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Part 1: Analysis of Iannis Xenakis Herma

In the 1961 solo piano piece Herma (a Greek word, translating to bond in English with
alternate translations of foundation and embryo) Iannis Xenakis presents and develops classes of
pitches through the use of different logical structures, creating what he titles musique symbolique. Over
the course of the piece, the composer develops his original material to a logical conclusion through the
use of mathematical operations and in doing so creates a unique musical work.
The embryo of Xenakis piece consists of three stochastically chosen classes of pitches (A, B
and C) derived from one referent class of pitches (R, consisting of all the notes on the piano). These
sets and the complements of these sets are presented one after the other at the beginning of the piece.
The lineaire presentation of these pitch sets is differentiated through the use of clearer articulation,
longer rhythmic values and a louder dynamic. The nuage material by contrast is presented at a softer
dynamic, using smaller rhythmic subdivisions and is often accompanied by the use of pedal,
highlighting its greater harmonic and temporal density. Despite being treated separately in many ways,
it is only through the union of both nuage and linear presentations of pitch sets that one can derive
Xenakis original three classes. The use of what the composer terms arborescences, branch-like
gures of notes, expanding in contrary motion, adds another layer of interest, with the delineation
between linear and nuage arborescences delineated once again through the use of the pedal.
After this original statement, Xenakis uses a range of Boolean algebra operations (an extension
of regular set theory) to create variations on his three classes. The pitch class AB, for example, is
derived from the intersection of classes A and B, resulting in a new set of 8 pitches. The composer
uses other techniques such as combining A and B and taking the negation of a particular class or
intersection of classes (in other words, taking every pitch that falls in the referent class and that is not
included in the one chosen to be negated). These variations build from simple to complex concluding in
set F (see gures 1 and 2), evident in the piece in the climactic nal thirty seconds.

Images from Sward, Rosalie La Grow. An examination of mathematical systems used in the work of Iannis
Xenakis and Milton Babbit. University Microlms International, 1981

Figure 1. Venn diagram and equation for set F Figure 2. Pitch class derived from equation

This results in a piece that while sounding quite random has an inherent mathematical logic to it. In a
similar way to a Classical composer deriving an entire piece from motifs developed through standard
compositional techniques and structures, Xenakis develops his pitch sets through the use of a mix of
musical and mathematical techniques and structures. Indeed, in the introduction to the score he
suggests, One might consider comparing this formal structure to a sonata. Xenakis treatment of
pitches as individual and non-octavating, as well as a solid grasp of mathematics results in a more
complex fusion of these two distinct disciplines than that of serialism and a unique statement of
musique symbolique representative of and aided by an intense numerological process.

Fenn Idle

Words: 520

Bibliography
Sward, Rosalie La Grow. An examination of mathematical systems used in selected
compositions of Iannis Xenakis and Milton Babbit. Ann Arbor, Michigan:
U. M. I., 1981, pp. 68-77; pp. 373-400
Xenakis, Iannis Herma: Musique symbolique pour piano. Boosey and Hawkes, Paris,
1961