It sounds like something out of a film script. A Greek man in his early 20s fights for his homeland as part of the Communist resistance at the end of the second world war. Shrapnel from a blast from a British tank causes a horrendous facial injury that means the permanent loss of sight in one eye . He is sentenced to death after his exile to Paris (a sentence that was later commuted to a prison term, with his conviction finally quashed with the end of the junta in 1974). By the time he returns, he has become one of the leading creative figures of the century: an architect who trained, worked, and often transcended the inspiration of his mentor and boss, Le Corbusier; an intellectual whose physical and mathematical understanding of the way individual particles interact with each other and create a larger mass – atoms, birds, people, and musical notes – would produce one of the most fertile and prophetic aesthetic explorations in musical history; and above all a composer, whose craggily, joyously elemental music turned collections of pitches and rhythms and instruments into a force of nature, releasing a power that previous composers had only suggested metaphorically but which he would realise with arguably greater clarity, ferocity, intensity than any musician, before or since. This is the music of Iannis Xenakis .
When you hear Xenakis’s music – any piece of what we recognise as his mature work, starting with 1954’s Metastasis , onwards – you’re confronted with an aesthetic that seems unprecedented according to any of the frames of reference that musical works usually relate to. You won’t hear vestiges of things like familiar forms, or shapes, or languages. Even the furthest-out reaches of early 1950s serialism sound resolutely conventional next to Xenakis’s works of the same period. It’s music whose sheer, scintillating physicality creates its own territory in every piece, whether it’s for solo cello  or huge orchestra . As Ben Watson has put it, Xenakis’s work is “an alien shard, glimmering in the heart of the West “. When Xenakis approached Olivier Messiaen in Paris for composition lessons, Messiaen turned him down, because, “I think one should study harmony and counterpoint. But this was a man so much out of the ordinary that I said… ‘No, you are almost 30, you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music’.”
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