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Amodern 9: Techniques and Technologies
April 2020

Case Studies in Technique


Xenakis’s UPIC, Disability, and Avant-gardism

Victoria Simon

Looking back on how the iPhone’s usability “changed our lives,” a journalist from CNN remarked: “It helped bring a slice of computing to a whole new audience, including technophobes, kids, senior citizens and people with visual or hearing impairments. Suddenly users could navigate their phones with a few swipes of the finger.”1 In the cultural moment of the smartphone and tablet, the allure of the touchscreen is that its ease of use and tactile affordances broadens the conditions of participation. The intuitive encounter between the user and the touchscreen—what supposedly enables this opportunity and access to the broader population—is presented as an undeniable given, as naturalized as the touchscreen itself. Disability theorist Meryl Alper notes that journalists ascribe a paternalistic “discourse of technology as an equalizer of opportunity and access” to smartphones and tablets as empowering people with disabilities.2 The transformational wish of social change projected onto the touchscreen has a history. We can trace the discourse of the revolutionary power of the touchscreen and its cultural meaning back to somebody who is known as a composer but less represented in histories of computing: Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), a musician, architect, philosopher, and civil engineer who blended culturally elite sensibilities with populist social ambitions.

Fig. 1. Photo of Iannis Xenakis showing children the UPIC in the Paris Tribune, 1977, July 30, 17.

Invented in 1977 by Xenakis, the Unite Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu (UPIC) was the first musical communication and computation system in the form of a graphic tablet that was intended for use by the public. In Xenakis’s words, the UPIC is “sort of musical drawing board, which through the digitization of drawing, enables one to draw music, teach acoustics, engage in musical pedagogy at any age.”3 The UPIC consisted of many different components: a computer screen, custom-made hardware, an electromagnetic pen, a digital to analog converter, and an electrostatic drawing board. It was the drawing board, however, that was the signature symbol of the UPIC system and represented the central message that Xenakis proselytized through the dissemination of the UPIC. It was a software and hardware hybrid system that would democratize musical practice, liberate the user’s creative impulse, and, ultimately, liberate the user’s musical creativity through drawing. Framed by Xenakis and the media circulating the UPIC as a design for all people, the system would supposedly be the great equalizer of creative musical expression. The idea was simple. By drawing sound directly onto a blank drawing board, in the same way that a person would draw a picture with a pen onto a plain white sheet of paper, purportedly, anybody could compose music.

The line that the user of the UPIC drew onto its drawing board would erase the division between the novice user and the professional musician through tactile immediacy. As such, the gestural interactive approach with the UPIC would supposedly topple social hierarchies, reorient relations of power, and eradicate barriers to its users’ musical ability, education, and technical knowledge of computers. In theory, the UPIC’s purportedly intuitive technological affordances would solve the problem that these differences may have posed to democratic participation in musical practice. Journalists reporting on the UPIC, as well as Xenakis himself, idealized, and sensationalized the drawing board as the ultimate expression of social and cultural progress.

Using archival evidence and interviews, I articulate how these utopian ideals ascribed to the touchscreen, and its place in society circulated to the public. While the UPIC was a graphics tablet, the technological configuration involving a linkage between the user’s hand and the visual display on the screen that causes it to be analogous to the touchscreen. What matters in the history of the touchscreen is the way in which the UPIC’s interface and the value of its “direct contact” with the user is circulated to the public as a more natural interface and as a means of democratization.

Contributing to research on how disability and media are co-constituted, I show how disability underwrote the cultural meaning of the UPIC during a sea change in the perception of the French avant-garde music culture as an elitist pursuit.4 In the cultural field of avant-garde music production, the discourse valued the transcendence of pre-given, learned systems of musical knowledge and representation to be radically original. The workshops that Xenakis held to promote the UPIC showcased how people with disabilities could harness their purportedly innate capacities to create abstract music through the technological affordances of the UPIC. In the process, disabled populations were leveraged in the promotion of the technology as an ideal means for advancing avant-garde music and the logics of democratization of music composition “for all.”

Furthermore, I argue that the discourse that everybody can and should, be a musician is also problematic since it coheres with what Tobin Siebers calls an “ideology of ability” or ableism.5 The ideology of ability is the common-sense assumption that the norm of able-bodiedness should be desired and preferred and that disability is a problem to be eradicated as opposed to a valuable way of being in the world. Placing this critique of ableism in conversation with the discourse of musical democratization, we can see that this ideology sets the expectation that everybody has a natural-born musical capacity that should be cultivated for sustaining a full life. Even though music, in this case, is broadly defined, I argue that the UPIC discourse sets up a hierarchy of musical ability and musicality as an intrinsically natural quality that many people believe they do not have, do not need to possess, lack the ability to cultivate, or do not desire to pursue.


Promotion and Reception of the UPIC

Xenakis constructed the UPIC in order “to establish direct contact with music, without any programming and notation.”6 The ability to control every parameter of sound down to its microstructure and to visualize sound in terms of its macrostructure as events distributed on an otherwise blank page attracted musicians and students from across the world to use the UPIC at the CEMAMu (Centre d’Etudes de Mathematique et Automatique Musicales). Through the visual, tactile, and sonic cybernetic feedback loop of the UPIC, the user could learn about the various properties of sound waves––pitch, amplitude, timbre, and duration––by drawing in their physical properties relative to time and hearing the result. The feedback loop between the user and the UPIC, where the user’s gesture immediately corresponded with an audible sound, justified its use as a pedagogical tool, a computer system for social transformation, and a tool for composition. This tactile form of engagement, Xenakis argued, would directly transmit the creative musical impulse of the user from the gesture of the user’s hand into sound. The UPIC ostensibly enabled this direct and instant translation of the user’s thoughts into sound through the system’s transparent, frictionless, and aesthetically neutral interface.

In practice, however, to create music with the UPIC was neither simple nor direct. Xenakis claimed that all sound, including the sounds of a “classical orchestra,” could be visualized and represented by these independent variables.7 The UPIC could approximate, for example, the sound of a piano key by the user drawing the waveform of a piano sonority directly onto the drawing board, which was translated into a corresponding timbre. In practice, creating traditional instrumental sounds was difficult to accomplish. The user created a graphical music score using an electromagnetic stylus. When a line was drawn, the tablet converted that line into integers, translated by the computer. The UPIC system registered every motion that the user made with the pen on the tablet and, subsequently, generated an analogous sound. As Olga Touloumi notes, the signal processing of the UPIC distorted and added a layer of translation to the sound such that “what you see is not what you hear.”8 The marks made on the tracing paper leave a temporary line that the electromagnetic pen imprinted on the electric field underneath the paper. The resulting difference in voltage created a digital signal that then transferred to the computer. After the computer processed this data, it would then convert the digital information back into an analog signal sent to the speakers. In this early iteration of the UPIC, you could not hear what you were drawing in real-time. If you wanted to hear the waveform, you would first save it into the system.

Between 1980 and 1985, the UPIC made trips to cultural centers around the world in order “to mobilize both the specialists and the general public around the fact that music composition can be done by everyone.”9 Drawing in shapes for sound synthesis had been done before. Mara Mills discusses how the sound spectrograph, a tool for visual telephony applied to educate deaf people on how to regulate their vocal patterns to normative speech was subsequently advertised as a tool for musicians to translate graphic designs into acoustic form in order to create audiovisual music.10 Daphne Oram’s Oramics system, for example, predated the UPIC by ten years and had a similar logic to the UPIC. Xenakis’s main contribution to this technology was to make the interface and form of interactivity more closely resemble a traditional architectural drawing board practice. Furthermore, he described the process of drawing sound in terms of its power for social and cultural change. Xenakis embarked on a campaign to ship the UPIC anywhere he could and to hold demonstrations in various countries, reinforcing his message, reiterated in interviews and his writing, on the universality of music and musical composition. He consistently stated to the press that the system should not only be included in every classroom but that every person should own one as well.

Fig. 2. Photo of a child in front of a UPIC from a workshop in Japan.11

The press that surrounded the UPIC painted the system with the same mythical, enigmatic, singular quality, and cultural fascination that accompanied the image of Xenakis himself. The press depicted the UPIC, captured in numerous interviews and documentaries, with an air of mystery and magic. Xenakis’s personal brand as a composer contributed to this image, while interviews with him simultaneously reveal that he had invented the UPIC to support his own unique musical composition process. For example, the French newspaper, Le Monde, quoted Xenakis saying,

My journey was that of a night owl…I was drawing, my drawings represented musical symbols. But freedom of thought for me could not go through that. I was convinced that another way of writing music could be invented. I began to imagine sound phenomena by helping my drawings: a spiral, intersecting planes.12

Here, Xenakis describes the UPIC as a revolutionary tool created to enhance his personal creative freedom. The words and imagery that Xenakis used to describe the UPIC emphasized its ability to facilitate exploration, liberation, and transcendence, consistent with the ideology of originality that encircled the avant-garde music scene in which he was embedded.

Another example of this representation appears in a documentary on the UPIC by Chris Marker, produced in 1989 at a later point in Xenakis’s career, called The Owl’s Legacy. After a demonstration of how the UPIC works, Xenakis sits in front of a backdrop of an ominous mystical owl and discusses his views on sound. He states, “When you manipulate sound, you reach something closer to man, and therefore much more perceptible where the function, the discovery of ideas is more accessible…our bodies vibrations merge with such thought vibrations through sound.” The UPIC, he theorized, would enable people to build a different sonic “universe.” It was also a way of understanding our true nature.

In an interview for Computer Music Journal in 1986, the interviewer Henning Lohner asked Xenakis why he invented the UPIC. His response was:

I want to have a tool for myself and for other people that will be general enough to be used in pedagogy, so as to bridge the gap that exists between ‘normal’ people and contemporary music developments. If anybody is able to use such a machine, it will heighten the awareness of the average person who will then be involved in composition also. This makes a much more homogenous environment for music.13

In response to this statement, Lohner asks, “Every person being essentially creative?,” to which  Xenakis replies, “I think so, yes. This is a conclusion I came up with after many years of personal experiences in how people react to music, and what they feel. It also reflects how I feel about them.”14 Xenakis and the composers that worked at the Atelier UPIC, such as Julia Estrada, held workshops in various countries to demonstrate the UPIC’s capacity for universality. Popular journalism that circulated around the time that the UPIC was released marveled over its ability to enable children to compose symphonies and praised the revolutionary capabilities of its interface. A journalist from Infoworld, a computer magazine based in California, stated, “People, especially children, are instinctively drawn to it… children literally drew pictures and then played back the result.”15 The word “instinctively” suggests that the journalist believed the UPIC was an intuitive and natural form of interaction that even a child could grasp. Xenakis argued that there needs to be a “concrete transformation of the musician (as well as the artist and scientist’s) training” and that the musical education system needed reform “from the baby bottle onward.”16 While children were at the forefront of the promotion of the device, people with disabilities were also part of the public image of the UPIC.


The Democratization of Avant-garde Music in France

Xenakis’s rhetoric of musical democratization linked directly to the institutional funding environment and political context in which he was embedded. In the context of the cultural politics of France of his period, he was also in direct competition with other avant-garde composers for government subsidies and institutional funding. For Xenakis, within the field of high culture and the musical avant-garde, the UPIC and its surrounding discourse was a strategy of legitimation that served to ideologically differentiate Xenakis from other competing composers, such as Pierre Boulez. The UPIC and its accompanying social philosophy was an intervention that also positioned Xenakis as an ally to critics of the elitist cultural and social politics of avant-garde musical culture. It was precisely this position in the cultural field that also enabled him to receive funding for his musical research.

After World War II, France created the Ministry of State in Charge of Cultural Affairs. The Ministry of Culture was a government institution that set out to reduce the existing “cultural inequalities” concerning access to musical production by providing subsidies to composers and musical institutions. The state, involved in distributing France’s cultural heritage to all of its citizens, funded the creation of new artistic works and democratizing culture by supporting activities that would broaden the public’s participation in cultural life.17

The Ministry of Culture took a more active role following the Paris student uprising in 1968, which “provoked a politicization of musical life in France.”18 The salient idea at the time was that amateur creativity, once unleashed, had the power to revolutionize society. This theory resonates with the social philosophy of Jaques Attali. Per Attali’s philosophy, music was a site from which mutations in the social fabric could arise.19 In France, it was said that, through creative pursuits, this “dormant” and “untapped” energy of the masses, once released, could be used for political reform. To achieve this emancipatory aim, the idea was to develop new pedagogies that would provide opportunities for the entire population to become creative. Attali also stated that musical aesthetics and the mode of music production were inextricably tied to musical instruments and, therefore, to their larger sociopolitical milieu.20 He believed that the use of existing instruments reinforced the social and political system from which they came, and thus “trapped” the user into a sense of false liberation.

Accompanying the belief that music was an engine of social change, was a heightened awareness of the disparities of cultural opportunities that existed between the privileged elite and the majority of citizens.21 What is missing from these historical accounts is if the French project of political-aesthetic democratization had the rights and interests of people with disabilities in mind at this time. What is known is that in 1975, the French government had outlined the general principles of accessibility. The government passed laws that stated that France had a national obligation to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream society.22 While the question remains as to whether or not people with disabilities were invisible in France’s cultural democratization policy, the call for inclusion in mainstream culture was part of the political milieu of the time.

In the political climate of France after 1968, avant-garde composers such as Xenakis needed to dissolve the link between musical Modernism and the social and cultural elites. Modernism emphasized the use of science and technology as ways of producing new ideas and knowledge about musical structure, language, and form.23 According to Drott, composers of this musical genre had to refashion themselves as political revolutionaries and, for the center-right government, demonstrate that it was funding artistic endeavors that would benefit the entire population of France and not just “bourgeois culture.”24 At the same time, the government allotted institutional funding to musical Modernism in an attempt to teach this form of music to the masses. The commission intended to subsidize the cultivation of the public’s taste for this “true music” or musical Modernism as opposed to the “vulgarized popular culture” that was taking hold. The democratization of culture meant an attempt to cultivate the public’s taste for high culture. The commission put forth a cultural policy designed to increase funding for this specific genre of music and improve music education to counteract the public’s waning interest. As both Drott and Rigby argue, the push towards a musical democracy was a way of couching concerns that France would lose its cultural prestige in the international arena.

This top-down democratizing movement had crucial consequences for avant-garde composers like Xenakis. Many composers at this time began framing their work as advancing the efforts of cultural democratization to benefit from government support.25 Painted as an antidote to the elitism that plagued the musical culture of many countries, including France, as well as an ideal means to further the project of musical Modernism, Xenakis’s UPIC fit directly within the institutional funding stream.

By 1974, however, Xenakis found it challenging to attain the amount of funding that he desired for the CEMAMu.26 His lack of funding was due, at least in part, to a competing institute dedicated to research in computers and music composition, IRCAM, which was led by the composer Pierre Boulez. According to a 1974 article in Le Monde, Pierre Boulez was invited to form IRCAM by the French president Pompidou (1969-1974), and the institute consumed seventy percent of the government budget for contemporary music. IRCAM embodied the elitism of avant-garde culture in France. Georgina Born characterizes the software at IRCAM in the 1980s with a “resistance to intuitive meaningfulness” and notes that it possessed “extremely mediated relations to music.”27 The programming languages were arcane to many of the musicians since learning them required extensive technical knowledge and understanding of computer coding. This “resistance to intuitive meaningfulness” that characterized the software practices at IRCAM, the barriers that coding knowledge created, and the highly specialized language that a user had to learn sharply contrasts the goals of the UPIC system.


The UPIC and Disability

The next section shows how Xenakis demonstrated the UPIC’s universal design aspirations and how it supported the dominant government-supported discourse that everyone was, in fact, creative. One way that Xenakis and his team at the CEMAMu demonstrated the system’s capacity to eliminate the usual barrier of access to musical production was to hold workshops with people with disabilities. The workshops promoted the value of the UPIC in furthering the government-supported cultural logic of universal creativity. They exemplify what Mills describes as “assistive pretext,” a recurring scenario wherein engineers mobilize people with disabilities as justification for research funding or as a “test market” for design. Further research on the user experience of the UPIC must be done in order to assess the degree to which disabled populations had access to the full spectrum of the technology. While the technological affordances of the UPIC may have opened up possibilities of musical creativity for people with different abilities, there is no evidence to suggest that Xenakis engaged with disabled populations at the level of the design process. The UPIC was not created for people with disabilities nor did Xenakis receive any consultation, during the design process, on the desires and needs of people with disabilities.

In workshops designed to show how the UPIC revolutionized the means of accessing musical ability, blindness was mobilized as the ultimate symbol of the system’s capacity for universal design. A documentary from 1984 contains footage of Julio Estrada, a composer who worked at the Atelier UPIC, running a workshop for blind people with Xenakis. The title of the portion of the documentary that depicted a workshop with blind people was “UPIC or the Color of Sounds.” The voiceover states that Xenakis created a machine that had “a different and direct approach to music.” In the documentary, Julio Estrada stands next to a man and guides his hand towards the sound banks, and then to the drawing board. After leading these UPIC workshops with blind people, Estrada wrote a document that circulated internally within the Atelier UPIC about his observations. He states

On approaching the pages made by these young boys, as well as those made by M. Daricot, it is immediately possible to try to draw conclusions from them, on long consecutive and diverse experiments––at least some valid observations which sufficiently indicate how the world of the avowals can be expressed by the help of this machine which, not being adapted to the blind, listen to their fantasies or representations of space. First of all, it must be said how obviously their universe of creation of images is quite different from those who have the sense of sight. For example, they try much less to reproduce forms (they do, but it is in order to try to approximate conceptual forms that the image makes accessible). Their drawings being of another freedom in space, beyond the limits of the geometrical superfices which attract so many others when they first come into contact with the drawing-machine. The drawings made by these blind people have a remarkable sense of exploration when one sees or listens to their realizations to the UPIC.28

In this quote, Estrada articulates a very narrow conception of blindness. As Georgina Kleege writes, blind people are assumed to be “totally and congenitally blind. Real blindness today, as in the past, rarely fits this profile.”29 Furthermore, Estrada envisions blind people as having special powers of imagining forms other than the more literal shapes and objects that a sighted person would draw. Estrada’s statement exemplifies the pervasive othering of people with disabilities where differences are magnified to create a distance between the disabled and normate body. In so doing, Estrada depicts their use of the UPIC as more in line with the avant-garde agenda of surpassing the pre-given and breaking with established rules and boundaries. Blindness, according to Estrada, conferred on blind people the freedom to experiment with the UPIC that a sighted person would lack.

Fig. 3. Julio Estrada running a UPIC workshop with the blind, video black and white, 1984.30

Estrada’s description is consistent with the “freedom of thought” and originality that Xenakis hoped the UPIC would engender. In suggesting that the UPIC could unearth a blind person’s innate capacity for musical innovation, Estrada projected a stereotypical and romanticized notion of the “blind musical genius” and their heightened sensory capacity for making music. Providing an example, he writes,

Laurence (16 years old) ‘seeks out’ her way in the tiniest space, tracing long lines very delicately and very slowly. She allows her hand to follow her mind’s direction and not her eyes, ignoring any norms a designer would impose upon her- or himself, she followed her intuition, surpassing any geometric rigidity, to discover new paths––lines––that lead from one point to the next, grow closer or farther apart, crossing within a region of encounters. Her drawing seems to indicate a willful direction, as though the geometric plan (pitch-time) represented a figuration of what that space had never foreseen. Having worked with blind people, one understands how it is not only a music by those who see, but also one is afraid to realize that there exists a music proper to them from the Conversion data from the drawing space into sound and that we must make an effort to develop it as far as possible. For them, it is indeed a whole representation which gives them and restores them otherwise what they lack. Their musical conceptions become markedly distinct at the same time as rich in information about a universe that ignores, not afraid to enrich our contacts with them, able to discover another aesthetic and to confirm how, by the need profound the intuition to exceed the rules.31

Estrada’s observation about the unique musical perception and skill of blind users attests to the Western historical idea that blindness affords different kinds of insight and imagination. Nicholas Mirzoeff demonstrates that there in a long history in Western cultural thought that blind people are a socially privileged group when it comes to abstract imagination.32

In an interview, Sharon Kanach, Xenakis’s collaborator, translator, editor of the Xenakis Series at Pendragon Press, and user of the earliest UPIC, described how Xenakis wanted her to witness a workshop with blind people. Kanach depicts how everyone was excited to see what blind people would come up with by working with the UPIC. She recalled feeling disappointed by the outcome of the workshop noting, “they would just draw symmetrical lines.”33 While Kanach, like Estrada, othered blind people, her observations of the workshop also point to the mundane uses of the UPIC, debunking the romanticized discourse of blindness and musical ability. More importantly, Kanach problematizes the essentialist view of blind people that romanticizes their abilities as well as the UPIC as a way to access this ability. This problematizing parallels the way that the mass media depicts the iPad today. According to Alper, “Mass media tend to depict youth with disabilities as beneficiaries of technology while hailing well-intentioned engineers, scientists, and technologists (often white, male, and able-bodied) as their benefactors. Such portrayals distract us from seeing children, adolescents, and teenagers with disabilities as young people whose experiences with communication technology can be ordinary and even mundane.”34

These demonstrations supposedly supported the idea that the UPIC could harness people’s innate musical abilities. UPIC workshops with people with disabilities signified the capacity of the system to revolutionize musical ability and the usual means of accessing this ability. They particularly signified the potential for underrepresented groups of people in the musical avant-garde to realize their capacity for musicality through the technological affordances of the UPIC. In theory, a blind person could draw in sound waves and hear the musical result and a deaf person could illustrate and visualize the properties of sound in their basic form. Vision, however, is usually not a prerequisite for having command of a musical instrument. There are indeed many successful blind musicians.

Additionally, visualizing the sound and the musical score was the primary intended mode of communicating with the UPIC, as the UPIC system translated a visual language into music. Its concept of sound, in other words, was structured visually. While Xenakis sought to break with the tradition of classical music, his musical process was tethered to many of the norms of this practice. Traditionally, classical music emphasizes reading sheet music as an integral part of music practice. With the emphasis on reading the score, classical music is a disabling practice for visually impaired people. Blind and deaf users were restricted from full participation in the features of the UPIC’s interface while children and people who used it in the workshops could not attain the full benefits that would come with repeated use and time spent practicing.

While the UPIC may have been inclusive in principle, it was not so in practice. Graham Pullin states that “visually impaired and sighted people will clearly have different experiences of a design that suits them both, so both perspectives must be considered.”35 As the UPIC presumed to represent music visually, for a sighted person, vision became the hierarchical sensory modality for making music. Furthermore, in order to meaningfully create music with the UPIC, people had to have control over their hands to be able to draw. For each line on the drawing board, the user had to draw a separate waveform selected from the bank. Kanach recalls that since the user had to define all of the sound elements before proceeding to freehand draw the composition, it could take the composer “twenty-five hours to do a ten-minute piece” because complex timbres are challenging to draw by hand.

Costas Mantzoros, an early user of the UPIC, notes that it in the early versions of the system, it would take “six or seven hours” for the UPIC to produce the full score. “You could hear one waveform and hear it” and “if you did two waveforms” it “could take maybe 30 minutes” to hear the sound created.36 This statement historicizes Xenakis’s declarations about the UPIC’s “intuitive” interactivity through “touch.” There was, in use, a distance of time between the user’s touch and the production of the audible sound. This time lag seems alien in the contemporary smartphone moment, with its attendant cultural expectations of instantaneous responsiveness and feedback. In addition to the time lapse, the user had to take several steps in order to hear the sound. The UPIC script also required the user to address the music’s precise time measurements and, subsequently, to ask the system to “calculate” the composition.

Fig. 4. Examples of the intricate illustrations that different composers have done with the UPIC.37

While there were different ways to use the UPIC, the way that Xenakis promoted most heavily was for the shapes to be hand-drawn from scratch. In one of the later interviews conducted with him, Xenakis stated that the reason he adopted a graphical approach to sound was because it is what came most naturally to him as an architect.38 Xenakis established the UPIC system as a way to support his own musical endeavors and working methods as an architect.

Furthermore, the UPIC, in practice, was difficult to engage with and it required time to understand how to use and how to master the techniques involved in composition. The pamphlet that accompanied the UPIC explicitly stated, “From the child to the composer, everyone will use it in his own way, according to his knowledge, abilities, job, and talent. . . .For all of them, the UPIC is a tool which leads to sound concretization through a gesture. If the gesture is naïve . . . the music will be naïve . . . if it is skillful, the UPIC will traduce the intelligence of one’s art.”39 Those who could attain a level of fluency with the UPIC were people like Xenakis, who understood the biases of the system, who were skilled at drawing, and who were visually oriented. As with any other musical instrument, mastery could exist, but the user either needed to possess these skills already or spend time with the system to attain them.

The UPIC system, in other words, reflected Xenakis’s specific capacities, habits, and skill-set. The idea that an architectural approach to music should be desired by everyone – as a universal form of accessibility based on that “everyone can draw and understand a line” – was not Xenakis’s initial concern. Ironically, meanwhile, Xenakis never extended his democratizing statements to the democratization of the architectural profession. The fact that “everybody can understand a line” did not extend to the possibility that everybody could also be an architect. Yet, the statement resonated with cultural ideals of the democratization of music production as well as with the Francophile, high modernist institutional funding environment in which he was embedded.



Recently scholars have complicated the narrative of the touchscreen as “natural” and the preeminent social implications of egalitarianism attached to its use.40 We can see the same rhetoric that “everybody can be a musician” in the way that music applications are advertised in Apple’s iOS platform. The advertisements paint music apps as a way to broaden the conditions of musical participation. Similar to the UPIC, however, music apps are said to expand the conditions of who can participate in music-making, yet re-inscribe a particular kind of participant.41 Social bias regarding gender, sexuality, and ability are inscribed at the moment of design, and reinforced in subsequent stages of refinement to the user interface.

Moreover, in our historical cultural moment we would benefit from contextualizing the technophilic discourse on touchscreens as enabling people with disabilities to be creative. Given the growing belief during the time of the UPIC that music was an engine of social change and crucial to the production of citizenship in the public sphere, the inclusion of people with disabilities within this rhetoric was especially significant. On the one hand, the efforts to include people with disabilities into this model of citizenship cohere to an ideology of ability by framing cultural participation as a prerequisite for political agency. The discourse of democratization also attested to the notion that musical creativity and composition was a fundamental capacity that is essential to being human. The UPIC would harness this innate musical capacity through the tactile immediacy of drawing. This argument upholds the imperative that everyone can and should make music. The rhetoric of musical democratization, which Xenakis and the government of France espoused at the time, asserted that musical participation was essential for social change and positioned music-making as a critical vector of engaged citizenship. In the process, the discourse reinforceda problematic notion that there is an innate human capacity to create music that can and should be cultivated.

At the same time, the discourse surrounding the UPIC called attention to the fact that a participatory culture must be predicated on inclusion of people other than the privileged white, male, able-bodied user that prevailed in the avant-garde music culture of France. In turn, the UPIC made a positive contribution to the discourse on the democratization of musical practice. Elizabeth Ellcessor states that, today, “The exclusion of people with disabilities from online media and attendant participatory cultures is particularly troubling given the potential of these spaces to foster engaged, active citizens of the world.”42 Xenakis’s stated social and technological goals contested the elitism and entrenched hierarchy that governed the French avant-garde musical scene. Even though Xenakis’s UPIC may not have aligned with the cultural and social values that he ascribed to it, and while the discourse of universality may be fraught, the UPIC represents an attempt to open musical and human possibilities. By appreciating how the media represented the UPIC, we can understand how the ideas advanced about the relationship between the tactile immediacy of an interface and musical participation initially circulated to the public.

  1. Heather Kelly, “5 Ways the iPhone Changed our Lives.” CNN, June 30, 2012. anniversary/index.html. 

  2. Meryl Alper, Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017), 3. 

  3. Iannis Xenakis, “Des Enfants de Cinq Ans Composeront des Symphonies.” La Tribune (30 July): 17. (Centre Iannis Xenakis, University of Rouen, 1977). 

  4. Mara Mills and Jonathan Sterne, “Dismediation: Three Proposals, Six Tactics,” in Disability Media Studies, eds. Elizabeth Ellcessor and William Kirkpatrick, 365-378 (New York: New York University Press, 2017). 

  5. Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010). 

  6. Balint Varga, Conversations with Iannis Xenakis (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1996), 120. 

  7. Iannis Xenakis, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Music. (Hillsdale, NY: Pedragon Press 1992), 22. 

  8. Olga Touloumi, “The Politics of Totality: Iannis Xenakis’ Polytope de Mycenes.” In Xenakis Matters: Contexts, Processes, Applications. Compiled and edited by Sharon Kanach. 101-26 (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press 2012), 290. 

  9. Henning Lohner and Iannis Xenakis, “Interview with Iannis Xenakis.” Computer Music Journal 10, no. 4 (1986): 54. 

  10. Mara Mills, “Deaf Jam: From Inscription to Reproduction to Information.” Social Text 102: The Politics of Recorded Sound (2010): 52. 

  11. “Fichier #987: ‘ID_3329_CIX_DIA19_Workshop_Yokohama1984 resultat.Jpg,’ Centre Iannis Xenakis, Administration d’Omeka,” n.d. 

  12. Iannis Xenakis, “Open Letter by Xenakis.” Le Monde, December 14, 1971.  

  13. Lohner and Xenakis, “Interview with Iannis Xenaxis, 55. 

  14. Lohner and Xenakis, “Interview with Iannis Xenaxis, 55. 

  15. Joseph Mancini, “Computer-Music Pioneer Turns His Attention to Micros.” InfoWorld, 29, June 27, 1983.  

  16. Mancini, “Computer-Music Pioneer Turns His Attention to Micros,” 7. 

  17. Terry Flew, The Creative Industries: Culture and Policy (Los Angeles: Sage Publishing, 2012), 160. 

  18. Eric Drott, Music and the Elusive Revolution: Cultural Politics and Political Culture in France, 1968-1981 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). 

  19. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 6. 

  20. Attali, Noise, 141. 

  21. Brian Rigby, Popular Culture in Modern France: A Study of Cultural Discourse. (New York: Routledge, 1991). 

  22. Isabelle Winance,, Jean-François, Ville, Ravaud, “Disability Policies in France: Changes and Tensions between the Category-based, Universalist and Personalized Approaches.” Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research. 2007;9 (3-4):160-181. doi:10.1080/15017410701680795).  

  23. Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). 

  24. Drott, Music and the Elusive Revolution. 

  25. Drott, Music and the Elusive Revolution; Rigby Popular Culture in Modern France. 

  26. Charles Turner, Xenakis in America (Graduate Center, City University of New York, 2014), 35. 

  27. Georgina Born, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-garde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). 55. 

  28. Julio Estrada, “Rapport sur le groupe des non-voyantes.” Centre Iannis Xenakis, University of Rouen, 1980.  

  29. Georgina Kleege, “Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eyewitness Account.” Journal of Visual Culture 4, no. 2 (2005): 179–90, 396. 

  30. Les Ateliers UPIC, “QR code 28,” Centre Iannis Xenakis 

  31. Estrada, “Rapport sur le groupe des non-voyantes,” 2. 

  32. Nicholas Mirzoeff; Missing citation? 

  33. Sharon Kanach, interview by Victoria Simon, April 18, 2017. 

  34. Alper, Giving Voice, 3. 

  35. Graham Pullin, Design Meets Disability (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 93. 

  36. Costas Mantzoros, interview by Victoria Simon, February 23, 2016. 

  37. “The UPIC user’s guide and tutorial” Centre Iannis Xenakis 224, cote 4. 

  38. Nouritza Matossian, Xenakis (London: Kahn & Averill, New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1986) 92. 

  39. Brigitte Robindore, “The UPIC User’s Guide and Tutorial,” 224, cote 4. Centre Iannis Xenakis, University of Rouen. 

  40. Alper, Giving Voice; David Parisi, Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018). 

  41. Victoria Simon, “Guided by Delight: Music Apps and the Politics of User Interface Design in the IOS Platform.” Television & New Media, (August 2018). Doi: 10.1177/1527476418794634

  42. Elizabeth Ellcessor, Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 5. 

Article: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Image: "Intereactions," (Screenshots) by Eric Schmaltz with Kevin McPhee and Graeme Ring (2017).