Published by Princeton University Press for the Fromm Music Foundation
Perspectives of New Music vol:39 issue:2 pages:262-273
‘Polytopes’ is the collective name of a series of multimedia installations, including sound, light and architecture, conceived by Iannis Xenakis during the 1960s and 1970s. The word ‘polytope’ is Greek; in this context it has to be interpreted literally: poly means ‘a lot, several’ while topos means ‘place’. Furthermore, every polytope bears the name of the site or the city where it has been installed. The name of these spectacles already indicates that here, we are dealing not only with multimedia works (though the very notion of multimedia was then not yet used to designate this kind of work as is the case today), but with an art that fully integrates ‘space’.
Xenakis’ attention to space is not surprising, since for a period of 12 years (1947-59), he worked as an engineer and an architect in Le Corbusier’s office in Paris. He participated in important projects, such as the La Tourette Monastery in Lyon and the famous Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. It is in this same period that Xenakis started to draw attention as a composer. In the polytopes, Xenakis has transposed his temporal thinking into three-dimensional space; these art works can thus be considered as the return to architecture of a composer who, in his mind, has always remained an architect and an engineer . Through the masterly use of the latest technological tools in the polytopes, architecture becomes an art of time and music an art of space. In this way, these spatialized light and sound scenographies take part in the tradition that links Wagner’s conception of the total art work (the Gesammtkunstwerk) with contemporary notions of cyberspace, in the sense that they both deal with the creation of an immersive and artificial environment. In this article, we examine the position of the polytopes in this quest for a space-time art.