The complexities of Iannis Xenakis: Math, music, architectural pioneer

Iannis Xenakis may not be a name you hear everyday, but here's why he was (and still is) important
Iannis Xenakis Portrait Session
Iannis Xenakis Portrait Session / Ulf Andersen/GettyImages

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) was a Greek-French composer, architect, and mathematician who made significant contributions to 20th-century music and mathematics. He was known for his pioneering work in several fields. Let's explore more, shall we?

Music compositions and Iannis Xenakis

Xenakis was a pioneer of avant-garde music and is often associated with the development of stochastic music. He used mathematical and probabilistic principles to create compositions that were characterized by their complexity and unpredictability. This approach resulted in pieces that often feel "random," distinguishing them from the more controlled compositions of contemporaries like German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Some of his notable compositions include:

  • "Metastaseis"
  • "Pithoprakta"
  • "Jonchaies"
  • "Polytopes"

Watch "Metastaseis" performance here:


Before pursuing a career in music, Iannis Xenakis studied architecture and worked with renowned architect Le Corbusier. His architectural background influenced his approach to composition, often employing mathematical and geometric concepts in his music. Additionally, he designed innovative architectural structures, such as the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, which also showcased "Poème électronique" by Edgard Varèse (who was himself a big influence on Frank Zappa, who himself went on to be a huge musical influence).

Explore Varèse's "Poème électronique" here.

Mathematical Innovations

Iannis Xenakis had a deep interest in mathematics, particularly in the application of probability theory and mathematical concepts to music and architecture. He developed various mathematical models and algorithms to generate musical structures and shapes for his architectural designs. Notably, he integrated stochastic (random) elements into music composition, using probability distributions to determine various musical parameters, resulting in compositions that exhibited a sense of controlled randomness and unpredictability.

Xenakis is not the only architect to interact with music professionally. Frank Gehry, one of the world's most famous architects, drew inspiration from Jimi Hendrix's song "Purple Haze" and the look of disassembled Fender Stratocaster guitars while designing the Museum of Pop Art, or Mopop, in Seattle. Learn more.

Electronic music

Xenakis was an early adopter of electronic music and worked with electronic sound synthesis techniques in his compositions. His exploration of electronic music contributed to the development of the genre. While Brian Eno is often credited with popularizing the term “ambient music,” composers before him had already delved into the form.

Music theory and notation

Xenakis developed his own notation system, known as the "UPIC" (Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu), to represent the complex rhythms and structures found in his original compositions. This notation system allowed him to express his musical ideas precisely.

Iannis Xenakis's work had a profound impact on contemporary music, pushing the boundaries of what was considered possible in composition. His innovative use of mathematics and technology continues to inspire musicians, architects, and mathematicians to this day. He is often regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, alongside Olivier Messiaen and Alban Berg, with an influence on par with other composers such as the minimalist Philip Glass. However, his music is not conventionally popular among the general public, and you'll probably never hear a request for Xenakis on the dance floor.

Other trivia

  • Xenakis was born in Romania and immigrated with his family to Greece at the age of nine or ten.
  • Though known for his experimental and often intense material, his earlier works were influenced by Greek folk melodies.
  • Some music teachers, such as Nadia Boulanger and Arthur Honegger, apparently rejected his avant-garde concepts and results. Nonetheless, he received his first composition award from the European Cultural Foundation in 1957.
  • Another less-acknowledged concept Xenakis worked with was spatialization, where musicians would locate themselves among the audience. This was an idea employed in his piece "Terretektorh" (1966).

One of my favorite pieces by Xenakis:

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