First presented at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair with 425 speakers placed throughout the famous Philips pavilion, the placement of the speakers and design of the building gave the spectators a feeling of being housed within a concrete, silver seashell. A giant model of the atom hung from the ceiling and the sound & imagery premiered to standing room only crowds and I can only imagine was a complete mind-blower to all who witnessed the spectacle. Varese is considered to be the « father of electronic music », Henry Miller described him as the « stratospheric colossus of sound. » When Philips (Philips electronic company) approached Le Corbusier to design a building for the fair, Le Corbusier said, « I will not make a pavilion for you (Philips) but an Electronic Poem and a vessel containing the poem; light, color, image, rhythm and sound joined together in an organic synthesis. »
Poème électronique (English Translation: « Electronic Poem ») is an 8-minute piece of electronic music by composer Edgard Varèse, written for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The Philips corporation commissioned Le Corbusier to design the pavilion, which was intended as a showcase of their engineering progress. Le Corbusier came up with the title Poème électronique… saying he wanted to create a « poem in a bottle »… Varèse composed the piece with the intention of creating a liberation between sounds and as a result uses noises not usually considered « musical » throughout the piece.
The piece was originally recorded on three separate monaural tapes, two of which were in turn recorded onto a stereo tape with panning effects. The stereo tape and the remaining monaural tape were finally combined onto 35-mm perforated tape in order to synchronize the tape with the film and lighting changes.
The images in Le Corbusier’s film are all black and white still photographs and willfully abstract. The first image is a bull’s head in a spotlight. The final image is a woman holding an infant. Le Corbusier assigned thematic sections to the film:
0 – 60” Genesis
61 – 120” Spirit and Matter
121 – 204” From Darkness to Dawn
205 – 240” Man-Made Gods
241 – 300” How Time Moulds Civilization
301 – 360” Harmony
361 – 480” To All Mankind
The sequence of sounds in Varèse’s composition:
0” 1. a. Low bell tolls. « Wood blocks. » Sirens. Fast taps lead to high, piercing sounds. 2-second pause.
43” b. « Bongo » tones and higher grating noises. Sirens. Short « squawks. » Three-tone group stated three times.
1’11” c. Low sustained tones with grating noises. Sirens. Short « squawks. » Three-tone group. 2-second pause.
1’40” d. Short « squawks. » High « chirps. » Variety of « shots, » « honks, » « machine noises. » Sirens. Taps lead to
2’36” 2. a. Low bell tolls. Sustained electronic tones. Repeated « bongo » tones. High and sustained electronic tones. Low tone, crescendo. Rhythmic noises lead to
3’41” b. Voice, « Oh-gah. » 4-second pause. Voice continues softly.
4’17” c. Suddenly loud. Rhythmic percussive sounds joined by voice. Low « animal noises, » scraping, shuffling, hollow vocal sounds. Decrescendo into 7-second pause.
5’47” d. Sustained electronic tones, crescendo and decrecendo. Rhythmic percussive sounds. Higher sustained electronic tones, crescendo. « Airplane rumble, » « chimes, » jangling.
6’47” e. « Female voice. Male chorus. Electronic noises, organ. High taps. Swooping organ sound. Three-note group stated twice. Rumble, sirens, crescendo (8 minutes and 5 seconds). »