James’ Choice: Antonio de Almeida’s score of Iannis Xenakis’ Metastasis

a photograph of Antonio de Almeida's copy of Xenakis' Metastasis

Antonio de Almeida’s markings on Xenakis’ Metastasis

This month the library item I’ve decided to highlight is the score for Iannis Xenakis’ (1922-2001) Metastasis from the printed music collection of the conductor Antonio de Almeida (1928-1997), complete with his performance markings. There are a number of reasons for my choice. As well as being a landmark piece of twentieth-century modernism, it’s a visually-striking score on account of its size and intricacy. Moreover, Antonio de Almeida’s pencil markings are a fascinating insight into the practical considerations required for performing a piece like this. It’s also an excellent example of Xenakis’ unique approach to composition, and one with a very explicit connection to his work as an architect.


Written in 1953-4, and premiered at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1955, Metastasis is Xenakis’ first major work after the completion of his studies with Olivier Messiaen. In this piece, Xenakis lays down the foundation for many of the approaches and attitudes to music composition that were to occupy him for the rest of his career. The work combines an idiosyncratic system for controlling pitch material and an approach to sound best described when he says ‘the sonorities of the orchestra are building materials, like brick, stone and wood […] The subtle structures of orchestral sound masses represent a reality that promises much’.[1] In this piece, each orchestral player has a separate part, and Xenakis combines, on the one hand, the continuous evolution of enormous glissando structures and, on the other, the discontinuous permutation of pitches.

 ‘I was interested in two things in those years. One: I wanted to write a kind of dodecaphonic music with the help of computation – a music whose macroform emerges from a few basic principles. In Metastasis I made computations based on the permutations of intervals, with the help of the axiomatic approach known in mathematics.

Two: I was interested in the continuous changes of chords. […] How to make that change a continuous one? So long as one remains in the same scale, the only solution is a glissando. […] That was the basic idea.’[2]


Metastasis is also the first work in which Xenakis’ compositional planning for the piece involved using a two-dimensional projection. Here, time is on the x-axis and pitch on the y-axis, and ruled straight-line paths are bent into curved surfaces.

Composition sketch for Xenakis metastasis showing the basis for the hyperbolic paraboloids of the Philips Pavillion

Image scanned from Bálint András Varga, Conversations with Iannis Xenakis, (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 74

Xenakis also employed this technique in later compositions (such as Stratégie and Syrmos), but it’s particularly fascinating how it was also translated directly into his work as an architect. The connection is immediately obvious with how these curves built from multiple straight-line paths (hyperbolic paraboloids) were incorporated into the distinctive shape of his design for the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels Exposition Universelle, built during his time working in the office of Le Corbusier. Incidentally, the pavillion had another connection to musical modernism in that it formed the setting for performances of Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique.[3]

expo again

Image by Wouter Hagens, accessed from http://www.archdaily.com/157658/ad-classics-expo-58-philips-pavilion-le-corbusier-and-iannis-xenakis, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The score on display was plucked from the personal printed music library of Antonio de Almeida, housed in the Jerwood Library’s special collections. Consisting of 5,456 volumes, including scores acquired by him from the collections of Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, it’s a wide-ranging collection, reflecting his own diverse musical interests. Alongside the Xenakis score, the collection ranges from other leading lights of twentieth-century modernism, via more mainstream orchestral repertoire of the 19th and 18th century, to composers such as Carlos Chavez, André Grétry, Howard Hanson, Hans Pfitzner and Henri Serpette. Not to mention works by Offenbach and Boccherini, in whom de Almeida had a particular interest. Described by Grove as ‘a conductor of elegance and fastidious detail’, he was also awarded the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Légion d’Honneur.[4]



[1] Iannis Xenakis quoted in Peter Hoffmann, ‘Xenakis, Iannis’ in Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/30654&gt; (Accessed August 25th, 2016)

[2] Iannis Xenakis quoted in Bálint András Varga, Conversations with Iannis Xenakis, (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 72.

[3] Peter Hoffmann, ‘Xenakis, Iannis’ in Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/30654&gt; (Accessed August 25th, 2016)

[4] Noël Goodwin, ‘Almeida, Antonio (Jacques) de’ in Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/00643&gt; (Accessed August 23rd, 2016)