Continuing his series about maverick composers Andrew Byrne—Carnegie Hall's manager of festivals and special projects—turns his attention to Parisian Edgard Varèse—a pioneer who influenced composers from Pierre Boulez to Frank Zappa.
"I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution to a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm." —Edgard Varèse
Edgard Varèse was a pioneer, a visionary whose mission was the liberation of sound from tradition. Fascinated by the intersection between noise and sound, he sought a clean break with the past by developing entirely new ways of writing music. In the world according to Varèse, sound itself was the organizing principle. With shrieking sirens, colliding blocks of noise, and jagged rhythms, his works were like sonic sculptures.
Little in Varèse's upbringing would have forecast the radical path that he would take. Born in Paris in 1893, Varèse studied in Paris and Berlin in the early years of the 20th century. His early music, which was influenced by figures like Claude Debussy and Ferruccio Busoni, was destroyed in a Berlin warehouse fire in 1918; so it was with a clean slate that Varèse arrived in the artistic and technological hothouse of interwar New York, ready to unleash a revolution. His first work written in the United States, Amériques, gives an inkling of Varèse's boundless aspirations. As he wrote, America suggests "all discoveries, all adventures. It meant the unknown … new worlds on this planet, in outer space, in the minds of men." Listening to Amériques, it is also clear that the sounds of New York City, with its exhilarating aural cacophony of street noises, was an inspiration to the composer.
In the following decades, Varèse created an entirely new catalogue of "organized sound," using percussion and wind instruments to build great sound masses, unearthly harmonies and noise-based music that seems like it could have been made in an electronic studio. In Ionisation (1931)—acclaimed for being the first concert piece written solely for percussion ensemble—an otherworldly twisted military tattoo of chattering rhythms is created by a battery of 40 percussion instruments. No pitches (at least pitches understood in the traditional scale) are heard until the piano, celesta, and chimes enter in the coda. Here was Varèse's purest statement of liberated sound—an anthem for the machine age.
While the weird and wonderful music Varèse created between his arrival in New York and his death in 1965 can be performed in under three hours, his influence has been vast, inspiring figures across the musical spectrum from high priests of the European avant-garde like Pierre Boulez and to Californian counterculture icon Frank Zappa.
Frank Zappa writes about Varèse in "The Idol of My Youth" at ubu.com.
In March 1973, on the 40th anniversary of the world premiere of Ionisation, KFPA in Berkeley broadcast an interview with Nicolas Slonimsky—who conducted the premiere—in which he reminisced about the event with David Cloud of KPFK.
More information about this recording is available at the Other Minds Archive.
Related:American MavericksBreak the RulesEdgard Varèse Listening Room