Summary for the Busy Executive: Oh, brave new world!
Edgar Varèse reinvented music. Or, rather, he expanded the ways music could be made. It's hard to do this - much easier to start from an established point - and consequently, Varèse's output was small. His reputation rested on perhaps a dozen works, if that, created over roughly a fifty-year span. While he lived, not many people knew what he was about, including some of his own students. All by himself, he opened up or changed a significant part of the musical landscape. Indeed, he expanded the range of what one could validly call music. He began so many things which composers followed up on only decades later that his music still confounds many. The Sixties and Seventies should have been his time, but, for some reason, the new-music audience preferred crude imitations of his work to the real thing.
I came to Varèse's music in the Sixties, a Vanguard recording by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony of the early Amériques. Vital and vigorous, it reminded me a lot of the New York City docks of the time. I was hooked. Of course, back then, most of the 18th and 19th centuries' music (the standard repertoire) bored me. I wanted something I couldn't predict, and Varèse's work gave me that in spades. I tried other things, mostly on the Columbia label, but thought them rather dry and wondered what had happened to Varèse in the meantime.
However, I heard the occasional live performance, exclusively in university venues, and realized that some performances were better than others. One problem of a real original like Varèse (or Vaughan Williams or Webern or Tchaikovsky, among others) is the likelihood that he will be misunderstood, at least initially and often for a long time. In Varèse's case, the most astonishing misconceptions have grown up around his music, some of them even errors of fact. One of the latter is that Varèse invented electronic music and scores realized on tape. He didn't, although he produced at least two brilliant and beautiful examples in Poème électronique and in Déserts.
The second misconception concerns Varèse's artistic personality. Most people think of him as a "mathematical," "scientific" (in the bad senses of those terms) composer. True enough, he was attracted to "scientific"-sounding titles like Hyperprism and Density 21.5, but there is indeed a difference between a title and a work. The primitive fascinated Varèse - whether the chants of Popol vuh, the vastness of deserts, or the adventures of atoms and molecules. This does not make him a mathematician or scientist in his approach to music. He is, above all, a Romantic, as besotted by the romance of science as Shelley, Baudelaire, or Whitman. Amériques is not merely "about" the New World, but about new worlds, new horizons opening up, earthly exploration as the symbol of a spiritual one.
Many listeners may find Varèse's music hard to get hold of, since most of it doesn't work with melodies or even themes, but with planes of sound or musical activity. It's a music not of theme, but of gesture, and the musical shapes stick in the mind. One may not be able to hum a work by Varèse, but one doesn't forget it either.
Many of these works have been "realized" or edited by the composer's pupil, Chou Wen-chung. These are not recompositions or arrangements, but a kind of "face-cleaning." Quite a few of Varèse's scores were commissioned, but the performances fell through, for one reason or another. For these pieces, Varèse never got to make the inevitable adjustments arising from rehearsals. In others, one finds discrepancies between the composer's manuscript and the published score. Chou Wen-chung has resolved these. The notes tell you the extent of his ministrations. The only true arrangement consists of an orchestration by Anthony Beaumont of the early song "Un grand sommeil noir," and it's a honey. The original version for voice and piano is offered as well. Varèse destroyed almost all of his early work (there was actually a lot of it) after he found his true path. Indeed, I would recommend beginning with this song. Varèse's Romantic nature is here easiest to get hold of. You haven't the distractions of an unfamiliar idiom.
I consider Ionisation one of the great twentieth-century scores - a kind of Declaration of Independence for percussion and other noisemakers. If you're waiting for Tchaikovskian melody, that bus will never come. On its own terms, however, Ionisation exerts a powerful fascination on the listener. I especially like the siren, insinuating through the texture like a sidewinder. Other highlights include the witty Tuning Up - probably in at least a small way inspired by the general perception of Varèse's music - and the Poème électronique, a score for the Brussels World Fair in 1958. This is Varèse's only score completely for tape. Like the "Tuba mirum" in the Berlioz Requiem, the music is spatially conceived. Originally played through 400 loudspeakers at the Philips pavilion, the music aims to paint a changing aural landscape and to reorient a listener's sense of space. It goes beyond quadraphonic, heading for a sound stage of 360 degrees. The present mix into stereo still retains a sense of this.
I could talk about each piece, but Varèse's music should be experienced first and then discussed. Chailly and his forces deliver revelatory performances. I've never heard Varèse sound so good. Chailly's secret seems to be that he treats it all as music, rather than as a Ph.D. thesis. I recommend these performances over Boulez on Sony and Nagano on Erato. There's nothing really wrong with the Nagano (although I prefer Chailly), but you get fewer works. The London sound is wonderful.
Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz