James Harley: Common Sonic Entities in the Electroacoustic and Orchestral Music of Iannis Xenakis

At approximately the same time as Iannis Xenakis was penning his radical scores such as Metastaseis (1954) and Pithoprakta (1956) that changed the history of orchestral music he was embarking on his apprenticeship at what became known as GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales), producing his first electroacoustic work, Diamorphoses, in 1957. Very early in his theoretical conceptions of music, as detailed in Formalized Music, was the notion of “sonic entity,” replacing traditional structures built from pitch and rhythm. The sliding glissando textures in Metastaseis are reflected in the sliding “engine” sounds in Diamorphoses, and the pointillistic string textures of Pithoprakta are reflected in the granular “embers” of Concret PH (1958). The dense 8-channel textures of Bohor (1962) are mirrored in the swirling spatial densities in Terretektor (1965). With the work Polytope de Montréal (1967), the highly textural score for four spatially-separated ensembles was conceived as an electroacoustic work, broadcast over loudspeakers as part of a multimedia installation. Other of Xenakis’s electroacoustic works are created entirely from instrumental source, more or less processed in the studio. Perhaps the most radical “crossover” of these works is Kraanerg (1969), with a live instrumental ensemble (23 players) performing together with pre-recorded material (equally substantial) produced from studio recordings of the same ensemble, divided between winds and strings, distributed amongst four channels surrounding the audience. Xenakis continued to use instrumental sonorities in his electroacoustic works until he turned definitively to computer-generated works with GENDY3 in 1991. Interestingly, in the 1990s his orchestral works move away from more obvious sonic explorations, with glissandi and pizzicato giving way to modal melodies and less opaque vertical structures, as in Dammerschein (1994). The common ontological conception of his music appears to have to some extent bifurcated, with computer-generated sonorities bearing little sonic overlap with simplified acoustic sounds.  


James Harley is a Canadian composer teaching at the University of Guelph. He obtained his doctorate at McGill University in 1994, after spending six years (1982-88) composing and studying in Europe (London, Paris, Warsaw). His music has been awarded prizes in Canada, USA, UK, France, Austria, Poland, Japan, and has been performed and broadcast around the world. Recordings include: Neue Bilder (Centrediscs, 2010), ~spin~: Like a ragged flock (ADAPPS DVD, 2015), Experimental Music for Ensembles, Drums and Electronics (ADAPPS CD, 2019). As a researcher, Harley has written extensively on contemporary music. His books include: Xenakis: His Life in Music (Routledge, 2004), and Iannis Xenakis: Kraanerg (Ashgate, 2015). As a performer, Harley has a background in jazz, and has most recently worked as an interactive computer musician, often exploring soundscape materials.