ICE Board Chair Andreas Waldburg-Wolfegg in conversation with Madame Françoise Xenakis, widow of Iannis Xenakis. Andreas and Françoise met in Paris at the apartment where she lived with Iannis for nearly fifty years, until his death in 2001. Stay tuned for portions of the audio recording of this interview in ICE’s podcast series: Tracing Xenakis.
Madame Xenakis tells the story of how she met Iannis, and speaks about his experience in the Second World War and his upbringing.
Mme Françoise Xenakis: Oh, I can tell you the story. It’s very strange. It was in 1950, in winter… you’ve got to understand that because your mother made you learn French and now, etc. My mother was a schoolteacher and remarkable with children, who obeyed her, and they became firemen, teachers, two of them were graduates of the ENA [Ecole nationale d’administration], etc, and me, it didn’t work on me. I refused to take her orders. I refused. I ran away, yes, yes. And so she decided that I was a fool and needed to go to a trade school to learn how to make brassieres.
So finally she made me take an examination in order to be a seamstress at 17 years old. I flunked high school. I got myself expelled…I just didn’t want to do it. I wanted to do a distance-learning program in the countryside and she told me, “You can’t do it that way, you can’t do it.” It wasn’t true, I should have done it. But she never believed me, so I didn’t. It was stupid. I didn’t do anything. I was in a total rebellion.
Finally at the examination I handed in a blank sheet of paper, so she made me take an exam to be a nurse. Her dream was for me to enlist— there was the Vietnam war, I believe—and she wanted me to be an army nurse, so that I could marry a sergeant. I told myself the nursing school was in Paris, so I got accepted to the nursing school there. I was afraid of Paris, I was a country girl and I held to that. So, I had a neighbor who had accepted to go to dinner at the home of a Greek sculptor, and in 1950 the young girls were still a little afraid of foreigners, you know?
So all of a sudden I was asked to go to dinner at this man’s house. She knocked on my door and she said to me, “Listen, I accepted this invitation to dinner, but I’m afraid. Come with me.” We had no connection. And why I said yes despite the fact that I always say no… I said yes. So she called the Greek sculptor and she told him, “I’m bringing a friend.” And so he called Xenakis in a panic and said, very delicately, “I’ve kinda nabbed a date [laughter] but she’s coming with a friend; come for dinner.” The house was a studio in the thirteenth arrondissment, it was like some kind of shed without heating where painters live. And in 1950, we were still eating very poorly in Paris. So we arrived. Xenakis wasn’t there. Xenakis was always late, always, always, always… When we took a plane on a Thursday towards the end of our life together I told him that it was on a Tuesday morning, so that we could miss the one on Tuesday, but make it on Friday! [laughter] I did some math, and that’s how I got him to show up.
But that’s how it is…sometimes I got very angry with him.
Andreas Waldburg-Wolfegg: Ah yes, yes, yes.
X: It’s very bothersome, you know. Especially because he didn’t restrain himself at all. I once watched him yelling at a taxi driver, “Go faster!” and the guy said to him, “Sir, get out of my cab; you should have left earlier!” [laughter] And I said, “This guy’s right; let’s go!” [laughter] He was impossible!
X: So [Xenakis] showed up. And they had a lovely conversation in Greek in front of us. Xenakis said, “There are a few guests,” so the other Greek said, “Well, I invited the blonde, but the little brunette–” I was very dark, I had dark eyes… I was very Mediterranean, so for two Greeks…
W-W: It was just what they wanted.
X: Exactly. And I had these two perfect little breasts, anyway… The other guy said, “Well, the brunette’s not so bad,” but Xenakis said, “Hey, what about me? You were the one who invited the blonde…” Well it was more difficult than that, but anyway. And we ate canned beans with sausages, I think. And there was this dish or something and it in there was an apple, maybe two apples, and a peach. And I got the feeling that Xenakis was looking at that peach. And the other guy, who wanted to pander to me, I guess, hands me the peach first. And I have no idea why, but I took the peach, I split it in two, and gave one half to Xenakis. He had been in France for two years and it was the first time someone had offered him anything. He was flabbergasted. And then he said, “No, it was my glass eye that was looking at it.” [laughter] He really had a dark sense of humor. Yeah right, his glass eye… When we went to restaurants and there were a bunch of snobs who didn’t know about it, he used to take his glass eye, with Le Corbusier who also had a glass eye, and he would read the menu with his glass eye, doing what he could.
W-W: It must have been a very difficult handicap.
X: Very, very difficult. Especially because he was so handsome. He was in Athens during the civil war and paff, right in the face. For a long time in early photos of him, he is like this [holds hand over her face], then one day he moved his hand, but by then he was thirty years old.
W-W: Yes, there isn’t a single photo where one can see that side of his face. And for someone like him who was interested in space, he lost the—
X: He was a champion tennis player and he could never play again. And he drove badly. He was dangerous. He sideswiped cars, he couldn’t see… It always the others who drove badly, right? [laughter] But I’m lucid, you know. And I speak the truth. They were all bad drivers. And he was very proud, he had heard this French expression, about how you got your driver’s license so he yammered on about that.
W-W: And he always had a very strong accent?
X: Yes, but Romanian. The Greeks made fun of him when he spoke Greek because he spoke Romanian Greek. And his grandmother and the kids, there were three boys. Their mother died in childbirth with the fourth, who was a girl, and their father… They had a French nurse, a German one, and an English one, and every eight days, they rotated the kids so that they would learn all of the languages. So they stammered until they were 15, but they kept studying until they were 16. They were three totally disturbed kids. Me, I was less crazy.
W-W: He was the oldest child?
X: Yes, he was the eldest.
W-W: Rather interesting.
X: And two of them killed themselves.
X: The mother was very, very…. It was a strange marriage, you know, bourgeois: a Greek from Romania brought up by French nuns and the father who got married when he was 40, but he kept his mistress, kept his lifestyle. He had children, but…
W-W: But his wife lived her own life.
X: Well, she, she didn’t have a life. She played the piano, she cried, she was always pregnant.
W-W: Yes, and then she died.
X: Yes. She died pregnant.
W-W: That’s striking.
X: And when he was nine, he went to boarding school at Spetsai, that famous school, where the worst student was the son of a king. [laughter]
W-W: Is that surprising?
X: No. [laughter]
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Madame Françoise Xenakis, in conversation with Andreas Waldburg-Wolfegg, looks back on the fraught relationship between Iannis Xenakis and fellow composer Pierre Boulez, and recounts French President Georges Pompidou’s failed attempts to bring the two of them together.
Andreas: What fascinates me, speaking of construction, is that when I look at this period of Xenakis’ work, and I look at what he was doing as an architect and a composer, someone like me thinks—it’s something that I, personally, adore, that I find very interesting—but it’s not very popular. I wonder how he lived with that.
Mme X: He wasn’t preoccupied by it. I don’t know if he thought about it; it wasn’t his problem. He had this expression—“it’s not my problem”—which he used to brush a lot of things off. When he didn’t feel like dealing with some triviality, he would just say, “It’s not my problem.” His problem was creating, seeking, finding the unbeaten path. The rest…he never said “I don’t have time,” but he would say “I’m not interested.”
W-W: There were moments, if I’ve understood correctly, in which there was a lot of distance between him and his fellow composers.
X: He was hated. He was subverting…and then he met Boulez at Louis Saguerre’s. Saguerre was an old homosexual; delicious, but a bad composer. And [Saguerre] had put together this kind of salon where all the emerging composers came to see him. And Boulez was there—it was a musical atmosphere, and he was already a conductor, and Boulez had a group of followers who were all exceptionally eloquent. He is a man of striking intelligence. But Boulez hated Xenakis so much that he would speak out against him violently and in public. For him, [Xenakis] was something terrifying. That a man who was nothing, who only had a half a face, who was a communist … that was untenable for him, even though he may have thought highly of him. It never went away. They crossed swords. Boulez would say that Xenakis was telling architects that he was a composer and composers that he was an architect. But of course it wasn’t like that. He was dishonest.
W-W: It strikes me that Xenakis really remained an emigrant in perpetuity.
X: In perpetuity. He was a permanent emigrant.
W-W: It’s interesting because it’s very much like the history of classical music of the 20th century. It’s a kind of emigration until 1985, I think; all the composers—
X: They all came from abroad. Bartók, Shoenberg…they were in exile. But most of them, in literature as well, they were politically right-leaning. The reds…
W-W: There were fewer of them.
X: There were few and they weren’t seen well. Communism was scary at that time.
W-W: And there was also, if I understand correctly, a whole political aspect to Xenakis’ composing, naturally.
X: Of course, it’s very political.
W-W: Yes, all these institutions like Darmstadt and Ircam, all that is—
X: Absolutely. And Pompidou—we dined with Blaise at Pompidou’s three or four times—and he would say to Iannis: “you’ve got to get along, you both have” and so to earn a living Xenakis at first had to work at Ircam, and after 3 days he wrote, “I cannot go on; Boulez is taking over.” And Pompidou said “you’re not trying hard enough.” And Iannis said “I don’t have time for this.”
W-W: It’s pretty unbelievable that the president was involved in this at all.
X: And his failure to bring [Xenakis and Boulez] together was saddening. He thought it was really too bad.
… Stay Tuned!
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Translated from the French by Sarah Green and Maro Elliott.
Hear the full original conversation:
Interview with Madame Françoise Xenakis by International Contemporary Ensemble is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.iceorg.org.