Benoît Gibson

Iannis Xenakis is a composer who is well–known (and often criticized) for his use of mathematics and abstract calculations in his works. To refer to montage when describing these works may come as a surprise to the reader. And yet, in some way, the formalization of music attempted by Xenakis encouraged the practice of montage by developing a conception of form based on the juxtaposition or superimposition of predefined textures. Xenakis uses sectional forms; and many of his pieces fall into a series of independent sections on the basis of textural contrasts. As often as not, Xenakis borrowed excerpts from his earlier works. The origin of self-borrowing as one of his compositional devices can be traced back to the end of the 1950s. And yet, explicitly, only Mosaïques (1993) for orchestra acknowledges its debt to previous works. Mosaïques belongs to Xenakis’s latest period. As indicated by its subtitle, it collates excerpts from orchestral pieces written between 1987 and 1991.

Xenakis is not the first nor the only composer to utilize materials from previous works. He does not break with precedent. The list of composers (Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Berlioz, Berg, etc.) who had recourse to this practice is such that it can be regarded as normal compositional procedure, even though composers are not easily inclined to reveal their secrets. Xenakis admitted to using pre-existing materials on very rare occasions. In an interview with Bálint Varga, he alluded to this practice: “Now and again I use some old material but basically I decide day by day where I’m heading” (1996, 61). But the extent of his borrowings is much more considerable than his own account suggests (see Solomos 1993; Squibbs 1996; Harley 2004; Kanach 2010). A more overt acknowledgment is found in an interview with François Delalande in 1981:

And the result, if it seems to me to be one hundred percent convincing, I can incorporate it in a future composition. This is always approximate, of course, because I always change something; I do not repeat anything exactly. Therefore, a whole vocabulary, at the highest level, forms itself and constitutes an artist’s style as in Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy or Messiæn. There are strata of objects, or architectures, or entire sequences taken and used, reused, reemployed until others come to replace them […]

Delalande 1997, 10 [original in French]

That Xenakis refers to objects or whole sequences attests to the extent of these self-borrowings. It should be said though that Xenakis has often suggested the opposite. In an interview with Harry Halbreich recorded in 1995, the composer stated:

So you have to be, from the beginning and to the end, until you die, free, but it means rejecting the older things, that is even forgetting the older pieces that you wrote. So, it’s a challenge. It’s not easy but it’s interesting.

Halbreich 2005, 13:03-13:22

And two years later, in an interview with Bruce Duffie:

You have to put yourself inside a piece, so that is the problem. If you are copying from other pieces, other music or from other composers, then you are lost. You can do that of course. There are many composers who do that, but I cannot. I cannot support that idea. I have to be different.

Duffie 1997

Again, composers are not always the most objective source of information about their own music. Overall, Xenakis has concealed his practices and has always been reluctant to divulge his sources. It is also clear from these statements that at the time of these interviews Xenakis had forgotten some of his earlier compositional procedures.

Xenakis does not borrow from other composers or styles (with one exception only: the electroacoustic work Orient-Occident [1960] – see Solomos 2009, 123). Nor should we see in his borrowings any connotation, symbolic or extramusical meaning. They are not self-quotations, for the sources are not intended to be recognized. The absence of explicit references tends to confirm this, as do the various procedures used to conceal the origin of the excerpts. Xenakis’s borrowings do not refer only to abstract materials, such as structures or theoretical distributions, but to the musical text, to the score.

The concept of montage applies to music in many ways (see Emons 2009 & Olive 1998). Whatever its field of application may be, it usually implies a selection among a set of pre-existing items. One of the questions raised by the study of montage concerns the type of material selected. When Xenakis turns to his earlier scores, he extracts fragments or passages that can then be reassembled to create new objects or textures. The idea of object as used here bears no relation to the concept of “sound object” as developed by Pierre Schæffer (1996, 268). It relies on a graphic representation wherein each component occupies a defined position. In Xenakis’s instrumental music, geometric figures, arborescences or other forms derived from the principles of cellular automata constitute the main objects. As for textures, they are created without restriction by juxtaposition or superimposition of independent elements. In Xenakis’s terms, we could say that objects are formed in-time, whereas textures are created outside of time.

The choice of an element, an object or a texture also implies criteria according to which the material is selected and inserted. Depending on the type of material fit for a given context, Xenakis may select only part of an excerpt, for instance, a layer consisting of one instrument or a group of instruments. As independent sonorities these layers can in turn be combined with other textures or objects. Then the process of selection and insertion of materials comprises four general cases depending on whether or not the excerpt is taken up entirely, inserted alone or combined with other elements. Also, attending to a specific instrumentation, the composer may need a lesser or greater density than that of the original source. Textures can be filtered or, conversely, completed “by hand.” Finally, Xenakis may reduce or expand their duration. Duration can be determined by the type of material selected. Some elements and objects have an intrinsic length. In other cases, duration can be prescribed by theoretical considerations or simply chosen by the composer’s free will.

The study of montage in Xenakis’s works is confronted not only with a large number of examples, but also with a variety of techniques used to transform the materials. When Xenakis borrows excerpts from his earlier works, he often changes something, whether it be to vary or to conceal the origin of his sources. The transformations carried out by Xenakis on his musical materials range from literal transcriptions to complete metamorphoses. They fall into three categories: main, secondary and accidental.

The main transformations operate directly on the content of the material. Variations are secondary and refer to the context in which a material is inserted. They include the prolongation or contraction of duration, changing the dynamic markings, the tempi, etc. We could include here changes in instrumentation when instruments of the same family are used instead. It should be noted that variations, though secondary, suffice to alter an excerpt in such a way that it becomes unrecognizable to the ear. The last category comprises accidental deviations, more or less intentional, but often found when we compare an excerpt with its source. They refer to a change of accidental, a note shifted or omitted, etc. They appear as if by accident during the transcription.

Over the years, Xenakis built up a library of sounds that he could integrate into new sonic architectures. Manipulations and transformations are the means by which the composer modified his materials. To some extent, these techniques are similar to those developed by the early electroacousticians. Not surprisingly, the first montage Xenakis realized occurred at the end of the 1950s, when he composed his first tape composition. As Matossian says:

his work with musique concrète was instinctive and the experience of tape manipulation, splicing, cutting was to leave an indelible mark upon his instrumental composition.

Matossian 2005, 95

We can delineate a genealogy of Xenakis’ works based on self-borrowings. It follows a discontinuous trajectory where theoretical tools and self-borrowing alternate. Xenakis seems to have borrowed more from his previous works during the periods that precede new theoretical or compositional approaches. We shall stress the importance of a genealogy that establishes links between Xenakis’ works. From one perspective, it explains the absence of sketches by referring to other scores; from an analytical perspective, it identifies the elements that were simply assembled for their musical properties.


This text has been adapted from Gibson, Benoît. 2011. The Instrumental Music of Iannis Xenakis: Theory, Practice, Self-Borrowing. Iannis Xenakis Series, No. 3. Hillsdale, N.Y. : Pendragon.


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Solomos, Makis. 2009. “Orient-Occident. From the film version to the concert version.” In Iannis Xenakis: Das elektroakustische Werk, Internationales Symposion Musikwissenschaftliches Institut der Universität zu Köln. 11. bis 14. Oktober 2006: Tagungsbericht, edited by Ralph Paland and Christoph vom Blumröder. Wien: Der Apfel.

Squibbs, Ronald J. 1996. “An Analytical Approach to the Music of Iannis Xenakis: Studies of Recent Works.” PhD thesis, Yale University.

Varga, Bálint András. 1996. Conversations with Iannis Xenakis. London: Faber and Faber.

How to cite

GIBSON, Benoît. 2023. “Montage.” In A Xenakis Dictionary, edited by Dimitris Exarchos.