From the analytic essay...

Varese: A Sonic Poetics, by Robert Cogan

for Neuma CD 450-74

"Edgard Varese's Poeme Electronique is widely acknowledged to be one of the first great creations of electronic tape music. Poeme Electronique, Varese's last completed work, was created at the Philips Laboratories, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, for the Philips Pavillion at the Brussels World's Fair, May-October, 1958. The original consisted of three synchronized tracks, to be played on multiple amplifiers and loudspeakers over diverse 'sound routes.' (Jonathan Bernard gives the number of amplifiers as ten, loudspeakers as 150; Varese gives twenty and 425.) Despite the new medium it has the sound and feel of Varese's instrumental music: bells and sirens, quasi-mechanical and percussion timbres, haunting human voices. In it we also find the unique sonic juxtapositions that have electrified, mystified, or antagonized listeners for more than half a century. Repeatedly discussed, Varese's music remains the most elusive of the acknowledged twentieth-century classics. Indeed, it still seems to challenge that category. Why?

"Analysis and understanding of Varese's late music has been inhibited less by its novel electronic medium than by the revolutionalry oppositional poetics it shares with his earlier music: works progressing in 'opposing planes and volumes.' How, in an art dominated by a metaphysics of unity and by theories of scalar pitch gradation, can we understand a music based on successions of 'alternate, opposite states?' Poeme Electronique, the goal of Varese's entire life's work, is the last, most uncompromising masterpiece of this oppositional poetics.

"How can we demonstrate Varese's distinctive properties?...The whole piece, and each section of it, are dominated by two opposing, alternating sonority types. In Part I it is complex spectral noise bands, percussion and machine-like sounds, that prevail...Even the bell and siren sounds share the dense, complex spectra of the percussion and noises. Part II, on the other hand, is dominated by simpler harmonic (or quasi-harmonic) spectra, generated equally by electronic oscillators and by the vowels of human languages and voices...

"According to Varese, the oppositions occur at 'calculated, but not regular, time lapses.' Poeme Electronique, let us remember, originated in collaboration with the architect Le Corbusier, designer of the Brussels World's Fair pavillion which was its architectural setting. In his Modulator books LeCorbusier redirected architects' attention to earlier proportional theories of Golden Section ratios... The Poeme shows Varese's solidarity with LeCorbusier, for it is at the Golden Sections of each part, and of the whole, that especially vivid collisions and interpenetrations occur. Three points of intersection, approximately one-third and two-thirds through each part (and the whole), are the 'calculated, but not regular' Golden Section time spans...

"So it is that in the percussive, noise-dominated Part I, there appears at both the negative and positive Golden Sections a pure harmonic spectrum in rising semitones, that constitutes the Poeme's simplest pitch and tone-color cell. Similarly, the predominating oscillators and human voices of Part II are penetrated by an entire minute of densely-packed, colored 'percussive' noise. The beginning and end of this region fall at the negative and positive Golden Sections of Part II, while the same region also includes the Golden Section of the whole piece. In this great Golden Section region, Parts I and II collide. That collision is further echoed and simplifie in the brief coda that concludes the entire Poeme.

"In a similar way, the immediate local sonic interactions are also determined by the principle of sonic opposition. The Poeme begins with the prolonged tolling of a grave bell-like spectrum. What follows the tolling bell? Not a similar sound, but rather a highly contrasting one : an acute, clipped, percussive noise-band tapping. The tapping is then followed by an oblique wash of siren-like sounds, first climbing and then falling through many octaves of audible space - a vivid contrast to the preceding tolling and tapping alike.

"Highly contrasting regions of audible space (from the most grave to the most acute), highly contrasting successions of action (from sustained tolling to clipped tapping, highly contrasting sizes and types of sound spectrum (from narrow towide; and from multiple harmonic strands to dense noise-bands), as well as highly contrasting types of motion (from level stasis to parabolic free-fall) are juxtaposed in the initial half-minute of the Poeme. Indeed, everywhere in it Varese has imagined opposing, colliding sonic structures. His indelible creative identity is to be found in his utter consistency to this oppositional vision."

See images of the pavilion, installation, and "score" for Poeme electronique