Sound and space, sound in space: Iannis Xenakis’s Polytopes de Montréal at Expo 67

Architects are overwhelmingly visual (Ripley 7; Blesser and Salter 1). Yet architecture itself is always also aural; we experience its properties by what spaces sound like, and what objects sound like in a space, even if this ‘aural architecture’ may be the incidental result of what architects, interior designers and urban planners conceived visually, and only in specific cases ­– concert halls for instance – with the help of an acoustic professional (Blesser and Salter 5). In this sense, Iannis Xenakis was an anomaly in the architectural domain: both architect and music composer, the preoccupation with space was central to his musical endeavours; conversely, most of his architectural projects were designed with music in mind, aesthetically, structurally as well as practically (D’Allones 19). Xenakis drew sound in the form of graphic scores akin to architectural sketches, and also wrote scores for lights in his installations (Kanach 205). He was first trained as an engineer in Greece, and after fleeing the war, began to work as an architect in Paris at Le Corbusier’s office in 1947 (Hoffman). Concurrently, Xenakis was beginning to compose music, applying complex mathematical concepts as both compositional and organizational tools (Kanach xii; Kanach and Lovelace 11-12). The merging of the architect, the engineer and the musician became a driving force of Xenakis’s work; he perceived their social separation as a real constraint (D’Allones 19).

As Georgina Born outlines in Music, Sound and Space, only recently has scholarship in the humanities begun addressing such ideas, namely the interconnectedness and need for an interdisciplinary assessment of space, sound and music, as well the social aspect of the permeable boundaries between these areas of inquiry (3-7). Space is produced as much as it is transformed; space is “mediated and mediating” (Music, Sound and Space 20). This scholarship has allowed the notion of space to “[move] out beyond the musical or sound object, to encompass ‘exterior’ spatialities configured by the physical, technological and/or social dimensions of the performance event or sound work” (my emphasis, Music, Sound and Space 16).

Xenakis’s work is thus a perfect node from which to discuss the nexus formed by architecture, space, music and sound, more specifically his work Polytope de Montréal presented at Expo 67, an early example of interactive multimedia spectacles in the sixties, thoroughly embedded in its world fair context (Kanach 205; Marchessault 32). The purpose of this essay is to assess some of the implications of Polytope de Montréal as it relates to the concept of space as previously defined. As will become evident, this discussion intends to call attention to a number of ‘exterior spatialities’ related to artistic process, architecture, immersivity, modernist world fair utopias and the institutionalization of the avant-garde. In performing such an analysis, I chose to regard Xenakis’s Polytope de Montréal not as a finished work or media text, but as a “textual process,” given that, as Born outlines, “many texts function through the mediation of (texts in) other media” (Couldry 86). Methodologically, this has implied looking at a range of texts and putting them in conversation: contemporary theoretical essays and descriptive essays, alongside Xenakis’s own writings and graphic scores as complied by Sharon Kanach and Olivier D’Allones. Additionally, given the impossibility for me to experience the work in an embodied and sensorial way, I also relied on archival photographs, the audio recording of the sound, and newspaper clippings of audience reactions and music criticism of the time.

Iannis Xenakis’s first contact with multimedia was during his work on the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, where Le Corbusier and composer Edgard Varèse produced Poème Électronique, a show mixing film, musique concrète and light, inside an architectural shell designed by Xenakis (Harley 55). In her genealogy of sound installation art, Gascia Ouzounian places this work at the starting point, given that its scale and immersive quality had been previously unparalleled (Music, Sound and Space 51). This experience however, left Xenakis dissatisfied with the narrative and figurative elements of the film footage used; he was already envisioning a ‘new form’, one that would, on the one hand combine art and science in a multisensory “Spectacle Total” (Harley 56; D’Allones 19; Kanach 198), and on the other “sever all connections with the mimetic realism implied by flat screens that resemble the two-dimensional canvas of traditional painting,” working spatially with both aural and visual elements to occupy the performance space (Harely 56). Out of these reflections was born the idea of Polytope de Montréal, commissioned by Robert Bordaz, director of the French Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal (Kanach 205). It was the first work of a series of large-scale multimedia installations Xenakis would expand on in the seventies (Kanach 198-200).

For Polytope de Montréal, Xenakis’s task was to design an audiovisual work in an existing architecture, namely Jean Faugeron’s building for the French Pavilion (Kanach 203-206). The inside of the pavilion had a central plaza, a void onto which all of the various floors had an open view, where Xenakis’s Polytope was installed (Xenakis in Kanach 213). Five transparent, interwoven, parabolically shaped ‘layers’ of steel cables constituted the main structure of the work, onto which were fixed 1200 white and colored lights; the sound was projected from four static groups of loudspeakers at the bottom of the plaza (Kanach 204). The show lasted six minutes and started every hour: a discontinuous pattern of light flashes based on probability, group theory and logical structures would begin, while the sound of a continuous glissandi, abstractly mixing winds, strings and percussion, was played back from the loudspeakers (Harley 57). The recording was made in Paris with four identical ensembles of 11 musicians disposed at the cardinal points of a circle (Harley 57). In his written proposition for Polytopes de Montréal of 1966, Xenakis initially envisioned that the light would be automated by a computer, but this posed many technical problems and the automation was achieved instead with a light shining though a perforated command film, then projected onto a board of photo-sensitive cells, activating particular lights at each determined pattern (Harley 57; Kanach 204). Nevertheless, Xenakis’s dream of “a total audiovisual manifestation ruled in its compositional intelligence by machines serving other machines ” clearly placed the most advanced technology of the time at the core of the project (Harley 63; Xenakis in Kanach 179).

During the show, sound not only filled the space of the pavilion, it functioned as an architectural component: Xenakis wanted to trace shapes and volumes with the precise positioning of the loudspeakers and slightly delayed repetitions of the same sound, thereby creating “sonic surfaces” (Harley 56). Janine Marchessault noted a similar tendency with multiscreen cinema at Expo 67, where “[the] relation between screen and architecture, the screen as architecture, was endemic to the humanist design of Expo” (my emphasis, 33). In Polytope de Montréal music was architecture, and architecture was composed like music, performing a “musicalization of space” (Lootsma 23; Music, Sound and Space 17; Sterken 268). Furthermore, unlike what had been done at the Phillips Pavilion, in Polytope de Montréal  “light became a source of spatiality, not only a pictorial factor” (Kanach 205). This spatialization of both sound and light in a three-dimensional scenography activated what David J. Lierberman calls the “performity” of the space, its ability to be an “active participant in both the production and the enjoyment of its use,” speaking to both its physical materiality and emotional qualities (in Kanach ix; Sterken 263).

The light and music of Polytope de Montréal represented two distinct contrasting discourses, “two different musics, one to be seen and the other to be heard” (Xenakis in Kanach 206), deliberately bearing no direct relation to each other in the form (Sterken 267; Xenakis in Kanach 213). As previously noted, the light show was fragmented and the music continuous; both of them were abstract. The work is deemed to be the first ‘interactive environment,’ given the possibility of spectators to choose and change which floor of the pavilion they experienced it from, shifting their perspective visually as well as sonically (Kanach 205). With the contrasting relation between sound and light, as well as their ability to move around and reposition themselves freely, spectators were intently called upon to give meaning to the formal relationships within the work but also in relation to themselves, both spatially and emotionally (Kanach 206). The space’s performity thus became relational. Xenakis made the “acoustical space [...] no longer homogenous” but capable of multiple layers of mediation, temporality, meaning and engagement (Music, Sound and Space 18).

Shared acoustical space also has the ability to produce various socialities between the spectators experiencing it together (Music, Sound and Space 18). For example, in his review of Polytope de Montréal for Le Figaro Littéraire in October 1967, French musicologist Claude Rostand reported on the ways in which spectators responded to the work with what can be interpreted as an embodied, contagious and collectively felt “affect of wonderment” (Griffiths 84; Music, Sound and Space 35):

Qu'on aime ou qu'on aime pas, l'effet est saisissant – et le public manifeste son saisissement. Les uns, brusquement immobilisés sur l'escalier aérien, paraissent émerveillés comme devant cent arbres de Noël, et ils applaudissent à la fin. D'autres ont un instant de panique quand cette pluie d'étoiles et ce rugissement orchestral viennent, tels un phénomène cosmique, interrompre par surprise la barcarolle des Contes d'Hoffmann ou la marche de L'Arlésienne. J'ai vu une dame américaine en tomber assise et faire vivement un signe de croix préventif ... (n. pag.)

This illustrates what Born describes as the “auditory self” which is “an embodied self that responds and re-sounds” – spectators hearing, clapping, enjoying, falling, panicking – and sound’s inevitable relationship to contagion and sharing (Music, Sound, Space 3).

Another fascinating aspect of Rostand’s report is a passage where he self-reflexively reports not understanding any of the scientific concepts used by Xenakis in Polytope de Montréal:

Sans doute y a-t-il, ici comme dans beaucoup d'autres oeuvres du musicien, bien des éléments scientifiques – mathématiques, en particulier – dont la perception ajoute une saveur accrue à l'ouvrage. Je ne les éprouve pas, n'étant nullement un scientifique. Mais il n'empêche que, comme dans les autres oeuvres de Xenakis, c'est surtout l'invention de l'artiste qui frappe ici, l'invention qui masque tous les secrets de fabrication, et c'est, quant à moi, tout ce que je demande au créateur. (n. pag.)

It is interesting that Rostand is entirely confortable with only a partial understanding of the work, as well as with its conceptual opacity ­– contrasting with its material transparency – the spectacle of ‘invention’ and technological novelty visibly sufficing in its enjoyment. Indeed, as Maria Anna Harley underlines, “projects [such as Xenakis’s] explore the aesthetic potentials of new technologies, their newness is one of their main attractions” (63). According to André Jansson, the same was true for Montreal’s urban regeneration projects of the sixties, most centrally Expo 67 (433). The fair was a spatial configuration which produced not only a new geographical point of view towards Montreal with the construction of the two new islands, unveiling the city’s new futuristic skyline, but a gaze which was intertwined with new media to point towards the future, hinting at what it could look like while negating the past and present (Jansson 433). Both Harely and Jansson underline that the danger of the capitalization on newness and futurity is that it renders a project obsolete as soon it materializes, both artistically and practically, given that it will inevitably need to give way to the next applications of new technology (Harley 63; Jansson 433). This denigration of the present state of affairs in favour of a continual promise of “advancing the future of music” in its partnership with science and technology is the ideological position with which avant-garde music continued to promote itself even in subsequent decades and up to the present (Rationalizing Culture 4); the same is true for immersive cinema which has continually marketed itself as new, vowing to bring cinema to its future “mythological destination” without ever achieving it (Griffiths 113).

Both Janine Marchessault and Alison Griffiths nevertheless reminds us that media texts that are enveloped in the discourse of novelty, as is the case with Polytope de Montréal, are not born out of the vacuum of an individual mind, but arise from a particular concomitance between historical, cultural, social and economic conditions which allow both their existence as well as the discourse facilitating their emergence and legibility (Marchessault 29; Griffiths 95). Indeed audiovisual spectacles and immersive media have a history, from “Handel’s royal fireworks to Scriabin’s Prometheus” (Harley 63) and panoramas (Griffiths 81). So does the idea of the ‘environment’ in art, initiated by Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau in the 1920s, an enveloping, room-sized architectural structure which functioned as a an art work outside of the traditional museum setting and within which the viewer was immersed (Clairet 71). Sven Sterken moreover emphasizes that Polytope shares a philosophical affinity with Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total art work (263), and follows the trend of post-Second World War happenings, performances and installations which pushed towards the dematerialization of the work of art, and a blurring of the distinction between spectator and artwork, life and art (267). In 1958, the concrete walls of Xenakis’s construction for Poème Électronique were a mere 5 cm thick (Lootsma 23); for Polytope, the similarly shaped structure had become transparent, made of only cables, hinting to a teleology towards the immaterial.

The concepts behind Polytope de Montréal should also be regarded as part of the greater framework of world fair modernism and “cosmic humanism” (Kenneally and Sloan 5), particularly the ideals of Expo 67 involving connectedness of all humans, simultaneity and technological futurity (Marchessault 30). Xenakis’s artistic vision was deeply permeated with utopian language and humanist sensibilities, alongside a fascination for the newest technology, as evidenced by the wealth of written documents and notes he produced (Kanach 199).  For instance, in 1964 he formulated the idea of a vertical “Cosmic City,” an urbanistic and architectural project meant to revolutionize known forms of dwelling (Xenakis in Kanach 136; Harely 55). Another example is his text “World Polytope” where he proposes: “Why not weave together the population of the earth through the arts, by establishing a new, direct contact that overcomes the barriers of language, politics, parochialism, racism, chauvinism? Today it is possible, provided the art form is allowed to create sparks of immediate contact” (Xenakis in Kanach 254). Xenakis’s conception of a ‘polytope’ is polysemic and iterative (D’Allones 10); a word invented by Xenakis himself from the juxtaposition of the Greek polys ­­– many – and topos – place, space, location – the polytope is a “great space consisting of many smaller elements, a domain of spatial complexity that may be articulated by sound and light in movement […] an attempt to develop a new form of art with light and sound” (Harley 55). The Polytopes are meant as an open-ended series of in situ installations; an unfinished project of many works adding up to a grander scheme (D’Allones 10).  Driven by the same desire as Expo 67’s filmmakers to create a new art form, Xenakis shared with artists from the sixties “an attitude that was at once utopian and pragmatic, combining a profound awareness of the world as organic interconnectivity and simultaneity as communicative possibility” (Marchessault 30; Xenakis in Kanach 208). In many ways, the Polytopes series is Xenakis’s version of Marshall McLuhan’s “planet as city: a fluid and boundless world that operate[s] off the ground” (Marchessault 30-31).

Yet Xenakis’s “spatial utopias” would be difficult to conceive without the backing of large institutions, governments or corporations ­– like most of Expo 67 – given their gigantic scale and the material, human and financial mobilization required for their realization (Harley 63). As the project proposal written by Xenakis makes clear, Polytope de Montréal had received both financial and technical support from firms like IBM France, which had, in Xenakis’s words “proven its interest in avant-garde artistic research through technical and material support they have provided me in other projects”, Philips and the French National Electric Company (Xenakis in Kanach 208). The context of World Fairs seems to be particularly appropriate for such projects, not only materially but ideologically as well. Robert W. Rydell insists on the way in which world fairs, especially in the twentieth century were “showcases of scientific and technological innovation [that] introduced mass publics to the building blocks of modern civilization […] convincing the public of the necessary connection between scientific and technological innovation and national progress” (143). The technologies on display were intended to reveal and make transparent, but only in appearance, the workings of the nascent surveillance society, and by presenting them under the guise of progress and the future, accustom the public with its ethos (Jansson 433). Polytope de Montréal encapsulated a mediated partnership between science and music, one that is only sustainable in heavily subsidized contexts, hence corporatized or institutionalized, invisibilizing questions around power structures, authorship as well as ethical and material conditions allowing its existence (Music, Sound and Space 19; Rationalizing Culture). As previously discussed, the work produced a sense of audience participation, yet only a staged and partial one (Music, Sound and Space 20). The work therefore presents serious limitations in its ability to activate the transformational aspects of audience participation and sociability produced by its nature as a space of encounter between music, light, architecture and people (Music, Sound and Space 18).


The experience of sound has a transformative capacity over the space that it inhabits, not only in psychoacoustic terms, but also socially and affectively (Music, Sound and Space). Space and sound were not simply parameters of the multimedia installation Polytope de Montréal, conceived by architect and composer Iannis Xenakis for Expo 67, they were also simultaneously articulators and mediators of one another and of the social dimensions traversing and interacting with them. With its contagiousness, sound and its spatiality produces collectively felt affects and a sociability that have transformative potential, a potential that may be seriously hindered by opaque and heavy institutionalized top-down power structures (Music, Sound and Space). Expo 67 and its futuristic utopias, of which Polytopes de Montréal is but one example, are stillborn projects whose aesthetic and ideological capitalization on technological newness is doomed as soon as the project comes to life (Jansson; Harley). Jansson points out that “[the] story of Expo 67 shows that simulations rarely manage to break away from sociomaterial realities” (434); as Polytopes de Montréal exemplifies, the same can be said of the immaterial and the immersive (Sterken).

However, from a methodological and theoretical standpoint, applying a framework that conceives of a media text as a ‘textual process’ (Coudlry) rather than a finite work allows opening up a field of ramifications whereby a historical work extends into the present each time it is revisited, as it was the case in this essay with Polytope de Montréal. It laid the groundwork that served to produce Polytope de Persépolis in 1971, Polytope de Cluny in Paris a year later, Polytope de Mycènes in 1978 and Le Diatope the same year (Kanach 198-277). The work also inspired contemporary artists such as Chris Salter and his N_Polytope, for which, in a similar way as myself, he pieced together various texts and graphic scores by and about Iannis Xenakis in order to make sense and give his own interpretation of the work (Slater; Basanta). The intertextuality and polymorphous spatialities across time and space of Polytopes, both with and beyond Xenakis, have been and will continue to be a space for connection, sociality and discussion through and across media.

1 December 2014

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