9 Nov 2007

"Xenakis, prophet of insensibility" (Milan Kundera)

In doing some reading about Xenakis, I came across an intruiging essay by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera. Through a short sketch of some of the basic parameters of western music, he explains the revolutionary character of Xenakis's music. Reading the passage together with the former (on immediate revelation) might help us to understand his work as the musical equivalent of a 'transcendental materialist' position.
"European music is based on the artificial sound of the note and the (tone) scale; it opposes the brutal and objective sonority of the world. As a result of an unbreakable convention European music is obliged from the beginning to express a subjectivity. It seems to fight the sonority of the outside world, like a sensitive being resisting the insensitivity of the universe. European civilization (from the year thousand on) is one of the only civilizations accompanied by a huge and dazzling history of music. This civilization - with its adoration of the suffering of Jezus, its courtly love, its cult of the bourgeois family, its patriotic passions - shaped the sentimental man. Music has played an integral and decisive part in the ongoing process of sentimentalization. But it can happen at a certain moment (in the life of a person or of a civilization) that sentimentality (previously considered as a humanizing force, softening the coldness of reason) becomes unmasked as ‘the supra-structure of a brutality’. This was the moment at which music appeared to me as the ear deafening noise of the emotions, while the sound-world in the works of Xenakis became beauty; beauty purified of the dirt, purified of sentimental barbary. To be a ‘prophet of insensibility’ Joyce could remain novelist; Xenakis had to step out of music. Xenakis opposes the whole of the European history of music. His point of departure is elsewhere; not in an artificial sound isolated from nature in order to express a subjectivity, but in an earthly ‘objective’ sound, in a mass of sound which does not rise from the human heart, but which approaches us from the outside, like raindrops or the voice of wind."
M. Kundera, Prophète de l’Insensibilité, in M. Fleuret (ed.), Regards sur Iannis Xenakis, 1981, Paris. (the translation is mine)

Iannis Xenakis - Concret PH (mp3) (A short piece written for the Phillips-pavillion (cf. picture) at the World Expo 1958. Manipulation of the sound of fire).

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