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On a Tenuous Engagement with Edgard Varèse

Adam Greene
5/30/2000

Given the prominent position his music has achieved in the pantheon of 20th Century Music, it seems odd that (to my knowledge) only one book has been devoted to understanding the music of Edgard Varèse (Jonathan Bernard: The Music of Edgard Varèse, Yale University Press, 1987). To be sure, there are a handful of doctoral theses on Varèse’s music as well as collections of essays, and smattering of published analyses both in the usual journals and incorporated into books of a more general scope (see Sound Structures in Music, by Robert Erickson and New Images of Musical Sound, by Robert Cogan). Yet, for someone of Varèse’s stature this still seems like an underdeveloped literature. Not that Varèse would have been disappointed; he was well known to have a profound distaste for music analysis. His attitude was most likely forged during his experience at the Paris Conservatoire, starting in 1905. He saw that, in the case of the Neoclassicists, analysis had been used to deduce rules from the music of Mozart and Haydn that were transferred to compositional strategies, strategies that absolved a composer’s lack of creativity and ingenuity by replacing them with a protocol of predictable behaviors. As he put it, "the Neoclassicists reduced tradition to the level of bad habit." Varèse observed a similar pattern among the second generation of twelve-tone composers. Although he had profound respect for Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and Dallapiccola (with whom he had a regular correspondence), he did not appreciate those who followed. He wrote, "the intellectualization of the interval is a factor which for me has nothing to do with our age and its new concepts." According to Varèse, Schoenberg’s music was powerful despite the system.

Given these sentiments, perhaps the relative lack of analytical study on Varèse is an effort to remain true to his aesthetic viewpoint. Perhaps, in understanding that Varèse’s structures were not developed through the use of a system, potential analysts have turned away and left Varèse’s work in its shrouded state. This is a complicated issue: on one level Varèse’s music has been noted by many prominent musicians as an early, powerful influence. On another, Varèse always spoke enigmatically and vaguely about his own music, in part to deflect the engagement of traditional music theorists and critics. In accord with Varèse’s resistance to analytical query, and his own pronouncements of working without a system, his music is rarely given intensive investigation; rather, general assessments of the music’s character tend to dominate the discussion. Even the composer’s aesthetic viewpoint is often taken as a given, despite the radical features that define it.

Perhaps it is the nature of what we term "creative influence" but it seems odd to me that Varèse is most often cited as an early influence. Is there something in his work that seems juvenile? Clearly the intense sonorities that Varèse achieves are blatantly anti-traditionalist for his time; a welcome and daring example for many young composers who seek something different than the models provided by the 19th Century and earlier. Varèse’s achievements seem much more pointed and extreme than those of his contemporaries, so his music is bound to make a strong impact on a receptive listener. Yet many of the same features which attract our attention may ultimately lead us away from more detailed examination. Those intense sonorities may strike one as unrefined. It may seem that the surface events in a Varèse work comprise the whole story; after all, the nature of his musical terms are so basic, so fundamental, that identifying their part in the activity might seem to be the reasonable limit of investigation.

If my hypothesis is true, then Varèse’s legacy is trapped in a circular pattern. As generations of composers resist intensive engagement into his structures they find that his music carries limited meaning for them. Perhaps this is why Varèse’s work is more often proclaimed to be a precursor to someone else’s rather than lauded for its own inherent value. Would a sustained investigation into Varèse’s music yield a greater and more significant resonance?

This forum is not ideal for presenting a detailed analysis of a piece of music, but it lends well to introducing the development of Varèse’s aesthetic and to define the territory of his musical engagement. Technical matters will play a part in this discussion in order to suggest some of the issues one might consider in approaching Varèse’s music.

As I mentioned before, during Varèse’s early studies he noticed that, in an effort to separate themselves from the influence of Romanticism, many composers generated their music according to rule-based systems. This was the case for both the Neoclassicists and the twelve-tone composers. Neither approach was at all attractive to Varèse, who considered the rules in either system to be arbitrary and devoid of significance. Clearly it was of central importance for Varèse to reject systems. If one accepted those arbitrary rules then one was stifling the powerful creative force of spontaneity. One could make the claim that his intransigence toward this issue was a major contributing factor to a presumed lack of extensibility he seemed to enjoy from work to work. Rather than codifying, in some way, certain common tendencies in his work he continually re-invented the wheel, often arriving at highly similar dispositions from piece to piece. The fact that this arrival was achieved through a brand new compositional journey rather than through some prescribed course of action was, to Varèse, a more honorable condition.

Relying on system was just one of the problems Varèse had with the music of his time. It seemed to him that other composers were not asking the right questions. Eventually, Varèse reached a point where he would challenge the fundamental precepts of music. Before he knew how to articulate this challenge, he had the good fortune to encounter Feruccio Busoni, who put forth prophetic statements in his Sketch for a New Esthetic of Music. Busoni challenged the arbitrary system of equal temperament, an unusual position for a pianist to take. He even predicted electronic music, claiming that eventually composers should look to machines to produce the sounds of the future. Busoni’s statement, "Music is born free; and to win freedom is its destiny" was the very battle cry that Varèse needed to hear in his formative years. Busoni offered support for an approach to music that was unfettered by academic systemization.

Some critics in the 1950’s seemed to imagine that Varèse materialized fully formed. The astonished people who encountered him at Darmstadt in 1950 shared this attitude. Hermann Scherchen said "This man of sixty-five has suddenly appeared on the horizon of the musical world . . . ." Of course, the 1950’s mark Varèse’s recovery from his so called "silent years", and the reasons for that silence are complex. Still, the question of how Varèse forged his aesthetic and his personal approach is interesting but nearly impossible to answer. We cannot trace a trajectory of development through his early works, and there is little record aside from a few anecdotes of his formative compositional experience. We do know, however, that Varèse took a rather obscure path through a rich and notable territory of personalities. Between his years in Paris, Berlin, and New York, Varèse was exposed to an astonishing variety of potent artistic figures which must have born strange and unpredictable influences on his own thinking. Just to mention a few names both in and out of music: Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Françoise Bernouard, Claude Chereau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, René Bertrand, Romain Rolland, Rodin (call this encounter peripheral but worthy gossip), Picasso, Miró, Leon Trotsky, Einstein, Karl Muck, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Busoni, Strauss, Ravel, Duchamp, Marinetti, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier), and many, many others. Varèse had important and extensive encounters with each of these people, some of whom were instrumental in furthering his career, others who challenged his intellect. I can think of few composers who had such extensive and diverse associations as a young man. Perhaps this was possible, in part, because Varèse had not yet arrived at his artistic destination and because he had not achieved commercial success. Otherwise he might not have been interested to seek out such people, and they might have been wary of his presence.

Varèse observed that writers and painters were more willing than composers to express themselves despite the influence of history. This is why he kept company with them. Although he repeatedly and vigorously distinguished his intentions from those of the futurists, he must have admired some of the fundamental principles behind their activities. They revolted against imitative, representative, and episodic behaviors derived from the classics and employed in an academic manner. Their movement was very potent in its time: loud, provocative, rebellious, and widespread from Western Europe to Russia. It was short-lived, however, and it is probably hard to appreciate its influence. The movement was sufficiently memorable and notorious to Varèse, who was dogged by critics for an imagined affiliation throughout his career despite his pronouncements to the contrary. The cubists also rejected historical models, although in less violent ways. Picasso said, "there is no past or future in art. If a work cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all." Cubism was a radical departure from preconceived forms and it presented a context where "prettiness" had little value. Picasso claimed that he would reinterpret a "pretty" discovery a number of times until it had been transformed and concentrated. This was substance. Varèse had a similar approach, and considered prettiness and inspiration, in their conventional connotation, to be insignificant factors to his way of working.

In 1952 Varèse wrote to Dallapiccola, stating that he was working "in the sphere of ‘sound’ which for me is the solid base of music, my raw material." While he was referring to the taped interpolations in Déserts one can extrapolate his statement to instrumental music as well. This particular affirmation highlights the vital center of Varèse’s approach. Rather than re-figuring harmonic practices, re-imagining melodic shapes, or reconsidering the value of nuance, Varèse rediscovered the basic, raw elements of music. As an aesthetic principle and a compositional procedure, this was a bottom up approach in which "music", as it was understood in the West, would be redefined.

If sound is Varèse’s raw material, then space is its medium. On several occasions he would describe music (or its ideal) as "intelligent sounds moving in space." The use of the word "intelligent" is a reference to Höene Wronsky’s fascinating definition of music ("music is the corporealization of intelligence in sounds"). Thus, Varèse is being redundant when he speaks of "intelligent sounds", because he is so concerned that sound is recognized as having structure and order before it is set in motion. "Space" (and its variants) is to be interpreted in a variety of ways. Antiphony was not a factor in most of Varèse’s music. The only point where space was used literally in his music was at the premiere of Poeme Electronique, where the music was transferred through 425 speakers that were mounted in Phillips Pavilion. Of course the stereophonic version robs this attribute from the music. Space, then, should be interpreted more broadly. There is space between events in time (duration), space between consecutive pitches (interval), and space between instrumental ranges (register). While Varèse was not thinking about a measurable space between instruments to refer to orchestration, the transfer, or reinterpretation of sound from one instrument to a next is a sort of movement through space. Dynamics, or amplitude, could be analogous to proximity. By using the word "space" to refer to all of these dimensions, Varèse suggests that they are of equal importance (although certain dimensions can take local precedence in the music). The particular manner that each dimension in space is navigated would form the basis of an analytical inquiry into a piece by Varèse.

If one were to poll an audience of cognoscenti regarding Varèse’s primary focus one could imagine the majority of responses would be split between two statements: "Varèse was primarily concerned with rhythm", or "Varèse was primarily concerned with sound." One supposes that some people who believe in the latter statement would replace the word "sound" with "timbre." This is a bit of a minefield, but if one understands timbre to mean a combination of envelope, overtone structure (or emphasis), and resonance, then I would claim Varèse was not particularly interested. One should note that the Western tradition of timbre investigation is essentially a French enterprise whose trajectory is of two basic goals: to apply nuance to a sound by employing subtle modulations, and to effect seamless transitions between instruments. Both approaches have been effective in instrumental and electronic contexts. It should not be considered controversial to claim that subtle transitions and nuance are not important in Varèse’s music. He made an early break from other French musical traditions; why not this one as well? He was, of course, interested in the sounds of instruments for their distinguishing characteristics. Instrumental sounds, though, are inextricably tied to register both as a matter of the limits of the instrument and for the particular quality of sound achieved in its various ranges. Timbre, at the level of instrumentation, is a tool for providing movement through space: registral and temporal.

Varèse had a peculiar way of speaking about rhythm; he wanted to make sure that, while he acknowledged an interest in the articulation of timed events he was not interested in meter. The great majority of music in the early part of the century that was concerned with rhythm was really beholden to meter and metric placement. Just as he was interested in utilizing distinctions of instrumental sounds, Varèse was interested in an irregular presentation of sounds in time. Indeed, one could say that Varèse forged sound icons: objects and textural units that are repeated from multiple perspectives so that their identities become familiar. Yet these icons are juxtaposed in varied and unpredictable ways, which propel them through time. Elliott Carter compares the irregularities in Varèse’s rhythmic practice to those of early Schoenberg and Webern, where "the regularity of unit is often avoided, producing what has often been called a ‘prose rhythm.’" Where their efforts were unified with a traditional notion of phrase and rubato, and led toward a "hysterical expressivity", Varèse was more interested in the intensification of forward drive. Carter points out that in works such as Intégrales, Ionisation, and Déserts there are rarely more than five consecutive notes of equal duration, and they are usually "preceded and followed by note values that prevent a larger-scale regular rhythmic pattern from being heard."

If one considers the multidimensional implications of the term "space" in Varèse’s music one has to allow for the probability that for the composer no one dimension is engineered to be more important than the rest (the previous discussion aside). To reinforce this point, he was fond of using the metaphor of "crystallization." As he put it, "There is an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded or split into different shapes or groups of sound constantly changing in shape, direction, and speed, attracted and repulsed by various forces. The form of the work is the consequence of this interaction." Varèse spoke with mineralogists about crystals, and he was particularly interested in the fact that "in spite of the relatively limited variety of internal structures, the external forms of crystals are limitless."

People have a tendency to hear what they want in a statement such as Varèse’s crystallization description. In the past, this notion of crystallization was often understood as equivalent to a generative-cell approach. It may also suggest that self-similarity is a relevant issue. While both of these ideas are plausible and have the potential to offer worthy descriptions of the activity in Varèse’s music, neither expresses anything like "the whole story." There are three problems with turning to these approaches exclusively: they are both fairly conventional and are derived from historical models, and it is useful to resist convention when encountering Varèse. Secondly, while one understands that a cell might refer to pitch or to rhythm, it does not seem to have the appropriate multidimensional space that "idea" implies. Also, there are issues imbedded in Varèse’s crystallization definition that are not often considered, and they would appear to be very important. For example, if an idea can be split apart and affected by various forces (which, by the way could be external or internal; the term "forces", as it is used in the definition, does not have to be organic) then the idea itself has a very complicated and interesting position. It is, of course the starting point, and it does contain the threads of implication that will be examined during the piece. However, unlike motivic development, Varèse’s idea is much more likely to be completely demolished during the course of its journey. The interaction of forces that act on the idea makes its identity of transitory importance. Thus, it may be more crucial to understand the components and implications of an idea than it is to clasp on to its identity or even to draw connections between variants.

Let us consider the initial idea of Intégrales in order to uncover its terms of engagement. The opening bars of this music establish at least three fundamental dualities. First, the repeated note motif heard initially in the Eflat clarinet consists of pairs of duration relationships where the first unit is always shorter than its successor. The short-long relationship is a fundamental requirement for rhythmic articulation, so this feature shows Varèse’s attention to basic level activity. Second: in the pitched material there are two fundamental planes of activity comprised of the horizontal figure we just identified and a vertical structure, or chord, with which it collides. Finally, Varèse concerns himself with the conflict between stasis and change, which would seem to highlight a unique preoccupation among composers of his generation. First, the pitched material is basically static for 24 measures (although the horizontal figure expands from three notes to five and then contracts to three again). This is a lean music, and one could say that the pitch activity is marked by stasis throughout this first section. By limiting pitch material for long periods of time Varèse ensures two results: first, new material is recognized immediately as an interruption of stasis. Second, materials tend to be quickly accommodated in the listener’s perception because they are noticeably distinct from the materials they supplant.

To extend the issue of stasis and change, it is interesting that in the context Varèse creates, where sounds are repeated all the time, there are no literal repeats. In other words, even if the pitched material is unchanged in the figure its rhythm is new. Even though the chord is never transposed, its duration is different, the place in which it interrupts the horizontal figure changes, and the order and type of entrance varies from all six notes sounding together, to the high woodwinds preceding the trombones and vice versa. So it is worthwhile to consider the meaning of very basic issues: what does a repeated note mean in this music; what does it mean when the initial figure is carried by the trumpet or oboe rather than the clarinet? Henry Cowell considered repetitions in Varèse’s music to be an issue of nuance and emphasis, but I think Roger Reynolds had a more interesting interpretation when he wrote " ... they are significantly different when the entrances and exits are patterned in a different way, and when the dynamic flux is different. These sounds are different entities, rather than differently performed of expressed versions of the same thing."

©2001 by Adam Greene
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