Iannis Xenakis ‘Concret PH’

Xenakis’s work Concret PH was originally composed as a two minute interlude between continuous playings of Edgar Varese’s Poem Electronique at the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels1. The title of the work is referential on several levels; the most apparent of these references is the concrete material that Philips Pavilion was constructed of. Further, the work’s texture gives it a similar aesthetic value to concrete – stark, manmade, uniform, but filled with subtle variations. Much like concrete, the work itself is something taken from the natural world (the sound of charcoal burning) and repurposed within a highly artificial environment.

This piece was incredibly prescient, foretelling the development of sonic installations and granular synthesis that would emerge in the second half of the twentieth century. Sound art is distinct from electronic music in that it is not based on a temporal progression, but rather it uses sound for exploration of a physical space, or of a philosophical principle2. The work’s original presentation space was outfitted with 350 speakers; the sound would travel in pathways through this complex sound system, as well as play in clusters of loudspeakers1. The sonic material used, which is filled with bright, sharp, rich attacks, would send impulses throughout the cavernous pavilion; when sent through 350 different speakers, the work’s sounds would have rendered the acoustics of the space in supernatural detail and depth, using the music to transform the physical world rather than as an emotional narrative of traditional music. The continual looping of Xenakis’s work also puts it more within the genre of ‘sound art’ than music. Although certain gestures occurring at intervals of roughly ~45 seconds occur throughout the work3, its static texture gives it the ability to be appreciated any point.

While there were several technological developments prior to Xenakis’s Concret PH that manipulated resampling on tape for an analog version of granular synthesis, such as Gabor’s “Kinematical Frequency Converter” and Pierre Schaeffer and Jacques Pollin’s Phongene4, Concret PH was one of the the first popular works to make use of the ‘granular aesthetic’. The grains of sound used by Xenakis were the characteristic sound of the piece itself, rather than one layer of processing buried within a larger work. Further, Xenakis used seemingly chaotic, clouds of grains to compose the work, rather than using granular synthesis for time stretching or pitch shifting purposes, as Gabor or Schaeffer had. This granular aesthetic would become extraordinarily prevalent in electronic music in the 1990’s and 2000’s, reaching such popularity as to be included as one of the core effects of the popular software Ableton Live5,6.

1. Valle, Andrea, Kees Tazelaar, and Vincenzo Lombardo. “In Concrete Space: Reconstructing Spatialization of Iannis Xenakis’ Concret Ph on a Multichannel Setup.” Sound and Music Computing (2010): n. pag. Http://smcnetwork.org/files/proceedings/. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
2. Licht, Alan. “Sound Art: Origins, Development and Ambiguities.” Organised Sound 14.01 (2009): 3. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

3. The work is divided into thirds by three key gestures that occur in the work at the following times:
0:43 – lower pitch sample
1:30 – thinning of texture and high pass filtering
2:10 – rhythmic amplitude modulation of the texture

4. Roads, Curtis. “History of Granular Synthesis.” Microsound. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2004. Print.

5. “Grain Delay.” Grain Delay. Sound on Sound, Jan. 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. .

6. Robert Henke’s GranulatorII is an excellent M4L instrument for granular synthesis.
http://www.monolake.de/technology/granulator.html

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