Last Friday, my friend Etha and I went to a MOCA exhibition called Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary. Etha and I hadn’t seen each other since high school, or 7.5 years ago, and would not have reunited so soon had it not been for our common interest in the composer.
Xenakis was a 20th century composer whose original profession was architecture. He is known for constructing his pieces from mathematical calculations, like the sweeping glissandi mimicking paraboloids in Metastaseis (my personal favorite, pictured below). He also plays around with “stochastic,” or probability-based, music, as well as many other ideas derived from math and sciences. His calculations are then notated into a score for the orchestra to perform.
The exhibit was excellent, because we could look at his preliminary sketches for some of his most notable pieces while listening to them on the iPods that they lent us. We both noted his fascination with graph paper and colored pencils, as he used them liberally in the calculations and illustrations of his ideas. We left the exhibit in renewed awe for Xenakis, and the real world seemed duller in comparison when we stepped out of the gallery.
The exhibit inspired me to think about writing music not centered around a pretty melody, but around an effective musical gesture created by a certain process (mathematical, visual, philosophical, etc.). Yes, it seems obvious, and yes, we learned about all that in school, but being separated from the academic musical setting and immersed in the world of popular music may have dulled my intuitions.
If you are in the Los Angeles area, I’d highly recommend any musician, engineer, mathematician, and architect to see the exhibit before it closes on February 4th.