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On Varèse

December 6, 2010

Throughout his life Varèse was engaged in the pursuit of what he called the “liberation of sound”; a lifelong preoccupation that would “throw open the whole world of sound to music.” While still a student at the Paris Conservatoire Varèse had, under the influence of his scientific background (the career for which he was originally intended), begun to resent the “arbitrary” limitations of the tempered system. It is no surprise that for the iconoclastic young composer the strict rules of the Conservatoire, and d’Indy in particular, represented all that Varèse felt was wrong with music; all that was dogmatic and systematised. Busoni’s aphorism from his ‘Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music’ (1907) that “the function of the creative artist consists in making laws, not in following those already made” had a profound and lasting influence on Varèse, providing him with the confidence to pursue his unconventional path; Busoni’s prophetic conceptions of the future direction of music felt to Varèse like “an echo of [his] own thoughts.” Under the influence of Helmholtz’s ‘Physiology of Sounds’, he undertook his first acoustic experiments using sirens, whose “haunting quality” made him aware for the first time “of the wealth of music outside the narrow limits imposed by keyboard instruments.” Of particular significance in these formative years is that, with the exception of Busoni and Debussy,  Varèse spoke with most fondness of his many encounters with scientists, poets, and painters, whose advances in their respective fields Varèse was determined to emulate in music. This explains for Varèse:

“why my point of view has differed so radically from that of most musicians… My musical views having made me untouchable, I sought and found sympathy and corroboration from the practitioners of other arts.”

Given his theoretical position it is unsurprising that Varèse remained reluctant to discuss his work within the confines of the standardised terminology of musical discourse. In its place Varèse favoured figurative and metaphorical references to scientific processes, natural phenomena, mathematical and geometrical functions, spatial perception and so on. His insistence that traditional musical discourse provided a poor model for apprehending his work could raise the criticism that he was obscuring objective musical processes by resorting to rather vague, unverifiable, and, from the point of view of standard musical analysis, entirely subjective analogies to which the music bears only a superficial relationship. In the absence of an objective musical mechanism capable of assessing the formal quality of his compositions, it is possible that Varèse turned to the objectivity provided by references to scientific phenomena to deflect any criticism that his compositional process is formless, intuitive, and without any genuine theoretical basis.  An “engineer in sound” is free of the cultural and historical associations of, say, “composer” or “musician”; it clearly distances him from the standard musical world so alien to him, while at the same time suggesting something of the theoretical foundation he sought for his conception of form. The title “engineer”, whose medium is “organised sound”, makes clear above all else the rejection of all systems, which for Varèse represented all that was stagnant and limiting in the creation of art, and which were a major obstacle to the continued development of music. Under the influence of the “bad habit” of tradition, music was unknowingly closing itself off to the limitless possibilities of the “entirely new magic of sound.”
In his conception of form Varèse presents a profound challenge to the idea of the heritage of musical models; the process of systematisation inherited from musical tradition had, according to Varèse, become deeply rooted in the creative process, resulting in the perpetuation of restrictive and limiting forms. This restrictive conception of music similarly pervaded the realm of analysis; that “by its very definition analysis is sterile”, and that “to explain by means of it is to decompose, to mutilate the spirit of a work.” Varèse’s work remains outside the standard models of analysis for the very reason that it was conceived in opposition to the restricted nature of conventional composition and the standardised systems of analysis that grew out of it. In a lecture at Princeton University in 1959 he presented the idea that form should be the result of a process dictated by the content of each individual piece, and that “form and content are one.” It is this process that should replace the conventional conception of form as a mold to be filled:

“each of my pieces discovers its own form. I could never have fitted them into any of the historical containers.”

The model of crystallography provided Varèse with a suitable, non-musical process to which he could relate his conception of form as a derivation from the implications and subsequent transmutations of content. The analogy, derived from the professor of mineralogy at Columbia University was of particular significance to Varèse, who paraphrased it as follows :

“There is an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded and 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. Possible musical forms are as limitless as the exterior forms of crystals.”

This analogy distills Varèse’s aesthetic of the marriage of science and music while simultaneously providing justification for his theoretical conception of form; it also presents a radical challenge to the perpetuation of musical tradition and lineage by rejecting entirely the prospect of inherited models. The semi-organic nature of the process, in which the form grows out of the implications of the content brings into question the basic generative processes of Western music: variation and development. Odile Vivier suggests that this process

“attempts neither development nor transformation, but rather the transmutation of an initial cell or agglomeration which he subjects to different tensions, different dynamics, and different gravitational functions.”

The engineer could, therefore, through subtle alterations of movement and dynamics, generate a self-contained form of tension, release, attraction and repulsion; the sound-masses, through careful manipulation and arranging in space are not governed by any formal system, but form blocks of sound in space that together result in the growth into a complete form, individual to each work. The openings of ‘Intégrales’ [ex. 1] and ‘Octandre’ [ex. 2] provide an example of these initial cells; cells which undergo in the former a process of transmutation for fifty-two bars before collapsing and reconstituting itself in a new formation.
The significance of Varèse’s conception of music as an art-science cannot be overemphasised at this point. Its influence pervades his musical thinking at every level, leading him to the belief that it is only through collaboration with science, with the recognition that sound itself is the fundamental material of music, that music can make a genuine progression:

“There is solidarity between scientific development and the progress of music. Throwing new light on nature, science permits music to progress . . . by revealing to our senses harmonies and sensations before unfelt.”

“The raw material of music is sound. Today, when science is equipped to help the composer realise what was never before possible, the composer continues to be obsessed by the traditions that are nothing but the limitations of his predecessors.”

Even the most radical of his contemporaries, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, were, according to Varèse, still engaged in what he felt was this restrictive tradition. Where Schoenberg, for example, was interested in pitches as an isolated musical element,  Varèse’s concept of organised sound led him to concentrate on the physical effect of the simultaneous occurrence of all the elements of frequency, intensity, dynamics and texture in a unified sound-mass, with each dimension inseparable from the other. Henry Cowell explained that:

“more important than the chord itself is the harmony resultant from the tone-qualities of the instruments owing to their particular sound in the register in which he scores them.”

Orchestration is, therefore, an essential part of the conception of a work, no less so than consideration of pitch. Each work is scored for a unique combination of instruments, with wind and brass instruments and pitched and unpitched percussion of particular significance to Varèse’s careful construction of sonorities. Although he was without the new instruments that he felt were so badly needed to “enrich the musical alphabet”, he made use of a bewildering array of exotic percussion and noise-making devices throughout the major works of the twenties and thirties, with each instrument chosen for its specific sonorities and resonant qualities: gongs, anvils, sirens, sarrusophones, heckelphones, dynaphones and countless others were all made part of the extended orchestra. It was difficult for Varèse to understand why composers continued to restrict themselves to the limited palette of the traditional orchestral instruments while “whole symphonies of new sounds have come from the new industrial world” ; and while for him the purpose of music was clear: “to reveal a new world is the function of creation in all art.”
The technological means required to bring his conceptions to into being always lagged behind, despite the great effort he expended in promoting his ideas. As early as the 1930s Varèse had conceived of a “secret project” to found a music laboratory, in which, under his direction, and with the assistance of a physicist, “there would be a a working laboratory in which sound could be studied scientifically.” Disappointed with the limited versatility of the ‘ondes martenot’, he also alerted the Bell telephone company to his cause, but lack of interest and funding foiled both attempts.  As a result, Varèse’s orchestral works occupy the peculiar position of compromise, being limited to the resources of largely traditional instruments, despite being theoretically grounded in processes and techniques that technology would only be beginning to make possible in the last years of his life. Nonetheless, his conception of himself as an “engineer” remains entirely appropriate, particularly as he was painfully aware that the technological means to bring about his vision of what music should, and could be were tantalisingly close:

“Personally, for my conceptions, I need an entirely new medium of expression… Today it is possible to build such a machine with only a certain amount of added research.”

“When new instruments will allow me to write music as I conceive it, the movement of sound-masses, of shifting planes, will be clearly perceived in my work. When these sound masses collide, the phenomena of penetration and repulsion will occur. Certain transmutations taking place on certain planes will seem to be projected onto other planes and other angles.”

This kind of extended spatial analogy, in which these sound-masses can “collide” in space, is by no means a mere metaphorical reference to superficial aspects of his work; it is founded throughly in his compositional process from the work’s inception. Long before his ‘Poème Electronique’, for which a system of hundreds of loudspeakers provided an explicit distribution of sound in space, Varèse said of the orchestral ‘Intégrales’:

“Intégrales was conceived for spatial projection. I constructed the work to employ certain acoustical means which did not yet exist.”

In attempt to make sense of the musical world of this piece, and in the absence of musical terminology sufficient to the task, contemporary critics frequently referred to the perception of “blocks of sound” and “sound masses.  In a radio interview publicising a performance of the work Varèse suggested visualising:

“the changing projection of a geometrical figure on a plane with both plane and figure moving in space . . . By allowing both the figure and the plane to have motions of their own one is able to paint a complex and seemingly unpredictable picture with the projection.”

Although a genuine “projection” in space was for the moment technically impossible, this emphasis on the perception of physical space into which the music was projected introduces what Varèse termed the “fourth dimension” in music, in addition to the perception of the horizontal, vertical. and dynamic dimensions. The development of the spatial element in music would allow for the introduction of “bodies of intelligent sounds moving freely in space.” It is unsurprising that the definition of music of which Varèse was particularly fond, “the corporealisation of the intelligence that is in sounds”, was that of a scientist, Hoene Wronsky. Having become familiar with the definition at a young age, Varèse felt that it was a “new and exciting conception”, and that “very early, musical ideas came to me which I realised would be difficult to express with the means available.”
After a long period of dejection and depression in the years following ‘Density 21.5’, as a result of the failure to gather support for the development of new electronic instruments, Varèse was finally able to see the successful completion of two electronic works in his last few years: the incorporation of taped interludes of grating noise, derived from modified recordings of factory noises and percussion, into ‘Déserts’ (1950–54) and the entirely tape-recorded work ‘Poème Electronique’ (1957-58), the fulfillment of a twenty-year search for a “sound-producing machine . . . whose message will reach the listener unadulterated by ‘interpretation’” envisaged in his lectures of the mid-thirties. The spatial preoccupations that had concerned him for so long could finally also see their most ambitious realisation in Le Corbusier’s specially-designed building at the 1958 exposition in Brussels.
The goal Varèse had set himself, the liberation of sound through electronic means, was certainly achieved in the last years of his life. His enthusiastic exploration of the limitless new world of ‘organised sound’, which had become possible as the result of his determination to ensure for composers “a whole new world of unsuspected sounds”, had brought with it a theoretical foundation and formal process equal to it. Varèse, motivated by this conviction that “on the threshold of beauty, science and art collaborate”, recognised the necessity of turning away from music and assimilating processes and formal models from other disciplines in an attempt to reinvigorate an art that he felt was in state of decline and stagnation. Rather than as an enemy of music Varèse saw himself as its liberating force, removing from it “the crutches of impotency”, firmly believing that like all innovators “the links in the chain of tradition are formed by men who have all been revolutionists.”

Jim Connell, 2006

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