XENAKIS, REYNOLDS, LANSKY, AND MÂCHE
DISCUSS COMPUTER MUSIC
Thanassis Rikakis: It's definitely a great honor for us to have a very distinguished line of speakers here at this conference. We're very, very thankful that they're here and we're looking forward to an interesting discussion. The form of the discussion will be as follows: Mr. Mâche, Mr. Lansky, and Mr. Reynolds [composer and producer of first custom-designed AC3, Dolby 5.1 DVD, WATERSHED, in that order, will have a question for Iannis Xenakis [author of Formalized Music], and then they will go around once more. So, it will be in the form of an interview. Once that has progressed and has become very interesting, I expect, we will try to open the discussion to questions from the floor. Without any further delay, therefore, I would like to ask Mr. François-Bernard Mâche to pose his first question.
François-Bernard Mâche: On parle anglais, non?
Iannis Xenakis: ...soviétique.
Mâche: Well, I think I have to speak in English, because it's easier for the translators. Yesterday, I was making a lecture, and I had the idea of invoking the god Apollon as an example of what I was saying about the relation between instrument and computer. I noticed that Apollon plays the lyre, but that he is not the inventor of the lyre, the inventor being Hermes. I might add that here in Delphi, Apollon rules for nine months, but the three last months of the year are under the law of Dionysus. So, there are two gods for music and one instrument-maker involved in this quotation, and I should like to ask you: Who is your god in music, Apollon, Dionysus (yes, I am addressing you [Xenakis]), or Hermes? Or, any other.
Xenakis: I think I will start with the goddess Aphrodite. [laughter and applause]
Mâche: I like music from the sea, I also like Aphrodite, but she's not properly in charge...
Xenakis: No. This is anti-feminist, what you are saying.
Mâche: Well, the choice I offered you is already wide enough! It's between the god who invented the instrument, the god who uses it most of the time and best of all, and another god who has also some claim to be the god of music, Dionysus.
Xenakis: You prefer Dionysus?
Mâche: No, no. I'm asking what is your preference.
Xenakis: You see, there were other musicians that defied Apollon, and they were killed by him. So, he is a killer. He is not a good musician only, but he's...
Mâche: That's right.
Xenakis: Whereas, Dionysus also killed – Pentheus. That was because he was not a believer. And he was not a musician anyway.
Mâche: The same problem. He killed. All the gods killed.
Xenakis: All the gods, yes.
Mâche: But I think it's safe. They have to kill some, to punish.
Xenakis: Yes. You have to punish, yes. The gods have to punish.
Mâche: You agree.
Xenakis: No. No, I don't agree. [laughter] This is why I do not believe in gods or whatever. Do you?
Mâche: Ah, yes – especially in Greek gods, who are really efficient.
Xenakis: There is always a way with the Greek gods to get away, whatever you do. If some god is bad to you, you can ask another god, like a favorite, or something.
Mâche: Without any reference to the gods, do you think that a composer must be also an instrument-maker now, with the computer?
Xenakis: Ah, the computer. Not necessarily. I think that the computer brought something which is basically different from what the instrumental, traditional music had. That is, the way to go to the tiniest unit of information, that is, to the bit that is making the sound. But the sound, what is it? It is not just one event, it might be the whole music, a Beethoven symphony; for me, it's "the sound." The tiniest sound is already a complicated, complex – could be – complex thing that necessitates all sorts of operations to produce it. And the computer gives us this possibility which did not exist before.
Therefore, composing music has many layers. One more with computers, which is the fundamental, ground level, let's say. And then sounds, more or less complicated, and the chaining of the sounds, how you line them up and how you transform them, then polyphony, kind of, orchestration, the architecture of the piece. So from the tiny bit to, not an hour – it's too long – let's say, thirty minutes of music: it's a whole bridge of thought that you need to know to produce music today. Difficult, of course. You don't agree?
Rikakis: I don't want to jump ahead of Paul Lansky who has the second question, but I'm sure you [Mâche] have some thoughts on this issue. You had some last night that were fairly strong. Would you like to address a second question or would it be related to this issue which has been discussed?
Xenakis: Look here, I answered a question and I want a reaction to what I said. [laughter]
Rikakis: I think you're not getting away. I tried to save you, but I think you're not getting away here.
Mâche: Well, in fact, what I was saying yesterday was rather different. I pointed out the danger of being an instrument-maker for a composer because he spends much time, and you know that you have been spending much time on this work lately. You succeed because you are also a mathematician, which I am not. I suggested that musicians who are not really fit for that work should be very careful before starting it because not only could they waste their time but also they could lose their real purpose, just like Stravinsky. He was playing piano and was fascinated by his own fingers, so he stopped playing. If you are fascinated by the computer, you may stop composing.
Xenakis: Of course, you must not be fascinated by the computer. It's a tool. You must be fascinated perhaps with what you have in mind. If you don't have anything in mind, you cannot be fascinated.
Mâche: Then we agree. I agree completely.
Xenakis: But the computer has to be like a tool and not like a goddess or a god – (goddess is better). And besides that, mathematics is a matter of culture. And I think that musicians who do know about physics today, astrophysics and things like that – not at all – or the tools of mathematics, these are passed by. By what? By the wide interests of their brains, the importance, the thinking possibilities of their brains. They don't have the mental tools to develop whatever they have.
Mâche: You think music itself cannot develop proper mental tools?
Xenakis: Yes, but this is not sufficient. Music always has been, since ancient times, at least, something very close to rational thinking and to mathematics. You know that, don't you? For instance, the Guido d'Arezzo way of writing music, which was already in the writing of Byzantine music – after the alphabetical writing of ancient times, was a two-dimensional design for the sound: pitch versus time. And that was much before [the mathematician] Oresmus [1323-82] started thinking in that way – and also Descartes with analytic geometry – so it is a fantastic step to put together two dimensions that have nothing to do together – did I say so? Yes, I did say so. They have to do with one another a lot; but as a substance, they are absolutely foreign to each other. What they have in common is the structure, the mental structure, because they are additive groups: both time spans and intervals. So, at that time, music was in front of scientific thought or mathematical thought, which became important later on.
Another example is polyphonic pattern, the melodic patterns that are read [in retrograde] in two dimensions, going from left to right then right to left. Then you take the inversion of the intervals and the retrograde of the inversion. Which makes a very important group [fourth order group] that Felix Klein discovered. (No, it was perhaps Évariste Galois [French mathematician].) It is the very important fourth order group, named by Felix Klein, a German mathematician. So, you see, there are many things that happened because of music, but were not known by musicians themselves...
Mâche: But look, Iannis...
Xenakis: ...because they had a poor understanding of things, except for Bach, maybe, Johann Sebastian Bach, worked with mathematical tools, kind of.
Mâche: ...you are quoting music which can appear, to some extent, as a demonstration of mathematical laws. There are musics which have no intervals; there are musics which cannot be treated by numbers because nothing is measurable.
Xenakis: I agree with you. What I said is only part of the musical reality of mathematics. But this means that we have such things in our heads. There are other layers which are absolutely impossible to grasp because you don't have even the words for them. For instance, I like the music of Johannes Brahms. Why? His harmony and his orchestration and his polyphony are more or less traditional, but he has other layers interest in what he did.
Mâche: And do you try to formalize this aspect which basically is not formalized?
Xenakis: No. Because maybe in perhaps two or three generations there would be some new tools, words, or definitions and one could start analyzing this. I don't say that everything can be mathematized or put into rational thinking. I don't say that, never. I'm sorry, you have misunderstood.
Mâche: No, no, I didn't say that you said it.
Rikakis: I think maybe this time I could get into the conversation. Next question, please.
Paul Lansky: Yesterday, François-Bernard was raising some very important and interesting questions about the nature of the computer with respect to the development of music history. An essential point which he raised which I think is worthy of discussion is whether it actually is a fundamental breakthrough in musical conception. I sometimes think it's not and I sometimes think it is. I don't have a firm opinion on this, but, last night we heard a computer piece of yours [Gendy3] and tonight we're going to hear some instrumental pieces of yours, and it has been evident to musicians for many years that content and timbre are functionally related. That is, that the way in which timbre functions in a musical context has everything to do with the meaning of the context. Now, you've certainly been moving between computers and instruments and orchestras longer than any of us and have a great many ideas about what the differences are in the way in which the computer can express fundamental ideas by means of timbre and the ways in which orchestras can express these ideas. I'm interested to hear any thoughts you have about how your ideas work when you're dealing with the computer and how they work when you're dealing with the string quartet.
Xenakis: You ask me difficult questions. I think that the problem of timbre, which is one of the most difficult to explore and to think of and to realize, is not solved yet. There should be experimentation. You take a violin, for instance, and you try to understand what happens with the sound, how it is produced, and try to find the laws or rules that enable you to reproduce that sound, which is, again, a difficult task. Nobody has done that. Maybe Risset, or Max Matthews, up to a point. But it is not satisfying. Why? Because there are aspects of the sound that escape, for the time being. This is what Meyer-Eppler, who was a professor at the University in Bonn in the '50s, wrote: it is difficult to reproduce a living sound because each instant is different from the preceding one in a very tiny way that cannot be grasped. Almost unconsciously you do that when you are an instrumentalist, a performer. This happens, especially, when, for instance, Yehudi Menuhin plays with timbre on the violin. Another violinist, when he plays, immediately you see it's a different color of sound that he has, a personal color, and that, in order to reproduce that color with all the notes and so on and so forth, it's a whole life's problem, I think.
Lansky: Well, you’ve certainly done some radical experiments with timbre. I know that over the years with UPIC and other experiments, you've made a determined effort to conceive of timbre in entirely new ways, as a functionally different thing. Your point about the problems of perceiving sound in terms of Fourier series is certainly something that a lot of people have agreed with.
My interest is this: As you do a piece for computer, you're working with UPIC, for example, or you're working with your concepts of the way in which to construct timbre, you're thinking in terms which would only be possible with the computer. In other words, you can't really ask a violin to create that timbre, because it's a completely different concept. And my question is a really difficult question to answer, and I don't think there is any way to really answer it, but I'm trying to see what kinds of thoughts you have about it. My question is how your conceptions of musical form and musical shape and musical structure differ when you're thinking for instruments and when you're thinking for computer, especially in view of these questions of timbre.
Xenakis: Well, you ask very difficult questions and I don't know if I can answer them in a sincere way...
Lansky: Everything you say I'm sure is sincere, so...
Xenakis: ...not pretending. The point is that I don't need to try with computers to imitate this sound that exists already. You don't need that. What is interesting is to explore other paths or ways or sounds or even evolutions of sounds that have never been done or realized, and that is the interesting point. You are like [Fridtjof] Nansen [1861-1930] who tried to find the North Pole – and I think he died.
Mâche: But he knew where it was. [laughter]
Xenakis: He thought he had found it, but it was not there.
Rikakis: Would you like to follow up or would you like to move along? Roger Reynolds?
Roger Reynolds: I don't know that this question has necessarily anything to do with the computer, but it has to do with the future. And I guess maybe I have to give a little framing talk in order to make the question meaningful, so if you'll permit me –
Last Summer, at the beginning of July, I was involved in a conference that you know about in Strasbourg. It was, strangely, only one day long. But it was concerned with the future of cities. And they had a few artists there, I think because they were interested in the question of the way the arts function in society and as cities change – there are now something on the order of twenty cities on our earth that have populations of ten million. When you begin to think in terms of this scale, you have to address questions of the homogeneity of audiences. You have to address questions concerning what can still be taken as a given in terms of the people who are listening to our work. My thought is that one might argue that there are generals or universal principles that operate in music, and I think in fact that your music in particular has an extraordinary generality of force that speaks across cultural boundaries with remarkable strength. Nonetheless, it seems to me that when one speaks of the most transcendental moments that we experience in music, there's a combination of the general and the personal reflection and resonance of culture.
So, the question is: If over the coming centuries or even the coming decades, the kind of thing that's happening in the United States in any of the large cities, but most virulently in Los Angeles, if this kind of diversity increases and the heterogeneity of audiences becomes so pervasive that we really only can speak in generalities, then what implications will this have? I guess the bottom line of the question is this: is there a way we ever could replace the specificity of culture? Or, do you have any other notions about how we will be viewing these problems over the coming decades?
Xenakis: This is a general question about where we are going, not only in the arts, but in thinking. For instance, we saw the collapse of the communist regimes, although the course of what they were pretending goes back into ancient times with Plato and the equality of people and so on and so forth, democracy, that is. But some forms of human [behavior] escaped them: the will to power, and not only the will to power but the destruction of whatever they are not themselves, the egotistic aspect of man. But on the other hand, they try now to implement a kind of capitalistic system. In the States, for instance – which is much more capitalistic than anywhere else – you have also socialist ideas, because you cannot escape that: how to help people when they are sick or when they don't have enough to do. Maybe not the state, but there are organisms that take care of that. But today, you don't have any specific, very strong ideas, in that case. Nowhere. Not even the Chinese anymore.
So, what remains? You can see that already. For instance, the Japanese people, what are they doing? They try, they invent things which are first rate in electronics, or in cars. And that means that the human mind can exercise itself, no matter what happens. If there are poor people, if there are rich, if there are twenty million people in Mexico City in a world that has no hierarchy whatsoever, if there are people dying of starving or misery, in Brazil, in Africa, then you have wars. We don't know, I don't know where this can lead.
If a music is interesting, it is because it appeals to people. Which people? It's a kind of élite. This élite is moving, changing all the time. It might disappear. Like what had happened with Egyptian art when the Greeks did their own art. It was forgotten until the end of the 19th century when it was again discovered and became first class.
It's very difficult to answer that question. The only thing that we can say, at least what I can say to myself is, "It's interesting to do such and such" ; so, I try to do it.
Reynolds: Well, let me ask it then in a slightly different way.
Xenakis: No. Yes. Sorry.
Reynolds: Yes or no?
Xenakis: What do you think about that as an idea, as a composer? You don't need to have everything OK. You could do your music in your kitchen or whatever. [laughter]
Reynolds: What I'm trying to get at is that specifically in the United States, two things are happening. I don't mean that this is calculated, it simply comes about. There are two kinds of responses to this extraordinary lack of common acculturation and knowledge on the part of audiences. On the one hand, we have a proliferation of specialist organizations – early music groups, and so on, late music groups, computer music conferences. On the other hand, we have Prince or Madonna, which is gauged to stimulate in an intense but extremely generalized fashion. So that what might have been in the past the kind of resonance of the center where the individual takes part both in the universal and in his or her own cultural experience, this seems to be disappearing from the performing arts. I'm willing as you seem to suggest to give it up, but I'm asking whether there's any way that we might address that issue. I think that, in a way, your music does, because of this extraordinary generality of appeal, generality of force, in the manifestation of sonic experience.
Xenakis: You are very kind, thank you so much. I think that these problems are related to the main one, which is creativity – the creation of something that didn't exist, that's new. To start with creativity (That is a word which is very much used but is sometimes meaningless.) in the following sense: that it is something different from what existed before, that you did something which is new, be it in music, be it in politics, be it in cosmogony, whatever, whenever. And, if, for instance, the newness is distant enough from the past, then it's a great jump that might not be understood or appreciated by lots of people. But this is the tendency, I think, that is general in our universe today, starting with mankind, but also with animals, with the plants. Don't forget that the dinosaurs disappeared sixty-five million of years ago after a huge amount of development and refinement. They were not just living in the lakes because they were too heavy; it's a false idea. But this means the living matter but also perhaps the not living matter, the atomic level. What happens? Perhaps the new particles beneath the actual ones that we are going to discover with the new...
Reynolds: ...particle accelerators...
Xenakis: ...accelerators, yes, in Europe or in the States, will give us a clue to the fact [that] there are changes in the laws of physics, changes that many not occur instantly but take some time. But there are still laws. There is also the problem of the evolution of the universe. We know so little, it's only about seventy years now that we started to think about the galaxies, and so on. I think there is a part of the movement of creativity that is our, unfortunately, our destiny: to do things that are interesting and different, whatever you do. For instance, my gesture, like this [gestures], I have done it billions of times, perhaps, in my lifetime, but it was different now from all the other ones. It's not important, it's not interesting, only in that aspect that it's different from the others – you cannot go twice, as said Heraclitus, twice across the same, the same...
Xenakis: ...stream. So, this is, I think, the main problem. Now if you are accepted or "crowned" with a Nobel Prize in music or whatever, that's different, it doesn't bear any consequence on the deeper, inner nature of man. So, it's not a challenge, we are like this. I don't see why we forget that. No?
Reynolds: I agree completely that the thing that one does as a composer is to pursue those things which are fascinating and to become immersed in that process of exploration. Perhaps what you are saying is that, viewed from the largest evolutionary perspective, these matters take care of themselves.
Mâche: If everybody agrees, I feel obliged not to agree entirely. You said Heraclitus said that you never cross twice the same river, but music knows repetition and repetition is a very important feature in music. And composers had deliberately forgotten this law for, say, twenty years, from 1950 to 1970. We were all responsible for that illusion that we could create music without any repetition, without reference to anything else than itself. Do you still think that repetition is something which means the contrary of this necessary evolution, which symbolically brings us back to a definitely finished era? Or, since you yourself use repetition in some recent works of yours, what is your opinion about the symbolism involved in repetition in music?
Xenakis: When you say repetition, it is "thinking again about the same thing." This is what I think of as the meaning of "repetition." And you have that in the variation music in older times. You had some idea and then you varied it. But what I don't like in repetition is that I am annoyed, I am – it's dumb. When it is twice the same thing, I say, well, he could have done it a little different so that again my attention is caught, and my interest also. I think it's the laziness of the composer. And you see, for instance, for me, the most interesting percussion system in traditional music is, or used to be, music from India. They had so much variation, tiny variations, for the same things when they were repeated, that you are called, you are driven by that music. But when you don't have that, it's mechanistic, things which are dumb. That's it.
Mâche: But you don't exclude periodicity, and very strong periodicity, especially in théâtre d'art, for example.
Xenakis: No, no, no. Periodicity is necessary, but the periodicity is not absolutely the same. How much it should be different, that's a matter of your sensitivity, that is, of the composer's point of view, of the performer's. But it has to be something steady that you repeat, of course, without staying in it, repeating the same thing for twenty-four hours like Satie did, or La Monte Young, afterwards. I think it's interesting from another point of view: psychological. You get bored and you want to kill the pianist. [laughter] But musically, it's meaningless, I think.
Rikakis: Do you want to pick up where they left off, Paul, or do you have some other ideas?
Lansky: I have another question I'd like to ask. You're an architect, and mathematician, and philosopher, and composer, and it's obvious that you bring all these things to bear in your music, at least I like to think it's obvious. Now the question I have is, what do you expect of your audiences, in other words, since all these things are, in a sense, brought to bear in your music, what kinds of expectations do you have that listeners will, will...
Xenakis: That's an easy question.
Lansky: I'm glad I've got an easy one.
Xenakis: I don't care what they think. There are so many different kinds of audiences. I can't do a statistical thing: I prefer these audiences; therefore, I will write a specific music for them. No. The problem is what is the specific interest in what I am doing, and that's the important thing. And if the solutions are interesting, then perhaps there will be two or three people at the beginning, and then more than that. But who cares? I'll be dead in ten years, or maybe five, or maybe tomorrow. You are not responsible for what has been done. There are composers who write their compositions thirty years late. I don't believe in that because then they belong to a stratum that is in the past. If the public is interested in that, it is the public's fault.
Lansky: Let me make my question a little harder, then. One of the things that Roger was getting at in his question is that there is a conception of music and entertainment in which it's a one-time experience, in other words, people will turn on the television or watch a movie and basically go from beginning to end without having any difficulty understanding it; and it'll be something that they won't want to do again. Now, this is obviously, at least I think this is obviously, not the case with our music. I would state strongly that it's not the case with your music, because I would say, in many cases, your music is very difficult and it presents a great many challenges. Now, I can't believe that you do not regard yourself as challenging listeners to rise to the conceptions of your music.
Xenakis: My problem is not to challenge the listener, no, no. To challenge myself, yes. And that is the most difficult thing, to understand, to do, and not to be driven or absorbed by your success, by the thought of a possible success or of making money out of your music. That's very important. I think that at the conservatories, whatever, or the painting schools, or even the architectural schools, that's not clearly enough stated. That is, that what they are doing is for the sake of what they are doing, the object that they are doing, not to gain money or to be wealthy or to be glorious or, as I said before, to obtain the Nobel Prize. Many people are doing that, just that.
Lansky: I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about questions of understanding.
Xenakis: Once again, if I understand that (I think that everyone's like me; I'm not exceptional.), so everybody should understand that.
Lansky: Everybody should understand. If you understand it, everybody understands it.
Lansky: OK. That answers the question! Well, let me turn the question a little sideways then. This goes back to some of the issues François-Bernard was talking about: How do you feel about the training of composers today? Since obviously your training has involved a great many fields – more than just music – how do you feel about what young composers should be doing?
Xenakis: I have bad feelings about that. They are not doing what they should do. I think that they are too much oriented to the past. And they have a pain in the neck, they don't look forward, they are like this [demonstrates]. I had the first such discussion with Messiaen – that was about forty or two-hundred years ago [laughter] when I went to him – because I was told (when I was in Paris the first time), I was told: "You know, there is a man [who] might understand you, why don't you go and see him?" He was not known at that time, Messiaen. So, I went to the conservatory and he saw some of the things that I had written for piano. My question was, "After you have read those, do you think that I have to start all over again, counterpoint and harmony and things like that that I had to stop because of the resistance movement in Athens?" He said, "Well, I think that you are gifted, but you don't need to start all over again these studies. You have to listen to music as much as you can and to write music." You see? Because that is the best – he didn't say so, I gathered that – the best way of learning music, by yourself.
And I remember, I said the same thing when I was at Tanglewood, several years ago again, when someone asked me, "What do you think about training?" I said about the same thing, that young people have to do their own stuff. That doesn't mean that they have to be ignorant of the past, we are part of the past, but we are also part of the future. And if we stay too much in the past, we are finished, especially at that age. So, a youngster has to somehow be acquainted with Guillaume de Machaut – that was another discussion that I had with some professors at the conservatory of Paris – they used to say a composition pupil has to study about seven or eight years. I said, "What for?" "He has to know how to write like Guillaume de Machaut," which I love very much, and so on and so forth until they come up to the present state. Well, I said, "That's impossible, because then they are stopped, they are finished, they are laminated." They are – how do you say – oui, tracteur, tractorized. [laughter] Now, what is the training, the necessary training for musicians, composers, but also for instrumentalists? There are some branches of mathematics, because they are embedded in music. Mr. Pythagoras perhaps started that kind of thinking, that music is linked directly to physics. And something in Aristoteles, and finally Fourier, which is borrowed from music. This is why the harmonic analysis of synthesis is now widespread in all domains of science, even in the computative and the dynamic, chaotic realms. So, they have to study that, but in an open way, an intelligent way. They have to study also about physics, about heredity, that is, genes, the evolution of species. All this is music, everywhere is music. This is what I believe. And, if they are acquainted with these things, of course, with the computers, they don't need to be programmers, because it takes a lot of time to be a programmer. They have to have some servants, some slaves that will do that work. Slaves that are intelligent, of course, who could do that work. I proposed to the French government years ago, when they were suddenly interested, to build a kind of university, a musical university, with all these things inside for the performers and for the composers, all this stuff together. They never did anything, it's worse than ever it was.
So, that's it about music, especially today where the pressure of computers is growing more and more. Twenty or thirty years ago, there were two or three people that were – like Hiller – fantasizing about computers, trying to program string quartets. Now there are thousands of people that are doing that in the States, in all the schools of music in the universities, because computers aren't closed to composers. Here in Europe, the situation is much more poor. You have in Paris one or two or three, in France three or four; perhaps it is the wealthiest. In England you have perhaps two or three, in Germany even less, and in Italy, yes, you have CNUCE/CNR in Pisa, also in Venice. There are very few such centers. But they will increase. The computer is spreading all over. You have to use that because it's so convenient, in many, many domains; but you have to know, to learn, to teach how to use it, and in what domains. Not to be as François-Bernard was saying, to be fascinated about computers so that you become like children at play. That's a terrible thing that the children are playing with machines, in the States at least. They don't do their classes. They are absolutely out of what they have to study, because they are so much involved in playing those games.
Reynolds: Referring again to an image outside of music, in the States there's been a great deal of concern recently with police action, and also in Europe. There's the concept of "necessary force," that is to say that an officer who is attempting to bring order can use only as much force as is required and no more, so that it doesn't ever fade over into violence or into arbitrary excess. Now, one of the things that I feel – this may or may not be shared by others on this panel – is that one of the traps that is opened by the computer music field isn't actually related to the computer but rather to the means of dissemination which is to say amplification and loudspeakers. And this may go back to what Paul was asking too, because I think that one of the phenomenalistic aspects of your music which is so gripping to many listeners is its intensity. That intensity exists whether the music is instrumental or electronic. And however powerful the music may be as a physical experience, it never seems to me – and I say this to you as one listener – it never seems to me without justification. Whereas, much of what I hear in the name of computer music sounds like unjustifiable or unnecessary force, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about that and in particular whether you have any thoughts on how you manage to make such force justifiable.
Xenakis: Thank you very much, Roger, you are very kind indeed. You did that several times today and I'm very obliged to you.
Reynolds: It's only for today. [laughter]
Xenakis: I think that this part of music composition is something that is above understanding. My strategy is the following: Consciousness is like somebody that is above a hole in the ground. Under the hole, underground, there are all your kinds of ideas, intuitions, habits, and so on. It's your self. You are watching your hole and you expect some interesting ideas or things to come up: forms, shapes. Now, you have to be there very attentive, and when something comes out, you decide if it's worthwhile or not. If it's worthwhile, you try to be nice with that form. If not, you take your stick [demonstrates] [and beat it] back into the hole. This strategy is very difficult because you have to foresee what that form that you like – if it's not narcissistic because it's yourself – you have to foresee if it is bearing things that could explode later on if you cultivate it. And there, nobody can help you. You are by yourself alone in a dark sky which has no galaxies, nothing.
Reynolds: But the critical thing then is to be true to your judgment.
Xenakis: Exactly, yes. You agree, I'm sure you agree. Everybody agrees about that.
Mâche: Yes, but what's coming from the black hole is not only your self, it might be something which is the self of the whole humanity. And that's more important than the individual self.
Xenakis: No, I don't know. Your individual self is humanity, you are not...
Mâche: Not necessarily.
Xenakis: ...that is – how do you say that – prétentieux.
Mâche: No, you think of yourself as a microcosmos, that's also...
Xenakis: No, no, you think nothing.
Mâche: You give yourself...
Xenakis: No, no, you forget that, forget the evaluation of the universe, of yourself, or whatever. There are forces in man that are able to distinguish and to decide if something is worthwhile. Well, he can make a mistake, as I said before, and take it because it appears to him that it's worthwhile. But it's not worthwhile because it's what he has done already. Or, as you say, it's so general, universal, that it's necessary. No. It has to be different from the universe, otherwise it's useless. Everybody can do that, more or less.
Mâche: Not everybody can know what is universal. On the contrary, I think it's very difficult because of the clichés, which are the death of the universal. From the universal, you can make something new, this is your job. And, what is universal is a universal truth which has been hidden by the clichés.
Xenakis: Where is the universe? How do you know there is a universal truth, and which one?
Mâche: This also you must feel, you have no law to judge, but we agree on that.
Xenakis: No, I don't agree, no.
Xenakis: You found that universal, yes, but then it has to be different from the universe. Supposing that you have found the universal truth, then what you have to do is [to] go away from it, because you are repeating the same thing.
Mâche: But how can people recognize your truth if it's not universal, if it is not their truth too?
Xenakis: My friend, because they have the same faculties that you have.
Mâche: That's universal.
Xenakis: The faculties, yes, but not the things that you are doing, the possibilities. This is what I said about creation, everybody has the possibility of creation.
Mâche: Yes, but the difference is that you believe in an absolute creation, and I think that absolute creation is only relative to an absolute truth which is beyond or below creation.
Xenakis: You are idealistic.
Mâche: So are you.
Rikakis: I don't want to keep going around and around, we might get dizzy. If anyone in the audience has a question, or even if Mr. Xenakis has a question for one of you, why don't we go ahead with it.
Xenakis: No, no, ask intelligent people to ask questions.
Rikakis: OK, whoever considers himself intelligent, he can put his hand up. Please if you can keep your questions very short, like, to two sentences (an exercise for the day), that would help everybody.
Audience A: Thank you. I heard your piece yesterday [Gendy3], and I enjoyed it. But it seems to me that it was traditional in the sense that you have a few voices, you could say, a sort of counterpoint. You have references perhaps to Indian shahnai music. You have contrast, stability against instability. And you have something like in all the music that has worked before. Then I feel that you wrote in the past too. Do you agree with that short analysis?
Xenakis: I think you are right. The interesting thing in what I did for myself was to create sounds from scratch. That means no using sine waves, synthesizing from existing sounds, however simple they are. The sounds are directly borrowed from probability functions. That's all. I didn't think that probability functions could produce audible sounds and then be put together to produce an evolution of timbres and other things, which I think exist in this piece. The next step would be to have a more rich, less static evolution of things. That is what you heard, which is correct, it is like having instruments that are playing more or less the same kinds of sounds. Bravo.
Rikakis: An intelligent question, let's continue with another one.
Audience B: I have two very brief questions: Mr. Xenakis, if you have, it seems, little interest in audience evaluation of your performances, your pieces, then why do you permit them to be performed in public?
Xenakis: Ah, that is a matter of the organizers of the performances. Because, really, I am doing a thing. It's like a potter. He makes a piece of pottery, and he puts it in front of him, and there are people that pass by and say, "Oh, it's interesting," others say, "It's nothing." Those that are interested in that say, "How much does it cost?" And they – I – earn money that way. Otherwise, I wouldn't have money.
About forty years ago, I did Metastaseis, which caused a scandal in Donaueschingen, in Germany, conducted by Hans Rosbaud, who was one of the greatest conductors after the war. And I went with a recording, which was a plastic record, very cheap, to the director of the French Radio and I said, "Look, you have the score," which was a large one," and the record. Would you like to listen to it?" He said, "Well, yes." And I played the recording for him. And he said, "But is that electronic sound?" I said, "No, it's orchestra." "How can it be?" You see? That was the first time and the last that I went with something I have done to a conductor. Publishers should do the same thing for you, you have an agent. But if your stuff is not interesting for people, they don't care. It's like a capitalistic system. You don't care; nothing happens. You cannot impose yourself, whatever you want, except if you have power, social power, if you are head of something. Then you can impose it on an orchestra, for instance, or if you have a friend, a conductor, or some government minister, then you might influence that, but not for a long time.
Audience B: My second question is, picking up on, it seemed, a point you made earlier, would you condemn composers who enter composition contests?
Xenakis: No. No, no. That's natural, because life is like this. The only thing that I would advise them is not to pay much attention to the competition. They shouldn't think that they are destroyed if they do not win. I remember a case when Le Corbusier wanted to take part in a design for Berlin, that was in '50 something, '56 or '57. And he asked me to design things. We did that. We participated in the contest, and he participated because there was in the jury the German architect Gropius who was one of his friends. But we won the twelfth rank. You see? His project was not interesting at all, although I had worked on that. So, you see how the competitions are. I did the same thing with the conservatory in Paris. I passed through all the obstacles of the juries until the last one, which was the decision of Mr. Mitterand himself, and there I failed because it seems the architect that won had been a loser in another contest, and so he had to be rewarded in this contest. But maybe all these are rumors, so don't believe what I said.
Audience C: Mr. Xenakis, this is not an intelligent question, so I'm sorry, but the more I sat here, the more I wanted to ask it. I grew up very close to Bloomington, Indiana, and I've imagined your life with a mixture of admiration and awe. Along the way you've encountered many sorts of frustrations and different turns. And my question, I hope you don't mind answering it, is: Are you happy with the way it turned out?
Xenakis: Haaah. How can you know? You mean "another life"; no, I don't know. You might desire, be hopeful that if you had some other life, say, you were wealthy, born wealthy, that you could have done much more in music, which is not true. You see, the life that you have is like war and peace. There is war because of all sorts of things that you cannot do anything about. It's like that, you see. Suppose that, well, I was sick, for instance, several times. I couldn't do anything about that, the doctors could have killed me also. Well, they didn't kill me, I don't say it is fortunate that they didn't kill me. It happened like this, you see.
I understand what you are saying, which exists also. If you want something, you have to stick at it, and try to realize it even if it's very difficult. For instance, I was talking with the driver yesterday who brought me here. He looked like a very intelligent man and curious about many things. He was thirty-seven years old. And I said, "Why don't you do something else instead of driving? Learn and do something – because I think you can do something else." He said, "Well, it takes a lot of effort and time." I said, "Yes, of course, but you'll be happier maybe, not completely happier, than what you are now with the appetite to do something and finding that it is impossible." So "mission impossible" is not impossible, as you know.
Audience D: I have a question. As an architect and also in the music I make, I find that what is important about architecture is, in the end, outside building, that architecture which is beyond building, beyond even material and space. And so, when I think of music I ask the same question: Is what is important about music something that is beyond sound? Do you think that perhaps that is true and, if so, what are your thoughts on that?
Xenakis: Yes. In architecture, what is more important than the material itself? Like the Taj Mahal – which was made with marble and things like that, very expensive material – I don't think it's a very important architectural piece. There are other things that are done with cheaper materials. They are much more interesting. Why? Because in architecture [it] is the problem of shapes, of proportions and the sizes, of course. These are features, kind of abstract, much more than the material itself. And if the proportions are OK, then this enlightens the materials; they become much more important, interesting. If not, then you might add gold or whatever and fail anyway.
In music, I think it's the same thing; it's the same problem. It's how to go beyond the material itself. It doesn't mean that the sound has not to be interesting in itself, well played, for instance, when there are performers. They have to be good performers, that's for sure. If they are bad performers, then everything collapses. So, it's a little different from architecture. But if you have the frame of the music, powerful and intelligent and deep, then sometimes bad performances are not so important. We can see that when you have the things that you know like Mozart, or Beethoven – the past that is music – you know the structure of it. Then even if you criticize the performance, the piece itself is saved, in your mind. You say it is the Fifth Symphony even if it is not well played, and you say it is not interesting because it was badly played, but the piece itself stands up, you see?
Audience D: Well, exactly. But then, this is why the question I asked was more radical than that. I said architecture beyond building. Literally, that what is important about architecture is architectonic thought and that presumably, therefore, what is important about music is musical thought, which may transcend sound or that may transcend the physical building, that there may in the end be a music that has no sound or an architecture that has no matter, no material, not marble.
Xenakis: We always can imagine things that have no matter at all, that is, structural things. This happens in physics, in the tiny domain of particles and also in the huge domain of the distribution of galaxies in the sky. It's an architecture that is different from what you know, from what we know. But you must remember that music is something that is in time, which means that it is an evolutionary thing. Whereas architecture has no evolution. It stands there, unless you frame something that evolutes; that is, architecture changes, then it becomes in time also. But the features of architecture are different from the features of music. On a higher level, you always can say, as Messiaen did with colors, for instance, "This is the color of vitrail, of church windows – harmony." I could say, "No, it's not that color, it's different, or not at all a color. I feel it in another way." This is a subjective translation, and there are many such things that you can do, of course.
Audience E: Iannis Xenakis has referred to music as solidified intelligence, so perhaps music should ask the questions. I'm very interested in a phrase which is now thirty years old in your works and perhaps it's one the other people on the panel could comment on. You referred to inventing music ex nihilo, going back to the axioms of music, taking it from perhaps Bertrand Russell and others, and you of all people in that vibrant decade of the 1950s attempted to reinvent from nothing, from the beginning, from scratch. Now, thirty or forty years later, do you see an emerging context for what you did? In other words, today, and very interestingly, you've referred to Messiaen, Brahms, and other people quite unexpectedly, in a way. I ask my students: "What was before Xenakis?" – and there's a shrug of the shoulders. This reinvention is very striking, but do you yourself see a larger context musically speaking, philosophically, scientifically? Is there something that you can look back on now and say, "That surrounded me when I was doing this re-creation."
Xenakis: Well, thank you for what you said. I don't know. Really, I can't say. You see, perhaps this is bound to a strategy that I tried to follow, which is to forget things. If you forget things, you might discover new things, otherwise you are oppressed by what you have done. And this is a strategy that is necessary, without forgetting – indeed – absolutely not. But, it's a kind of dual personality. Make a tabula rasa and, at the same time, have something – the whole, you see? You are able to make your own criticism of what you are doing. So, it's very difficult for me to see the general landscape. I think that it's very difficult because there is no way to know what happens. Not even with the music of somebody else that has stopped living, for instance, Stravinsky. I don't know. I know that I prefer Le Sacre (and much less his other pieces that are neoclassic, that's for sure). Because in that piece he produced new and very powerful things. Let me tell you a detail: I was very surprised when listening to the first pieces of Brahms, I found that it was Brahms already, when he was young.
Mâche: Maybe it was a better Schumann.
Xenakis: No, it was not a better Schumann, it was Brahms. He had something of Schumann, of course, but he was Brahms already, and that's interesting.
Rikakis: We have time for one more question. No more intelligent people in this room?
Audience F: I'd like to ask a very naïve question and perhaps even romantic. I'm referring to your piece yesterday [Gendy3]. I was thinking about the way it was composed, so mathematically and formalistically, and about expression, the traditional way of phrasing, of articulating. I think that those things cannot be formalized and it's very difficult to get them into this sort of music. I was just wondering how you think about this.
Xenakis: I didn't get the question, did you?
Reynolds: He's saying that if your approach is so mathematical – he's assuming it is – then how do you deal with questions of phrase and articulation, and so on? Do they play into the making of a piece like last night's?
Xenakis: The system that I have developed for that piece is not yet completely achieved. That is, there are things which are, which belong to systems of the past and things that are new that belong to new things. So, the problem is how to get rid of these past things which depend not only on decisions of a higher order but also on what I put into the mathematical formulation of the evolution. This requires a wider kind of mathematical approach, maybe one that I do not have yet. So, it's these things that I have to decide now. And working on these things is a difficult problem. The core of the thing is that you have probability functions that work both in amplitude and on the time abscissa. These probabilities have to be controlled somehow. OK. You control them with parameters that are included in the probability functions. But you might also control their jumps with mirrors that are, in this case, elastic, they are not plastic mirrors. The amplitude is bouncing about within the same size limits. These modifications are, let's say, static. It's like you are defining a kind of instrument that will do such and such kinds of sounds, even if the sound is moving in the domain of pitch. For instance, you have glissando sounds, they can move, and it depends on the probability functions, it depends on the mirrors, it depends on all these things that will complicate the result. The idea is to control, in time, all these elements, all these parameters so that you have microscopic change of all these parameters that enter and are steady for the time being. So, this is the problem now. This is why you detected the same question. You heard things that are more traditional because of that.
Audience F: I thank you very much for saying that. If I could just elaborate a litte bit: As I was listening to the piece (I was very taken by it), I was aware of a very solid compositional structure that unfolded and took me completely. But I was telling myself, there is no expression in the traditional way, of a performer's, say, breathing and phrasing. I wasn't sure if I was missing that or wasn't missing that, if the music as it stood in itself wasn't enough. I was wondering if this is something you thought about, and if you think it should be refined or – this is it?
Xenakis: About phrasing and things like that, they have to be part of the mathematics. If you heard phrasings, I didn't do anything at all, which means that it is, as Meyer-Eppler distinguished fifty years or so before, the tiny things that you are conscious of after awhile. This is the interest of probability functions, because although you do not control them point by point, they have an average evolution, a very tiny one, which goes into that domain: the liveness of the sound. I thank you that you have heard that, because that's an important feature of it. It's not produced by any kind of pianissimo or something like that, the evolution of pitch and so on. It's directly taken from the result of the probability functions with the parameters that I told you about.
Rikakis: I would like to thank very much Mr. Mâche, Mr. Lansky, and Mr. Reynolds for some interesting and wise questions, and I would like to thank Mr. Xenakis for answering them all in a very sincere and very interesting way, and for providing us all with a great conversation. Thank you for being here, thank you to all the speakers.