Dienstag, 25. Januar 2011

Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) Pacific Design Center



According to the Oxford dictionary "A genius is a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect." Viewing the compelling compositional, mathematical and architectural sketches of the Greek composer, Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) at MOCA Pacific Design Center, we are not solely exposed to beautiful artifacts, but excerpts from the creative processes of a genius mind.

However, some might ponder why the works of a composer would be exhibited in museums such as the Drawing Center in New York, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal and now at MOCA Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles rather than in symphony halls? Or why, instead of looking at sketches, there wouldn't be more outdoor performances such as last year's performance of "Persepolis" in the Los Angeles State Historical Park?

For one thing there has always been a strong link between the visual arts and music. Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky, who was himself an accomplished musician, used color in a highly theoretical way associating tone with timbre, hue with pitch and saturation with the volume of sound. The German writer, Wolfgang von Goethe, once described architecture as frozen music. And Xenakis who used the aural curved surfaces of his first major composition "Metastaseis" as an inspiration for the curved walls of the Philips Pavilion, could have not embodied Goethe's metaphor more literally.

Furthermore, music notation has mostly been hand-rendered, like calligraphy. In Western tradition, there are the five lines of the staff, which look like a grid, with dots representing pitches (high and low) and other configurations symbolizing durations. This per se can be visually beautiful. However, what makes Xenakis' sketches unique is that he was not drawing sound in the common manner, but was working through strategies to apply physics and mathematics as a way to organize sound, using set theory, group and game theory, probability theory, in particular stochastic processes, which he then graphically plotted out. His multi-media works presented on paper often contain tiny handwritten notes in various languages - Greek, French and English - and different ink-colors.

The exhibit at MOCA Pacific Design Center, curated by Sharon Kanach and Carey Lovelace, is compromised of two parts. On the ground floor, the exhibit's narrative begins with the early years of Xenakis, including a family photograph of him with his two brothers and uncle in 1933, Xenakis as a Greek resistance fighter in 1944, a picture of Xenakis at Le Corbusier's studio in Paris, photographs and studies of the Philips Pavilion and the Dominican Monastery of Sainte Marie de la Tourette, a typewritten letter by Le Corbusier to Xenakis stating that Xenakis's services were no longer needed, after the two had a dispute when Le Corbusier neglected to mention Xenakis' assistance in the Philips Pavilion. There are also studies for his first compositions "Metastaseis" and "Pithoprakta".

On the second level the exhibit continues with the hand-drawn double-vector matrix for "Achorripsis", which Xenakis used to illustrate a lecture in 1964 as a Ford Fellow in Berlin. It also features studies for "Terretektorh", "Erikhthon" and "Cendrées", including pages of orchestral scores, a DVD of drawings and calculations for "Pithoprakta" with a musical performance by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg conducted by Arturo Tamayo. On top there is a virtual presentation of "Poème Électronique", provided by the Virtual Reality & Multi-Media Park in Torino, Italy. One can also see a film with Xenakis working on "Polytope de Cluny" and a video from the collection of the Herb Alpert School of music showing a lecture about music with Xenakis at Mills College. Furthermore, there are studies and photographs of "Polytope de Mycènes", "Polytope de Cluny", "Polytope de Persepolis," and "Polytope de Montréal", as well as various programs for the different events. The exhibit concludes with some of Xenakis unrealized projects, such as his studies for "Cosmic city", "the Reynolds House" and "Cité de la Musique."

Along with the exhibit comes a catalogue (written by Ivan Hewett, Carey Lovelace, Sharon Kanach) with a moving memoir by Mâkhi Xenakis, describing the days with her father in Corsica. Therefore, the exhibit does not only portray Xenakis as the remarkable artist, but also the remarkable human being, who fought against the Nazis and the British and survived many hardships, including the death of his mother at age five, imprisonment, severe physical injury, a life in exile and rejection by the Parisian musical elite - Nadia Boulanger, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger. Yet, he never stopped immersing himself into interdisciplinary studies, from Plato to archaeology, to find his own answers. The exhibit and catalogue also focus on the two people who tremendously impacted Xenakis' career - Swiss architect Le Corbusier and French composer Oliver Messiaen, who told him "You are almost thirty. You have the fortune of being Greek, an architect, and of having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of those things. Do them in your music."

In that sense the exhibit succeeds in getting to the essence of the person Iannis Xenakis, someone who was a lateral thinker, someone who was always "thinking outside the box."

Copyright ©Simone Kussatz
Photos: Courtesy of MOCA Pacific Design Center
Published in Whitehotmagazine January 2011

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