Xenakis On Intelligibility In Music

by Thomas Brett

Composer, theorist, and architect-engineer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) made substantial contributions to the application of mathematical models to music composition, and is recognized as one of the most  important post-war avant-garde composers. He was also influential on the course of electronic music, and as an architect worked under modernist Le Corbusier and designed the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.  In his book Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (2001), Xenakis writes on the workings of musical communication:

“The quantity of intelligence carried by the sounds must be the true criterion of the validity of a particular music” (ix).

The idea that the value of a music is a function of its “intelligibility” or “quantity of intelligence” is both intriguing and deeply problematic.  On the one hand, it is worth thinking about what kinds of meanings are signified or otherwise conveyed by your favorite musics (or even just your favorite sounds).  Do feel particular ways when you hear certain chords?  Are you (literally) moved by rhythm?  Do you get a kick out of deep bass?  Do low-fi, 8-bit timbres fill you with nostalgia?  And while we’re at it, which sounds compress and encapsulate the most meaning for you?  On the other hand, we know that music making has a social life in that it gets out and about weaves its way into the fabric of our lived experiences.  And since music is a social thing, all music is equally intelligible, for somewhere there is a community–however small it may be–that makes or consumes this music, believing it to be, on some level, quite intelligible, thank you very much.

So, to reiterate: Which musics are most intelligible to you?

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