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