Iannis Xenakis’s Aroura

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Modern Music Matinee: Maverick Asian Voices
Saturday, 12 October 2019 @ 3:00pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall


Contributed by Cliff Tan (BMUS2, YST)

Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001) was a Romanian-born French composer, architect, and mathematician of Greek ancestry. Xenakis applied to study Engineering and Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens. However upon acceptance, his school life was almost immediately disrupted by the occupation of the Axis powers in the early 1940s.  Xenakis fought for the Greek resistance (National Liberation Front) during World War II, losing his left eye when shrapnel from a tank blast wounded his left cheek and left eye, permanently scarring his face. It was not only until seven years later that Xenakis was able to graduate with a degree in civil engineering.

As soon as Xenakis completed his studies in engineering, he was exiled from Greece, condemned for his political activities during the civil war in 1944. Members of the communist resistance were subject to fresh scrutiny by the Greek government after the war in 1947, with many across the country being arrested and incarcerated. Fearing for his own safety, Xenakis, with the aid of father, fled Greece.

Xenakis’s exile took him to Paris, where he met and eventually collaborated with the architect Le Corbusier. Through open discussions with Le Corbusier in his studio, Xenakis learned about connections to mathematics. For instance, Le Corbusier used the Golden Ratio to design his buildings; Xenakis used the Fibonacci sequence, a sequence of numbers closely related to the Golden Ratio in his music. This influence spurred Xenakis to design the Monastery of La Tourette (1954–60), and the Philips Pavilion (1956–58). Around the same time, he was taking music composition seriously, constantly searching for the right teacher to guide him. He consulted figures such as Nadia Boulanger, Arthur Honegger, Darius Mihaud and, most importantly, Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. It was through Messiaen that Xenakis managed to find his own voice as a composer in the midst of the European serialism movement. Metastaseis, written for 61 solo instruments (1953/54) was the catalyst that helped him to define his artistic voice, forming the bedrock for the rest of his works in both architecture in music.

Aroura is a single movement work composed in 1971 for four first violins, three second violins, two violas, two cellos and one double bass. It was premiered at the Festival of Lucerne, performed by the Lucerne Festival Strings. The title “Aroura” should be translated as “Homer’s earth,” or “sonic textures of the earth”. A literal translation of modern day Greek would simply translate as “rat”.

Due to the homogeneity of the instruments, Xenakis focussed his attention on a more complicated conception of form. Like Metastaseis, Aroura’s formal concerns are related to the Einsteinian concept of Time as opposed to a linear view.  Xenakis’ aural perception of gunfire during the war led him to realise that we cannot isolate a single gunshot among the cacophony. However, as a sound mass, the gun sounds are easily identifiable. The sequence of individual gunshots is not important; it can have any pattern but the sound being produced would still be the same. Through the use of density, register and density, Xenakis breaks the Newtonian concept of time to question our perception of space and time. This concept led him to explore and pioneer music based on stochastics, a randomly defined process to compose music.

Aroura is divided into eight sonic entities, which leads the music by its sonic activity. This means that our perception of time in the music is determined by the sound activity, in this case, time is a servant to the music and not vice versa. Xenakis delineates the sections with different modes of playing, including glissando, bowed playing and pizzicato. Other parameters such as rhythmic density, register, dynamics are also mixed into dynamic interplay between the sonic entities.

Categories Compositions

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