Thursday, February 25, 2010

Iannis Xenakis at The Drawing Center

The recent show of Iannis Xenakis at the Drawing Center showcases the artist/musician/architect's work which crosses the boundaries between mediums and uses the strengths of one medium to inform the experience of the others. Xenakis has taken mathematics and abstract line drawing as a way to score music via a different format of representation. Constructing parabolas from arrangements of straight lines, and similarly defined portions of forms gives both the information to render a score of music as well as generate material for the sweeping abstract surfaces to his architecture. These are combined with hand drawn curvilinear lines, amounting often to what look like quick sketches or doodles. Rendered across a graph of pitch vs time, these line drawings allow for continuous modulations of pitch to be played in time to the drawings. Xenakis seems to see the strength of the hand as a rendering tool as a means to create these musical pieces. The show includes a few examples of specific recordings of these pieces that accompany videos of the images. One notable example is the piece Mycenae Alpha, where hand drawn images are interpreted and played back via a program called UPIC which Xenakis developed for this purpose.

All of this creates interesting graphical images, which carry the weight of relaying a very specific kind of information, but also generates a kind of music that becomes very hard to listen to. It could be called experimental, conceptual, or possibly even algorithmic in some instances, but the sounds are hardly harmonic and fail to conform to any tenants of music theory. Still, there's something hypnotic about watching as hand drawn lines scroll along a page and knowing that the position of each mark is directly translating into something audible, something to engage both visually and aurally.


  1. Your overview is quite thorough and accurate, but I did find it difficult to 'engage' in Xenakis’s work. There's an anxiety present in his art that made me feel irritable and impatient. I couldn't focus on one particular work in the exhibition and found myself floating from piece to piece. I thought his recorded works would provide me with a different (positive) feel for his work, but I was disappointed because they were one note. I feel that he has great concepts, but they don’t translate visually and come across pretty drab. In all, I left the exhibit agitated and unsatisfied…

  2. The descriptions here help open up the drawings for me and the descriptions are keen, but I think they are a little general and I'm not sure I'd be able imagine something like them without the aid of a picture on screen or in mind. A more concrete description of one drawing and how it functions for music and/or 3D design might be helpful. Also, I feel the distinction between the architectural sketch and the musical score on a grid drawings, as different types or bodies of work, is not quite clear enough. I think he can be placed within a tradition of atonal, systematic, and chance music making (Shoenberg, Cage) which provides some theoretical framework for the music, though outside of classical music theory.