Poème Electronique
Edgard Varèse - 1957/8

The two Varese works in tonight's concert are the last works he completed and the works in which he came closest to realising his lifelong amibition for a music which transcended the boundaries of conventional instrumental resources. Poème Electronique was commissioned by Philips for their pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair where it became one of the star attractions of the six-month long Fair, drawing fifteen thousand visitors daily. The pavilion, designed by the architect Le Corbusier and his then assistant lannis Xenakis, included 350 loudspeakers and Poème Electronique was diffused to these loudspeakers with the aid of a 15- track control tape which also triggered film projection and light changes.

Despite its title, Poème Electronique is not electronic music, certainly not as that term was understood in the 1950s. The Poème does contain some electronically generated sounds but the majority of the material is made up of what Varèse called 'real sounds' - bells, voices, jet engines and (always a Varèse favourite) sirens - many of which are used without any tape manipulation or electronic processing. The poetic power of the Poème comes from the boldness of Varèse's organisation of these sounds into a (predominantly monophonic) stream of events. For much of their lives both Poème Electronique and Déserts have been valued as much for their historical significance (early tape pieces by an acknowledged master composer) as for their musical virtues. Certainly these pieces lack the technical sophistication of much that has been produced since in the electroacoustic domain, but they remind us more powerfully than any other work by Varèse of his central role in the liberation of noise.