Drafting Music, Composing Architecture

TEXT Jennifer Davis
PHOTOS Iannis Xenakis Archives, Bibliothque nationale de France

After a long day’s work at the architecture office of Le Corbusier, Iannis Xenakis could be found at home hunched over his personal drawing board, drafting out schematics for his now famous musical compositions.

Enticed by the chance to explore Xenakis’s creative process, architectural theorists, musicians and electronic music buffs alike have been drawn to visit the current exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Wandering amongst the gallery’s display of colourful sketches, geometric charts, musical scores, architectural photos, and technical blueprints–all the while listening to iPods playing Xenakis’s music–one can start to visually trace this enigmatic man’s radical methods. Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary tells the story of one man’s evolution from a failed WWII Communist revolutionary to one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the late 20th century.

As the exhibition’s title implies, this man’s identity resists easy categorization into one discipline. Adept in mathematics, music, engineering and architecture, the parallel creative lives that Xenakis maintained on the surface shared the same deeply rational yet iconoclastic roots on the interior. His fluid thought process, a proclivity to cross-pollinate, and a fine dexterity on paper enabled him to conceive and illustrate common mathematical foundations that would underpin the structures of his sonic and architectural creations alike.

Metastaseis (1953-54), Xenakis’s breakout orchestral composition, was one such piece penned by this shy Greek exile while working for Le Corbusier. It is no coincidence that as he drew the ruled parabolas that mapped out instrumental sounds, he employed the Modulor, the proportional system derived from geometries found in nature, and often used in the architectural projects of Le Corbusier. A gallery visitor sees 46 intersecting lines that compose a graceful hyperbolic paraboloid on paper while listening to 46 musical instruments slide between pitches that converge and diverge into moving “sound masses.” This approach to sound was unprecedented in musical history, and foreshadowed an innovative architectural project that would establish Xenakis as an architect of note some four years later.

Le Corbusier’s atelier was commissioned to design the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Xenakis was charged with the task of designing a building to feature the Pome lectronique, a futuristic immersive spectacle of projected images and innovative music. Xenakis returned to the geometry of Metastaseis to derive the asymmetrical form of this “music receptacle” with surreal acoustic properties. This time, the parabolic curves translated into the vectors of supporting wire cables, a construction innovation that distinguished the Pavilion as the world’s first self-supporting hyperbolic paraboloid building.

Drawing enabled Xenakis to see the link between the global and detailed scales, keeping sight of his true meta-mission of seeking the hidden fundamental geometries of the nature of music and architecture that can provoke a visceral response. The quest of this rational mind was to take these eternal forms that we are intuitively aware of in the spatial and sonic worlds, and give them a new life, whether in sound or concrete. His was a rare perspective of the world, and the diverse audience Xenakis attracts today is the true gauge of this man’s creative legacy. Outstanding in many fields, Xenakis stands alone. CA

Jennifer Davis did a research residency at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in the summer of 2010. She is currently pursuing a Master of Architecture degree at the University of Toronto. Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary is on display until October 17, 2010 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.