In 1972, fresh from his success at the 1971 Shiraz Festival in Iran, where the multimedia presentation of Persepolis created a powerful impression, Iannis Xenakis was commissioned to produce another multimedia "polytope," as he termed his work. This one was also intended for an ancient site, this time in the heart of Paris. The Baths of Cluny, near the Sorbonne, were built by the Romans, and the palace above them has become a prime example of medieval architecture. The idea of installing lights and sounds right in the vaults of the baths was designed to help Parisians connect with their past, particularly in light of the violent rejection of the past as manifested in the student protests and other social upheavals in the period from 1968 on. This project succeeded beyond the organizers wildest dreams. The Polytope de Cluny opened in October 1972 as part of that year's Festival d'Automne. The "spectacle" consisted of a 24-minute eight-channel tape containing electroacoustic music, several hundred flashbulbs placed on scaffolding throughout the underground chambers and able to be individually triggered to create vivid patterns of light, and three lasers of different colors that could be projected throughout the vault by means of a network of adjustable mirrors. The technical accomplishment of coordinating all of these elements was enormous, and Xenakis ended up using a computer (remember, this is 1972, and computers were not at all common or easy to program) to oversee all of the operations. After the premiere, the performances ran daily for a period of 16 months, and well over 200,000 people made the pilgrimage to the baths of Cluny to participate. While there may have been an experiential crossover with the psychedelic multimedia events of popular culture at that time, this was an event of an entirely different bent. The music, which is what we are primarily left with, is a 24-minute piece of layered electroacoustic sounds. The density of sound is slightly lower than others of Xenakis's electroacoustic pieces, such as Persepolis or Bohor, but there are still layers of rich, noisy sounds. Percussive sonorities are given prominence, notably a ceramic, wind-chime texture, and an African mbira, or thumb piano. Xenakis also included, for the first time, computer-generated sounds, which he created himself using probability functions. These sonorities are very noisy, and occasionally sound like brass instruments, though certainly not as played by humans. Late in the piece, there is a magical moment when the music suddenly thins out to leave just a repeated note being plucked on the mbira. Amidst the onslaught of dense visual and sonic events, this gesture gives the listener the opportunity to focus on the richness of an individual sound, to turn inward for a moment, after riding a long wave of overlapping layers of complex sonorities. Perhaps it is at that moment that one would recall the historic setting and tune in to the cultural resonances so characteristic of Paris, with its combination of the new and the old.
Description by James Harley