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The Composer Who Used Coloured Pencils

A new show offers a compelling portrait of an avant-garde visionary whose music still resonates

Emily Howell stirred up a lot of controversy when she released her first album last winter. Not because the music itself was particularly groundbreaking or offensive, but because Emily Howell was not a real person—she was a computer program. The music was composed by a software program designed by a University of California computer scientist.

It’s surprising so few were reminded of Iannis Xenakis, one of the first musicians to meld mathematical principles and formulae with his creative process. But unlike Emily Howell, Xenakis didn’t do it for novelty’s sake. An engineer and architect by training, he used architectural and mathematical concepts to give music a sense of physicality. He aimed to make music that inhabited a structural and emotional space.

The avant-garde composer is the subject of an exhibition at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). “Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary” presents Xenakis as a compelling multimedia artist. Born in the early twenties to Greek parents living in Romania, Xenakis is perhaps known best for his avant-garde compositions. But before he began to write music, Xenakis also studied architecture and engineering, even working with Le Corbusier in the forties and fifties. Guests to the CCA can borrow iPods loaded with Xenakis’ compositions and listen to key tracks while viewing his precise drawings of how he thought sound waves would hit audience members, columns of minute mathematical calculations or a vibrant series of geometric shapes drawn with coloured pencil on pale yellow graph paper.

Xenakis’ precision and rigour blow the flaky artist stereotype out of the water. Each of Xenakis’ compositions was planned down to the last detail; plans for his scores show progression from calculations to colour-coded graphs and structural drawings to, finally, more traditional sheet music. Sculptural shapes made their way into the compositions; in some cases drawn shapes or patterns can be heard quite clearly in finished compositions.

The CCA’s exhibition progresses chronologically, closing with an early computer printout of calculations over which Xenakis has traced his usual coloured lines and symbols. The perfect, grey rows of numbers now replace Xenakis’ earlier, less sterile pencil notations. It’s one of the few moments in the show that looks Xenakis’ pioneering compositional style and hints at what will follow. He may have laid the groundwork for the Emily Howells of the future, but I doubt he would have made that choice himself. After all, Emily has no use for coloured pencils.

“Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary” is on display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1920 Baile St., Montreal) through Oct. 17. For more information, visit


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