Length: 8 minutes
Discussions between the Philips corporation and architect Le Corbusier about plans for Philips' presence at the 1958 Universal Exposition in Brussels began in January 1956. He insisted that the composer for the cutting edge multimedia spectacle he had in mind should be Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), and even negotiated a fee of three million francs for the composer. All this before discussing the project with Varèse himself.
"My idea is that music should have a part in this," Le Corbusier wrote finally wrote to Varèse in June of 1956. "In the darkness there will appear flashes of 'black light,' certain objects or atmospheres of violently different colors. The illumination (colored neons) will allow dynamic flashing drawings to be made and from time to time a realistic event, but occupying space with a striking presence.
"It is a scenario to be created wholly from relationships; light, plasticity, design, and music.
"Could you make the music? I can also tell you that it is Xenakis who will design the Pavilion and prepare the drawings to be used for the details and the synopsis of different sequences.... I hope that this will please you. It will be the first truly electric work and with symphonic power."
Varèse accepted quickly and eagerly. His most recent work, Déserts, combined wind and percussion instruments with recorded sounds, and had created a sensation at its premiere in Paris in 1954. "The future composer of symphonic music will consult the scientist in his laboratory instead of the violin maker in his garret," Varèse had written in 1936, and he was eager to get to work with the scientists in the Philips labs.
Philips officials, on the other hand, were not at all sure about whether they wanted to work with Varèse, but Le Corbusier prevailed. Whatever the corporate reservations might have been, the company made its technology readily available to the composer. The soundscape that Varèse created from diverse sources was planned to move about the interior of the Philips Pavilion through hundreds of speakers, although it was composed independent of the film and images that Le Corbusier developed.
"The work started with a sound as of vast church bells tolling," critic Edward Downes wrote. "It came from all sides…. There followed sounds suggesting sirens, kettledrums, gunshots, skyrockets exploding into outer space, and then something like a slowed-down human voice seemed to sigh: 'Oh, god…' the pitch of the final vowel sinking gradually into the bottomless depths of a booming echo chamber."
The eight-minute piece has been described in classical terms of exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda, each occurring in roughly two-minute increments. Certainly it is formally dramatic and cohesive, with keen interest in development and variation, though of sound objects rather than traditional melodies.
Le Corbusier, Varèse, Xenakis, and the Philips people were all clear that their electronic poem could be fully experienced only within the Pavilion. When the Pavilion was torn down two months after the Exposition closed, Poème électronique ceased to exist as its creators imagined it.
-- John Henken is the Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.