Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Edgard Varése

In my experience, Edgard Varése is one of the handful of experimental composers whose music is consistently listenable, even pleasing. Despite the fact that his existing body of work amounts to only seventeen pieces, he is truly one of the great composers of the 20th Century. His pioneering work in "organized sound" and his desire to move beyond existing instrumentation and format - along with the prophetic works and words of John Cage - helped lead to the development of the synthesizer and ultimately, the sampler - a progression that we have touched on before.

(related) (see also)

a few items of interest:

Ordinary finds:

Edgard Varése (Dec. 22, 1883 - 1965) was one of the more photogenic composers of the 20th century. Henry Miller described him as “The stratospheric Colossus of Sound”.

He knew Picabia, Duchamp and Diego Rivera - among many others - during his time in France and later when he moved to the US and lived in Greenwich Village. Later he pioneered the use of electronic instruments in classical music and his work influenced musicians as diverse as Charlie Parker and Frank Zappa.


Pierre Boulez conducts the Ensemble InterContemporain

(video link)

Edgard Varese: The Idol of My Youth
By Frank Zappa

Stereo Review, June 1971. pp61-62

I have been asked to write about Edgard Varese. I am in no way qualified to. I can't even pronounce his name right. The only reason I have agreed to is because I love his music very much, and if by some chance this article can influence more people to hear his works, it will have been worthwhile.

I was about thirteen when I read an article in Look about Sam Goody's Record Store in New York. My memory is not too clear on the details, but I recall it was praising the store's exceptional record merchandising ability. One example of brilliant salesmanship described how, through some mysterious trickery, the store actually managed to sell an album called "Ionization" (the real name of the album was "The Complete Works of Edgard Varese, Volume One"). The article described the record as a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds.

I dashed off to my local record store and asked for it. Nobody ever heard of it. I told the guy in the store what it was like. He turned away, repulsed, and mumbled solemnly, "I probably wouldn't stock it anyway... nobody here in San Diego would buy it."

I didn't give up. I was so hot to get that record I couldn't even believe it. In those days I was a rhythm-and-blues fanatic. I saved any money I could get (sometimes as much as $2 a week) so that every Friday and Saturday I could rummage through piles of old records at the Juke Box Used Record Dump (or whatever they called it) in the Maryland Hotel or the dusty corners of little record stores where they'd keep the crappy records nobody wanted to buy.

One day I was passing a hi-fi store in La M
esa. A little sign in the window announced a sale on 45's. After shuffling through their singles rack and finding a couple of Joe Houston records, I walked toward the cash register. On my way, I happened to glance into the LP bin. Sitting in the front, just a little bent at the corners, was a strange-looking black-and-white album cover. On it there was a picture of a man with gray frizzy hair. He looked like a mad scientist. I thought it was great that somebody had finally made a record of a mad scientist. I picked it up. I nearly (this is true, ladies and gentlemen) peed in my pants... THERE IT WAS! EMS 401, The Complete Works of Edgard Varese Volume I... Integrales, Density 21.5, Ionization, Octandre... Rene Le Roy, the N. Y. Wind Ensemble, the Juilliard Percussion Orchestra, Frederic Waidman Conducting... liner notes by Sidney Finkelstein! WOW!

I ran over to the singles box and stuffed the Joe Houston records back in it. I fumbled around in my pocket to see how much money I had (about $3.80). I knew I had to have a lot of money to buy an album. Only old people had enough money to buy albums. I'd never bought an album before. I sneaked over to the guy at the cash register and asked him how much EMS 401 cost. "That gray one in the box? $5.95 -"

I had searched for that album for over a year, and now... disaster. I told the guy I only had $3.80. He scratched his neck. "We use that record to demonstrate the hi-fi's with, but nobody ever buys one when we use it... you can have it for $3.80 if you want it that bad. "

I couldn't imagine what he meant by "demonstrating hi-fi's with it." I'd never heard a hi-fi. I only knew that old people bought them. I had a genuine lo-fi... it was a little box about 4 inches deep with imitation wrought-iron legs at each corner (sort of brass-plated) which elevated it from the table top because the speaker was in the bottom. My mother kept it near the ironing board. She used to listen to a 78 of The Little Shoemaker on it. I took off the 78 of The Little Shoemaker and, carefully moving the speed lever to 33 1/3 (it had never been there before), turned the volume all the way up and placed the all-purpose Osmium-tip needle in the lead-in spiral to Ionization. I have a nice Catholic mother who likes Roller Derby. Edgard Varese does not get her off, even to this very day. I was forbidden to play that record in the living room ever again.

In order to listen to The Album, I had to stay in my room. I would sit there every night and play it two or three times and read the liner notes over and over. I didn't understand them at all. I didn't know what timbre was. I never heard of polyphony. I just liked the music because it sounded good to me. I would force anybody who came over to listen to it. (I had heard someplace that in radio stations the guys would make chalk marks on records so they could find an exact spot, so I did the same thing to EMS 401... marked all the hot items so my friends wouldn't get bored in the quiet parts.)

I went to the library and tried to find a book about Mr. Varese. There wasn't any. The librarian told me he probably wasn't a Major Composer. She suggested I look in books about new or unpopular composers. I found a book that had a little blurb in it (with a picture of Mr. Varese as a young man, staring into the camera very seriously) saying that he would be just as happy growing grapes as being a composer.

On my fifteenth birthday my mother said she'd give me $5. I told her I would rather make a long-distance phone call. I figured Mr. Varese lived in New York because the record was made in New York (and because he was so weird, he would live in Greenwich Village). I got New York Information, and sure enough, he was in the phone book.

His wife answered. She was very nice and told me he was in Europe and to call back in a few weeks. I did. I don't remember what I said to him exactly, but it was something like: "I really dig your music." He told me he was working on a new piece called Deserts. This thrilled me quite a bit since I was living in Lancaster, California then. When you're fifteen and living in the Mojave Desert and find out that the world's greatest composer, somewhere in a secret Greenwich Village laboratory, is working on a song about your "home town" you can get pretty excited. It seemed a great tragedy that nobody in-Palmdale or Rosamond would care if they ever heard it. I still think Deserts is about Lancaster, even if the liner notes on the Columbia LP say it's something more philosophical.

All through high school I searched for information about Varese and his music. One of the most exciting discoveries was in the school library in Lancaster. I found an orchestration book that had score examples in the back, and included was an excerpt from Offrandes with a lot of harp notes (and you know how groovy harp notes look). I remember fetishing the book for several weeks.

When I was eight
een I got a chance to go to the East Coast to visit my Aunt Mary in Baltimore. I had been composing for about four years then but had not heard any of it played. Aunt Mary was going to introduce me to some friend of hers (an Italian gentleman) who was connected with the symphony there. I had planned on making a side trip to mysterious Greenwich Village. During my birthday telephone conversation, Mr. Varese had casually mentioned the possibility of a visit if I was ever in the area. I wrote him a letter when I got to Baltimore, just to let him know I was in the area.

I waited. My aunt introduced me to the symphony guy. She said, "This is Frankie. He writes orchestra music." The guy said, "Really? Tell me, sonny boy, what's the lowest note on a bassoon?" I said, "B flat... and also it says in the book you can get 'em up to a C or something in the treble clef." He said, "Really? You know about violin harmonics?" I said, "What's that?" He said, "See me again in a few years."

I waited some more. The letter came. I couldn't believe it. A real handwritten letter from Edgard Varese! I still have it in a little frame. In very tiny scientific-looking script it says:

VII 12th/57

Dear Mr. Zappa

I am sorry not to be able to grant your request. I am leaving
for Europe next week and will be gone until next spring. I am
hoping however to see you on my return. With best wishes.

Edgard Varese

I never got to meet Mr. Varese. But I kept looking for records of his music. When he got to be about eighty I guess a few companies gave in and recorded some of his stuff. Sort of a gesture, I imagine. I always wondered who bought them besides me. It was about seven years from the time I first heard his music till I met someone else who even knew he existed. That person was a film student at USC. He had the Columbia LP with Poeme Electronique on it. He thought it would make groovy sound effects.

I can't give you any structural insights or academic suppositions about how his music works or why I think it sounds so good. His music is completely unique. If you haven't heard it yet, go hear it. If you've already heard it and think it might make groovy sound effects, listen again. I would recommend the Chicago Symphony recording of Arcana on RCA (at full volume) or the Utah Symphony recording of Ameriques on Vanguard. Also, there is a biography by Fernand Oulette, and miniature scores are available for most of his works, published by G. Ricordi.

Poème Électronique - Live Program Notes Presented at the Concert:

Poème Électronique is unique among the pieces you are about to hear tonight in that it was composed to be a part of a multi-media work of the same title. This spectacle of film, light, and sound was created for the Brussels's World's Fair of 1958, taking place in the Philips Pavilion.

The project was conceived by architect Le Corbusier, here shown in front of the Pavilion with Varèse and Philips director Louis Kalff. The pavilion was designed primarily by Iannis Xenakis, whose work Bohor will close this evening's concert

The technology available to Varèse at the time he created
Poème Électronique was out of reach for most of his life, forcing him to realize his unique vision through conventional instruments. When early electroni
c instruments became available, Varèse was quick to use it towards his goal of "organized sound." These works from the twenties and thirties often anticipated methodologies and aesthetics that would be idiomatic to tape music, when the latter's arrival was still three decades away. The excerpts you will hear now illustrate a typical Varèse-ian gesture--an accumulation of single tones ending with a great crescendo--taken first from 1925's Intégrales, followed by a similar fragment from Poème Électronique. Though by no means identical, the two heard side by side illustrates Varèse's consistency across different media and how truly ahead of their time his early pieces were.

The version of Poème Électronique that you will h
ear shortly is the original three-channel version created at the Philips Lab in Eindhoven.

When performed at the Philips Pavilion, the work was spatialized through four hundred speakers and an elaborate switching mechanism, an environment that is unfortunately gone with the destruction of the pavilion in 1959. Despite this compromise, Poème Électronique as it exists today still stands as one of the early masterpieces of electronic music. It is also the realization of a life-long pursuit for Varèse, who was already 75 when the work was completed.

The score

...I decided to call my music "organized sound" and myself, not a musician, but a "worker in rhythms, frequencies and intensities." Indeed, to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise. But after all what is music but organized noises? And a composer, like all artists, is an organizer of disparate elements. Subjectively, noise is any sound one doesn't like

Edgard Varêse and Le Corbusier - Poême électronique (1958)

(video link)

The Columbia University Computer Music Center
The book on Varèse (drool)
comments from Professor Chou Wen-chung (composer, literary and musical executor of the Varèse estate)
Olivia Mattis on Varése and the Theremin Cello
Edgard Varèse et Léon Theremin (
en Français)


Bunk Strutts said...

Holy Polyphony, Batman! What a find.

Although I know of Varese via Zappa, I'd never heard his compositions. Explains a lot of Zappa's early squeaky-honky-beepy stuff with the Mothers.

crow said...

"The present day composer refuses to die!"


John M. said...

Il est l'homme!

(think that's right, my francais is a bit rusty)