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In a concrete space. Reconstructing the spatialization of ... · PDF filein a concrete space. reconstructing the spatialization of iannis xenakis’ concret ph on a multichannel setup

Jun 22, 2018





    Andrea ValleCIRMA - Universita di [email protected]

    Kees TazelaarInstitute of Sonology - Royal Conservatory

    The [email protected]

    Vincenzo LombardoCIRMA - Universita di [email protected]


    Even if lasting less than three minutes, Iannis XenakisConcret PH is one of the most influential works in theelectroacoustic domain. It was originally created to be dif-fused in the Philips Pavilion, designed by the same Xenakisfor the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. As the Pavilion wasdismantled in 1959, the original spatialization design de-vised from the Pavilion has been lost. The paper presentsnew findings about the spatialization of Concret PH. It dis-cusses them in the light of Xenakis aesthetics, and con-sequently proposes a plausible reconstruction of the spa-tialization design. Finally, it proposes a real-time, inter-active implementation of the reconstructed spatialization,rendered on a 8-channel setup using a VBAP technique.


    In 1956 Iannis Xenakis was working in the studio of LeCorbusier, when Philips company commissioned the fa-mous architect a pavilion for the 1958 World Fair in Brus-sels 1 . The fair, being the first after the II World War, wasa crucial event for the company: in particular, Louis Kalff,artistic director of Philips, considered it an occasion notto be renounced in order to show the world the technolog-ical advancements of the Dutch company. Le Corbusieraccepted the commission and replied by promising to real-ize not an exhibit structure but a revolutionary electronicpoem. Le Corbusiers conception strictly adhered to themodernistic assumption that sees in technology the way inwhich art can fulfill a palingenesis of humanity: the archi-tect proposed Philips a Wagnerian total artwork of soundand lights, taking place in a space explicitly designed asa container for the show. As a consequence, the projectfor the Philips Pavilion resulted in a complex work of art,the Poeme electronique: an 8-minute multimedia work inwhich architecture, image and sound were deeply inter-mingled. The show included a black and white film, madeof two filmed sequences created from still images, various

    1 This work extends the EU-funded VEP Project(, that has reconstructed the PhilipsPavilion and the Poeme electronique using virtual reality techniques. Fora presentation of the project, including previous works, see [1].

    Copyright: c2010 Andrea Valle et al. This is an open-access article distributed

    under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 Unported, which

    permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided

    the original author and source are credited.

    Figure 1. The PhilipsPavilion at the BrusselsWorld Fair in 1958(Courtesy AntonBuczynski).

    tape of the film of Poeme Electronique at the Philipscompany archives, and a film of the construc-tion works of the pavilion at the Philips companyarchives); and drawings and models (archived at Fon-dation Le Corbusier in Paris and the Getty Centerin Los Angeles [sketches, plans, and scale modelsof the pavilion; schemata of the technical equip-ment, described in the Philips Technical Review;control score for the succession of visual effects; andsketches and descriptions of the visual effects]).

    But the experience of Poeme Electronique,conceived and executed for a specific space, andperhaps more importantly, utilizing a specific soundsystem related to that space (Treib 1996, p. 211),was lost. The Poeme was received by the audienceas a Gesamtkunstwerk: one no longer hears thesound[;] one finds oneself in the heart of the soundsource. One does not listen to sound, one lives it(Ouellette 1966, p. 201). Varese himself heard hismusic for the first time literally projected into

    space (Varese as quoted in Schwartz and Childs1967, p. 207). Thus, every archival effort that seeksto preserve the essence of this aesthetic conceptmust allow for an integration of the music, visualelements, and their architectural realization, whichwas specifically designed as a delivery instrumentfor the multimedia content.

    This article describes an integral approach toregain access to Poeme Electronique through virtualreality (VR) technologies that include a reconstruc-tion of the physical space in computer graphics(CG). We pursued a simulative approach to thereconstruction of the work; that is, we simulatethe processing/temporal aspects of the artwork byintegrating in a VR software environment all thefindings of a thorough philological investigation,converted into a digital format. The final work canthen be delivered as a VR installation. This approachrealizes Treibs silver lining about the music ofthe Poeme: [N]o recording can conjure the space as

    26 Computer Music Journal

    Figure 1. The Philips Pavilion.

    light effects over the whole space, and electronic music tobe delivered onto a multichannel system. While keepingfor himself the creation of the visual part of the show, LeCorbusier asked one of the most avantgardist composersof XX-th Century to join the project, Edgar Varese. In theoccasion, Varese created, as a musical counterpart for thevisual component, his Poeme electronique: originally a 3-track tape music, Vareses Poeme is one of the undisputedmasterpiece of electronic music. At that time, Iannis Xe-nakis was an associate at Le Corbusiers studio, where hehad already developed some of his well-known architec-tural exploits (e.g. the monastery of La Tourette). Xenakiswas responsible for the design of the space. Xenakis turnedLe Corbusiers original idea of a shell-like structure, basedon a stomach-shaped plant, into a self-carrying, concreteshell, higher than 20 meters. More, the Pavilions shapewas generated by Xenakis as rule-based surfaces, namelyhyperbolic paraboloids: the resulting shape was a tridi-mensional architectural object made of continuous curvedlines. By explicit admission of Xenakis, the ruled surfacesof the Pavilion (see Figure 1) bear a structural relation tothe striking opus 1 of the composer/architect, Metastaseis(1953/54) [2]. In this work, Xenakis started from a theo-retical problem, that of defining a continuous transition be-tween two discrete states (Xenakis, cited in [3], also [4], p.32). The solution was based on devising a system of stringglissandos with different speeds and ranges (sonic spacesof continuous evolution, [5], p. 10). While designing thepavilion, his inspiration was pin-pointed by the experi-ment with Metastaseis, so that there is a causal chainof ideas connecting the two works. Thus, in the Philips

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  • Pavilion, music and architecture found an intimate con-nection ([5], p. 10). The internal surfaces of the Pavilion,covered with asbestos, were then literally encrusted withloudspeakers (for a total of 350). Loudspeakers were or-ganized into sound routes (allowing sound to travel thespace) and clusters (groups of contiguous loudspeakersplaying together). Their presence converted the Pavilioninto a sounding room ([6], 210), where, after more than30 years, Varese was able to finally listen to his music lit-erally projected into space (Varese, cited in [7]). Apartfrom the link with Metastaseis, the Philips Pavilion in-cludes a second relevant element in relation to Xenakismusic. As a composer, Xenakis was allowed by Le Cor-busier to create a short piece that should act as an inter-lude between two performances of the show: the 8 min-utes of the Poeme electronique were embedded in a cyclicprogram of 10 minutes, which was supposed to run con-tinuously. The two additional minutes were reserved foran intermission, which would enable one audience to leavethe pavilion while the next to enter, the Interlude sonore.The Interlude would have then entered Xenakis cataloguewith the name of Concret PH. Because of its quite singu-lar sonic structure (see later), the piece has gained a con-sistent fame, far beyond the specialists of contemporaryand electronic music, and has been hailed as a precursorof electronica ([8], see also [9]). While discussing thepiece, Harley observes that the mobile sound trajectoriesthroughout the Philips Pavilion would have no doubt beenastonishing ([10], p. 19). Still its original relation with thespace of the Pavilion remains unclear. In the next sections,we first take into account newly available information onthe Interlude/Concret PH from unpublished sources; thenwe discuss issues related to its spatialization in the PhilipsPavilion and propose a novel reconstruction from unpub-lished sources; finally, we describe a simulation of the spa-tialization implemented on a 8-channel setup, presentedpublicly on January, 15th, 2010 at the EMF Foundationin New York, in the occasion of the the exhibition IannisXenakis. Composer, Architect, Visionary at The DrawingCenter [11].


    In this section we reconstruct the history of the Interludemerging information from already published sources withnew data coming from unpublished letters by Louis Kalff(now at the Philips Archive and in the private collection ofPeter Wever, co-author of a historical study of the Brus-sels Expo [12]). The Interlude music was composed byIannis Xenakis, and resembled his later published workConcret PH, but was not identical to it. The title Con-cret PH did not appear once in the correspondence relat-ing to the design of the pavilion or in the official credits.On the plate near the entrance of the pavilion it was calledInterlude Sonore, which was also the title under whichit was mentioned in the book Poeme electronique releasedby Le Corbusiers col