Following up on Schoenberg's daring, Anton Webern, an Austrian composer who studied with Schoenberg, reinterpreted the twelve-tone form by writing with an abstract sparseness that provided space for the ear to gradually discover the melody. Igor Stravinsky, always the contrarian, headed in a different direction. He was less interested in harmony and more dedicated to what music critic Frank Rossiter once described as "a return to the artistic ideals (and often to the specific musical forms) of the pre-romantic era." Varèse though took an even more radical route. He decided to question the very principles of Western music altogether. Varèse embarked on a search for what he thought could be a new music, one filled with the sounds of sirens, woodblocks, and eventually electronic tape. His impact on the culture may have appeared subterranean, but it was acutely felt among a diverse group of musicians. Most significantly, Frank Zappa would carry his legacy. But he also attracted the ear of be-bop legend Charlie Parker (who wanted Varèse to take him on as a student). His reach also extended to some of Zappa's contemporaries including progressive rock groups like King Crimson and Pink Floyd (who utilized Varèse's tape experiments), John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Revolution 9" from The Beatles' White Album is just about inconceivable without him. Even the pop rock group Chicago chipped in with their own little ditty "A Hit for Varèse" in 1971.
Of course, Varèse never had a hit, he barely even had a hearing. Very few seemed to take seriously a man for whom music was a scientific construct of sounds, where the score sheets themselves would serve as his own simulated laboratory. As bold and bizarre as his music would be, too, he even had the wild and frizzy hair of those mad scientists from cheesy horror movies. But there was nothing cheesy about his artistic intent. Varèse wanted instruments that offered what he called "a whole new world of unsuspecting sounds." You could say much of his career would indeed be taken up the quest for a pure sound. That quixotic pursuit alone led him to pianist Ferruccio Busoni who wrote in his book Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (1911) that "music was born free and to win freedom is its destiny." With that in mind, Varèse set out for what he called "the bomb that would explode the musical world," where the resulting sounds would rush in through his induced molecular breach. To lay the foundation for that imminent explosion, he first organized an International Composers Guild in July 1921 that was dedicated to the presentation of works by Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern; and he wrote a manifesto that laid out the goals of the Guild. (Nearly half a century later these aspirations were invoked as a clarion call by Frank Zappa on the cover of his first few albums.) "Dying is the privilege of the weary," it reads in part. "The present-day composer refuses to die. They have realized the necessity of banding together and fighting for the right of the individual to secure a fair and free presentation of the work...It is out of such collective will that the International Composers Guild was born."
Frank Zappa once wrote in Downbeat that it was significant that Varèse never received the acclaim in America that he found in Europe. "Even the critics [there] that didn't like his music didn't dismiss him as a buffoon...He was written about in the United States [however] like he was some kind of quack who didn't know what he was doing." But it was clear, even by 1917, that Varèse knew exactly what he was doing. "I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspecting sounds will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm," he would write then. In declaring this paradoxical balance created out of strict control and unbridled freedom, Varèse became trapped by what the present couldn't offer him. Yet within his dramatic and turbulent scores, the fury of the musical bomb he set off still occasionally sends off reverberations, timely reminders that continually further his claim that the present-day composer does indeed refuse to die.
Edgard Varèse's Ionisation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9mg4KHqRPw
Edgard Varèse's Ameriques: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbPzNBvwnsM&feature=related
Edgard Varèse's Deserts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBS77JGlgFA&feature=related
Edgard Varèse's Arcana: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wu-bIPtZgE4&feature=related
– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.