The 1999 Polar Prize is awarded to the Greek/French composer Iannis Xenakis for a long succession of forceful works, charged with sensitivity, commitment and passion, through which he has come to rank among the most central composers of our century in the realm of art music, exercising within its various fields an influence which cannot be readily overstated. He has developed radically new methods of composition with principles taken from the worlds of architecture and natural science and integrated with the concept of musical form. In this way the “structural” music of today has been guided into absolutely new and revolutionary channels and compositional thinking has been thoroughly inspired and revitalised the world over. Iannis Xenakis is also the man behind decisive innovative achievements in the field of electronic music and computer-assisted composition, which he has helped to pioneer. He has also led the way in completely new genres, for example through his Polytones, in which music, floodlights and laser beams combine to form a powerful and total artistic experience.
Iannis Xenakis was born on May 29th in 1922 in Braïla, Romania. In 1932 he moved to Greece with his Greek born father after his mother’s death and started school at the Greek-English high school of de Spetsai island, where he discovered maths, greek literature and, most important, he developed his interest in music more and more.
Xenakis’ initial exposure to music came in the first ten years of his life, first via his mother who was a good pianist, and also when he was surrounded by the folk music of the Romanian countryside and the liturgy of the Byzantine Orthodox Church. He then discovered Beethoven and Brahms.
Xenakis’ life grew turbulent when he entered Athens Polytechnic with the intent of becoming an engineer. When Greece was invaded during the World War II he was forced to quit school as it shut down and became passionately involved with resistance and liberation groups like ELAS. He first protested against Nazi rule and later against the British, who, although they drove out the Germans, sided with right-wing politicians against the Greek National Liberation Front.
Xenakis was seriously wounded in 1945, when he was hit by a British shell and he lost vision in one eye. In 1946 he finally managed to pass his exams but as a member of the resistance, he was eventually arrested and escaped in 1947, hoping to reach the United States.
Architecture and music
He ended up settling in Paris, taking French nationality. In Paris Xenakis made numerous important contacts, befriending Messiaen, Honegger, Mihaud, and the celebrated architect Le Corbusier, who were all impressed by his innovative and brilliantly intellectual approach to music.
Working with Le Corbusier, Xenakis was highly involved with civil planning and architecture, designing some landmark sites throughout the world. For him, architecture was musical, and music was architectural.
The “Unité d’habitation” is a modernist residential form of habitation including apartments, shops, kindergartens and other facilities for the habitants. For the inauguration of the Unité d’habitation of Marseilles, Le Corbusier asked Xenakis to create a “spatialized concert ” on the roof of the building, based on three different points of the terrace: musique concrète, traditional music and jazz. The same year he composed Metastasis. Iannis Xenakis worked with Le Corbusier until 1959.
Groupe de recherches musicales
Musical research and electronic music were developing in the ’50s, a movement that was also inspiring for Xenakis who was constantly working on the structural approach of music. Since the mid-twentieth-century electronic music began to emerge through two different trends: that of Cologne, called Elektronische Musik (involving Karlheinz Stockhausen), and that of Pierre Schaeffer, called Musique Concrète, who identifies with the Groupe de Recherches Musicales.
The use of computers has had, and continues to have, a very important role among the composers of musique concrete. In 1942 Schaeffer convinced the Direction of French broadcasting of radio & TV to undertake research on acoustics, In this first experimental and pioneering phase, the working group took the name of Club d’Essai then became GRM in the ’50s when the increased availability of funds also allowed the purchase of new equipment such as Morphophone (a five-track recorder) and Phonogène (used to listen at different speeds sounds recorded). In the same year Schaeffer and Pierre Henry carried out the first opera realized with concrete materials: Orphèe 51 (source: http://www.musicainformatica.org).
Polytope de Montréal
By 1960, Xenakis had gained sufficient acclaim to quit his engineering work and pursue composing full-time. However, architectural work and geometry combined with musical compositions would still be a characteristic feature throughout his career. The Polytope de Montréal was another of his spatialized instrumental scores, a piece he created for the 1967 World Expo in Montréal, Québec for the French Pavilion. Together with the music, Xenakis created a sculpture-like configuration of cables for the interior central space. Attached to this configuration were hundreds of flashbulbs, each of which could be lit separately. The music was performed by four equivalent orchestral ensembles.
70s and 80s: music and structure
Being awarded many prizes, honors and achievement awards, Xenakis did essentially commission works all over the world; USA, Japan, Greece, France.
He also started teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris and in San Diego. In Strasbourg 1978, the work Pléïades was performed by Les Percussions de Strasbourg for the dance recital Le Concile Musical by the Ballet de l’Opéra du Rhin, choreographed by Germinal Casado.
Stockholm May 1999
Iannis Xenakis received the prize at the same time as Stevie Wonder. His daughter Mâkhi Xenakis received the prize in his place, as the composer was unable to attend the festivities due to health problems.