Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Present Day Composer

One of the great electronic composers of the 20th Century, Edgard Varèse, is barely remembered today. Earlier this year in Critics at Large, Kevin Courrier served a reminder.

Edgard Varèse & The Bomb That Would Explode the Musical World

                                       Edgard Varèse
On the night of May 29, 1913, Edgard Varèse sat in attendance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris watching the infamous performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. This was an evening considered by some to mark the spiritual birth of the 20th Century. While abuse was being hurled at the stage, and indignation toward this "barbaric" music raged around him, Varèse calmly wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, many composers were already growing tired of tonality. They had already begun resenting the adherence to a single key as the only accepted foundation for musical composition. Arnold Schoenberg, the Austro-Hungarian composer born in 1874, even developed his own solution: the twelve-tone system, an approach allowing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale to be played before the first note is played again. This open-ended arrangement offered composers the opportunity to compose disciplined atonal music that would be equivalent to the most traditional tonal system.

Following up on Schoenberg's daring, Anton Webern, an Austrian composer who studied with Schoenberg, reinterpreted the twelve-tone form by writing with an abstract sparseness that provided space for the ear to gradually discover the melody. Igor Stravinsky, always the contrarian, headed in a different direction. He was less interested in harmony and more dedicated to what music critic Frank Rossiter once described as "a return to the artistic ideals (and often to the specific musical forms) of the pre-romantic era." Varèse though took an even more radical route. He decided to question the very principles of Western music altogether. Varèse embarked on a search for what he thought could be a new music, one filled with the sounds of sirens, woodblocks, and eventually electronic tape. His impact on the culture may have appeared subterranean, but it was acutely felt among a diverse group of musicians. Most significantly,Frank Zappa would carry his legacy. But he also attracted the ear of be-bop legend Charlie Parker (who wanted Varèse to take him on as a student). His reach also extended to some of Zappa's contemporaries including progressive rock groups like King Crimson and Pink Floyd (who utilized Varèse's tape experiments), John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Revolution 9" from The Beatles' White Album is just about inconceivable without him. Even the pop rock group Chicago chipped in with their own little ditty "A Hit for Varèse" in 1971.

Of course, Varèse never had a hit, he barely even had a hearing. Very few seemed to take seriously a man for whom music was a scientific construct of sounds, where the score sheets themselves would serve as his own simulated laboratory. As bold and bizarre as his music would be, too, he even had the wild and frizzy hair of those mad scientists from cheesy horror movies. But there was nothing cheesy about his artistic intent. Varèse wanted instruments that offered what he called "a whole new world of unsuspecting sounds." You could say much of his career would indeed be taken up the quest for a pure sound. That quixotic pursuit alone led him to pianist Ferruccio Busoni who wrote in his book Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (1911) that "music was born free and to win freedom is its destiny." With that in mind, Varèse set out for what he called "the bomb that would explode the musical world," where the resulting sounds would rush in through his induced molecular breach. To lay the foundation for that imminent explosion, he first organized an International Composers Guild in July 1921 that was dedicated to the presentation of works by Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern; and he wrote a manifesto that laid out the goals of the Guild. (Nearly half a century later these aspirations were invoked as a clarion call by Frank Zappa on the cover of his first few albums.) "Dying is the privilege of the weary," it reads in part. "The present-day composer refuses to die. They have realized the necessity of banding together and fighting for the right of the individual to secure a fair and free presentation of the work...It is out of such collective will that the International Composers Guild was born."

Despite sufficient financial support, however, Varèse could not find a mass audience with its own collective will for this difficult music. (He couldn't even find musicians eager to play the highly technical scores.) The Guild's first concert at the Greenwich Village Theatre drew only three hundred people and soon splintered over which compositions to use, not to mention Varèse's tendency to ruthlessly dominate the group. Eventually, he started composing new material himself. After embarking on his first work, Ameriques(written between 1918 and 1921), he declared, "I refuse to limit myself to sounds that have already been heard." As if to prove the point, Ameriques included a solo flute intermittently interrupted by loud blasts from the orchestra, setting up a significant tension between the solitary sound of the wind instrument and the larger instrumental projections. Another piece, Ionisation (1929-31), required a group of thirteen musicians who could play a total of thirty-seven percussion instruments, including a gong, Chinese blocks, tam-tams, snare drums, and Cuban claves. What Varèse sought with this bevy of percussive toys was timbre – sound in its purest form – rather than pitch.

Eventually, he moved to Greenwich Village in 1925 and began work on his boldest score yet. Arcananeeded an orchestra of 120 musicians, over seventy strings, along with eight percussionists playing close to forty percussion instruments. The riveting cacophony of Arcana took Varèse began into exploring numerous electro-mechanical devices by the Forties, incorporating exotic instruments such as the theremin and the Ondes Martenot, both of which predated the creation of the moog synthesizer. Once magnetic tape became the standard in 1955, Varèse composed his audio tape masterpiece Deserts where he invented an entirely new means to best articulate the sounds he kept hearing in his head. But no matter what was echoing in his head, he couldn't get anything to echo back from grant foundations like the Guggenheim to help finance his search. American music circles were also becoming more progressively conventional and conservative and driving the avant-garde underground. Although he continued to believe that new instruments were necessary to free the composer, Varèse grew depressed from the lack of such liberation. He would compose new scores but then destroy them in despair.

Frank Zappa once wrote in Downbeat that it was significant that Varèse never received the acclaim in America that he found in Europe. "Even the critics [there] that didn't like his music didn't dismiss him as a buffoon...He was written about in the United States [however] like he was some kind of quack who didn't know what he was doing." But it was clear, even by 1917, that Varèse knew exactly what he was doing. "I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspecting sounds will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm," he would write then. In declaring this paradoxical balance created out of strict control and unbridled freedom, Varèse became trapped by what the present couldn't offer him. Yet within his dramatic and turbulent scores, the fury of the musical bomb he set off still occasionally sends off reverberations, timely reminders that continually further his claim that the present-day composer does indeed refuse to die.

Edgard Varèse's Ionisation:

Edgard Varèse's Ameriques:

Edgard Varèse's Deserts:

Edgard Varèse's Arcana:

- originally published on August 14, 2012 in Critics at Large.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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