“Iannis Xenakis: Charisma X.”  DVD, Directed by Efi Xirou, 62 minutes. Mode Records (2010) and Vox Documentaries (2008).
This film artfully documents Iannis Xenakis’ life and his innovations in music, architecture, and above all it humanizes his life’s story through footage of interviews with Xenakis himself, his family, colleagues, and friends. There is some fantastic footage of Greece and Paris, which is beautifully displayed through the lens of what I feel, is emulating the artistic eye of Xenakis. The film portrayed Xenakis as a man with a love of the natural, yet with an equal hatred for the disruption of nature. This is shown through the scenic shots of both cities’ divine landscapes and scenery - Even the majority of the performances in the film were staged out doors, linking his persona and his music with nature. Among them are some brilliant performances of solo and chamber orchestral works; most notably the percussion and string (cello) based pieces, which show off some of the wild extended technique needed in order to play Xenakis. There are many newsreel clips of the war-torn Italy-Greece conflicts (pre-German occupation of WWII), as well as footage of the resistance to the German occupation of Greece - in which Xenakis was involved with. There is a synchronicity in the films portrayal of the significance of the cultural, historical, personal, and musical chronology within Xenakis’ Life, and it makes for a greatly humanizing and informative hour of documentation of this radical 20th century composer.
As a person who knew of Xenakis as a composer-architect and a theoretical and notational innovator, I can say that this documentary deeply affected the way I will hear his music from now on. Going back to a point I made in the first paragraph, about Xenakis being someone with a deep love of nature, and an equal hatred of the disturbance of nature – I feel like I understand the music more because I can now listen to it in correlation to Iannis’ life-in the midst of a war, which was an absolute disturbance of nature. I decided to investigate Xenakis further, in listening to his 75- minute orchestral/electro-acoustic piece “Kraanerg”. The title is a combination of Greek root words: kraan (κρααν) and erg (εργ), meaningaccomplished act, which was in homage to youth movements of the time. This piece is for “23 instruments (winds, horns, and strings) and 4-channel tape (pre-recorded studio treated music)”. Again, I had never heard ”nature” in Xenakis’ music until I watched this film; but now all I can hear is the nature: whether it be calm or destructive, or a disturbance of the natural - I can definitely hear war over-riding nature in Xenakis’ music. I found “Kraanerg” to be a fascinating choice, because it has a significant Canadian Arts connection, in that it was commissioned for a ballet that inaugurated The Canadian National Arts Centre, in Ottawa. It also exemplifies Xenakis’ infatuation with nature, and the disturbance of nature. I found it to be an apt 20th century composition to be on display in a 20th century project, because of a pivotal reason for the adaptation of electronically treated music to be played along with orchestra: The new building for the 1969 Expo in Ottawa wanted to dazzle the audience with their fancy, new, state of the art sound system – The commissioners of the piece actually asked for a surround sound electronic element to be used, so as to exploit their new sound setup. In no other century would we find this.I feel like there actually wasn’t much information on his notation, or his spatial and electro acoustic achievements (or at least not as much as I expected). Yet for someone who has already got a slight grasp of these ideas in Xenakis’ music, this documentary took me beyond the theoretical, and transported me into the philosophical; which to me is a much larger aspect of the avant-garde, and 20th century music (and music in general) than that of the theoretical. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that the philosophy of music is more important than the theory of music, because theoretical developments occur after advancements in music take place; whereas the philosophy behind music leads to the creation of new music –which will only then make way for advancement in theory. This is an idea that this film gave me, and Iannis Xenakis is a perfect example of why philosophy is so important to music.
Kevin Robb, April, 2013. MUSC 2420.
Bibliography of cited works:
Peter Hoffman, “Xenakis Iannis,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. Edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 2001. Vol.27. (p.605 – 613).
“Xenakis Iannis,” The Dictionary of Contemporary Music, Edited by John Vinton. N.Y., U.S.A.: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1971. (p.827-828).
Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. N.Y., U.S.A.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux [Publishers] 2007. (p. 379).