Xenakis grouped together under the term polytopes a series of various shows that mixed music, light and architecture in a total sensory experience: the Polytopes of Montreal, Persepolis, Cluny, Mycenae, and the Diatope. Although they share the same name, these shows, produced between 1967 and 1978, take very different forms depending on the venue and the apparatus used, while sharing a common imagination that synthesises the artistic universe of their creator. The polytopes are in fact the expression of an underlying aesthetic project realised by the artist according to the specific means at his disposal. In this respect, they are essentially contextual works, specific to the place and material conditions that made them possible: the various performances can therefore be seen as particular incarnations of an artistic utopia.
As Xenakis often likes to do with the title he gives to his works, the polysemous name polytope (literally “several places”) is open to interpretation. First of all, the term place can be interpreted as “point in space”: the performances can be appreciated from several points of view and placements, depending on the position and movements of the spectators (especially for the Polytopes of Montreal, Persepolis and Mycenae); this awareness of space is central to Xenakis’s work and can be found in many other works (see for example the Philips Pavilion, Terretektorh or Persephassa). Moreover, each polytope is a total spectacle: in this sense, one can connote topos with the idea of “sensory space,” all the senses of the spectator being solicited in a global experience. It is also possible to interpret the notion of places as that of the artistic disciplines activated by Xenakis (sound, light, architecture, philosophy, etc.), assemblages that today would be described as multimedia. More broadly still, scientific disciplines and technical innovations can be added to the artistic domain. It is clear that, of all Xenakis’s production, the polytopes best embody and synthesise the utopian thought of the alloy between the arts and sciences that runs through the artist’s entire oeuvre (see Xenakis 1979). Finally, these places are the many inspirations that are dear to Xenakis and that motivate each of his productions: antiquity, nature, the cosmos, mathematics, to name but a few.
Several foundational experiences can be seen as the premises of polytopes; we will mention three. The first is the exposure to the demonstrations and fighting during the Second World War, which left a lasting impression on the artist (see Delalande 1997). The second is Xenakis’s organisation of a concert on the roof of the Unité d’habitation de Marseille at the request of Le Corbusier in 1953, an event in which Xenakis had scattered various listening stations broadcasting classical music, jazz, and non-European music, and between which visitors could wander freely. The last one is the Philips Pavilion, whose hyperbolic paraboloid architecture was designed by Xenakis to host a sound and visual show. Although he was able to compose Concret PH as an introduction to Varèse’s Poème électronique, a brief interlude of sound spatialised on the pavilion’s vaulted ceilings, he expressed some reservations about Le Corbusier’s visual show, which he would have liked to be more radical (see Xenakis 1959); his polytopes would give him the opportunity a few years later to express the full potential of his innovative ideas.
The first polytope was commissioned for the French pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. In the center of the seven-storey pavilion, Xenakis proposed a structure of cables forming sheets that were geometrically reminiscent of the Philips Pavilion. On the cables were fixed 1,200 colored light flashes, which at regular intervals performed a pre-programmed ballet of light, synchronized with orchestral music recorded on tape and spatialised on the different levels of the pavilion. This brief show (just over five minutes) immerses the visitors of the pavilion: one can imagine their amazement as they move through this cybernetic work between the floors of the building. This avant-garde project is already paving the way for other polytopes such as Cluny or Diatope, where Xenakis will find the conditions to express the full force of his artistic thought in fuller experiences.
The Polytope of Persepolis took place at night on 26 August 1971 during the Shiraz Festival in Iran. The show was held in the ruins of Darius’s palace, in which different sound stations were disseminated, each playing separate audio tracks of a 56-minute music composed for the occasion. The ruins were illuminated at various locations by fires, while children carrying torches formed processions on the surrounding terrain and lasers and powerful spotlights pierced the sky. The lights, which followed a choreographed evolution according to a predefined scenario, accompanied the music throughout the performance. As in Montreal, spectators were free to move around as they wished to enjoy the performance from changing perspectives. In Persepolis, Xenakis brings together all of his most important themes, from music and light to architecture and nature, in a blending of eras and technologies: ancient architecture resonates with avant-garde music, and the primitive lights of fires and torches echo those of lasers and anti-aircraft searchlights.
At the request of Michel Guy, Xenakis designed the Polytope of Cluny for the first edition of the Festival d’Automne in Paris in 1972, which took place in the ancient Roman baths of the same name. Xenakis used a twelve-channel sound system, and for the lighting 600 white flashes forming an abstract celestial vault on the ceiling, as well as three lasers. The latter were reflected by several networks of small mirrors placed against the walls and ceiling, and could also be transformed by various devices to create scans or volumetric figures. The spectators, lying on the floor, were swept away for 25 minutes in a storm of sound and light. For this show, Xenakis pushed even further the automation already in place for the Polytope of Montreal. A control system was built, consisting of an electronic control circuit fed by data from a digital magnetic tape. It controlled all the flashes and laser effects, as well as the spatialization of the sound coming from a second magnetic tape played simultaneously. From the point of view of the composition of the lighting effects, Xenakis also went a step further. Whereas the effects in the previous polytopes were composed entirely by hand, in the case of the Polytope of Cluny they were generated by algorithms running on an IBM computer. The different sequences of flashes and lasers were then assembled and superimposed on the music to form the final score. After a first period of operation in 1972-1973, a second version of the show was developed, which increased and improved the laser effects whose score was rewritten. This version was performed in 1973-1974. Depending on the sources, it is estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 spectators attended the Polytope, which left a lasting impression on the public and set the stage for a new type of performance.
Two polytopes were created in 1978: the Polytope of Mycenae and the Diatope. The first marks Xenakis’s return to Greece: it is indeed his first creation on Greek soil, after an amnesty obtained in 1974 that put an end to twenty-seven years of exile. For this one-and-a-half hour show, performed between 2 and 5 September on the archaic Greek site of Mycenae, Xenakis saw things in a grand manner. For the occasion, he conceived a programme organised around pre-existing compositions of his, linked by readings from Homer, Sophocles and Euripides in ancient Greek, and by the interpolations of Mycenae Alpha, a piece of electronic music composed on the UPIC. As the music and readings were played and amplified throughout the valley, lights illuminated the archaeological site, while processions of children and herds of cattle with torches roamed the mountains above. Air force searchlights were mobilised to illuminate the sky above the audience. Here, as in Persepolis, artistic and technical means are used to create a total spectacle that reactivates a distant past dear to Xenakis, who felt he was born, in his own words, “too late”, having “missed two millennia” (Varga 1996, 15).
Radically different from the Polytope of Mycenae, but nevertheless the opposing side of the same coin, the Diatope is probably the most significant of Xenakis’s polytopes. For this one, a red dismountable structure is imagined, formed of hyperbolic paraboloids that are Xenakis’s architectural trademark. The tent houses a device similar in its principle to that of Cluny (1,600 flashes, 4 lasers and 11 loudspeakers) and offers a 45-minute show on the spatialised music La Légende d’Eer. The sensory experience is accompanied by a booklet that compiles various texts by Xenakis, Pascal, and Plato among others (see Xenakis 1978). All the facets of Xenakis’s work are here brought together: architecture, music, light, and philosophy. With this show which, twenty years later, fulfils what Xenakis had dreamed of following the experience of the Philips Pavilion, the circle is complete.
In addition to the polytopes that were actually built, traces also exist of other projects that could not be carried out due to a lack of political will or resources, some of which remained in the form of drafts, while others were abandoned at a more advanced stage: in particular, a project for a polytope in the archaeological site of Teotihuacan in Mexico, which was abandoned in 1981 due to a lack of funds, or a pharaonic proposal for a polytope in Athens in 1985. But the most radical of them all is undoubtedly the one outlined in a utopian text entitled Le Polytope Mondial (i.e. “World Polytope”), in which the artist dreams of deploying a device on a planetary scale (or even cosmic… see Xenakis 1979).
Delalande, François. 1997. “Il faut être constamment un immigré”: Entretiens avec Xenakis. Paris:Buchet-Chastel/INA-GRM.
Varga, Bálint András. 1996. Conversations with Iannis Xenakis. London: Faber.
Xenakis, Iannis. 1959. “Notes sur un geste électronique,” in Jean Petit (éd.) In Le poème électronique Le Corbusier, edited by Jean Petit, 226-231. Paris: Minuit.
Xenakis, Iannis. 1978. Le Diatope. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou.
Xenakis, Iannis. 1979. Arts/Sciences Alliages. Tournai: Casterman.
How to cite
CARRÉ, Pierre. 2023. “Polytope.” In A Xenakis Dictionary, edited by Dimitris Exarchos. https://www.iannis-xenakis.org/en/polytope