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An investigation of Edgard Varèse’s Poème Électronique

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  1. An introduction to the composer.
  2. Background/overview of the piece.
  3. Detailed analysis of Poème Électronique
  4. Today there does not exist an intact, conventional score for Poème Électronique.
  5. Almost immediately the work evokes a sense of a specific closed space.
  6. The most curious, unifying aspect of the Poème Électronique is the occurrence of a characteristic Varèse motif.
  7. Conclusion.

To those who are familiar with the unique historical context in which he was growing up, it comes as little surprise that Edgard Varèse was a composer at the forefront of the twentieth-century electronic music movement. As Malcolm MacDonald claims in his treatise on the artist, Varèse grew up during a time when? a stream of cultural and technological innovations were changing Western man's idea of the world, and his relation to it? (xii). He was born in the same year that synthetic fiber was invented, and before he even reached the age of ten, the world would witness the invention of the first steam turbine, the first electric motor, the pneumatic tire, and the box camera. Not long thereafter, the gramophone record and cinematograph would come into being, Sigmund Freud would publish his thoughts on the concepts of the unconscious self, the Wright brothers conduct their first powered flight, and Albert Einstein formulate his Special Theory of Relativity. Varèse was ?literally a child of the modern age,? very likely leading to his interest in the use of electronic media to explore sound and music in a highly innovative way (MacDonald xi-xv).

[...] ?Like a many-faceted crystal, the surface of Poème Électronique can be understood from many perspectives, but primarily through sound? (Cabrera 92). Appendix *all images from this section were found on the ?Varese Poeme Electronique? site: Figure 1. Completed Philips Pavilion Figure 2. Image from inside of Pavilion during performace of Poème Électronique Figure 3. A closer look at the that appears below Figure 4. A page of the of Poème Électronique Figure 5. Large-scale form of Poème Électronique Start of subsection Characteristic Significance main sounds section (time into the piece) and other electronic contrast between sounds old-world feel and new B Mechanical, industrial Relation (just noises and the like all of the three-note motive, which ?b' subsections) precludes the sirens to the final climax of piece synthesized tones timbral transition organ noises between bell tolls and synthesized tones B No sirens, but first More obscure (than introduction of a human other ?b' element: male voice that subsections) echoes God relation to the final ascent. [...]

[...] Today, as mentioned above, there does not exist an intact, conventional score for Poème Électronique, and for this reason formal analysis of the work usually involves references to specific moments of time. As the entire piece was recorded for magnetic tape, the temporal dimension?the tape's unalterable, ever-consistent progression?provides a time framework that is as fixed and precise as the numbering of bars. Therefore, as is the case with the organization of large-scale form in Figure 5 of the Appendix, it is easiest to refer to the time lapsed from the beginning of the work to refer to any particular sonic moment(s). [...]

[...] What often makes it difficult to approach the piece from an analytical standpoint is the non-existence of an actual, readable or the type of integrated graphical representation of sounds that often characterizes other electronic works. Varèse did make some visual, diagrammatic analogues of the music, such as ?multicolored curves and parabolas on large sheets of graph paper? (MacDonald 375) that mapped out the musical events by time, but access to even these charts has become rare and difficult, with the exception of segments appearing in the research of some scholars of musical sound space (see Fig & 4 in the Appendix). [...]

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