Interview with Nikos Ioakeim about I. Xenakis

«Xenakis’ use of microtones is a way of a graphic view of elements from the Greek traditional music. Having sang in the Oresteia I come to the conclusion that, if you are not familiar, you have never listened to byzantine or traditional music, if you don’t know how the byzantine music works when you are reading the byzantine notation and how the “not in tune” tones work in singing, then Xenakis’ score for chorus’ voices is a puzzle. There is an innate problem when the western singer tries to sing going from the one note to the other and appreciate the quarters of the tone that Xenakis marks, when he does not see the general model at all, specifically what Xenakis wants to present -he does not “catch the sound”. I believe that a possible transfer of the chorus of Oresteia in byzantine notation would be revealing, as Xenakis had followed the reverse road: he had “caught” them in “byzantine” and then wrote them in “western”. We cannot even imagine how extreme what Xenakis wrote was at that time for the western world. Nonetheless, listening to the recordings of the ‘60s, I have to confess that they were performed in a high level in general.»
«If Xenakis was writing those works nowadays, they might seem even folklore, as all this international shuffle of traditional elements (world-fusion) is “in” now, when back then it was about entering unknown elements, non-European, in a music that was much more in the limits of the western tradition of classical music. But Xenakis was not a composer of classical music, because it was not his start point and he didn’t deeply know it (he did way later). He had another origin, his roots were unknown to the European audience back then.
An origin element is his notation for the voices, which is really connected to the byzantine music, but to the music of Epirus as well (which he had already pointed out). Another element is his notation for the percussion, where it seems that, what he wants to transfigure is music from Thrace and Macedoniadavul playing is an experience for him, an earlier knowledge. In the notation for percussion this transubstantiation was easier, because the percussion players have a passion for the technic, their instruments and their limits -but in this case too Xenakis’ references may not be perceived (whatever it might be, they would play it). Even nowadays it is possible that percussion players, who have already performed many of Xenakis’ works, are not familiar with their reference points, of course not necessarily. But in the case of the vocal works, not knowing the reference points is a problem, as it happens in Oresteia.»
«In his works for ensembles, Dmaathen for oboe and percussions is indicative, where an appreciator of Greek traditional music can easily detect the way of notation and use of instruments such as a “zurna-davul” ensemble. It is a subsequent work, from ’70, and the Americans, for whom it was composed (Nora Post & Jan Williams) might not understand this connection. The title, “Dmaathen” (“Δμάαθεν»), means “they are tamed/defeated” (“δαμάστηκαν/”νικήθηκαν»), and it comes from one of Pindaros’ lyrics which refers to the Gigantomachy («δμᾶθεν δὲ κεραυνῷ τόξοισί τ’ Ἀπόλλωνος») -a sample of the thematology of his works and the origin of the titles, where the logic of reference to “agonies” of his research is pierced and, very often, without explaining the background· the performer or the auditor should discover it. For this reason many other references remain unknown, too. The field of knowledge and his references were so wide, that in order for someone to understand and “decode” it, he should necessarily approach this width of the field.»
«Xenakis’ big drama was that he left when things in Greece were still really virgin. He lost his contact as he couldn’t visit Greece, and when he came back a big mutation had come, which he rejected. He generally had a completely rejective attitude for Greece’s evolution in music, as well as many other fields, because he believed that Greece had lost the mood for something new, for exploration- Greece had lost it’s the boldness.»
«The first decades in Paris he wasn’t talking about politics, as his idiosyncrasy made him afraid of the populist complexion of this -he didn’t want to promote himself as a hero and justify his art based on his experiences from the war. After the ‘70s, the fact that his biography was released (1981) and that he came back to Greece (1974) brought on a change to his references to political facts of the past, as his “exile” was an existential problem for him. This is when he started connecting elements of his sound with primary experiences that were about Greece before he left (and were not connected to traditional music).
He had spoken, for example, for the experience of the demonstration that was originally led in total organization, proceeding to total chaos when the gunshots started· this transition was something that had haunted him and is related to the handling of the massive phenomena in his music. He had also declared that the handling of the light in Polytopa, the impression he wanted to create, was the image of night Athens while bombing during the Occupation. The chaos he was watching in the sky from the anti-aircraft headlights and, at the same time, the flashes from the airplanes and the explosions were marked on his mind.»
«He was deeply related to the nature since he was young, so he had related the massive phenomena to his experiences with nature as well. He had spoken about cicadas, flies and mosquitoes in the countryside, the buzzing that insects make when flying all together, things that connect with the Greek countryside.
The period of Xenakis’ life in Greece, especially Athens, structured him in all levels, because those were his adolescent experiences: these are the moments that enter deep inside someone, the revelations that happen, and this is where someone should backtrack to interpret what he did later, because these were the elements he took with him. When he went to Paris in ’47 he was about 25 years old, so all these had already happened. Also, because of this very dramatic period of his life, the experiences were marked in the most rough way.
Even though Xenakis had taken an upscale upbringing in Roumania, someone needs to include how Athens and the suburbs were in the 30’s, when you could still intensely experience the feeling of countryside. So Xenakis had also experienced this in Athens, as much as out of it, as, being a lonely person, he would often make excursions with his bike· of course in Spetses too, where he lived in his school years.»


(The interview with Nikos Ioakeim took place on 8 of March in Utrecht)


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