In Tune > Arts > Music and Art: Varése and Le Corbusier
by Maureen Buja | March 6th, 2016

standard Music and Art: Varése and Le Corbusier

Edgard Varése by Raimondo Puccinelli, Courtesy Columbia University Music Library

Edgard Varése by Raimondo Puccinelli, Courtesy Columbia University Music Library

In 1958, the French composer Edgard Varèse, working with the architect Le Corbusier and his assistant, the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, created a music soundscape for the Philips Electronics Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.

As you entered and exited the building, the music you heard was a short 3-minute piece by Iannis Xennakis entitled “Concret PH.”

Philips Pavilion

Philips Pavilion

Xenakis: Concret PH
This electronic work was created by Xenakis based solely on the sound of burning charcoal cut into short 1-second fragments, creating a crystalline texture. An example of musique concrete, where pre-recorded sounds are manipulated electronically, the work shows Xenakis’ focus on creating a work based on “extremely faint sounds highly amplified.” You may not know what this is when you first listen to it, but once you know the sound source, you start to make the connection.

Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis

Once you entered the building proper, there was an 8-minute video of images matched to an electronic work by Varése. To create the piece, Varése worked in the Philips laboratory in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. In the lab, he found pieces of testing equipment that permitted him to create pure sounds, what we might think of test tones, that could be modulated in pitch. A composer who worked with him described the composition as being made up of “short cut-out sounds that were on the edge of being recognizable.”

Poème électronique sketch score for final section

Poème électronique sketch score for final section

Varése used electronics to compose the sounds that were representative of modern life, and they became the musical wallpaper to Le Corbusier’s images. This piece was projected over 425 speakers through an 11-channel system. The film itself was shown in a very large format, so you can imagine how overwhelming the entire experience was.

The film and the Audience

The film and the Audience

The 8-minute film was created by Le Corbusier with the help of his assistant Iannis Xenakis, and, in the ironic declaration of the Philips engineers who worked on it, “…the pictures represent man’s development from ape to Le Corbusier.” As you watched the film, the sound surrounded you. Varése commented that “people left in a daze…. No one said a word and they left in perfect silence.” He also spoke of meeting some children coming out of the pavilion and when they were asked if they liked it, said they’d been there four times already and were coming back each time with more of their friends.

According to the introduction of the film, the performance was made up of the following parts: Creation, Spirit and Matter, From Darkness to Dawn, Gods Created by Man, So Time Forges Civilization, Harmony, To All Mankind.

Film of Poême électronique

Modulor

Modulor

Because Philips was a company that produced both sound equipment and lighting, it was important that both elements be present in the film. Some of images in the film will be familiar to today’s audience and it’s of interest that some of Le Corbusier’s current projects are included, such as his Assembly Building (1955) in Chandigarh, India and La Maison radieuse, Nantes, France (1955). It was because of Le Corbusier’s continuing work in Chandigarh, India, that Xenakis had to take over so much of his work on the pavilion. Another figure that appears in the film is Le Corbusier’s Modulor, his model for proportions.

The pavilion was an amazing success. People could come in for 8 minutes at a time, 6 times an hour. This meant that 3,000 people per hour were coming through the exhibition, 24,000 people per day, and it is estimated that over 2 million people visited the pavilion.

It’s ironic now to discover that the Board of Directors of Philips were so afraid that Varése was going to come up with something unlistenable they separately commissioned the French composer Henry Tomasi to write his own Poême électronique which was not electronic at all. His lyrical style was completely at odds with the modernity in sound sought by Le Corbusier and when the piece was played for him, he rejected it outright, insisting that it was Varése and only Varése he wanted.

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