• Edgard Varèse: American Mavericks at the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall

    Continuing our series about American Mavericks at the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall, we turn our attention to Edgard Varèse—a Frenchman who became a central figure in American experimental music.

    Edgard Varèse (1883–1965) was born in Paris, France. He studied with composer Vincent d'Indy; during trips to Berlin and Vienna, he met Ferruccio Busoni, Claude Debussy, and Richard Strauss. His musical concepts coalesced when he met artist and composer Luigi Russolo, who wrote The Art of Noises in 1913, in which he stated that the traditional orchestra was no longer capable of capturing the essence of a culture now immersed in the noises caused by "the age of machines." This inspired Varèse to explore new sounds and tonalities. He referred to himself as an "organizer of sound" and "a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities" rather than a composer. He immigrated to the US in 1915 and began working for the cause of new music. He formed the International Composers Guild and the Pan-American Organization of Composers (the latter with Henry Cowell), and presented concerts. With the invention of the tape recorder in the 1930s, Varèse pioneered the use of electronics and became regarded as "the father of electronic music."

    The music compositions Varèse left behind in Europe burned in a fire. By the time of his death, in 1965, his total musical output could be performed in less than three hours, yet his contribution to music inspired generations of followers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Yoko Ono, and Frank Zappa.

    Edgard Varèse
    First Edition of Amériques by Edgard Varèse (with the composer's corrections), 1925. Courtesy Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel, Switzerland.

    Amériques was the first work Varèse composed in the United States. To him, it represented his "new discoveries" in the "new world." The work calls for one of the largest orchestral ensembles, including 13 percussion players who use more than 40 percussive sounds (such as a wind machine, a crow's call, and a lion's roar). The world premiere took place in Philadelphia on April 9, 1926, with Leopold Stokowski conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra; they performed the New York premiere at Carnegie Hall four days later.

    Edgard Varèse
    Holograph of Ionisation by Edgard Varèse, 1931. American Music Collection, Music Division; The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

    Ionization is considered to be the first orchestral piece written strictly for percussion instruments. The world premiere took place on March 6, 1933, in the Carnegie Chapter Hall (a small theater once located above the Weill Recital Hall). The work calls for 13 players, utilizing 37 percussion instruments that include anvils, whips, and police sirens.

    Edgard Varèse
    Flyer for the Pan-American Association of Composers, 1933. American Music Collection, Music Division; The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.In 1928.

    Varèse founded this organization with Henry Cowell to promote new music of the Western hemisphere. Several like-minded associations flourished during the 1920s and '30s to promote new music, oftentimes with Cowell, Varèse, and their followers on one side, and less "avant-garde" composers like Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions on the other.

    Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall
    American Mavericks
    March 27, San Francisco Symphony
    Break the Rules