The Music of Architecture

AE interviews Sharon Kanach
May 12, 2006

'The Music of Architecture,' a critical and un-cut series of Iannis Xenakis' writings is soon to be released by Pendragon Press. We spoke with Sharon Kanach, long-time friend of Xenakis and editor of the book, about the new publication.

AE What are some of the most important elements that are being made available for the first time?

SK Actually, most of the book's contents!

The first chapter is 'The Le Corbusier Years' and comprises nearly half of the book. Most Xenakis aficionados know about Xenakis' contribution to (in fact, authorship of) the famous Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958, but they may not know that Iannis spent twelve dense and formative years, from 1947 to 1959, in Le Corbusier's studio. This time frame corresponds to equally intense musical exploration, during which he composed for orchestra ('Metastasis', 'Pithoprakta', and 'Achorripsis') and electro-acoustic music ('Diamporphoses' and 'Concret PH'). There were inevitably reciprocal influences and, following the chronology of the multifarious projects on which he worked in various capacities, this chapter outlines his evolution from a number-crunching engineer to Le Corbusier's closest assistant.

The second chapter, 'Writings on Architecture', is a selection of eight texts, most of them previously unpublished in English, that highlight Xenakis' specific sensitivity to visual aesthetics. Some are purely speculative, like his utopian 'Cosmic City' (1964). Others are more pragmatic, offering architectonic solutions to musical or acoustic problems, such as 'Notes Towards an Electronic Gesture' (1958) and 'Places and Sources of Audition and Spectacles' (1980).

The third chapter, 'Independent Architect', reveals for the first time the main projects Xenakis designed, often incorporating signature elements developed during his Le Corbusier years. Among them, there was an experimental auditorium for his mentor Hermann Scherchen in 1961, which was never realized, and his own vacation home in Corsica in 1996, which was realized.

The final chapter, 'The Polytopes', examines Xenakis' five multimedia spectacles realized between 1967, the year of the French Pavilion at the Montreal World's Fair, and 1978, the year of his famous 'Diatope' at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. All of these works are music for the eyes as well as the ears. His pioneering role in the advent of new media art can no longer be ignored.

In addition, there are several useful appendices, including: a critical index of all of Xenakis' architectural projects, both major and minor, compiled by the young Belgian architect Sven Sterken; an updated bibliography by the noted Xenakis scholar Makis Solomos; and a comparative chronology of Xenakis' life, musical works, architectural projects, and writings, which I compiled, first as a personal 'crutch' when devising this book with Iannis, but which in itself has proven revelatory when trying to piece together all the components of the Xenakian mosaic.

AE The title is 'The Music of Architecture'. What perspectives, themes, or concepts led to this title?

SK In 1971, Xenakis published, in French, his book 'Musique. Architecture.' In it, there are six articles on music, which we incorporated in one form or another in the revised Pendragon edition of 'Formalized Music' (1992); three articles on architecture (included here also); and a third section devoted to music and architecture, which comprised mainly illustrations (around 20 versus over 300 hundred in this volume). Iannis really wanted those three texts on architecture to be published in English, but it wasn't a book yet with only about 40 pages of text! So we began the several-year search for complementary material, at first together digging in his studio, then later just me, solo, when his illness prevented him from actively pursuing the project. Although Iannis characteristically always minimized the importance of one discovery or another, it became apparent to me that he probably would not have become the Xenakis we know (and love) had he not had his experiences first as an engineer and later as an architect. Xenakis himself explained, "I found that problems in architecture were the same as in music. One thing I learned from architecture, which is different from the way musicians work, is to consider the overall shape of the composition, the way you see a building or a town. Instead of starting from a detail, like a theme, and building up the whole thing with rules, you have the whole in mind and think about the details and the elements and, of course, the proportions. That was a useful mode of thinking. [...] so I thought that the best way to attack the problem was from both ends, detail and general." And it worked both ways. For example, Le Corbusier actually wanted to name one of Xenakis' architectonic signatures, his "undulating glass panes," developed while working in Le Corbusier's studio, "musical glass panes."

AE What brought you to this project?

SK I was fortunate enough to meet Iannis, get to know him rather well over about 25 years, and share many of the same passions. Not only was he the kindest man I ever met, he was also the most modest. He was living proof of his model 'artist-conceptor'; and his faculty to go beyond his own capabilities, to surprise himself (and all of us) was exemplary. The deeper I delve into his music, his writings, his projects, the more I respect and admire him. He was such a precursor in everything he touched, both from the obvious, historical perspective as well as from a conceptual one. Music that he wrote or buildings he designed, and texts that he wrote over half a century ago still appear to me much fresher, more stimulating than anything contemporary I have yet come across. His work makes you grow, overcome your own limits, and therefore expand your own personal dimensions. It is not necessarily a question of analyzing his work per se, I believe, but rather of assimilating it.

© 2006