Edgard Varèse, born Edgar Varèse on Dec. 22, 1883, in Paris, France, was a composer and innovator in 20th-century techniques of sound production.
Varèse spent his boyhood in Paris, Burgundy, and Turin, Italy. After composing without formal instruction as a youth, he later studied under Vincent d’Indy, Albert Roussel, and Charles Widor and was strongly encouraged by Romain Rolland and Claude Debussy. In 1907 he went to Berlin, where he was influenced by Richard Strauss and Ferruccio Busoni. In 1915 he immigrated to the United States.
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Varèse’s music is dissonant, nonthematic, and rhythmically asymmetric; he conceived of it as bodies of sound in space. After the early 1950s, when he finally gained access to the electronic sound equipment he desired, he concentrated on electronic music.
Varèse actively promoted performances of works by other 20th-century performers and founded the International Composers’ Guild in 1921 and the Pan-American Association of Composers in 1926; these organizations were responsible for performances and premieres of works by Béla Bartók, Alban Berg, Carlos Chávez, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, Maurice Ravel, Wallingford Riegger, Francis Poulenc, Anton von Webern, and others. Varèse also founded the Schola Cantorum of Santa Fe, N.M., in 1937, and the New Chorus (later, Greater New York Chorus) in 1941 to perform music of past eras, including works of Pérotin, Heinrich Schütz, Claudio Monteverdi, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
Varèse’s works include Hyperprism for wind instruments and percussion (1923); Ionisation for percussion, piano, and two sirens (1931); and Density 21.5 for unaccompanied flute (1936). His Déserts (1954) employs tape-recorded sound. In the Poème électronique (1958), written for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, the sound was intended to be distributed by 425 loudspeakers. (Source: Britannica)
Varèse expressed many innovative ideas and wished for technological development to be able to implement some of these.
* The raw material of music is sound.
* As far back as the twenties, I decided to call my music “organized sound” and myself, not a musician, but “a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities.”
* To conditioned ears anything new in music has always been called noise.
The innovations Varèse saw coming with new scientific insights and the advancement of technology:
* liberation from the arbitrary, paralysing tempered system;
* the possibility of obtaining any number of cycles or if still desired, subdivisions of the octave, consequently the formation of any desired scale;
* unsuspected range in low and high registers;
* new harmonic splendours obtainable from the use of sub-harmonic combinations now impossible;
* the possibility of obtaining any differentiation of timbre, of sound-combinations;
* new dynamics far beyond the present human-powered orchestra;
* a sense of sound-projection in space by means of the emission of sound in any part or in many parts of the hall as may be required by the score;
* cross rhythms unrelated to each other, treated simultaneously, or to use the old word, “contrapuntally” (since the machine would be able to beat any number of desired notes, any subdivision of them, omission or fraction of them) – all these in a given unit of measure or time which is humanly impossible to attain.
Source: Liberation of Sound
Despite his output of only slightly more than a dozen compositions, Edgard Varèse is regarded as one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century. His concept of “organized sound” led to many experiments in form and texture. He was constantly on the lookout for new sound sources (working throughout his life with engineers, scientists and instrument builders), and was one of the first to extensively explore percussion, electronics, and taped sounds. He was, as Henry Miller called him, “The stratospheric Colossus of Sound.”
His father wanted him to study math and engineering in preparation for a career in business. However, Varèse pursued music, and moved to Berlin, in part to meet Ferruccio Busoni; Varèse had been impressed with Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic in Music (1907), which anticipated many of Varèse’s own later explorations. Unfortunately, of the music Varèse wrote during that time, only one song survives. The other manuscripts were destroyed in a warehouse fire.
Unable to find regular work, Varèse moved to the United States in 1915, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1926. The first work he completed after the emigration is in fact titled Amériques, an extroverted celebration of his new life. In addition to composing, Varèse promoted new music through the establishment of his New Symphony Orchestra in 1919, the International Composers’ Guild in 1921, and the Pan American Society in 1926. He continued to have difficulty making money, though, and spent some time as a piano salesman; he also made a brief appearance in a 1918 John Barrymore film.
Varèse maintained his connection with Europe, and had an extended stay in Paris between 1928 and 1933 during which he continued his sonic explorations and heard many of his works performed. Back in the U.S., he attempted to get Bell Telephone and others interested in creating a center for electric instrument research. The failure of that project led to an extended depression. Over the next ten-plus years, Varèse completed only one work, Density 21.5 for solo flute, spending the time teaching (at Santa Fe’s Arsuna School of Fine Arts, Columbia University, and Darmstadt) and thinking about what new direction his music should take.
The anonymous gift of an Ampex tape recorder in 1953 was the motivation Varèse needed. He set to work on the tape portion of his work Déserts, which was premiered in Paris in 1954 in a concert which was broadcast live in stereo, the first stereo music broadcast ever in France. He was involved with several film projects, writing music for documentaries on Léger and Joan Miró. He also wrote the Poème électronique for tape for Le Corbusier’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels exhibition, where Varèse’s music was heard through more than 400 loudspeakers, accompanied by Le Corbusier’s visuals.
Varèse and his music received much attention in the 1960s. His works were widely performed, recorded and published, and he received honors from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Royal Swedish Academy. He also won the first Koussevitzky International Recording Award in 1963. But Varèse wrote little music during these last years. His final work, the unfinished Nocturnal (with text by Anaïs Nin), was performed at a tribute concert in 1961 and completed years later by composer Chou Wen-chung.
by Chris Morrison / Source: all music