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Milestones in Music History #11: Edgard Varèse and the Sublimation of Music.

Noise Music; Barret; Suicide; Velvet Underground; Desert Rock; the history of music is a perilous and yet appeasing path to walk. It has been, since the very beginning of times, this powerful gift, and music is possibly the most evolving and sophisticated form of art, which has affected culture, lifestyle, society, and history itself. The purpose of the Insounder series “Milestones in Music History” is to delight you with some of the pivotal moments in music, some acts, facts, and records that delineated and shaped music for years to come (actually as far as this series could go on). I have selected a few, based on my personal path through music culture, and based on the fact that I firmly believe these moments radically changed everything. In today’s episode, we will take a journey back to the origins of experimentation. Before electric and synthesized gears were widely circulating, there was a man who understood the infinite possibilities of music composition, realising that the journey through the looking-glass could be not only pleasant and rewarding but could also constitute a whole new way of interpreting and performing music composition. Stepping out of the boundaries, and doing it with so much technique and innovation, he was able to prepare the threshold for all music to come. Today we will get to know the mind behind the sound: Edgard Varèse.

Born from an Italian father and a French mother, Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse spent his very early years in France, where he developed an intense affection towards his maternal grandfather, Claude Cortot (who happened also to be the grandfather of the pianist Alfred Cortot, who was Edgard’s cousin). When he was 10 years old he moved to Turin, Italy, with his parents, and at the age of 12 he composed his first opera. Martin Pas (now lost). After his mother’s death and his increasing conflict with his father, who didn’t want his son to follow a music career, Edgard moved back to France where he started to study composition and where he also started composing some orchestral works—one especially stands out from this period, Rhapsodie romane. But sometime after, in 1907, he moved to Berlin, and here he married the actress Suzanne Bing. In the meantime, Edgard got acquainted with the works of Ferruccio BusoniRichard StraussClaude Debussy and Erik Satie. Finally, in 1911, he had the chance to have his symphonic poem Bourgogne performed for the first time in Berlin. This granted him some popularity, and probably also thanks to the contacts he was able to make in Paris (such as Romain Rolland and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, authors of the opera Œdipus und die Sphinx, unfinished), he finally had the chance to move to the United States.

Here, in 1918, he made his debut as conductor of Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts. Also, it was in New York that he first approached electronic music, and he met Leon Theremin, the legendary Russian Soviet inventor of the electronic music device which took his name. It is during this time that Varèse started exploring the limits of music and experimenting with new gear. In this same period, he began working on his Amériques, an orchestral composition with additional percussion (including sirens), finishing it in 1921. In the same year Varèse, together with Carlos Salzedo (a French harpist, pianist, composer and conductor) founded the International Composers' Guild, which promoted the freedom for composers to produce and present their work. He also became more acquainted with the Dadaist movement and wrote a poem after an evening spent with the well-known artist Francis Picabia, for the Dadaist magazine 391. It is under the Guild he founded, that Varèse produced some of his most important works; OffrandesHyperprismOctandre and Intégrales.

But in 1928 he returned to Paris with the purpose of including the ondes Martenot in his Amériques—an instrument recently built, in that same year, by the French inventor Maurice Martenot, and consisting of a keyboard or a ring going through a wire, which produces “waves” of sound in a similar way to a theremin. It is in Paris that he composed probably the most important and innovative work of his whole career, Ionisation. It appears to be the first classical composition in the history of music featuring only percussion; here Varèse played with the boundaries of the classical composing method. Rhythms abruptly change, covered by high-pitched noises born from the experimentation of new forms of sound. It sounds like classical music meets jazz, but it surpasses any possible classification.

In Paris in 1934, he also completed a composition called Ecuatorial, which included parts for two fingerboard theremin cellos, winds, percussions and a bass singer. But soon afterwards Varèse moved back to the US, and he started touring to promote the theremin. In 1936 he produced his solo flute composition, Density 21.5, and he had the fortune to meet with the music producer Jack Skurnick, who for the first time, put Varèse’s works on record. He was also meant to produce a piece based on Antonin Artaud's leaflet Il n'y a plus de firmament, directly written for Varèse’s project, but as the musician was working on another project, it didn’t go through. By 1950, Varèse was internationally recognised. He met composers like Pierre Boulez and Luigi Dallapiccola. In 1958, Le Corbusier, after having received a commission to present a pavilion at the Brussels World Fair, insisted on including Varèse in the project. And so the Poème électronique was born: 400 speakers simultaneously performed the composition and gave visitors the impression of the movement of sound in space.

Varèse explored all music boundaries. He defined music as “organised noise,” and he conceived music as moving through space. He was inspired by the Dada movement and by the music of some irreverent composers, such as Satie and Berlioz, but also by Medieval and Renaissance music. Varèse understood the role that electronic elements could play in composition, and he gave emphasis to rhythms and timbre (for example, Ionisation, among others), creating not only a new sound but also a new way of interpreting music itself. He inspired many artists for generations to come. Zappa often declared that he was inspired and a huge fan of Varèse. He influenced many other composers, such as John CageLuigi NonoKrzysztof PendereckiKarlheinz StockhausenIannis Xenakis and John Zorn. Varèse definitely influenced other music genres, and he was probably accountable for the experimentation used by Brian Jones while still playing in The Rolling Stones, about which we will talk in the next episode of Milestones.

How can electronic sounds be conceived in classical composition? Is there a canon to follow, or can classical music nowadays mostly be considered as free, or even as jazz music? Is an artist represented, or representable, in the music composition? Is there still a possibility in contemporary music to surpass some boundaries? 

Leave us your opinion below in the comments!

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I am a musician and music journalist based in Prague. 42 is also the name of my project founded in 2008, experimental Dada music with a touch of noise. My latest album,…