Fifty years plus and it still sounds bizarre. Also haunting and eloquent. Edgard Varèse wrote Poème électronique for Expo ’58, the trendy identifier for the World’s Fair that year.
In a celebration of futurism, fellow composer Iannis Xenakis designed the Philips Pavilion with 425 speakers couched in strategic places to make sound glide in physical space. Pictures of the pavilion show a curved, stomach-like entrance. Walking through a tube led to a central room where spectators digested the eight minute work. They exited from the other side. They were not flushed.
The music remains. It is constructed of complexity, built in a vast network of cross-reference and transformation. It is the Finnegan’s Wake of electronica. It repays another listening.
Listen as the rhythm of ancient gong sound is transformed into a percussive clave sound having a related rhythm. The electronic sounds that follow are a contrast. They are the sonic equivalent of drive-in theaters, of pink flamingos. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. They should.
Float around within this palette of distinct and vivid sounds, some noises some pitches. Many events are focused as isolated textures. Compare them. They talk with one another.
Duets become increasingly important components as the piece progresses. The primal sounding interaction between drums and low voice, and the duet of sustained sounds and drums occupies a large portion of the closing. The procession of textures is further intensified by the new sources heard well into the finale: high-pitched singing, a medieval sounding chorus, an organ.
Fifty years in a future more suburban than Varèse imagined have not tamed his revelation: