Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: varese

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where they played everything he ever published and then some, including a couple new pieces I’d never heard before, unpublished works recently finished by his assistant Chou Wen-chung.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.

Iannis Xenakis

It closes in just a couple days, but I loved the Xenakis Exhibit at the Drawing Center. Being able to look at the scores and plans while listening to the relevant pieces (on complimentary iPod!) was revelatory for me, particularly the extended coverage of Xenakis’s seminal Metastasis. (A nice little primer on the early stuff. I was also unaware of his absolute opposition to chance operations, improvisation, or performer choice.)


Study for Metastasis

This and others showed the hyperboloid curves that Xenakis used to generate the series of glissandi for a string ensemble, each instrument scored individually. Here’s the result:


Metastasis

At least for me, it vindicated how effectively Xenakis’s work does portray the graphic forms sonically, rather than sinking into impenetrable abstraction as Stockhausen’s far denser work frequently does. Xenakis really did have a rather atatvistic, populist conception of music (aided in popularity, no doubt, by the psychedelic era, which led to people like AMM getting major label recording contracts) that shows up in his own writing, where on several occasions he insists that his techniques are in the service of generating music that is intuitively graspable. The program included this quote from his early essay “The Crisis of Serial Music,” where he doesn’t sound so far from many of the more conservative critics of serialism (even daring to mention “the audience”!).

Linear polyphony destroys itself by its very complexity; what one hears is in reality nothing but a mass of notes in various registers. The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum. There is consequently a contradiction between the polyphonic linear system and the heard result, which is the surface or mass. This contradiction inherent in polyphony will disappear when the independence of sounds is total. In fact, when linear combinations and their polyphonic superpositions no longer operate, what will count will be the statistical mean of isolated states and of transformations of sonic components at a given moment. The macroscopic effect can then be controlled by the mean of the movements of elements which we select. The result is the introduction of the notion of probability, which implies, in this particular case, combinatory calculus. Here, in a few words, in the possible escape route from the “linear category” in musical thought…. 

To paraphrase: forget individual manipulation of notes and tone rows, and focus on macroscopic presentation of dynamics, effects, densities, timbres, etc.

It would be empty speech if Xenakis’s work, or at least the best of it, didn’t succeed so viscerally in realizing his aesthetics (and listening to some of his followers reveals how easily things can go wrong–sorry spectralists!). I think his grasp of timbre and texture far outweighed many of his contemporaries (though granted, many weren’t interested in such things anyway), putting him closest to Messiaen and Varese, who both supported him.

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury

I never thought I’d get the chance to see Partch’s Delusion of the Fury. The Japan Society’s production is the first since the premiere almost 40 years ago, and I get the feeling there’s not going to be another one anytime soon, since Partch wrote for his own unwieldy instruments and the requirements he placed on performers were rather strenuous. (Partch’s recommendation that his instruments be wheeled around on the stage during the performance, adding to their “corporeality,” was dropped in this production.) So I consider myself blessed to have the experience of getting some idea of what Partch had in mind, even if his full intentions were probably unrealizable. Partch was something of a magpie in stealing bits and pieces from other cultures–gamelan here, gagaku there–but the synthesis is so intensely personal as to be an unrecognizable miscegenation. His vaunted excursions into microtones are only a small part of Partch’s outre gestalt.

It’s because of the private nature of the work that I can’t easily assess my own reaction to it difficult. Partch may have thought that he was tapping into some universal mythos and music, but I have to say that at least in that regard, he failed. All of his work, and Delusion is perhaps the most fully realized work but not any more or less accessible than the others, springs from his willfully cultivated outsider status and mostly solitary development of his own musical theories and dogma. Partch was far from untrained, but he was not a social man, and it seems that estrangement came to him naturally, particularly from “The Establishment” and high culture in general. There are a number of other American composers that fall into this category, and they rank among the best the country has produced: Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varese (not actually American, but tried his damnedest to be), Sun Ra, Lou Harrison, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton. All of them resisted (and continue to resist) easy assimilation into a larger historical context, and many actively tried to divorce themselves from being associated with any larger movement. (I do not think it’s a coincidence that many of them, including Partch, also happened to be queer, but that’s all I’m prepared to say on that subject. See also Percy Grainger, who ironically was too establishment to make the list.) Partch, himself quite the curmudgeon, extended this autonomy to the very instruments themselves, ensuring himself an even greater degree of personal control over performance. The resultant effect, no doubt intentional, is that there is more work to be done to get inside the corpus of these composers than those who exist closer to the mainstream horizon of recent times.

So here’s the plot, in Partch’s words:

It is an olden time, but neither a precise time nor a precise place. The “Exordium” is an overture, and invocation, the beginning of a ritualistic web. Act I, on the recurrent theme of Noh plays, is a music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death. It opens with a pilgrim in search of a particular shrine, where he may do penance for murder. The murdered man appears as a ghost, sees first the assassin, then his young son looking for a vision of his father’s face. Spurred to resentment by his son’s presence, he lives again through the ordeal of death, but at the end — with the supplication “Pray for me!” — he finds reconciliation.

There is nowhere, from the beginning of the “Exordium” to the end of Act II, a complete cessation of music. The “Sanctus” ties Acts I and II together; it is the Epilogue to the one, the Prologue to the other. Act II involves a reconciliation with life. A young vagabond is cooking a meal over a fire in rocks when an old woman approaches, searching for a lost kid. She finds the kid, but — due to a misunderstanding caused by the hobo’s deafness — a dispute ensues. Villagers gather and, during a violent dance, fore the quarreling couple to appear before the justice of the peace, who is both deaf and nearsighted.

Following the judge’s sentence, the Chorus sings in unison, “Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?” and a voice offstage reverts to the supplication at the end of Act I.

The near-total lack of narration and speech (partly for copyright reasons, apparently) does not make it easy to understand what is going on without the accompanying program notes, and the partial doubling of the actors in the main roles in the two parts is more puzzling than anything else. To the extent that Delusion reaches for universality, it is to a totality of musical performance. Watching it, I could only feel that narrative and thematic drive had been subordinated to the physical performance of music (and dance) itself, which struggled under the heavy responsibility of evoking those very traits. There’s a hint of this in Partch’s own description of his aesthetics:

The work that I have been doing these many years parallels much in the attitudes and actions of primitive man. He found sound-magic in the common materials around him. He then proceeded to make the vehicle, the instrument, as visually beautiful as he could. Finally, he involved the sound-magic and the visual beauty in his everyday words and experiences, his ritual and drama, in order to lend greater meaning to his life. This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experience-ritual.

Where one might expect narrative, there is only raw experience and ritual, which I gather Partch intended to place in a prior and more fundamental place than what constitutes modern storytelling. The Residents, hugely influenced by Partch, drew upon this aspect in their own early work, particularly in the nonsense narrative of Not Available and the instrumental “narratives” of Eskimo and above all “Six Things to a Cycle” (off of Fingerprince), which is so Partch-like as to constitute a tribute. The plot: “Man, represented as a primitive humanoid, is consumed by his self-created environment only to be replaced by a new creature, still primitive, still faulty, but destined to rule the world just as poorly.” Its (entire) lyrics?

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

[Smack Smack Smack]

So yeah, I think that says it all.

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