One of the odd things about music in the late twentieth century is the continuing prestige, throughout the period, of composers born in the 1920s ( Boulez, Berio, Nono, Feldman, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Ligeti), with a few from the next decade ( Birtwistle, Reich, Glass) or the previous dozen years ( Messiaen, Cage, Shostakovich, Carter, Babbitt). Most of these people were well established internationally by 1960; the 1930s generation became so during the next decade; and composers who have claimed great attention subsequently have still tended to be of this favoured epoch: Scelsi, Schnittke, Gubaydulina, Donatoni. One looks in vain for musicians born in the 1960s or 1970s who are changing the art at the century's end as much as Cage and Boulez were at its midpoint. The age of revolution seems to have passed -- which has been a problem, underneath the eminence, for those who felt themselves born to command it.
Among those peace-time generals, Xenakis stands out for remaining as raw in the 1990s as he was in the 1950s and 1960s. He seems not to have introduced any completely new technique since the early 1970s (in which he is by no means alone), but neither has he developed those he had. The change in the mid-1970s -- with his use of 'non-octaving' scales to make not long ribbons but abrupt motifs, and his corresponding reduction of rhythm to regular pulsation -- was rather an anti-development that enabled him to regress to evocations of folk music (perhaps the folk music of his Balkan childhood), or of folk music as mediated by Stravinsky. His orchestral piece Jonchaies ( 1977) vividly recalls The Rite of Spring; Ikhoorfor string trio ( 1978) begins by almost quoting the 'The Augurs of Spring' from that work. When he introduces elements from the central tradition -- an E♭ major chord suddenly in Echange for bass clarinet and ensemble ( 1989), some struggling polyphonic imitation in Akea for piano quintet ( 1986), and of course the conventional chamber media of this and several other pieces -- the effect is to emphasize difference rather than assimilation. By traditional criteria, the harmony is unmotivated, the counterpoint primitive, the scoring brutal. Example 57, from Tetora for string quartet ( 1990), illustrates this distance from canonical respectability in the most canonical form. By means of his prolonged notes, non-vibrato requirement and close harmonies the composer creates a quite new quartet sound, one suggestive more of the wheeze of a mouth organ.
Xenakis -- rather magnificently, given the omnipresence in the arts of allusion and retrieval -- has learned nothing from the music around him. Nor has he learned