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Poème Électronique was not merely a piece of music, but a multimedia art work that constituted the Philips Pavilion during the Brussels World's Fair of 1958. Philips commissioned renown architect Le Corbusier to conceive this project of film, light, sound, and architecture, who in turn relied on a team of collaborators to carry out its various components. The architecture itself was largely the work of Iannis Xenakis, who was Le Corbusier's engineer and assistant at the time. Making use of the hyperbolic paraboloids that were first employed in his composition Metastassis (1954), the strikingly warped surfaces of the Pavilion proved to be one of the most eccentric structures at the World's Fair. In addition, Xenakis also composed Concret-PH to accompany the intermission, a tape piece based solely on the sounds of heated charcoal.

Intended to showcase Philips's most advanced technologies at the time, the entire eight minute production was automated through control tapes. Although the complexity of the system would delay the opening of the pavilion by a month, its features were extremely sophisticated even by today's standards. Another notable aspect of this early spectacle was the independence of sight and sound, which were created without synchronization outside of the predetermined duration. Although each performance of Poème would be identical, the relation between its two principle components was the result of chance, much like the Cage/Cunningham collaborations.

The Philips management was never content with Le Corbusier's choice of Varèse as composer, only keeping him on because of the architect's threat to abandon the project unless otherwise.

This did not, however, stop the company from commissioning a more conventional score from Henri Tomasi, also entitled Poème Électronique, "just in case." In the midst of this mess, Varèse created his work at the Philips Studio in Eindhoven, assisted by Willem Tak and S.L. de Bruin, using both concret ("real" sounds such as machines in operation and fragments composed for voice, organ, and percussion) and synthesized sonorities. The final tape was essentially a single channel (mono) work, with two extra tracks containing "reverberation and stereophonic effects." Listening to the work today, we must be reminded that Poème Électronique was intended to be distributed over 400 loudspeakers placed across the surface of the pavilion interior. Controlled by an automated switching system, sounds traveled in pre-programmed routes--horizontally around the audience as well as vertically--as trails of speakers were switched on-and-off like Christmas lights. Although this system achieved spatial effects impossible to obtain through multi-channel works (such as Stockhausen's four channel Kontakte from 1960), it was also extremely costly and difficult to replicate. After the Philips Pavilion was torn down at the end of the World's Fair, it is virtually impossible today to experience the work as it was originally intended.

Much of the information on Poème Électronique is drawn from Marc Treib's invaluable book, Space Calculated in Seconds. Thanks also to David Novak.