Mgr. Martin Flašar - Institute of Musicology, Masaryk University, Brno /CZ/


The status of the postwar international situation was not favourable. Shaken confidence in the possibility of international communication could have been demonstrated by the first postwar World Exhibition in Brussels in 1958. It was the very first international meeting after Second World War at this level, the last one took place in New York in 1939. Nevertheless, in the atmosphere of general skepticism caused by Cold War, USA nuclear tests and space races arose many interesting ideas combining arts, science and technology. The aim was clear: find a new position of the Man in the middle of completely new situation.

Concerning technology

In his famous lecture Die Frage nach der Technik (1953) Martin Heidegger questions a problem of technic. His answer is: technic is an action of man, which serves as a means to the certain purposes. As he points out, it is important to handle technic appropriately, to keep it under control. The word “technic” is based on Greek ????? (techné), which denotes not only craftsmanship, but also high arts and fine arts. Further connotations are with ??????ľ? (epistémé) and ??????? (poiésis). In this sense the notion of ????? denotes technic, science and arts. Heidegger says, that ????? relates to finding truth and beauty. One of the final thesis of his lecture declares that we (as humans) can face up to technic only in the sphere of art. Such an experiment with the synthesis of technology, art and space was Pavillion Philips at the World Exhibition 1958 called Poeme électronique.

Edgard Varese, Iannis Xenakis, Le Corbusier: Poeme électronique

Poeme électronique was a collective work of art created by Edgard Varese, Iannis Xenakis and Le Corbusier. This multimedia work of art appears to become more and more important in the course of 20th and 21st century which is connected with the fact that not the work alone but the point of scientific view with its system of concepts has slowly changed.

Poeme électronique arose in the 1956-58 and as a work of art anticipated whole sphere of the art. Le Corbusier – a famous architect of the Swiss origin – was asked by Louis Kallf (an Art director of Philips in Eindhoven) to construct a pavilion for the company presentation at the World Exhibition EXPO in Brussels 1958. Le Corbusier’s primal idea was to build a “vessel” containing sound, light and movements, simply the Electronic poem. When finding the name for this project he was undoubtedly influenced by the work of French Groupe de Recherches Musicales, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in the concrete. Their collective composition of musique concréte named Symphonie pour un home seul (Symphony for the lonely man; 1949-50) bears in the context these words:

“How should we answer the screaming of crowds? By violin? By oboe? And which orchestra can show off its ability to balance the shouting of the crowds, which one man in his loneliness is not able to produce?”.

The position of man in the middle of crowd was the main concern of the time. It relates to the contemporary philosophy of existentialism, which was the reaction to the socialism (either communist or nationalist). Varese alone was occupied by the idea of uniting people and masses by means of music. His concept of the extensive composition named Espaces (Spaces) emerged in 1929. Composer’s idea was to perform this work simultaneously in the international space connected by radio waves (satellites were the distant future). Thus this work was arising in the time of the Varese´s creative crisis and went unfinished. Nevertheless music-space conceptions occupied his mind during the Second World War. Next opportunity to carry out his plan was the Poeme électronique. Varese was asked by Le Corbusier to make approximately ten minutes long electro-acoustic composition for his project. Le Corbusier enforced Varese despite of the will of Philips representatives because their primal idea was to engage one of the well known but traditional composers as William Walton, Aaron Copland or Marcel Landowski (Ouellette 1968: 197). On account of this consideration was the position of Varese during his work on the Poeme in laboratories of Philips in Eindhoven quite difficult. Engineers of Philips weren´t especially motivated to help Varese with carrying out his project. The work went on slowly, eight minutes of music took eight months (from 2nd September 1957 to 2nd May 1958). The final work concerned pavilion projected by Xenakis, the sound part made by Varese (Poeme électronique) and Xenakis (two-minutes intermezzo named Concrete PH) and the visual component prepared by Le Corbusier and Jean Petit (a film consisting of series of still-lives combined with color lights). After the end of Exhibition the pavilion was destroyed and the original tape with spatialized layers of sound was mixed down to the stereo (2-channel) version.

On a crossroad of media

Poeme électronique should be seen as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” of artistic forms, laying on a crossroad of media. It means that we are supposed to examine interactions between separate forms of artistic expressions: image, light, sound, movement, architecture etc. This brings a need of further more detailed operations: semantic analysis of the film, analysis of the sound structure, its notation and forms of technological realization. The most interesting and promising part of understanding the project should be expected in finding analogies, mutual influences and interactions between separate elements within the complex of the multimedia work. The following questions and ideas are arising: How is the space connected with sound, visuals and architecture?

Architecture as a 3D projection of musical structure contains another musical (or sound) structure in move. In this connection we are realizing, that the proper system of concepts is actually missing. It is very important to search for the precise notions which would be able to handle all aspects of the problem. Do we indeed have the right notions to name all layers of the multimedia work? I suppose, we will have to make a synthesis of the notions from various areas of art studies. As indicated at the beginning of this paper, not the work alone but the whole system of concepts and discurses has slowly changed. Not until the last few decades or even years we had notions to name the interdisciplinary phenomena. With them the Philips pavilion containing Poeme électronique could be described as an “immersive environment” containing “spatialized sound layers”. In short, this area involves a whole complex of diverse approaches, from scientific to philosophical ones, using methods of social sciences as well the nature ones.

Focused on Man

It seems improper to speak about philosophy in the context of Poeme électronique. The truth is, nevertheless, a different one. Not only aesthetic questions are becoming relevant in this relation but also philosophical. We had been already speaking about Edgard Varese and his ideas about music unifying people, masses or mankind. The question of humanism and humanity is emerging on this place and Varese have to deal with it. Already in his already meant Espace there is emerging kind of manifesto, written by Varese, used in the last part of his unfinished piece:

„Theme: TODAY. The world awake! Humanity on the march. Nothing can stop it. A conscious humanity neither exploitable nor pitiable. Marching! There is only going. Milions of feet endlessly tramping, treading, pounding, stridling, leaping.

Rhythms change: quick, slow, staccato, dragging, racing, smoothe. The final crescendo giving the impression that confidently, inexorably the going will never stop... projecting itself into space. ...

Voices in the sky, as though magic, invisible hands were turning on and off the knobs of fantastic radios, filling all space, criss-crossing, ovelapping, penetrating each other, splitting up, superimposing, repulsing each other, colliding, crashing. Phrases, slogans, utterances, chants, proclamations. China, Russia, Spain, the Fascist states and the opposing Democracies all breaking their paralyzing crusts.

What should be avoided: tone of propaganda as well as any journalistic speculating on timely events and doctrines. I want the epic impact of today stripped of its mannerism and snobbism.

I suggest using, here and there, snatches of phrases of American, French, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, German revolutions like shooting stars, also recurring words poundingly repeated like hammer blows or throbbing in an underground ostinato, stubborn and ritualistic.

I should like an exultant, even prophetic tone, the writing, however, lean and bare, active, almost like the account of a prizefight, blow for blow, the audience kept keyed-up, tense and unconscious of the style of the announcer.

Also some phrases, out of folklore, for the sake of their human, near-the-earth quality. I want to encompass everything that is human, from the most primitive to the farthest reaches of science.“

(Edgar Varese, „Ionisation – Espaces,“ Twice a Year, No. 7, Autumn – Winter, 1941; in Ouellette 131-132)
Varese is asking a special question about position of human being in the middle of insane 20th century.
The second question which must be asked, is, how much space still remains for the man surrounded by technology. Is there still some place for his live, his work and his art? That is the most important point. These questions also created a aesthetic base for Poeme électronique:

“Ever since Man was created he has been up against sorrow and distress. Torn between the great unattainable ideal and the many small humdrum worries, he endeavoured, with difficulty, to keep his balance. Slowly did he evolve, through hundreds and hundreds of centuries.
Towering above the turbulent sea of humanity, rare geniuses of art and science have always shone, fostered and inspired by the more tardily evolving masses below them. Geniuses of our time, like so many before them seized by the march of progress of Mankind, and fired by a masterly spark of one of the greatest among them – Le Corbusier - have created the complete work of art: the electronic poem.
The synthesis of art and the latest achievements of science and technology confronts you with the genesis of the earth and the creatures that populate her. It contrasts the playing child with suffering Man, the imminent forces of destruction with the constructive powers of the inspired human mind.“

(Exhibition flyer from Expo 1958, Philips)
As we can see, there is also a notion of a progress in the game. Indeed, it would be useful and interesting to follow the line of the enlightenment concept of human “progress” until the late 20th century. In 1950’s we can still feel quite strongly the technological optimism, which became later so often criticized and finally was rejected from the positions of postmodernism. What remains isan interest in past works of art using technology.
Make it new! Archeology of multimedia?

The postmodern era is a strange part of the history. In the recursive sense, to make something new can mean to make something old in the same way. But perhaps on the new place, using a new technology etc. This is just the case of the project called “VEP – Make it new!” (Virtual Electronic Poem). Four universities (VR&MM Park and Universita di Torino, Department of Computer Science University of Bath, Fachgebiet Kommunikationswissenschaft, Technische Universität Berlin, Instytut Informatyki, Politechnika ©lšska Gliwice) involved in the project are working on “resurrection” of the Philips pavilion with his unique architectonic and sound environment. Alice foundation seated in Eindhoven (Netherlands) is struggling for reconstructing the pavilion directly in the one of the main streets of the city. Original pavilion built for Expo 1958 in Brussels was destroyed because of the worries about its technical equipment facing contrary weather conditions.

Nowadays, there is a whole new complex of scientific approaches emerging which we can call simply an “archeology of a multimedia”.

„In fact, the supports of the media contents as well as the control devices become obsolete in short time, and the renovated fruition of a multimedia installation becomes a matter of archeological investigation, that must access the media contents with a current technology, discover how such contents were structured in the original installation, propose a method for the description of the performance, provide a mean for the delivery of the new experience that can recreate or mediate the original setting and dynamics. We call this remise-en-oeuvre of an installation archeology of multimedia.“ (Lombardo et al.: 1)

Multimedia as such are complexes of several artistic forms based on a medial (or symbolic) representation of reality. From this point of view is also the older history being reinterpreted and rethought. Today, we are akin to see for example ancient drama as an early form of the multimedia thinking. In music, there are a few favorite points in the history of 19th and 20th century which are being understood as highly elaborate attempts to unify more forms of the artistic expression into one huge complex. The first one is Richard Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the second are ideas of Alexander Skrjabin, expecially his Poéme. But the archeology of the multimedia is focused on the projects which are unifying art and technology as in the case of Poeme électronique. Most of previous attempts to reconstruct the Poeme électronique have been mostly focusing on audio. There are at least three commercial stereo versions of Varese’s music, and the Concertgebouw in Brugge, Belgium, hosts a 14-channel version as a permanent installation (realized by Kees Tazelaar). The audio and visual aspects have also been reproduced on DVD (Piet Lelieur, Ghent, Belgium, 2003), live installations (Bianchini, L., Casali, V., Lupone M., Varese-Le Corbusier. Scene di un pensiero in rivolta: Ricostruzione del Poeme Electronique, Proceedings of ICMC 00, Berlin, 2000.), virtual reality environments (Zouhar V., Lorenzy R., Musil T., Zmölnig, J., Höldrich, R., Hearing Varese’s Poeme Électronique inside a virtual Philips Pavilion, Proceedings of ICAD 05, Limerick, Ireland, July 6-9, 2005). And finally, there are – as already written - attempts to rebuild the pavilion physically (Foundation Alice; But now, there are serious attempts to recreate not only the building and the sound inside but also the experience of the spectator or the visitor. During the Expo exhibition, 2 milions of spectators visited the pavilion. Now, we are able to repeat their experience by the means of virtual reality. It is obvious that technology is changing, but not the message of the work self. It speaks about the role of the Man facing technology.

Mgr. Martin Flašar - Institute of Musicology, Masaryk University, Brno /CZ/



Selective bibliography:

1. Cohen, Jean-Louis (2006). Le Corbusier. Taschen Basic Art, Taschen Verlag.
3. Motte, Helga de la (1993). Die Musik von Edgard Varese : Studien zu seinen nach 1918 entstandenen Werken. Hofheim/Ts. : Wolke Verlag.
4. Ouellette, Fernand (1968). Edgard Varese. Translated from the French by Derek Coltman. New York : Orion Press.
5. Treib, Marc: Space Calculated in Seconds: The Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier, Edgard Varese (1996). Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
6. Xenakis, Iannis (1992): Formalized music : thought and mathematics in composition. Additional material compiled and edited by Sharon Kanach. Stuyvesant, N.Y. : Pendragon Press.
Separate papers:
1. Bienz, Peter (1998). Le Corbusier und die Musik. Braunschweig ; Wiesbaden : Vieweg.
2. Lombardo, Vincenzo - Andrea Valle - Fabrizio Nunnari - Francesco Giordana - Andrea Arghinenti. Archeology of Multimedia. CIRMA, Universita di Torino & ASA-Lab, VR&MM Park Lombardia 190, Torino, Italy.
3. Lukes, Roberta Dorothy (1996). The „Poeme electronique“ of Edgard Varese. Dissertation, ms. Harvard University.
4. Novák, Mirko (1929). Le Corbusierova prostorová esthetika. Příspěvek k rozboru nového tvárného cítění. Rozpravy České akademie věd a umění, č. 75.
5. Musil, Thomas – Zmölnig, Johannes M. – Zouhar, Vit – Höldrich, Robert: Virtual Audio Reproduction Engine For Spatial Environments.
6. Sikiriadi, Elizabeth (2004). The architectures of Iannis Xenakis. Technoetic Arts, sv. 1, č. 3, s. 201-207.
7. Sterken, Sven. Towards a Space-Time Art : Iannis Xenakis Polytopes. In Perspectives of New Music, s. 262-278.
8. V. Zouhar - R. Lorenz - T. Musil - J. M. Zmölnig - R. Höldrich (2005). Hearing Varese’s Poeme électronique inside a virtual Philips Pavilion. In Proc. of the Intl. Conf. on Auditory Display, Limerick, Ireland, July 6-9, 2005.
9. Vivier, Odile (1983): Varese. Éditions du seuil, Ed. Solféges.

Other text sources:
1. Andea Valle - Vincenzo Lombardo: Varese’s Poeme Électronique Regained: Evidence From The Vep Project. Virtual Reality and Multimedia Park andUniversity of Turin; Richard Dobson, John Fitch, Kees Tazelaar, Department of Computer Science, University of Bath.
2. Information flyer. World Exhibition Expo, Philips, 1958.
3. Make it new: Le poeme électronique. Project brochure. Symposium 18. 6. 2006, Eindhoven.

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