Poème électronique, part of a multi-media presentation created for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, was one of the earliest compositions fully realized through electronics. Even though many of its sounds are easily modulated today, the work's dramatic conception has helped it to retain its vitality through the years.
Its creation began in 1956, when Louis C. Kalff, the artistic director of the Philips Corporation, approached the famed architect Le Corbusier to design their pavilion at the Fair. Le Corbusier replied with his concept for an "Electronic Poem" -- an audio-visual presentation that would transcend the usual bounds of architecture. Le Corbusier sought out Edgard Varèse immediately as his collaborator. There was some corporate resistance to this choice, but Le Corbusier was adamant, and further insisted that Varèse be paid handsomely for the work. Le Corbusier gave Varèse leave to do anything he wanted musically; the rapport between the two artists was instant and very supportive.
The composition of Poème électronique was very slow, beginning on September 2, 1957. Much to the credit of the Philips Corporation, which had strong reservations about the degree to which their pavilion had become an avant-garde affair, they generously put at the composer's disposal an enormous laboratory and technical support team. Because Le Corbusier was constantly globe-hopping and working on several projects at once, the composer often communicated instead with the architect's assistant, Iannis Xenakis, himself a gifted composer. It was he who, on December 21, played for the Philips representatives an excerpt of Poème électronique, much to their displeasure; they wanted something more consonant and conventional. When Le Corbusier was finally contacted in Chandigarh and told of the deadlock between the composer and the company, he told them that he would withdraw from the pavilion project if there were any more talk of replacing his colleague.
Varèse heard his completed work for the first time on May 2, 1958; it was projected through 400 loudspeakers scattered strategically throughout the pavilion. Some of the (difficult to describe) sounds from which it is made were conceived either as (1) "verticalities" -- short, mostly sharp sounds such as a huge church chime, small, imaginary grotesque creatures, percussion and machine-like sounds (complex spectral noise) -- or (2) horizontalities -- sustained, slowly modulated sounds such as primitive chant, sudden screaming, long tones, voices with impossible ranges singing from afar, a church in a jungle (modulated organ chords), and rocketship launch sounds. The piece's internal structure was based on classical Golden Section proportions and the Fibonacci series. Xenakis also contributed some musical material to be heard during intermission periods, and Varèse approved of this enthusiastically.
The completed pavilion combined Varèse's musical tape with an elaborate Le Corbusier-designed visual presentation, which was projected on the side of the building. It was a lukewarm success at the World's Fair; some critics preferred the music without the visuals; others were not fond of either element. The structure itself -- now thought to have been substantially designed by Xenakis -- was considered inadequate and poorly designed. However, the outpouring of admiration from artists of all media was impressive. On November 9, the piece was heard in New York, but its effect was much diminished because of limitations in the sound system used, and it did not hold up well outside of its intended context. Nevertheless, the work remains a hallmark of electronic composition.