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About this Piece

Composed: 1953-54

Length: 7 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, bass clarinet, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, side drum, tambor, triangle, wood block, xylophone), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic

During World War II, Xenakis fought in Greece with the communist-led National Liberation Front, which then opposed the British efforts to restore the monarchy after the war. In the ensuing "White Terror," he was condemned to death and had his Greek citizenship revoked. He managed to get into Italy on a fake passport in 1947, and from there he crossed into France in hopes of eventually getting to the United States.

He remained in Paris, however, and in 1951 he joined the office of architect Le Corbusier as an engineer. He became interested in Le Corbusier's system of numerical proportions, which the architect described in his Modulor publications. Xenakis was soon thinking about applying some of these concepts to music composition.

Although he had broad musical experience, Xenakis' formal training was limited. In Paris he began to make up for lost time by taking Messiaen's analysis course at the Conservatory and by studying privately with Honegger and Milhaud. With his engineering and architectural interest in sound masses and shapes, it is not surprising that Xenakis' first compositions were for orchestra. He particularly liked massed string instruments for their ability to slide smoothly across the pitch continuum.

These elements came together in Metastaseis, composed during 1953 and 1954 and first performed at the 1955 Donaueschingen Festival under the direction of Hans Rosbaud. Xenakis translated Metastaseis as "dialectic transformations," and the transformation of musical structures and parameters was to be a consistent focus of Xenakis' compositions.

In Metastaseis, Xenakis applied some of Le Corbusier's Modulor geometric progressions to the organization of intervallic structures and the duration of dynamics and timbres. He also sketched the string glissandos in an architectural graph, with pitch on the y-axis and time on the x-axis. (The shapes of these graphed glissandos - hyperbolic paraboloids - influenced his design for the Philips Pavilion and the Le Corbusier/Varèse Poème électronique a few years later.)

Metastaseis begins with the strings - and each string part is individually notated, 46 in all - in unison on a soft G natural. One by one, the strings glide off on carefully plotted glissandos, growing quickly to a furiously buzzing mass, with extreme alternations of dynamics and timbre. A section of thinner texture has the parts notated in three different time signatures, coinciding on every downbeat. Winds and percussion roil the waters, particularly in the second half of the work, but this is certainly string-centered music. The closing features massed glissandos before settling on a buzzing unison G sharp, fading from fff to ppp.

-- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications