Interview with Carey Lovelace and Sharon Kanach: Curators of “Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary”

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Iannis Xenakis, Study for Metastaseis, 1954
(Image Courtesy of the Drawing Center)

I had the chance this week to speak with Carey Lovelace and Sharon Kanach, the co-curators behind a new exhibition of composer Iannis Xenakis’s sketches, drawings, scores and plans spanning from 1953 -1984 titled “Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary.” The show opens at the Drawing Center on Friday, January 15th and it will run through April 8th. To coincide with the exhibition, a number of arts organizations in New York City organized public programs on Xenakis’s work in collaboration with the Drawing Center, including a virtual reality rendering of Poème Électronique, a three-day colloquium bringing together Xenakis scholars from the Americas, and much more. Please check the full schedule here (scroll to the bottom).

Based in Paris, Sharon Kanach worked very closely Xenakis for two decades, as a translator of his works, as a scholar and as Vice-President of Centre Iannis Xenakis (formerly CCMIX) in France. Carey Lovelace is an independent curator and writer based in New York. Both are former students of Xenakis.

I’m wondering how you, Carey and Sharon, began working on this exhibition and pulling together materials for the show.

Sharon: Iannis, during his lifetime, put his archives on deposit at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. So, these 80 moving boxes arrived at the Bibliothèque and the Bibliothèque called up Françoise, his wife, and said, “Now what do we do with them?” And then she said, call Sharon. I said we should start with an inventory. When I saw the wealth of the material, I said I couldn’t do it alone, and so we created a small team. It was through this inventory process that I was amazed, because here I had worked with him very very closely, but I had no idea of what was in those folders […] When I started this inventory process, I just saw that there was this treasure trove of material about everything, not only the architectural projects, but all of his sketches, for the musical works, and a lot of unpublished articles. As we said in the catalog, he was always thinking through the hand, one way or the other. Either drawing or writing, he always had a pen in hand. That’s when Carey and I happened to have lunch, and I said you have to see this. […] The idea of creating a critical edition of his writings came out of this inventory process. [Note: Sharon Kanach is working on a critical edition of Xenakis’s writings and unpublished papers with Makis Solomos and Benoît Gibson.]

Carey: Right, so Sharon was involved with this critical edition project, which was quite exciting and really interesting. She was talking about how these things had surfaced, launching an English edition here, and I said, well, we should do an exhibition together. Sharon said, you should come to France and look at the documents at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and I said that’s a great idea. […] When we were thinking about doing this show and where the dream place to organize it - I definitely thought of the Drawing Center because of the material itself and because I think it’s such a great institution. The more I got into this project, for me personally, the more I realized just how much he did think through the hand, and he did draw and it was so much a part of his process. It was so ideal for this place. I knew him really as a composer dealing with mathematical models, and I knew of his architectural background. The more you get into him, the more levels there are, and the more you discover. […]

Sharon: What was revelatory for me, when going through the documents, sitting at a reading table at the Bibliothèque with Carey was realizing, what I dare say, a painterly approach he had to the blank page. Even if he’s writing an article, the placement of his text and everything is extremely important. His use of color, his use of the line, I saw it as part of his creative process. Then you abstract it from the work it is related to, and it’s a gorgeous piece of art. I don’t think he did it intentionally like that, it was almost a déformation professionnelle - of just dealing with the blank page as a canvas.

I actually wanted to ask you about Xenakis and painting. In the chapter on Polytopes in the Nouritza Matossian biography of Xenakis, she quotes him as saying “Cinema is limited to a flat screen which is a little window” and in his polytope structures, she says that he attempted to achieve “cinematographic painting” which would go beyond this little window, creating a fully immersive light and sound environment. How well versed was Xenakis in painting - and how do you think painting influenced his work?

Sharon: I think there’s one very important thing to point out in the quote from Matossian. I think there’s a mistranslation - I think they’re talking about kinetic, not cinematographic [painting].

Carey: Yeah, I think the thing that’s so interesting to me about him, along the same lines, is that he really has an architectonic sense of space, no matter what he does. Musically he does, architecturally he did. Even on a flat page, when you look at some of those drawings, he’ll have colored ink, and then pencil, it’s almost like three dimensions are happening on the page. So, it’s not so much painterly. He was trained as an architect and as an engineer, he sort of thought in terms of systems. […]

Sharon: I think for him, painting was something separate. I think he was interested in painting, his wife certainly collects painting until this day, their daughter is a painter and sculptor, he’s sensitive to it. When I say his approach was painterly, it was in terms of really a visual artist, not as a painter who paints, etc.

Carey: Almost more profound than that, to me what is so riveting about him is his process. Like a lot of people will take what the culture gives you, and they’ll go through that, and that’s how they form what they think. It’s like he went to the foundation of the arts, like the physical basis in physics. That’s partly why he was involved with technology at such a formative level, and so many different media. He saw things as almost an engineer would in terms of their structural relationship to one another. He conceptualized that, which translates into technology, but it can also translate into music, it can also translate into graphics and all sorts of things.

Sharon: I think the keyword also is abstraction. This is what he preached - morning, noon, and night. Getting away from figuration, from narration, for him, going deeper and deeper into the fundaments of making music or making architecture or making whatever. The more and more abstract you are, the more original you can be. This was always his quest - of trying to take the very basic materials and doing something original with them.

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Iannis Xenakis, Study for Polytope de Montréal, 1967
(Image courtesy of the Drawing Center)

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Iannis Xenakis, Study for Polytope de Montréal (light score), 1966
(Image courtesy of the Drawing Center)

This relates to something else I wanted to talk about, which is Xenakis’s approach to the overall form of the composition. Sharon, in your essay in the catalog you discuss how drawing allowed Xenakis to visualize the whole of the musical composition - a move that was distinct in that most composers were trained to think of the small, micro structures that eventually formulate the whole, instead of beginning with the entirety in mind. How do you think this method influenced the precision with which Xenakis directed individual performers? It seemed like he didn’t allow a lot of space for interpretation, in order to achieve this overarching structure.

Sharon: Absolutely. One of the public programming events is also the launch of a book called Performing Xenakis, where I’ve asked 30 international champions of his music to write, maybe half of them have worked with him and half of them haven’t. So, we’re trying to create the beginning of a history of performing Xenakis, because it is a different paradigm, in a way. It’s very interesting, that absolutely every single person who has worked with him talks about that, talks about having to be able to grasp the whole. […] They all talk about architecture, saying that it’s not only because he was an architect, the music is that. It is not architectonic music, it is music that is conceived that way. You have to work on it that way, in order to be able to negotiate it. […] Negotiate is precisely the word that describes the challenges that are presented to a performer who is asked to do things that may have been natural, but are no longer natural. For example, vibrato. He was adamantly opposed to vibrato. A kid, when he picks up a violin, doesn’t start doing the vibrato, it’s something you learn. So, in order to play Xenakis, you have to go back to sort of a primitive state of playing the instrument. That primitive, raw sound is absolutely what he was after. […] He’s always asking performers to go beyond, the whole idea of self-surpassment is something that he was a model for, his own life was a model of that and it was certainly something that he imposed, not requested, imposed on those around him. […]

The other subject I wanted to talk to you about was Xenakis’ invention of the UPIC - a computerized compositional device created in 1977 that allows the user to draw waveforms on a tablet which would translate to sound in real time. Sharon, you discuss the UPIC in the latter part of your essay in the catalog. How did Xenakis implement the UPIC? Was it meant to be a machine that would encompass both orchestra and composer in one contained unit? Or do you think the UPIC was meant to be simply an instrument - one element in a larger ensemble?

Sharon: I would take it from a totally different angle. Actually, one of the articles in Performing Xenakis is about whether the UPIC is a performing instrument or not. Basically, not. It’s a compositional tool. Instead of doing computer music on a computer at the time - Fourtran and all this - he created this drawing table that reversed the sound synthesis process and therefore, created a tape. And the tape itself was supposed to be the composition. That’s what Mycenae Alpha is. […]

Carey: You would go directly into sound. That’s the point. There’s nothing between - you can just draw the sound. […]

Sharon: In Formalized Music, I believe, there is an appendix on the UPIC which kind of explains why he created it. […] I’m not an electronic music expert, but he completely reverses the way electronic music was conceived at the time. In my own personal experience with it, with the first generation UPIC in the late 1970s, it was extremely frustrating. I wanted it to do what you were saying, I wanted to go in there with an oscillograph of a clarinet, copy it into the machine, and have the machine play back a clarinet. It wouldn’t do it. It had a mind of its own, a mind that was a very Xenakian mind. […] It was a research center, the CEMAMu [Centre d’Etudes Mathématiques et Automatique Musicales], which developed the UPIC. It was a very expensive machine, it was like $50,000. There was only one machine, and it started becoming very popular as a pedagogic tool. You didn’t have to know how to read music in order to make music. So we did a lot of workshops with kids, with blind people, with people who were musically illiterate, the machine traveled to Japan. It was a hot item. And Iannis was like, what am I going to work on? Because it was always traveling. Then in 1985 the Atelier UPIC was created, which received a grant to create one or two other machines. Those would be what would travel, and the CEMAMu would keep its machine, and keep doing research and refining the software.


Iannis Xenakis,Mycenae Alpha, 1978