Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: July 2010

A Young Person’s Guide to Edgard Varese

I was lucky enough to attend the two-night retrospective of Varese at Lincoln Center, where they played everything he ever published and then some, including a couple new pieces I’d never heard before, unpublished works recently finished by his assistant Chou Wen-chung. Varese was extremely parsimonious in what he published–Webern’s surviving works are almost twice as long–and he seems to have lost ten years in the 30s to some mysterious project that he abandoned.

I think I first heard of Varese via Frank Zappa’s worship of him, but because I didn’t like Zappa, I didn’t check out Varese until years later, when I found that he was far better than Zappa. (I’ve mellowed a bit on Zappa, but Zappa’s talents were mainly writing tunes and technical skill, while Varese possessed an ear for organizing blocks of sound that Zappa utterly lacked. Hell, he seemed to lack any sense of texture at all, judging by his love of the Synclavier. See Ian Penman’s endlessly amusing Don’t Do That On Stage Anymore for further reference.)

Varese also harder to listen to; I was exhausted by the end of each night because Varese really did compress a lot into each piece. And while he doesn’t have many string parts, he is very fond of brass, percussion, and sirens. The line from him to Messiaen, Xenakis, and Stockhausen, as well as the early electronic composers, is pretty evident. (And, more contentiously, I hear his influence in freer jazz improvisers and composers like Cecil Taylor.) He was one of the first to sublimate tonality (or atonality) to pure sound (Varese called it “organized sound,” in fact). He wasn’t the only one: Henry Cowell and George Antheil, among others (Ives and Ornstein?), were doing similar things, so it wasn’t as though Varese’s innovations sprung out of a vacuum. Check out Cowell’s “The Banshee,” from 1925:

Henry Cowell: The Banshee (1925)

But Varese, as far as I know, was the first to construct large-scale orchestral works that hung together in such a visceral way. Even if I’m wrong, his work is still outstanding.

For logistical reasons they couldn’t play the pieces chronologically, which is too bad because they do show continual development. So here’s my amateur’s guide to his small oeuvre:

  • Un grand sommeil noir, song to a text by Paul Verlaine for voice and piano (1906): A modest, impressionistic, and very French song, mostly notable for being a total downer.
  • Amériques for large orchestra (1918–1921; revised 1927): An orchestral monster for over a hundred instruments, including plenty of percussion. Still a fair amount of musical material here, which clearly influenced by Stravinsky, as it sounds like The Rite of Spring is about to break out at several points. But the sirens and general assault-level are beyond anything before it. Still, for all its bulk and force, there’s a sense that its an episodic, journeyman work, that Varese hasn’t quite managed to tame the forces he’s unleashing or hold them together at the scale he’s working at (25 minutes).
  • Offrandes for soprano and chamber orchestra (poems by Vicente Huidobro and José Juan Tablada)(1921): Less aggressive but more concentrated than Ameriques, as the accompaniment is often more along the lines of sound effects than music per se. The lyrics of the second poem are quite strange: “In the sky there is a sign / Oleo margarine.”
  • Hyperprism for wind and percussion(1922–1923): Melody finally recedes, as percussion and siren dominate and a few brief, lone melody lines (more repeated cells than actual melodies) are usually buried in massed, blaring winds. I’m very fond of this one, and it’s not a bad place to start.
  • Octandre for seven wind instruments and double bass (1923): Except for the lack of percussion, the materials are similar to Hyperprism, but more sparse, with lots of sudden, jarring shifts in tempo and texture. (I have to wonder if the tempo markings of each of the three parts are meant to be humorous, since they’re all of a piece.) The absence of percussion means that the pitched instruments take on more responsibility for pure texture, which sets the scene for…
  • Intégrales for wind and percussion (1924–1925): The oboe’s little melodic cell at the beginning recurs throughout, but there’s very little that could be called development. I see the piece as an attempt to negate whatever remains of melody by turning it into a percussive effect in itself. The endless repetitions of the little cells become numbing, especially when interrupted by crashing percussion and blaring winds, until they too are sound effects. I once saw Alarm Will Sound perform this while sitting two feet from the brass. Powerful but wearying.
  • Arcana for large orchestra (1925–1927): My favorite and I think his greatest achievement. Superior to Ameriques in every way save number of instruments. Everything Varese had done up to now is synthesized successfully for a large orchestra. There seems to be more base melodic material, but it’s less idiomatic and doesn’t dominate the textures, so everything is in balance. Recorded by, among others, Leonard Bernstein and Jean Martinon! This is the pretty good Chailly version:
  • Ionisation for 13 percussion players (1929–1931): Another synthesis, this time just using percussion players (plus siren of course). Impossible not to think of Xenakis’ percussion pieces while hearing this, but Varese is more straightforwardly rhythmic and organized, and there is enough pitched percussion that the piece is considerably closer to Arcana than it might initially appear. Ironically, it’s less daunting and easier to follow.
  • Ecuatorial for bass voice (or unison male chorus), brass, organ, percussion and theremins (revised for ondes-martenot) (text by Francisco Ximénez) (1932–1934): the organ and theremins (or ondes martinots) introduce new sonorities, but this one has always left me a little baffled. The caterwauling bass voice doesn’t quite mesh with the textures, and so the music seems like a sequence of moods rather than a unified piece. But in light of his later work, this was probably the intent. I just don’t find it as successful.
  • Density 21.5 for solo flute (1936): Just one flute. A lot less extreme than Xenakis and Lachenmann’s solo compositions, it’s structured very carefully and formally, but beyond the ability of me to “hear” in passing. Still sounds nice though.
  • Tuning Up for orchestra (sketched 1946; completed by Chou Wen-Chung, 1998): It doesn’t quite sound like tuning up; if you want that, listen to Schnittke’s first symphony. This piece is only five minutes and utilizes lots of “tuning up” sounds and snatches of famous pieces, but Varese structures them so fluently that it’s obviously composed, noise and all. Maybe not a major work but enjoyable and revealing of his skill to toss off something that would be beyond the ability of a lot of composers.
  • Étude pour espace for soprano solo, chorus, 2 pianos and percussion (1947; orchestrated and arranged by Chou Wen-chung for wind instruments and percussion for spatialized live performance, 2009) (texts by Kenneth Patchen, José Juan Tablada and St. John of the Cross): a new one! Unfortunately, Alice Tully Hall does not seem to be made for electronic performance, at least where I was sitting, and so I couldn’t make a lot of sense of this one, other than to say that it lacked the sonic integrity that all of Varese’s other work possesses. I’ll have to hear it on CD, I imagine, to judge better. This is apparently all that was salvaged of Varese’s mysterious Espaces project of the 1930s that never came to fruition.
  • Dance for Burgess for chamber ensemble (1949): I knew Burgess Meredith was the leading socialite of Hollywood and directed Ulysses in Nighttown (starring Zero Mostel as Bloom!), but I’m still surprised that he hung out with Varese. Anyway, this is a wacky two-minute piece with a brief jazz dance rhythm alternating with typical Varese craziness. Weird.
  • Déserts for wind, percussion and electronic tape (1950–1954): the last big piece, alternating sparser chamber and choral textures with “interpolations” of violent electronic and electroacoustic noise. They never play simultaneously, probably for reasons of sound balance. It’s explicitly episodic and so doesn’t reach for the massed intensity of Arcana. The increased use of space is ghostly; the sudden eruptions of volume seem to be gestures of struggle against, well, death. Just my reading, but there’s always been something morbid about this one to me.
  • La procession de verges for electronic tape (soundtrack for Around and About Joan Mirò, directed by Thomas Bouchard) (1955): They didn’t play this one and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. Anyone want to help me?
  • Poème électronique for electronic tape (1957–1958): A wonderful tape piece. It can’t be said to be groundbreaking because Pierres Schaeffer and Henry and Xenakis and Stockhausen were already working in this area, among others, but they’d already been influenced by Varese anyway. Varese’s particular idiom carries over pretty clearly; if anything, it’s closest to Stockhausen, but more linear and more visceral.
  • Nocturnal for soprano, male chorus and orchestra, text adapted from The House of Incest by Anaïs Nin (1961): Some very interesting textures here (including the most dominant piano he ever used, I think), but as with Ecuatorial, the voice doesn’t really work for me, and the male chorus is problematic as well. Worth hearing though.

Paul Krugman Sums it Up

When I was young and naive, I believed that important people took positions based on careful consideration of the options. Now I know better. Much of what Serious People believe rests on prejudices, not analysis. And these prejudices are subject to fads and fashions.

Myths of Austerity

I remember those days….

My Secret Science Fiction Past

Perhaps not so secret, but I was raised on the stuff and so I’ve read far more of it than I might have had I been born into a different environment. This list of Gollancz “classics” is going around, and modulo its omissions and overinclusions due to rights issues and the like, it’s got a fair amount of good stuff on it. And some less good stuff. (It overlaps a great deal with David Pringle’s list, and gives similar overweighting to British writers…which is probably not a bad thing.) But if I’m a fan of any genre (that’s not literary modernism, that is), it would have to be sf. So I figure I should engage in an exercise like this from time to time.

I bold it if I’ve read it. I italicize it if I liked it and still like it today. I could go more deeply into degrees of liking vs. respecting vs. enjoying, but I’ll leave it at this.

I – Dune – Frank Herbert
II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven
IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

1 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish
4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl
10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith

11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick

14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance
20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick
21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon

22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
25 – Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick
27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford
28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl
30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish

31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison
32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick

33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss
34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke
35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts
36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick

37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany
38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells
39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear

41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl
42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore
43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick
44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek
46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper
49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke
50 – Eon – Greg Bear

51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
54 – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick
56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg
57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick
58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick
59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
60 – Ringworld – Larry Niven

61 – The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman
62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick
64 – Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard
67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

71 – Dune – Frank Herbert
72 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
73 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
74 – Inverted World – Christopher Priest
75 – Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
76 – H.G. Wells – The Island of Dr. Moreau

77 – Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End
78 – H.G. Wells – The Time Machine
79 – Samuel R. Delany – Dhalgren (July 2010)
80 – Brian Aldiss – Helliconia (August 2010)

81 – H.G. Wells – Food of the Gods (Sept. 2010)
82 – Jack Finney – The Body Snatchers (Oct. 2010)
83 – Joanna Russ – The Female Man (Nov. 2010)
84 – M.J. Engh – Arslan (Dec. 2010)

I’m only torn over Hal Clement, who is brilliant at what he does, but what he does well is not “fiction” per se. Ballard and Gene Wolfe (yes, really!) deserve more entries, probably in lieu of the excess of Dick.

A few more genre authors who really should be on the list: Thomas Disch, Richard McKenna, R.A. Lafferty, Russell Hoban (for Riddley Walker, of course), Stanislaw Lem, Mark Geston, Michael Swanwick, James Tiptree, Carol Emshwiller, Iain Banks, John Crowley, Octavia Butler, Robert Charles Wilson (Spin was the best genre-SF novel I’d read in ages). There are other big names missing, but, offhand, no one comes to mind that I would want to read again.

Bill Douglas: My Ain Folk

This is the second part of Douglas’s three-part trilogy about his childhood, and generally the best known, though the whole thing has now been released on DVD. It’s black and white, stark, restrained, and depressing. I get the sense that there is a particularly Scottish brand of melancholy that Douglas’s film represents, but since my familiarity with Scotland encompasses Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Postcard Records, and the Dog-Faced Hermans, I find it hard to draw any serious conclusions. But I can’t believe that Lynne Ramsay didn’t have it in mind 25 years later when making her own excursion into dark Scottish childhood, Ratcatcher, a movie so dour I remembered it being in black and white even though it’s not.

But though the experiences chronicled in My Ain Folk are ghastly and grotesque, the style is more remarkable than the content. Though our boy hero is oppressed, abused, and abandoned, there’s not much to distinguish his adventures from those of the young children of Pialat, Bresson, and Truffaut. But I don’t know of any English-language movie of the time with a style like Douglas’s.

My Ain Folk

Though there’s some visual spillover from the Angry Young Men movies of John Schlesinger (Billy Liar and its run-down, dead village especially), Douglas goes for a much chillier and detached continental tone, and he’s remarkably successful. With next to no camera movement, he tends to shoot static tableaux from high and oblique angles. There’s minimal action, quite literally. Even when people are speaking, they do so holding themselves very still. So the movie reminds me of Bresson, of course, but also of Antonioni and Pasolini, even though the base material is drastically different. Bresson never shot such a filthy, working-class film. And Douglas adjusts his style to bring out the most of the cramped quarters he shoots in. The 4:3 ratio really helps this; this film and its visuals would not have worked in 16:9 at all, so I greatly credit Douglas’s eye.

Freeze, Die, Rise Again!

Its closest sibling might be the Vitali Kanevsky’s amazing Freeze, Die, Rise Again, which creates a similar claustrophobia around its wretched Siberian mining town. But Douglas shies away from the direct empathy that Kanevsky provokes, and so removes all catharsis and a great deal of apparent realism. I think this is an achievement, but it makes for a cold movie that resists easy empathy…which I assume was Douglas’s point. It shouldn’t be too easy to identify with or love the unfortunate–or else they wouldn’t be unfortunate. These characters are far harder to love than Mouchette or any of the Dardennes’ protagonists. I’m surprised the “slow film” aficionados haven’t picked up on Douglas yet (hi Lars! hi Steve!), because I think Douglas deserves a place right up there with Tarr (there’s an uncanny similarity, in fact) and the rest.

© 2019 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑