Door 4: Iannis Xenakis

© Adelmann Collection of Françoise Xenakis

The predominant opinion is that to be good at something you need to solely focus on one thing and invest all your time into it. This is probably true, but as always there are exceptions to the rule. A highly interesting example therefore is the Greek multi-talent Iannis Xenakis, who combined music and architecture, especially the mathematics of architecture, but it took him a while to figure that out.

He was born in Romania in 1922 to Greek parents. His parents were both interested in music, especially his mother, but here sudden and early death traumatized the young boy. After going to a boarding school, he started to study engineering at Athens Polytechnic, but this was abruptly interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Being part of the resistance, he was hit by a shrapnel in his face in December 1944 that nearly killed him and caused the loss of sight in his right eye.

Despite all the turmoil he was able to graduate in 1947, but as politically the grip in Greece tightened he was wanted for being part in the resistance and fled the country. He was even sentenced to death in his absence. His initial goal were the United States of America, but he settled in Paris. There he started working for Le Corbusier and had initially to do simple tasks. But Le Corbusier saw his talent and dedication and gave him more and more architecture work. Most famously they worked together on monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, and the Philipps Pavillon for the world expo in Brussels in 1958.

Philips Pavilion at the Expo' 58

Next to all his work in architecture, he was trying to study music, often at the expense of his sleep and was looking for guidance from various scholars. Nadia Boulanger and Arthur Honegger rejected him and also Olivier Messiaen, but he put it this way: "I understood straight away that he was not someone like the others. [...] He is of superior intelligence. [...] I did something horrible which I should do with no other student, for 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 thirty, 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."

Messiaen pointed out to him what was already there and he started to apply this at the same time he was working on the Philips Pavillon, which led to his first mature work entitled Metastaseis (1953-54). His work was not at all accepted right away, as it is marked by an intensity, raw power that is not always easy to listen to, but over the years his reputation and the respect for his compositions grew and his focus shifted more and more to music.

Next to combining architecture and music, he also was precursor in the field of using computerized composition, where he developed his own program called UPIC. He was also theoretical writer and taught at various universities around the world. He died in 2001 at the age of 79 survived by his wife Françoise and his daughter Mâkhi.