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Book Review

Edgard Varèse

Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary

Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary

Felix Meyer & Heidy Zimmermann, editors
Boydell & Brewer Ltd 507 pp, incl. index etc.
ISBN-10: 1843832119
ISBN-13: 978-1843832119
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Along with Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) was arguably one of the most influential and important composers of the twentieth century. Although his surviving works (he suppressed and withdrew many) can fit onto two CDs and are not programmed to the extent that enthusiasts for his music believe can easily be justified, his innovativeness and invention have had a profound effect on composers of the latter half of the last century. Nor does his status rest only on his development of electronic music. To unite timbre and rhythm in the way Varèse did (usually described as "organized sound") was not only to see off the primacy of melody, harmony and tonality in Western music. But – crucially – to open up multitudes of alternative possibilities, on which representatives and key figures from all generations and almost all musical schools and traditions since have drawn extensively.

Despite this, truly informative and credible, serious studies of Varèse are few and far between. Malcolm MacDonald's Varèse: Astronomer in Sound (ISBN-10: 187108279X; ISBN-13: 978-1871082791) is the only other serious contender. But Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary from the ever-respected Boydell has to be considered the standard now. It should go a long way to restoring the status of this composer who is, frankly, as often misunderstood as he is nevertheless alluded to. For his music is beautiful, searingly original and also of great and pleasing variety. So a study as penetrating and comprehensive as Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary is truly to be welcomed. What's remarkable about the book is that specialists and experts are likely to find much material of interest to them (the bibliography alone is almost ten pages long; the scholarship, cross-referencing and annotation are scrupulous) as are newcomers genuinely curious to understand why such an apparently "retiring" figure as Varèse is considered so important. Indeed, the editors, Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, have done a remarkable job in contextualizing and weighing then setting into relief the contexts and proportional importances of the aspects and phases on Varèse's work and life.

This volume is substantial in all senses of the word. At 500 pages and 11.3 x 9.7 x 1.7 inches in size, it's a weighty book to wield. As the relevant page on Boydell's website makes clear, it's in fact designed to accompany the exhibition, "Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary", which was mounted jointly by the Paul Sacher Foundation (of which the title is an official publication) and the Tinguely Museum in Basel (Switzerland) in 2006. But this is no coffee table catalog. It's a thorough, scholarly and comprehensive study of Varèse, the influences on him (particularly in the visual arts) and which he exerted on others, his legacy, its context and the nature of his music and stature of his achievement.

In fact the book is divided into eight sections with a final section of "statements" (by Boulez, Carter and others) and appendix section that's 30 pages long. The other sections are: Influences – Points of Orientation (about 11% of the remainder of the book's content); Conductor and Initiator in New York (10%); Probing Uncharted Territory (9%); a Pan-American in Paris (11%); Against the Currents of the Day (10%); Approaching Electronics (12%); Contacts with the Postwar Avante-garde (12%); and Impact and Reception (10%). This is a good choice of sections. It indicates in outline Varèse's concerns, development and the nature and scope of his interaction with peers, successors and colleagues in other arts. Each section closes with between a dozen and a half and two dozen or so pages devoted to an actual catalog of the exhibition itself… prints, scores, detailed descriptions, texts and so on. And be assured these are of inherent interest regardless of whether you visited the exhibition itself; the latter seems to have been designed with the same aim or representativeness and comprehensiveness as does this book.

The greatest strength of the book (whose preface and lead chapter on the relationship with the avant-garde is by Chou Wen-chung (b. 1923), Varèse's best known student and the world's foremost scholar of the composer) is the quality of its narrative and analysis. You will emerge with an in-depth understanding of almost all aspects of the composer's life by engagement with the encyclopedic and extremely accessible material contained here. Almost as impressive is the use of score extracts, diagrams, tables, chronologies, programs and supporting illustrations. So it's not a conventional biography. Nor a guide or handbook/encyclopedia, as such. Importantly, the styles and levels of expertise and insight of these disparate contributors, different though they are, all measure up to comparable high standards: the balance between detail, particularities and specifics and useful background, context and comparisons is excellent.

Detail there certainly is. In those passages dealing with chronology, for example, it's even to the level of individual days. The vision of the writers on Varèse, though, is sufficiently broad and accomplished for the reader never to get lost in such details. Nor are the narratives mere rehearsals of facts which could be assembled from elsewhere. Critiques of performances, editions, recordings, the reception of the composer's work and his own rigorous revision process bring us as close to a comprehensive assessment of his contribution as one book surely could. Primary sources are paramount: the presence on a majority of pages of photographs, excerpts from scores, schematics, sketches and programs etc make this an easy and accessible book to read. On the other hand, the prose is substantial and substantially and carefully constructed and edited across the board.

The contributions of its 30 or so contributors have been sufficiently carefully chosen as to weave together an outline of Varèse's achievements in such a way that there is both consistency and a rounded picture – because the contributors come from complementary and diverse positions; and take a host of different stances. The events of the composer's life, of course, are recent enough (he died in 1965) for some of those writing about him and his work to have had personal experience of him and of it. Yet what they have to say carries enough distance to be satisfactorily objective. At the same time as the authority and perspective the book is laced with the immediate and the accessible… "Wolfgang Rihm's confrontation with Edgard Varèse began with a jolt…" At the same time no punches are pulled. Where there is justifiable criticism and doubt to be expressed, the contributors are all justified and equipped to do so do.

This is a book to buy, read carefully and treasure. It's well-enough structured that you'll be able to return to it as needs arise. The index alone lacks the depth of the rest of the book. But that's not a serious omission. All in all, Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary is now the source for all matters concerning this… highly influential composer, sculptor of sound and – obviously – visionary.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Sealey.