Iannis Xenakis, through his wife’s eyes

Before my meeting with Francoise Xenakis, I was uncomfortable. Our meeting was to be about a book, but a different kind of book, since her «Look How Our Roads Have Closed» (Patakis) is the tale of a death: the death of her partner, the composer Iannis Xenakis. But Francoise Xenakis is a cheerful, optimistic 72-year-old woman (though she looks much younger), who talks about everything with the same composure: about the 53 years she shared with Iannis Xenakis, about feminism, about her books and about life and death. My first reaction on reading this book before the interview was one of discomfort. What should I ask? With this book you wanted to share a very personal experience with many people. Is there much meaning in one sharing such a personal experience? This particular book was the completion of life, something that is a given and unquestionable. We all die, but we can’t all tell about the experience of life and death. I talked about a disease that is probably quite rare, which causes a person’s neurological and mental faculties to deteriorate. At the same time, I wanted to demythologize the National Health Service of France. How did you feel when you completed the book? I felt as though I had fulfilled my duty, my mission. Now, I am relaxing. Together for 53 years She met Iannis Xenakis when she was 18 years old. «He was lucky,» she says jokingly, «because I was just a girl then and it was easy for him to direct me, to shape me. Had I been older, I would have given him a slap in the face.» Naturally, she acknowledges that she also influenced his habits and behavior. «I gave him a smile, I taught him to be happy, that life isn’t all serious. This doesn’t mean that we never had any tense moments or arguments.» After 53 years together, what does companionship mean to you? It was a very important experience and I feel lucky for having had it. It was a very open cohabitation, a voluntary coexistence that was not based on the traditional ideas of cohabitation. Sometimes, however, I got the impression that Iannis had full control of this freedom. It’s unusual today for a woman to admit that her partner guided or shaped her… He showed me how to work, but he gave me complete freedom to act as I wanted. He gave me a sense of discipline, which I adopted and adapted to my own rhythms. There are young people who say, «I followed my teacher’s example.» It wasn’t the same for me because there were three dimensions to Iannis: He was the lover, the father of the family and my teacher. With these three characteristics, it would have been difficult for me to leave him. At the end of his life, he admitted that I was the head of the household. It might even have been true. Francoise Xenakis says this almost coquettishly, and then adds: «I admire feminists, but I think they have identified the wrong problem. Things shouldn’t be polarized. The rise of feminism was important, but I consider some of the demands of feminists to be mistaken.» ‘We were two lost souls’ Their different nationalities «made our relationship much easier. We had different pasts, different experiences, but we were united by the fact that we were two lost souls. My parents were divorced and I had lived at boarding school since the age of 9. Iannis was a foreigner in a foreign country. But he did not bring the Greek Orthodox tradition along with him; he was an atheist. By contrast, he was imbued with the ancient Greek spirit. Indeed, he was not a ‘typical’ Greek. He had been born in Romania, gone to an English school and then studied at the Athens Polytechnic during the German occupation.» During his first years in Paris, their friends included a few Greek leftists who had gone into self-exile during the Civil War. «I never learned Greek because that would have been like pushing him toward politics. I believed that music was his path. There are some friends who hold a grudge against me for this, believing that I prevented him from following a political career and also because I never learned Greek.» You have lived through the experience of companionship, cohabitation and coexistence with someone for 53 years. Now you are experiencing the sense of loss. Would you like to talk to us about this? It’s like losing an arm. On the other hand, I feel relieved because he has been eased and rested from the life he led. The first two years after his death, I felt a sense of liberation and relief for him. Now I am beginning to feel more the sense of great loss and of loneliness. It is very difficult for me now. In Paris, I was the head of the household. On our travels, though, I simply held Iannis’s hand and followed him. The destination didn’t matter, it didn’t bother me. Now that I travel on my own, I get desperate. I forget my bags; I have no sense of direction. I constantly feel like I’m 17 years old and that I will get lost. But Francoise Xenakis has learned always to be doing something. She has four decades of literary writing behind her and 17 novels, with the 18th in the pipeline. It is about a Greek family that falls apart because of historical events. One part of the family returns to Greece where it is imprisoned and suffers from the persecutions of the Greek leftists. Another part goes to Russia. It is the history of a Greek family that ends in 1944. «I still work. In any case, I promised that to him. I write for newspapers, books. I want to settle in Corsica, which was the Greece of France for Iannis. But this would be difficult for my work and so I won’t do it for the time being. My new book won’t be about Xenakis. That cycle has come to a close.» What would you say to a couple starting out today. To love each other and to forgive each other. When we met times were hard. We had to work together to survive. And we managed to maintain this cohesion for quite a long time. Perhaps if we lived under today’s conditions, this unity would have collapsed. We almost starved to death, but at least it was together. Under such conditions, a couple either stays together forever or they part. Today, you need more discipline, as things are less clear and more elastic. Society grants many freedoms, and so each person must stick to their own principles. The composer Iannis Xenakis was born in Braila, Romania in 1922 to Greek parents. In 1932, he came to Greece and later studied at the Athens Polytechnic, now the National Technical University. In 1947, during the Greek Civil War in which he was injured, leading to the loss of an eye, he went into self-exile in Paris, where he joined Le Corbusier’s architectural team. Architecture led him to music, and he studied with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. In 1955, he wrote an article, «The Crisis of Serial Music,» which defined his own musical direction. His first work, «Metastasis,» was based on the architectural plan for the Philips stand at the 1958 Brussels Exhibition. Using mathematics, computer science and his «theory of games,» he wrote such avant-garde works as «Strategie,» the «Analogiques» and «Polytope.» In 1966, he founded the School of Mathematics and Automated Music, and later also taught music at Indiana University, City University in London and at the Sorbonne. Iannis Xenakis is considered to be the founder of «stochastic music,» which over time evolved into minimalism as he began using ever fewer instruments. He died in 2001 after a long illness.