Thursday, February 18, 2010
The sound of forms
The Iannis Xenakis exhibition at the Drawing Center featured over 60 drawings, photos, musical pieces and documents that span the avant-garde composer/architect's career from 1953 to 1984. I didn't know much about musical composition. But through the hand sketches and the almost-architectural diagrams of sound and rhythm, I saw the strong connection between music, mathematics, and architecture that Xenakis had explored throughout his life.
One piece that struck me the most (perhaps it was just the easiest piece for an amateur to understand) was Mycènes Alpha (1978), shown at a listening station with a flat screen TV. As the thin bar swept across the screen on a series of funny shapes and strange lines, I heard fluctuating noises. My first reaction was, "Is this even music?" But after a while, I realized what I heard came from what I saw - the graphics was actually a score. The pitch was represented on the Y- axis in relation to the X- axis on which you read the time from left to right.
This was the first piece of music generated by the UPIC (Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu), developed by the Centre d'Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (CEMAMu) in Paris. Xenakis used a electrostatic stylus to draw waveforms and volume envelopes on the drawing board, which were then rendered by the computer into sounds. The visual-sonic translation was so literal that it was almost relentless. Did Xenakis know exactly what it would sound like? Probably not. But he was able to let loose the end result and make the act of composition truly experimental. This "arts/sciences alloy" enabled you to hear the "formalized music", the sound of forms - singularity and multiplicity, branching and convergence, chaos and order.
It reminded me of the so-called "parametric design" in architecture now. It's a lie compared to what Xenakis did 30 years ago. It will be convincing only when architects are 1) clear about the relevant principles and rationales (aka parameters); and 2) let go and stop micro-controlling the end object (aka design).