As night fell on September 2, 1978, Iannis Xenakis stood, walkie-talkie in hand, by his console on the back row of a temporary seating stand. As he looked across Mount Elias in the northeastern Peloponnese from his vantage point in the foothills, he could survey a peculiar kind of avant-garde circus with hundreds of performers, both animal and human, all under his personal control like a conductor with his orchestra. For the next four days, some 10,000 spectators would pass through those bleachers to witness the “Polytope de Mycénes,” a spectacle of light and sound combining ancient myth and modernist aesthetics, high technology and rural tradition, quite unlike any other, before or since.
Over the course of each 90-minute evening, the gathered crowds would see and hear herds of goats with handmade bells tied around their necks and electric lights between their horns leaping across the mountainside; shoals of local school children carrying torches; anti-aircraft searchlights (on loan from the Greek Ministry of Defense) criss-crossing the sky; 14 soloists from the Lorraine Philharmonic, a six-strong percussion ensemble, two narrators, and multiple choirs (singing in a variety of extinct languages); electronic sounds diffused through loudspeakers secreted into the gorges and other geographic features of the landscape; fireworks, processions, projected films, and even the army, which was on hand to help with crowd control.
Xenakis’s 22-year-old daughter, Mâkhi, sitting by his side that night on the grandstands, remembers the event “like a dream.” For the composer himself, who first visited the Bronze Age archaeological site on a school trip at 14, but spent most of the intervening years exiled from his country with a warrant on his head, it must have been quite the pinch-me moment. A headline in the French journal L’aurore spectacle captured something of the irony: “3,000 Greek soldiers at Mycenae under the orders of a man once condemned to death, Iannis Xenakis.”
Two exhibitions currently on view at the EMST contemporary art museum in Athens reveal a composer whose life was shaped by conflict and contradiction. Révolutions Xenakis, curated by Mâkhi and Laurent Bayle, opened in Paris last year and has now made its way to Athens under the title Sonic Odysseys; the capital also hosts Xenakis and Greece, curated by Stamatis Schizakis of the museum and Stella Kourbana of the Athens Conservatory. Together, they capped a host of events celebrating Xenakis’s centenary in the city he once called home. 2022 saw a series of special performances at the Athens’ Megaron concert hall and a major week-long multi-venue international symposium; in December, the Athens Conservatory hosted an eight-hour networked performance with musicians from ten countries connected via the internet. As the EMST’s artistic director Katerina Gregos said, “As a Greek working in the field of contemporary culture it is impossible not to know Xenakis. It’s like being French and not knowing Messiaen.”
Still, “Xenakis had a very difficult relation with Greece,” Schizakis told me. Born to Greek parents in Brăila, Romania, Xenakis was teased for his accent at the boarding school he attended on the Aegean island of Spetses. After moving to Athens in 1938, he fought against successive waves of fascist occupiers as a member of the People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) during World War II. And he continued to fight when British tanks rolled into the city in 1944. In the urban conflict of December that year, shrapnel from a nearby explosion shattered his cheekbones and almost killed him, leaving him scarred for life. Conscripted into the national army against his will, seeing former comrades arrested to be tortured at Makronisos prison and wondering when his own turn might come, in September 1947 he fled via Italy to Paris on a forged passport. When he arrived at the French consul in Rome, the clerk said to him: “Of course we both know that this is a forgery but do you know just what a bad forgery it is?” Sentenced to death in absentia for desertion, it would be 27 years before he set foot on Greek soil again.
For Mâkhi Xenakis, there is no question that these events strongly marked not only the man her father was to become, but also the music he would make. “He was an insurgent with his music,” she told me. “When you hear his music, you can feel that it’s always a fight, an enormous fight, just to exist. That is why he didn’t like light music. For him, music was something that touches the very question of human existence.” Mâkhi spoke to me via Zoom from the family’s home away from home in Corsica one sunny afternoon this August. Now in her 60s, with a warmth and playfulness to her features framed by purple-rimmed glasses and a waft of auburn hair, she still remembers fondly the time she spent in that house as a child. “We were here all the summers,” she says. “Because it’s the Mediterranean—it’s the same nature as Greece.”
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In 1984, six years after the “Polytope de Mycénes,” Xenakis was again invited to propose a spectacular light and sound event—to be held, this time, in the center of the Greek capital. At the suggestion of Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri, the European Union had decided to institute an annual program of rotating Capitals of Culture, with Athens selected as the first city to be so fêted the following year. Xenakis’s proposal for the celebrations constituted, in Gregos’s words, “his most ambitious and expansive project ever.” The piece, as planned, required 36 helicopters specially painted in phosphorescent colors, the searchlights and sirens of the entire Greek naval fleet, 150 hot air balloons, a procession of 500 torch-bearing men, several thousand homing pigeons bearing light-up diodes, and in the midst of it all, a speech from the Greek president himself. The whole city, from the port of Piraeus to the roof of the Acropolis and the church bells of every parish, was to be its stage.
The event never took place. This time Xenakis’s vision had simply proved too grandiose, his demands too extravagant. But perhaps the Greek state was also coming round to the opinion that radical former exiles like Xenakis had exhausted their usefulness. The start of the Greek socialist party Pasok’s second term in office in 1985 was marked by violent protests following the fatal shooting of 15-year-old student demonstrator Michalis Kaltezas by a police officer. Pasok’s administration ended four years later amid lurid scandals, accusations of corruption, and a growing sense among parts of the Greek electorate that the two parties who now accounted for nearly 85 percent of the nationwide vote had less and less to distinguish them.
Since that time, despite dozens of new works presented in France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Japan, and the UK, only one short work by Xenakis (“La déesse Athéna”) received its premiere in Greece. Up until the centenary celebrations of last year, the Megaron only programmed Xenakis’s music eight times in the 30 years since its inauguration. As a result, as Giorgos Koumendakis, director of the Greek National Opera, told me, “during the 1980s and ’90s, performances [of his work] only became less common.”
In the years prior to that, there was a brief flourishing of interest in the once-exiled composer who returned home, Schizakis said, a “superstar.” In the summer of 1974, following months of strikes and student occupations, the military junta ruling Greece had abruptly collapsed. That November, the country held its first free elections in a decade. Political exiles—Xenakis among them—were cleared of their charges and allowed to return home. (A reel of film shot by the composer’s friend Maurice Fleuret shows Xenakis in Athens for the first time since he fled over a quarter of a century earlier, wide-eyed and beaming at the Acropolis, climbing the Parthenon steps with guidebook in hand.)
Despite the dramatic events of 1974, the dismantling of the Greek police state and the transition to multi-party democracy (known as metapolitefsi) was a slow and painful process marked by occasional spectacular gestures like the “Polytope de Mycénes” itself. And yet Greek culture was invigorated in the immediate post-junta years. There was a renewed sense of optimism spurred on by a sense of returning to “normal” (even if “normal” was often taken to mean simply “European”). But with metapolitefsi declared achieved, there followed a long period of commercialization and slow stagnation as the neoliberal order took hold. As Gregos put it to me, “from the mid-1980s onwards, the politics died down and with it all the avant-gardist art that was being championed during that period. If one adds to that the spread of globalization and American pop culture that took over Greece, the cultural context changed completely. In this climate, Xenakis had no place.”
Xenakis used to joke that he was born 2,000 years too late. The titles of his works and his attraction to archaeological sites speak to a fascination with a mythologized Greece quite divorced from its present culture, towards expressions of which (such as rebetiko music) he could be openly scornful. “He preferred the time of Plato and Sophocles,” his daughter told me. In the Greece of the late ‘70s, keen to establish its place as the cradle of European civilization, Xenakis’s outlook was politically useful. It was able to signify abstract notions of change and modernity while safely avoiding any specifics, paradoxically locating that promised new era far off in the distant past. But in the years that followed, as the Greek composer Giorgos Koumendakis put it to me, “a composer of his stature would have had to make many compromises, both financial and artistic.” There was public money for cultural projects in the post-metapolitefsi era—witness the millions lavished upon the Megaron itself. But it was not always evenly distributed, with funding mechanisms often criticized for their partiality and conservatism.
In the years following Xenakis’s return, much had been made of the prodigal composer. In 1975, a week of performances dedicated to his work was organized by three of the biggest cultural institutions in the country, the National Gallery, the National Opera, and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. In 1977, a new work, “À Hélène,” was premiered at the Theatre of Epidaure by the Choir of the National Theatre of Greece. Then, in 1978, came the “Polytope de Mycénes.” But the celebrations would be short-lived and in the last two decades of his life Xenakis would return to Greece only sporadically, to go kayaking around the Cycladic island summerhouse of his friend, François-Bernard Mâche.
Koumendakis does hear a certain “rough-hewn Greeknes” in Xenakis’s music. Other Greek composers I spoke to agree. Thanasis Deligianis, a featured artist for the Greek Pavilion at Venice next year, grew up in rural Thessaly, the child of traditional musicians. Hearing Xenakis’s music for the first time as a composition student, Deligianis felt an immediate connection to his own “experience of the countryside as a soundscape. It’s recreating an experience that at its core is quite familiar.”
Toward the end of our Zoom conversation, Mâkhi Xenakis carried her laptop outside to show me the view from the Corsican holiday home where the family had spent so many summers. Beyond the rosemary bushes and cypress trees sprouting from the hillside, I could see the brilliant azure of the Mediterranean glimmering at the horizon. Through the crackly Zoom connection, I couldn’t quite hear the sheep and goats, or the tolling of the semantron mentioned by Deligianis among the sounds he associated with Xenakis’s music and with his own childhood in rural Greece; but they wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the scene before my eyes. For a long time, Mâkhi told me, her father would never speak about the formative experiences of his youth, about the sadness that exile instilled in him, only opening up to his family in his final years. “So he decided to rebuild Greece in Corsica,” she continued. “His life, his family, his friends were not in Greece anymore. For him, Greece was in Corsica.” ¶
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