“Poème électronique” (Electronic Poem) was composed in 1958 by Edgard Varèse, the father of electronic music, and Iannis Xénakis, one of the most important modernist composers of the 20th century, under the direction of Le Corbusier, one of the most important architects of the 20th century.
This recording is only an approximation of the true nature of the event from 1958, as it has none of the integral spatial effects that were created for the Philips Pavilion structure.
There is much information to understand the complexity of this giant project which was the first electronic-spatial environment to combine architecture, film, light and music to a total experience made to functions in time and space. I recomand to read the entire post.
Edgard Varèse (1883 – 1965) was a French-born composer, who moved to the United States in 1915. His use of new instruments and electronic resources led to his being known as the “Father of Electronic Music” while Henry Miller described him as “The stratospheric Colossus of Sound.”
Iannis Xénakis (1922 – 2001) was a composer of Greek parentage and Romanian birth. In 1947 he arrived in Paris, where he became a member of Le Corbusier’s architectural team. He is one of the most important modernist composers of the 20th century.
Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965), was a Swiss-born architect, designer, urbanist, writer and also painter, who is famous for his contributions to what now is called Modern architecture. In his 30s he became a French citizen.
The story begin in 1956, when preparations had begun for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. It was to be the first World’s Fair held since the end of World War II, and the idea was to celebrate the rejuvenation of civilization from the destruction of the war.
The Philips electronics company had been forced to relocate from the Netherlands during the war. Having returned to their corporate headquarters, they had focused on developing new products in lighting, stereophonic audio, telephones, and other products. As the preparations for the fair approached, Philips grew concerned that they would be outshone by American booths that were planning to display the new color televisions. So they came up with the concept of not displaying commercial goods at all, but rather of putting together an international team consisting of an architect, an artist and a composer to create a pavilion displaying electronic technology in as many forms as possible, serving arts, culture, and the overall betterment of humankind.
Philips approached Le Corbusier was enthusiastic about the idea, replying:
“I will not make a pavilion for you but an Electronic Poem and a vessel containing the poem; light, color image, rhythm and sound joined together in an organic synthesis.”
He was not concerned with the exterior design of the pavilion, and stipulated that he would be entirely responsible for the interior and therefore no other artist would be necessary.
As for the composer, Philips had in mind a number of headliners who could compose the music. Benjamin Britten or Aaron Copland seemed to have international reputations at the same level as Le Corbusier. But Le Corbusier, a dominating and powerful personality, insisted that Edgard Varèse was the only qualified composer for the project. When Philips expressed uncertainty with the idea, Le Corbusier made his own participation contingent upon Varèse acting as composer, and insisted that Varèse be given carte blanche to create whatever he saw fit. Despite Philips’ desire to have a mainstream composer, Le Corbusier’s presence was the overriding concern, as the company believed that his name was necessary to garner international attention.
At initial meetings, Le Corbusier gave a rough outline of the look and function of the event.
- The interior was to be shaped in a manner similar to the stomach of a cow, with the concept that audience members would enter in groups of 500 at ten-minute intervals.
- For two minutes, as the audience filed in through a curved passageway, they would hear a short transition piece. Then the room would go into darkness, and spectators, who remained standing, would then be subject to the interior music and lights for eight minutes.
- Colored lights, images, and film would be shown all around them. Music (organized sound) would be played over a huge array of speakers, surrounding and traversing the audience. At the close of the eight-minute piece, the spectators would exit, “digested,” through another exit while the next group filed in.
- In this way, 20,000 visitors a day would be able to visit the pavilion over the five months of the fair. The project was to be managed by Le Corbusier’s protege designer Iannis Xénakis, who would also create the transition music.
- Le Corbusier would provide the images to be projected during a 480 second multi-media event.
- No attempt would be made to synchronize the visuals with the music. Any correspondences that did occur would happy accidents, except for a specified moment of silence six minutes into the work.
Beyond this, Le Corbusier offered little in terms of specifics. As it turned out, the project did not go according to Philips’ expectations on a number of areas. At the time, Le Corbusier was principally occupied with a mammoth project, building an entire city in Chandigargh, India. His participation was largely in absentia, with his ideas being broad and general. Specifics were few, and they typically came weeks or months behind schedule. The nuts and bolts were left to others, most particularly Xenakis, who was to design the exterior. Le Corbusier spoke in general of having a shape that was designed according to a mathematical function, but the actual design was left to Xenakis.
As for Varèse, this was the project he had been waiting for all his life. He was taken to a state of the art sound studio constructed by Philips for the project labs in Eindhoven, and given two technicians to do his bidding.
Xenakis wound up being the principal coordinator of the project over the two years of its realization, creating the exterior design, going over details with engineers, and coordinating the artistic team. His exterior design was that of a three-pronged tent, constructed with hyperbolic paraboloid shapes like those he used in his composition Metastaseis, and an idea that was in vogue with a number of designers and visual artists at the time. It would be constructed with a series of cables, over which a skin of concrete panels would be laid.
The interior display consisted of five different lighting effects:
- Colored lights projected onto the walls that accentuated the shape of the interior;
- Two figures suspended in space – a female figure and an abstract sculpture made of metal tubes – that would shine red and greenish blue when irradiated with ultraviolet light;
- Two large screens, into which images and film were projected;
- Highlighted areas around the projection screens where colored beams of light or black and white figures were projected
- Images of the sun, moon, and stars on the ceiling
The audio component was to be a demonstration of the effects of stereophony, reverberation, and echo. Sounds were meant to appear to move in space around the audience. Varèse was finally able to realize the movement of sounds through space from different directions. The audio tape consisted of three tracks, to give the illusion of three simultaneous sound sources that could be moving around the space. There were 350 speakers in 20 amplifier combinations (six amplifiers assigned to track one, eight assigned to track two, and six assigned to track three). A fifteen track control tape sent signals to the projectors and amplifiers. A series of “sound routes” were conceived so that the sounds could appear to move through the space from different directions. These were realized by designing an amplifier that would “span” a group of speakers, iterating through them five speakers at a time. For example, a sound path might move through the space of speakers 121 to 145. The sound would come first from speakers 121-125, then 122-126, then 123-127, and so on. This was one of the most elaborate site-specific projects ever created. The sound was written for the space and vice versa. The quick crescendoes and abrupt silences were calculated to exploit the reverberation of the space.
The ground breaking on the project was in May of 1957. The images to be projected inside were still not assembled, while Le Corbusier made excuses about a constant preoccupation with the project and needing adequate time for his ideas to gestate and be realized. Le Corbusier arrived in Paris to sign off on the design, then went to Eindhoven where he played it up to the press, posing for photos and pointing out his unique design elements at work. Xenakis was disgruntled, feeling neglected, unacknowledged, and upstaged. This kind of treatment is the norm, particularly in design firms. The head of the firm comes up with the broad strokes, dividing time between PR work and asking designers to adjust their work, then signs off on the plans and takes the credit. Xenakis, however, was not prepared for this reality. He immediately wrote to the Philips Corporation, claiming the design as his own, and requesting due credit in future. Such a move was unprecedented. Le Corbusier had never shared credit with anyone, and an employee with such audacity would normally be summarily dismissed. Xenakis, however, was too important to the firm, and Le Corbusier was forced, however reluctantly, to acknowledge, if not accept, Xenakis’ design contributions. Le Corbusier wrote to Philips, defending his work methods, claiming that none of his 250 architects had ever received any credit for any of the firm’s work.
It is somewhat ironic that Le Corbusier himself had felt the victim of plagiarization a few years earlier. He had submitted plans for the United Nations building and been turned down. When the final designs were in place, Le Corbusier claimed that his ideas had been taken, and called a press conference to make his dissatisfaction public. He was simply not used to being subservient to anyone. In his mind, he had given Xenakis a plumb project to coordinate, design, and compose for. In Xenakis’ mind, Le Corbusier had become largely a figurehead, seldom showing up at the office, and doing little other than taking credit for others’ work. Ultimately, Le Corbusier agreed to allow Xenakis credit as co-designer, but the hard feelings never dissipated.
Varèse supported Xenakis in the dispute, as Xenakis supported Varèse through the difficulties he was finding in Eindhoven. Philips had never been fully behind the selection of Varèse as composer, and, like Le Corbusier, Varèse was chronically late in producing material or even in giving evidence that he had anything in mind at all. But Le Corbusier, through correspondence, and Xenakis, in person, remained steadfast in their support of him.
While for years Varèse had called for the creation of new sound-making machinery, now that it was at his disposal he had little idea of how to work with it, and took a good deal of time learning how to work the various machinery. He also appeared to have no fixed concept of the piece when he arrived. When he did get started, he worked in piecemeal fashion, making it difficult to answer questions from Philips such as “How much of the piece is complete?” Further complicating matters was the absence of a vocabulary to refer to the types of effects that Varèse wanted. Descriptions such as “more nasal,” “less biting”, “more rasping,” tended simply to confuse the technicians who tried to translate these descriptive terms into setting for oscillators, filters, and mixer configurations. One anecdote recalled by a technician described spending several hours trying to create a particular sound, to no avail. At one point, someone entered the studio, and, on hearing the squeaking hinges of the door, Varèse exclaimed, “That’s it! That the sound we must have!” The technician at that point simply collapsed in laughter. Then they made a recording of the door opening.
When Philips did get to hear fragments, they were dismayed at the collection of gongs, sirens, human cries, explosions, and an apparent motif of an electronic sound ascending through three semitones. The company went as far as to commission a score from another composer after the first playing of the initial section, just in case the final product was deemed unacceptable. The fact that there was not yet any of the film or imagery available, and that these things were to have nothing to do with the music anyway, did nothing to dispel their confusion. But Le Corbusier repeated his threat to withdraw from the project if Varèse were dismissed, so Philips begrudgingly resigned themselves to Varèse’s participation.
Xenakis’ morale did not improve when he and Le Corbusier disagreed about the nature of the transition music. Le Corbusier wanted something akin to popular songs. Xenakis would have nothing of it, telling Le Corbusier at a meeting with Philips that he should simply hire a balladeer if that was the sort of music he wanted. Philips was astonished at his gall. But Xenakis was determined to create a piece based on noise and rhythm, to match the main music Varèse was creating. He hoped to prepare his work at the sound studio in Eindhoven, but Le Corbusier refused him leave as Xenakis was needed in Paris for design work. This left Xenakis having to work in the significantly scaled down studio facility that Philips had in Paris.
Xenakis was to create a musique concrète piece based on the sound of burning charcoal. Its title was taken from the genre and the hyperbolic paraboloid (paraboloid hyperbolique) design, Concrète P.H.
The audience heard this piece as they entered, then heard Varèse’s main piece. This accompanied a visual presentation which consisted of seven sections:
- Genesis – images of colored light, a bull, a matador, the head of a Greek statue, a film of a woman smiling, then recoiling in terror, a skull.
- Matter and Spirit – rapid-fire image projections of sea shells, scientists, the skull, an African woman, colored lights, a dinosaur skeleton, a film of a monkey apparently in thought.
- From Darkness to Dawn – eyes and heads of various animals and people. An owl’s head, a turkey head, a woman’s face, tribal sculptures of heads, open trench graves from concentration camps, toy soldiers, tanks, cowboys and Indians, guns, medieval sculptures of religions imagery, a Buddha.
- Manmade Gods – a variety of colored lights, stone head from Easter Island, geometric figures, the Sphinx.
- How Time Molds Civilization – industry and power – an atomic plant, crowds, a telescope operator, a surgeon, miner, cement workers, a farm horse, Charlie Chaplin, a bomber plane, a rocket, a radar antenna, clouds, mushroom clouds, children staring at the camera.
- Harmony – the Eiffel Tower, early photographs of people and animals, machine parts, Chaplin again, Laurel and Hardy, abstract shapes, astronomical images, two lovers in an embrace, babies.
- To All Mankind – skyscrapers, architectural plans, city models, the Modulor, a baby’s hand, children, an old woman, people at a dinner table, a man sleeping in the street, a dirt road, a baby again.
This rapid fire delivery is something modern audiences are used to through media such as MTV, but in 1958 no one had ever seen anything like this.
The pavilion was inaugurated in April of 1958, and immediately closed for two weeks to make improvements to the sound system. It finally opened again in May, where it remained until October. According to the liner notes for a commercial recording of Varèse’s music, the pavilion “evinced reactions almost as kaleidoscopic as the sounds and images they encountered – terror, anger, stunned awe, amusement, wild enthusiasm.”
While there were some attempts to preserve the building after the closing of the World’s Fair, it had never been constructed as a permanent structure. There was not sufficient insulation, and the wiring was not robust enough to last indefinitely. The building ultimately came down, leaving only the recording of the music to posterity. The recording, however, is only an approximation of the true nature of the event, as it has none of the integral spatial effects that were created for the Pavilion structure.
Xenakis’ piece, Concrète P.H., and Varèse’s Poème Électronique are considered landmarks in electronic music, even though they do not represent either composer’s finest work. But as a complete multi-media experience, there have been few events that compare to the Philips Pavilion.
After the pavilion, Xenakis left Le Corbusier’s firm to concentrate entirely on music. Pierre Schaeffer had returned from North Africa to Paris, and re-outfitting the Radiodiffusion Francaise studio as an acoustic research facility called Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM). Pierre Henry, wanting to focus more on compostion and production, left to form his own studio. Xenakis became a full-time member of the new GRM facility, exploring tape manipulation techniques to realize his stochastic music theories.
Varèse’s status as a celebrity was solidified. He spent his remaining years as a composer of distinction, teaching, giving lectures, and starting one more piece that he did not complete before his death in 1965.
Watch this documentary about a virtual reality project that reconstructs the Pavilion:
- Varèse on: Official page, MySpace, LastFM, Wikipedia,
- Xénakis on: Official page, MySpace, LastFM, Wikipedia,
- Le Corbusier on: Official page, MySpace, Wikipedia.
- Poème électronique on: Inart 55, Pastiche, LastFM, Wikipedia.
Tags: 50s, abstract, avant-garde, classical, concrete, concrete music, contemporary classical, Edgard Varese, electronic, Electronic Poem, experimental, Iannis Xenakis, Le Corbusier, modernism, musique concrete, noise, Poème électronique