Saturday, August 30, 2014

Edgard Varese and his Electronic Poem

Edgard Varese never became really popular, even as far as  atonal modernist composers go. In the most unapologetic of ways he created what he called organized noise. However, he is justifiably considered one of the founders of electronic music. He also inspired the young Frank Zappa to become a serious classically trained musician. According to Zappa, when he first heard Vareses' music, he was overwhelmed by its beauty. This is surely an indication of the unique wiring Zappa had in his brain. At any rate, Varese can be credited with creating one of the first extended piece of electronic music. It was meant for the 1958 world fair, held in Brussels. One of the pavilions at the fair was commissioned by Philips, an electronics company based in the Netherlands. The pavilion was designed to house a multimedia spectacle that was intended to celebrate postwar technological progress. The building was designed by Le Corbusier, one of the 20th centuries most radical modernist architects. Much of the project management was assigned to Iannis Xenakis, a composer, music theorist and construction engineer. The people from Phillips were really interested in having Le Corbusier as architect, and was he who insisted that Edgard Varese be hired to create the music. The Phillips people were not much impressed, and still Varese managed to spend a gigantic amount of their money creating the kind of electronic sounds that had nor yet been heard by human ears, mostly because Le Corbusier threatened to walk out of the project if Varese was sacked.

As visitors stood in the dark interior space of the pavilion, various images were projected on the inner walls while the Electronic Poem surged through the emptiness projected by the large array of unseen speakers. As visitors entered and exited they heard Xenakis' composition "Concrete PH". The Phillips pavilion of 1958 was truly a historic event, the first time that recorded sound and projected images converged in a single presentation. Some 400 speakers were strategically placed at various locations throughout the interior, creating a dynamic sound and space experience. Of course, reviews were mixed at best. The piece challenged audience expectations and wrecked havoc with conventional means of composing. It also brought electronic aural and visual media into profound synthesis. Some two million visitors witnessed the presentation.

The following video presents the Electronic Poem along with the original visuals. Obviously, the original experience was far more intense. But for those of us born too late, this is probably as close as we will ever come. Of course I can't be sure that these really are the exact images, but based upon the research I have pulled together, they seem correct.

Since the experience could not be considered complete without Xenakis' composition, I have included a recording of his Concrete PH for you to hear. I don't know anything about the visuals.