refugee in France from 1947, and a French national in 1965. Education: Athens Polytechnic Institute, music composition studies at Gravesano with Hermann Scherchen, and at the Paris Conservatoire under Olivier Messiaen. Collaborated as engineer and architect with Le Corbusier 1947-60. Innovator of mass concept of music, stochastic and symbolic music through introduction of probability calculus and set theory into instrumental, electro-acoustic and computerized musical composition; inventor of several compositional techniques constituting the "lingua franca" of the avant-garde. Architect of the Philips Pavilion, Brussels World Fair 1958 and of other architectural projects such as the Couvent de la Tourette (1955).

Sonic, sculptural and light compositions: Polytope for the French Pavilion, Expo 1967, Montreal; music and light spectacle Persepolis set among the ruins and the mountains at Persepolis, Iran (1971); Polytope de Cluny, Paris (1972); Polytope de Mycènes, set in the ruins of Mycenae, Greece (1978); Diatope for the Inauguration of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1978).

Founder (1965) and Director (1965-) of the Center for Studies of Mathematical and Automated Music (CEMAMu), Paris; Associate Music Professor, Indiana University, Bloomington (1967-1972) and founder of the Center for Mathematical and Automated Music (CMAM), Indiana University, Bloomington (1967-1972); research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris (1970); Gresham Professor of Music, City University London (1975); Professor at the University of Paris I-Sorbonne (1972-1989).

Xenakis died 4 February 2001 in Paris.

Iannis Xenakis is one of the leaders of modernism in music, a hugely influential composer, particularly in the later 1950s and 1960s, when he was experimenting with compositional techniques that soon entered the basic vocabulary of the twentieth-century avant garde.

xenakisXenakis was born, not in Greece, but in Braïla, Romania, of Greek parents, on 29 May 1922. His initial training, in Athens, was as a civil engineer. In 1947, after three years spent fighting in the Greek resistance against the Nazi occupation, during which time he was very badly injured (losing the sight of an eye), he escaped a death sentence and fled to France, where he settled and subsequently became an important element of cultural life.

Xenakis was first active as an architect, collaborating with Le Corbusier on a number of projects, not least the Philips Pavilion, designed by Xenakis, at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. It was in the 1950s, too, that Xenakis’ compositions began to be published. In 1952 he attended composition classes with Olivier Messaien, who suggested that Xenakis apply his scientific training to music.

The resulting style, based on procedures derived from mathematics, architectural principles and game theory, catapulted Xenakis to the front ranks of the avant garde – although there was never any suggestion that he was a member of a clique or group: he was always his own man. He never, for example, embraced total serialism, and he also avoided more traditional devices of harmony and counterpoint; instead, he developed other ways of organising the dense masses of sound that are characteristic of his first compositions. These stochastic, or random, procedures were based on mathematical principles and were later entrusted to computers for their realisation.

But for all the formal control in their composition, Xenakis’ scores retain an elemental energy, a life-force that gives the music an impact of visceral effectiveness: works like Bohor for electronics (1962), Eonta for piano and brass quintet (1963-64), Persephassa for six percussionists, placed around the audience (1969), and the ballet Kraanerg, for 23 instrumentalists and tape (1969) all exhibit a primitive power that belies the complexity of their origins. The Sydney Morning Herald said of Kraanerg, for example, that it "remains staggeringly powerful and clamorous, an essay in constantly renewed energy that shows not the least sign of faltering". Married with this primordial power is the composer's fascination with ritualism, most often that of ancient Greece, finding fullest theatrical form in his setting of the Oresteia (1966).

Iannis Xenakis is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

This biography can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with the following credit: Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes.


© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on March 25, 1997.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB two months later.  An exact transcription was made and published in the Sping 2008 issue of SONUS.  It has been slightly edited for presentation here on this website late in 2009.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.