How Xenakis Worked

Xenakis, man.
I love reading about how other composers worked – there’s always something useful to glean for you own practices, and there’s always something reassuring in seeing that, for pretty much everyone, the successful completion of a creative endeavor boils down to a lot of time, effort, and trial and error.

Recently Michael Collins hipped me to Iannis Xenakis’ book Formalized Music, in which Xenakis describes many aspects of his approach to and philosophy of composing.

Among other things (including a whole lot of math talk), Xenakis describes his process for composing, which I share here along with my own explanations of what these terms mean:

  1. Initial conceptions: – “Intuitions” and ideas
  2. Definition of the sonic entities: – figure out the sounds you’re working with (orchestra? wind ensemble? no-input mixer?)
  3. Definition of the transformations: – “macro-composition” – in other words, big ideas, structure, logical framework, and order in which these things will happen
  4. Microcomposition – choice and detailed “fixing” of the relationships of these elements (basically macro composition but on a finer scale)
  5. Sequential programming of 3 and 4 – figuring out the schema and any patterns of the work in its entirety
  6. Implementation of calculations, verifications…and modifications – what you and I would call the demo/reading session and then making revisions based on what we heard
  7. Final symbolic result: – Finalizing the score
  8. Sonic realization: – Debut performance!As his book indicates (and as you may sense from this list), Xenakis was a very structured, analytical thinker. However, I think this process, terminology notwithstanding, could apply to a lot of creators in a lot of of fields.

    (if you’re interested in the book, I’m not sure it’s public domain, but you know, Google…)

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