It’s funny how different things speak to different people differently. I recently finished reading Alex Ross’ insanely brilliant history of the 20th century The Rest Is Noise, and it has gotten me listening to some pretty interesting stuff lately. Frankly, going from Salome to The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany to Porgy & Bess to Notations to anything by Lamonte Young has me on the verge of psychosis, but I’ve kept my sanity long enough to make the following broad generalization: of all the composers in the 20th century who wrote the music that no one likes to actually listen to, Edgard Varese wrote the best and coolest stuff.
One of the common threads in Noise is the confrontational stance taken by many of the avant-garde composers of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The audience became not just secondary, but removed entirely from the equation. This was music written by insiders for insiders. Composers took this to varying degrees of seriousness, with Boulez appearing to clinch the role of alpha-dick of the time (it’s crazy to think of the suave, genteel conductor we know today as the stupefying asshole who wrote the “Schoenberg is Dead” obituary).
To say that composing got pretty far out there in the 20th century is to say that Tiger Woods enjoys sex with multiple partners…you’re pretty much spot on there. Whether it was John Cage using the I Ching and rolling dice to determine the course of a composition, or Stockhausen writing a mammoth 7-part opera that, at least at this point, can’t even be realized in its entirety, the music of the avant-garde got incredibly odd. It became less music and more philosophy, less art and more mathematics, less pleasure and more endurance.
I’ll be perfectly honest: I don’t like most of that stuff. Cage’s prepared piano music is pretty interesting, Ligeti has written some fascinating chamber music, Lutoslawski is probably the great hidden bad-ass of the 1900’s, and Ancient Voices of Children will not cease haunting my very dreams. There are some gems in there, but it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack, or a remotely decent movie on Jennifer Lopez’s IMDB page.
And yet, for some reason, the music of Edgard Varese speaks to me. I had never known any Varese until I did a conducting workshop a few years ago in which we had to learn Octandre. I’d be lying if I said “when I first began poring over the score, it was like finding a long-lost brother!” or whatever, but continuing to dissect the piece proved enjoyable until I flat-out liked the piece. Hearing it realized in front of me by skilled performers was the death knell for any reservations I had about Varese.
If I had to describe Varese in three words or less, it would probably be something like “Musical Dr. Frankenstein.” If I had three more it would be “raconteur…terrific ascots.” Varese himself described his conception of sound organization as “zones of intensities,” which is easily the raddest musical term ever, narrowly edging klangfarbenmelodie. You can read Varese’s essay “The Liberation of Sound” from 1936 here.
Varese’s masterpiece, in my opinion, is Deserts, written between 1950 and 1954. It is an alternating series of episodes, one group featuring 20 instruments, the other a two-track magnetic tape with modified percussion and factory sounds. In Deserts, Varese wanted to evoke “not only physical deserts of land and sea, mountains and snow, outer space, deserted city streets…but also this distant inner space where man is alone in a world of mystery and inner solitude.”
Here is a fine recording of Deserts, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov at the BBC Proms way back in 2008:
When I listen to Varese, I like nothing more than to try my best to picture myself in complete isolation. Darkness is good, closed eyes good, one of those satin things the ladies wear to bed is good (and hey, if it covers your eyes, even better…HEY O!). Have you ever tried to sit in a Buddhist state of complete contemplation, only you’re not Buddhist and have not ever tried it so you really don’t know what you’re doing at all and therefore your mind wanders incessantly? Varese’s music is that wandering. It is your mind going in and out of control, travelling to the furthest reaches of understanding, and coming all the way back.
So I issue a challenge to the invisible void who clearly stopped reading paragraphs ago:
1) Turn off all the lights
2) Put on Deserts
3) CRANK IT!
4) Shut off your computer monitor
5) Lie on the couch or the floor
6) Enjoy your 25 minutes
We’ll talk next week about what you learned!