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Since its inception, the World's Fair has been a chance for the hosts to show off the finest advances from the people and corporations that call that country home. While in the past this "strut-your-stuff" mentality was carried out in the manner of a museum exhibition, there was something new brewing for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium. "In a bold stroke, L.C. Kalff, Arts Director for Philips, broke with this boring tradition and proposed a building which, instead of showing off their products in photographs and glass cases, would itself be a demonstration of art created by the use of Philips products, a total techno-aesthetic union." Along with the imposing architectural structure of the Philips Pavillion, the presentation they offered to fairgoers was the union of several fields in which Philips excelled: lighting technology, electronics, electro-acoustics, and automatic controls. The display of abstract lighting and projected film was scored by the spatial composition Poème Électronique by Edgar Varèse. Varèse's futuristic score juxtaposed the retrospective 'story of all humankind' conceived by the architect, Le Corbusier.

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By Wouter Hagens (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsThe design of the building was intended to create unique distortions and reverberations to the sounds that would be played within its walls. This idea led to abandoning the traditional models of performance venues and led to the adoption of more radical design. Iannis Xenakis, an associate of Le Corbusier who played a leading role in this project, suggested the shape of the building be based on mathematical surfaces, particularly the hyperbolic paraboloid (abreviated "hypar") and conoid. This design would also accomplish the desire to avoid all parallel surfaces with every wall being curved, both horizontally and vertically. Avoiding parallel surfaces is an important concept in acoustics, because of the problem that standing waves impose on the listening environment. When the length of a sound wave matches the distance between two parallel walls, there is an inconsistent perception of that frequency. As a listener moves into the path of in phase signals the perceived amplitude is louder than what is actually being produced, and out of phase signals can cancel each other out and lead to a frequency not being heard. What would be achieved by this "hypar"-based design is an environment where sound was distorted and diffused differently than to what a listener would have ever been previously accustomed.

Generic HyparAfter entering the hyperbolic paraboloid-inspired building, audiences experienced the son et lumière produced therein by Philips products. This term, literally sound and light, is the French term used to identify what would also be called a "light show." The scenario Le Corbusier set out to display was that of society's "increasingly mechanized society striving towards a new harmony." This progression took place in seven discrete scenes: Genesis, Spirit and Matter, From Darkness to Dawn, Man-Made Gods, How Time Molds Civilization, Harmony, and To All Mankind. The visual realization of this concept came in the combination of: ultra-violet reactive elements, projected colored lights and black-and-white film, christmas-tree-style lights, and cloud projectors. These elements were used to create Le Corbusier's sequence of: "Volumes," "Ambiances," "Screens," "Tritrous," a red sun, a moon, stars, and clouds. All of these elements were manipulated with a system of servo-controlled potentiometers to demonstrate Philips being in the forefront of automation.

From the start the sound portion of this exhibit was not to be treated traditionally. Le Corbusier and his Philips associates wanted to create the perception that the sound was moving in two manners. First, there was the perceived depth of the audio by the altering of reverberation between a dry, unaltered signal, and the wettest, "cathedral"-inspired manipulations. While this concept of depth, created by altering reverberation, was not new, electronic reverb was still in its infancy at the time. Secondly, there was the illusion of the sound moving physically around the room by transferring the signal between a giant system of speaker arrays located all around the structure. Creating movement by ping-ponging the signal between separate speaker arrays or through "sequences of loudspeakers triggered in succession to produce a system of 'sound routes'," mades it so that one could not truly experience Poème Électronique outside of the pavilion.

Path of much resistance

Despite Philips wanting to commission Benjamin Britten for the musical score for this exhibit, Le Corbusier had decided of Edgar Varèse from the beginning. The architect also adamantly fought for his inclusion when management was opposed to Varèse because of his far out reputation. The company even so far as to commission another Poème Électronique from Henri Tomasi as a backup if Varèse's work was not to their liking. Along with this argument over receiving the contract, Varèse had another hurdle to overcome in the creation of his piece.

To create his composition, combining electronically synthesized sounds and pre-recorded samples, much equipment was required. However, as was the custom at studios, Varèse was not allowed to do any of the actual manipulations and had to give the technician, J.W. de Bruyn, directions to accomplish his aims. Being a novice of electronic music equipment, Varèse concentrated on the character he wanted to convey and let de Bruyn decide which adjustments would accomplish that product. This may seem to be the best arrangement, for a composer to be able to focus on what she wants to hear and have someone else make that a reality, it is a real hinderance in practice. This system prevents any chance discoveries, like that of gravity by Sir Isaac Newton's infamous apple experience, which could have come from a composer experimenting with whatever she so desires. This is also a self-perpetuating cycle where unless a composer pays close attention to what a technician is doing, she will not be able to learn the methodology to create the manipulated sounds, which impedes development.

In the end, one three-track reel was produced containing all of the audio material. The primary, mono track was accompanied by stereo reverberation tracks, which were blended during the performance. Along with this one were two reels, one a backup of the other, containing fifteen control tracks, each with twelve independent control signals, yielding 180 control channels. This setup allowed the audio to be outputted through any of the 350 loudspeakers contained in the installation. The reason for the system of reels was so that the sequence of sounds and lights could be precisely planned, from Le Corbusier's second-by-second chart of visuals, to the exacting arrangement of the musical score and control channels.

Man, machine, and civilization

The slide presentation by Le Corbusier and Varèse's composition were developed independently and any syncing of the images with the score were by matters of chance. Both however do follow the same overarching series of themes from Genesis to To All Mankind. Musicologist Robert Kamien argues that the visual display can be broken down into the seven aforementioned scenes as displayed in the following chart. While Varèse's composition was not designed to sync up exactly with the slide presentation the transition points appear to be close enough so as to draw comparison between this timeline and the musical score.

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
0 - 41" Genesis
42 - 123" Spirit and Matter
124 - 154" From Darkness to Dawn
155 - 205" Man-Made Gods
206 - 286" How Time Moulds Civilization
287 - 480" Harmony To All Mankind

The piece opens with bells ringing in the dawn of creation. After this initial big bang there are scattered little motives creeping in and out of focus. As time progresses the divergent themes change from short snippets to increasingly longer developments. These uncontrolled bursts of creation lead to reverberant murmurs, like the natural sounds from within a cave, as Man starts the progression from darkness. This progression towards dawn depicts the progression of a modernizing society. Through a montage of industrial manufacturing sounds, we are pulled quickly through time from the caveman era to present day. This rushed survey of history leads us to the return of the tolling bells. The concept of man-made gods, I view as a cursory look at the framework of religion as a concept. Akin to most forms of religion, the scene starts with its origin narrative. This is followed by the slow building of pure tones akin to the meditative practices of many Eastern religions. The final swell drops the listener suddenly into another scan of history. This time the progression starts with the incoherent vocal productions of a primitive era. Once again the heavy use of reverberation draws on the cave metaphor. The initial waling of the disembodied voice is interrupted by a wave of religion and then quicker-paced sounds of industry. The vocal line speeds up its sequence so as to keep up with this modernizing society. The percussive elements and use of the voice here gives a subtle impression of African tribal practices, but before one can certain of this Varèse brings in the next scenario.

Rather than Harmony and To All Mankind being divergent concepts I view the last three-plus minutes of the piece as being one journey of mankind seeking out harmony. This recapitulation of the primary concepts of Poème Électronique starts barren like the beginning of each previous journey through history. There are the evolutionary crawls of life, which build onto each other and make way for open air once again. The introductory swell and use of the pure tones is different this time around. The depiction is not nearly as pure as before with the pure tones becoming distorted when placed in juxtaposition with the beating footsteps of society's march into the future. The progression towards a mechanized society is presented as the project had set out to accomplish. The bustling of industry learns to take in the mystical voice, which is no longer alone, and morphs it to fit into the new new context. Finally, the piece ends with swells like a launching rocket usher the audience out of the pavilion and into this new world of potential.

Tasteful execution

The true accomplishment of the son et lumière project was in its ability to convey all of this while maintaining a careful balance of contemplation along with visual and aural stimulation. As Ray Wilding-White bluntly states "modern rock light shows have even heavier artillery, but the aesthetic approach is that of a tank attack. Just as film-makers now assume that more and bigger crashes and pyrotechnics make for a better film, rock show son et lumière assumes that more lasers and bigger amps mean better concerts." Rather than portraying that "strut-your-stuff" mentality of the World's Fair by creating a display of louder, brighter, faster the team of Le Corbusier, Varèse, and Philips exhibited true innovation while maintaining a sparse palette. One thing that must be remembered about sparse realizations is that much control in its interpretation is in the hands of the audience. I have laid out my exposition for conceiving that which is contained in Poème Électronique however, anyone else's perception can be drastically different. Much as the case with a journey into the unknown, one never knows what will truly come to pass and must simply go out and just experience life.

Further Reading

Fei, James. "Masterpieces of 20th-Century Multi-channel Tape Music: Edgard Varèse's Poème Électronique (1958)," accessed March 1, 2015,

Kamien, Roger. Music: And Appreciation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988, 528.

Wilding-White, Raymond. "Poème Électronique: A Building as an Instrument." Experimental Musical Instruments 13, no. 3 (March 1998): 10-15.

See Also

VEP: A virtual reality reconstruction of the Poème Électronique