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Xenakis invokes resonant myth with elemental sounds

Composer Iannis Xenakis pictured in 1966.Getty

This week, on Tuesday and Thursday, Neil Heyde, cellist of the Kreutzer Quartet and professor at London’s Royal Academy of Music, performs two concerts at Harvard University. The music is mostly contemporary, and on Tuesday mostly new. But the concert on Thursday features Iannis Xenakis’s “Kottos,” a piece that invokes both the ancient and the avant-garde — and critiques the separation between the two.

In Greek mythology, Kottos and his two brothers were giants, each with 50 heads and 100 arms (Hence their collective name, the Hekatonkheires — “hundred-handed”). They were children of Gaia (the earth) and Ouranus (the sky), but Ouranus regarded them as monsters, banishing them to the hell-like abyss of Tartarus. Gaia’s son Kronos, the leader of the Titans, the second generation of Greek gods, overthrew Ouranus, but Kottos and his brothers remained imprisoned. Zeus finally freed the Hekatonkheires, using their power to defeat the Titans; the giants became Tartarus’s guards, rather than its inmates.


Xenakis (1922-2001) was an exile. In the 1940s, he was a member of ELAS, the Communist-led Greek resistance, helping to drive the Nazis from Greece. The subsequent British occupation and the conservative Greek monarchy turned against ELAS; Xenakis, having survived a British shell that destroyed his eye and shattered his face, fled. (The Greek government sentenced him to death in absentia.) He settled in Paris, working as an architect and, then, a composer.

Persecution, victory, partisans, exiles — parallels between Xenakis’s life and the Kottos story abound. But the 1977 piece, growling and grinding with sonic force (Xenakis instructs that it “not be beautiful or nice in the usual sense, but rough, harsh and full of noise”), is more elemental than narrative. Xenakis’s music was often such: fiercely, ritualistically formal, exhilaratingly complex, irresistibly present. As one scholar, Sander van Maas, noted, it “defies [subjectivity’s] central position in modern aesthetics.” Xenakis sought embodiment rather than empathy.


Still, again and again, Xenakis framed pieces around the Greek myths. In a way, it was another resistance, rescuing the myths’ visionary potential from exploitation, political or otherwise. François-Bernard Mâche, Xenakis’s friend and fellow composer, put it this way: “Xenakis has exchanged the modern Greece with which he felt so frustrated for a mythical Greece, to which he has given an intensity yet unknown. . . . [H]e has forgotten folklore in order to rediscover the fundamental laws which allow it to bloom.” In Xenakis’s portrayal, Kottos is not referenced, but reborn.

Neil Heyde performs Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 3 p.m. in the courtyard of the Harvard Art Museums (free with museum admission; www.harvardartmuseums.org) and Thursday Feb. 12, at 4 pm in the Kirkland House Junior Common Room (free; the Common Room is not wheelchair accessible — e-mail Richard Beaudoin at beaudoin@fas.harvard.edu to arrange needed access; www.music.fas.harvard.edu).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.