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X100: Berlin Atonal present the sonic world of Iannis Xenakis

The work of avant garde composer Iannis Xenakis profoundly shaped experimental music. X100 is a new festival at Kraftwerk Berlin celebrating his legacy.

LABOUR performing at Metabolic Rift. Photo: Pedro Kuster

This Friday, the Kraftwerk power plant opens its doors for the X100 festival, a tribute to the centenary of the birth of Iannis Xenakis, avant garde composer and musical pioneer whose work profoundly shaped experimental music. The festival is organised by OUTER – the team behind Berlin Atonal among other projects. 

“Xenakis’ ideas really reach farther than perhaps any other musical figure of the 20th century. There are noise musicians, experimental musicians and classical composers all involved with the music of Xenakis. He’s very much the experimental musician’s musician.”

We spoke with co-curators Colin Hacklander and Farahnaz Hatam of Studio LABOUR, about the Xenakis’s legacy, their own Saturday night performance, and some highlights from the festival. 

Haswell & Hecker – UPIC Diffusion Sessions – Saturday 19.11

You get these wild, wild sounds… but on the front you’re just drawing

Farahnaz Hatam: Haswell and Hecker are performing on Saturday. It’s a collaborative work. They’re using the UPIC, which was an instrument that Xenakis invented. It’s a graphical tablet with which you can literally draw sound. These drawings have been turned into an electo-acoustic diffusions which will be played over 8 multichannel speakers and combined a light spectacle.

They actually conducted research into the UPIC at the Centre for Composition of Music Iannis Xenakis in Paris. The instrument was also used by children, so it’s very intuitive. You get these wild, wild sounds that are incredibly complex in the background, but on the front you’re just drawing. 

Colin Hacklander: Xenakis was fascinated by the relationship of image to sound. I’ll probably botch the quote, but he once said something in an interview, like: “With such apt tools the composer is like the pilot of a spaceship, able to traverse galaxies.”  

LABOUR presents sungazing – Saturday 19.11 

CH: This is our own performance. At X100, LABOUR is premiering a new work which involves a large, mixed ensemble, both of amplified and unamplified sounds. It’s one of the largest works we’ve ever done: seven string players, 30 Percussionists, four dancers and three visual artists.

With such apt tools the composer is like the pilot of a spaceship, able to traverse galaxies

FH: One of the things this piece explores is architectural space. Xenakis worked as an architect under Le Corbusier. He actually designed transportable structures within which his pieces would be diffused. His work is all about cross pollinating from these different fields of inquiry. 

CH: In our piece, there’s also this theme of immersion. Xenakis had string pieces for the orchestra that would involve 100 string players, distributed throughout the audience. The audience would sit amongst them. We’re doing the same. Less string players, but still quite a large group, and the players will be distributed throughout the entire space, amongst the audience, emerging from the larger group.  

X100 is at the Kraftwerk from 18-20 November 2022

Iancu Dumitrescu’s Hyperion Ensemble – Friday 18.11

CH: This is another highlight it would be good to pick out. Iancu Dumitrescu is a living, Romanian “hyper-spectral” composer. His Hyperion Ensemble has been active since the late 70s. Xenakis was actually born in Romania and spoke Romanian. Iancu interviewed him once in the 80s. But there’s also a strong aesthetic musical relation between them: the way they explore the impact of sound and their attention to detail in their visually impressive scores. Iancu will present five pieces, all having their world premiere at the festival on the Friday. 

Christian Benning Percussion Group – Pléïades – Sunday 20.11

CH: We’re really happy about being able to present several percussion works of Xenakis during the festival, and this is one we absolutely love. Pléïades is a percussion piece which is wonderful because somehow I think it wraps up the entire essence of Xenakis: complexity, precision and capturing a sense of ritual. 

These are going to be performed by the Christian Benning Percussion Group, and they’re using another instrument that Xenakis invented called the sixxen, a microtonal metal instrument that’s quite beautiful. It looks like metal bars laid flat. 

Colin Hacklander and Farahnaz Hatam of Studio LABOUR. Photo: Frankie Casillo

PHØNIX16 – Nuits – Sunday 20.11

He strips the language of meaning… It becomes a kind of pure emotion.

FH: Another piece which I find quite amazing, really, is this vocal ensemble for 12 mixed voices. It’s going to be on Sunday night. The work is dedicated to political prisoners. Xenakis was a resistance fighter himself in his youth and remained radical in his thinking. In this piece he only uses phonemes and syllables, which strips the language of meaning and focuses on its use as musical material. It becomes a kind of pure emotion.

CH: It’s influenced by ancient languages of Persian and Sumerian. And as for those biographical details Farah mentioned, Xenakis was born in Romania but grew up in Greece. He was there when the Axis invaded and fought in the resistance, both against the Nazis and then against then troops Churchill sent in to reinstate the monachy. He was injured in street fighting; you can see the wound on the side of his face  in photos. He was almost killed, so it’s kind of a miracle we get to hear this music at all.  

Puce Mary – Ride of Discord – Sunday 20.11

FH: One final contemporary piece we’re excited to mention is Puce Mary in collaboration with Bill Kouligas. This piece was commissioned especially for X100, and is inspired by Xenakis’s mathematical models and his use of game theory. We’ve not heard it yet, but we’re very curious about it. It’s an exciting idea, this use of game theory to work through automated sequences that oscillate between harmony and chaos. But exactly how they’re going to do it? We can’t tell you. 

BIO: Iannis Xenakis (born 1922) led a life of prolific and visionary musical output. Though born in Romania, he grew up in Greece and fought against the invasion of the country by the Axis forces, and the British forces later sent in by Churchill to restore monarchy. During street fighting, Xenakis was injured, blinded in his left eye by shrapnel from a tank blast. After the war, Xenakis moved to Paris and worked in the architectural studio of Le Corbusier. Ideas from architecture and drawing to music theory and light design would inform his artistic output for the rest of his life. His utopian work continues to serve as a challenge and an inspiration to musicians today.