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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Edgard Varese - Poeme Electronique

For the 1958 World Fair in Brussels the architect Le Corbusier commissioned composer Edgard Varese to create what would today be called an immersive sound installation for the Philips Pavilion Le Corbusier was creating. Although, most of the actual design work was done by Iannis Xenakis, a greek architect working in Le Corbusier's office at the time. Xenakis is remembered as a pioneering composer of electronic and computer music himself but at the time was not yet well-known. Visitors to the Pavilion were treated to a multimedia performance: 400 loudspeakers moving Varese's composition through 3D space, projections of images, and text by Le Corbusier.

Poeme Electronique, a piece performed on tape, is a realization of a vision Varese had pursued from early in his career using more conventional instruments. Check out the audio excerpts in these program notes. There is a passage from 1925's Integrales, a piece for 11 wind instruments and percussion, followed by a similar segment from 1958's Poeme Electronique. These "illustrate a typical Varese-ian gesture--an accumulation of single tones ending with a great crescendo." Varese used gestures like this in an effort to create an unexpected and extreme musical experience and to simulate the effect of sound moving through space. Taking to heart the dissatisfaction of his age with the music of the past, Varese spoke of composing organized sound:
Varese's declared intention as stated in "the Liberation of Sound" was "Liberation from the arbitrary, paralysing tempered system; the possibility of obtaining any number of cycles, or, if still desired, subdivisions of the octave, and consequently the formation of any desired scale; unsuspected range in low and high registers; new harmonic splendours obtainable from the use of subharmonic combinations now impossible; the possibility of obtaining any differential of timbre, sound-combinations and new dynamics far beyond the present human powered orchestra; a sense of sound projection in space by the emission of sound in any part or in many parts of the hall as may be required by the score; cross rhythms unrelated to each other, treated simultaneously, or to use the old word, 'contrapuntally', since the machine would be able to beat any number of desired notes, any subdivision of them, omission or fraction of them- all these in a given unit of measure of time which is humanly impossible to attain."
With the Philips Pavilion installation, he finally had the means to really organize sound (in 3D space) and the technology to make sounds that went far beyond the timbre, sound-combinations and dynamics available to the "present human powered orchestra." He experimented with tape speeds, editing, splicing, sine wave and white noise. The result admittedly strident, but patterns emerge that make sense if you listen closely. Here is a detail of part of the score:

Unfortunately the Pavilion was torn down after the Fair. I had thought that only a stereo recording of Varese's original Poeme Electronique remained, but according to those program notes, they still have the "original three-channel version created at Philips Labs in Eindhoven" (suggesting that the original is a three-channel work "spatialized through four hundred speakers and an elaborate switching mechanism"). Composer/reconstruction engineer Kees Tazelaar's site has more details:
Since at the Philips Studio there was no multi track recorder suitable for this work (there were 4 track 1 inch machines but without a punch in/out function), Varese composed his music on four separate tapes; three mono and one stereo, that had to be played simultaneously in order to hear the complete work. These five tape channels were then copied to a three track 35 mm perfo tape (the left channel of the stereo tape being mixed with mono tape 2, and the right channel being mixed with tape 3) that was used during the performance in the Pavilion, and were played back and routed through a system of 350 loudspeakers (325 satelites on the walls of the pavilion and 25 sub woofers in the fundaments).
As they say, even without the space it was composed to inhabit, Poeme Electronique stands as one of the earliest masterpieces of electronic music.

Now you can hear the whole thing here, with some engaging visuals from the original (which I believe are from a reconstruction of the installation done for a 2003 festival in The Hague):

(Edgard Varese - Poeme Electronique)


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