The “Electronic Poem” is 55
Fifty-five years ago this week the Brussels Worlds Fair (known as Expo 58) opened (April 17 to October 19, 1958). The opening celebrated the reconstruction of Europe, and pointed to a hopeful future, and of course the emphasis was on technology and science. The architecture was largely modernistic, the most unusual building being the Atomium.
Le Corbusier himself designed the building for the Philips Corporation, the Dutch electronics company, which in the 1950 formed Philips Records. We might nowadays say it was looking to provide “content” for its record players. Philips produced records consisting of mainstream classical, jazz and pop music. In 1957, for example, the Kaye Sisters and Frankie Vaughan appeared on Philips Records; in 1958 Vic Damone and Doris Day did so.
Le Corbusier handed off much of the work of creating and managing the construction of the building to Iannis Xenakis, an architect who would later become renowned as an avant-garde composer. The two conceived the idea of a building that would showcase a piece of electronic music by French-American composer Edgard Varèse (often referred to as Edgar Varèse). Given what it conceived the tastes of its record buyers amounted to, it is not likely that the concept immediately appealed to Philips. Nonetheless, the artists prevailed, and a great building looking like a futuristic cathedral was designed to house a enclosure much like the multi-chambered stomachs of ruminants.
The internal design intended to create a cavern that allowed the music to be “spatialized.” Over 250 speakers were installed, controlled by relays and switches to perform the electronic piece written by Varèse.
Varèse’s training as a composer largely came from the great Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni was an accomplished concert pianist, music historian, teacher and, above all, composer. Busoni is not as widely appreciated today as he ought to be. He fits neither into the new music of the Second Viennese School nor the Impressionism of the French new music that followed Debussy, and the inability to categorize him has contributed to his neglect. Although his music is undeniably forward-looking, it reaches back to the origins of German art music. In fact, he is probably known most of all to piano students who learned Bach through his arrangements. Through Busoni Varèse met Hugo von Hofmannsthal and began an opera project with one of his librettos, but it never came to fruition.
Varèse spent most of World War I in the United States. He would thereafter return to Paris, but again resettled in the United States. He composed a number of highly influential works for small instrumental groups as well as musique concrète pieces and electronic works. Many of the pieces depend on intricate rhythmic patterns and overlaps. But the rhythms are highly controlled, more like the way temporal space was divided in the Baroque than the percussion of the Jazz Age. In retrospect the number of his works is surprisingly small in light of their collective influence.
By the 1950s Varèse was internationally known for his experiments in sound. It was for this reason he was selected by Le Corbusier to provide the “music” for the Philips Pavilion. The work he created is known as Poème électronique, the “Electronic Poem.”
The piece is comprised entirely of electronically generated sounds. For all that, first time hearers today will think that its physical composition was surprisingly primitive. All that resulted were three monophonic magnetic tapes. The spatial effects inside the cavern were created by the relays that controlled the volume of the speakers. If you listen to it for the first time today, you should use a set of headphones to try to re-create the spatial effects.
The work is short and unusually linear. Sounds arise and decay into great silence. It is the sound of what we once thought of as the “future.” It now reminds us how machines and electronics have contributed to our alienation.
Like all great modernist pieces it requires repeated listenings. Once you are familiar with the structure, you see that it is a sui generis creation, but unlike an abstract painting each part can call up the whole in one’s memory. At Expo 58 abstract art and black-and-white film accompanied the performances. The programmatic guide to the piece suggested that it “represents” man’s rise from the void, through the gods to civilization (and beyond?). It is best to treat the piece as an expressionistic musical work, however, and forget the program. Part of experience is the texture and color of the noises. It will seem warm despite the alienating sounds. The warmth comes from an intelligence who guides the sounds.
The two million visitors who experienced the piece 55 years ago probably had a more visceral experience inside the Pavilion. But the piece still provides an arresting encounter with the new. No matter how many times you have heard it.