Dancing About Architecture

A new book and opera from a famed modern composer and architect

The composer Iannis Xenakis, who died in 2001 at the age of 78, was among the shining lights of the European avant garde, using complex mathematics to undergird his forceful, elemental compositions. Yet he also trained as an engineer and worked for 12 years in Le Corbusier’s office, where he most notably designed the Philips Pavilion, at the 1958 World’s Fair. (He even composed the music to be played inside.) Music and Architecture, a new book from Pendragon Press by the Xenakis scholar Sharon Kanach, collects for the first time his writing on architecture along with drawings and letters from his years with Corbu.

Music and architecture were powerful crosscurrents in Xenakis’s work. He compared the Philips Pavilion’s form to his first published musical composition, “Metastasis”: “as in the music, here too I was interested in the question of whether it is possible to get from one point to another without breaking the continuity. In Metastasis this problem led to glissandos, while in the pavilion it resulted in the hyperbolic parabola shapes.”

At a recent panel discussion at the Guggenheim for the U.S. premiere of Oresteia, a Xenakis-penned opera based on Aeschylus’ dramatic trilogy, the soloist Wilbur Pauley talked about the formidable difficulties of singing his part as Xenakis wrote it. In the show, which was staged last month at the Miller Theatre, Pauley played both the doomed Kassandra and her father, Agamemnon, and his voice rapidly jumped between falsetto and steely bass—all in ancient Greek. Xenakis’s musical genius aside, Pauley said, “I could tell he didn’t like opera singers.”

Le Corbusier and Xenakis, courtesy Les Amis de Xenakis

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