Above the storms of dandruff

Review of Varèse 360° from the TLS, 30 April

“Music is the science of sounds, in so far as they are capable of pleasing the ear.” This definition of music, with which Jean-Jacques Rousseau began his article on the subject for the Encyclopédie, was later revised by its author for his Dictionary of Music. In the latter, music became the “Art of combining sounds in a manner pleasant to the ear”. The revision, which privately repeats music’s previous lengthy journey from quadrivium to trivium, is less significant that it might at first appear. The term “science” was employed less strictly in the eighteenth century than now. Moreover, the idea that science could explain both music and the pleasure it affords the ear was widespread at the time. Nonetheless, the change did reflect Rousseau’s conviction that the force of musical experience could not be explained solely by reference to the physical properties of sound, but by understanding, as he called it, the “moral causes and effects” of music. The French-American composer Edgard Varese preferred the term “organized sound” to music, but he was above all anxious to free organized sound from the arbitrary conventions suggested by the phrase “pleasing to the ear”, and from the classical distinction between sound and noise. Searching for an alternative definition of music, he found one among the writings of the Czech philosopher Hoene-Wronski: “the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sound”. As to whether he considered music to be art or science, he in fact thought it was both, describing it in his manifesto The Liberation of Sound (1936) and elsewhere as an “art-science”.

This ambivalence between understanding music as art and music as science ran deeply throughout Varese’s career. In a late interview with the composer and jazz musician Gunter Schuller, he recalled that his father had wanted him to study mathematics and physics, and so kept the family piano locked. This did little to deter Edgard, however, who at the age of eleven had already completed an opera (on Jules Verne’s Martin Paz, now lost) and learned to “detest” all “conventional instruments” because of their equal temperament: “ . . . when I first learned the scales, my only reaction was, ‘Well they all sound alike’”. He came across the writings of Hoene-Wronski in Paris, where his teachers included Vincent d’Indy (“an anti-Semite . . . and terribly pedantic musician”) and, at the Conservatoire, Charles-Marie Widor (“a magnificent, open-minded musician”). He was later expelled from the Conservatoire by Gustave Faure, but not before he had acquired a deep love for the music of Debussy (“like a chemist”) and amassed a significant body of work. All his youthful music was lost when the Berlin warehouse in which he stored his manuscripts burned down in 1913. His surviving work – he died in 1965 – amounts to scarcely three hours of music.

Today, Varese is hailed as a cult figure, the miniature proportions of his oeuvre only adding to the sense of his singularity and intensifying the reverence of a fan-base that far exceeds that of any other twentieth-century composer with comparable aesthetic and stylistic intentions. Although his works are perhaps more often discussed than performed – with one or two exceptions – his influence can be felt on the avant-garde fringes of both “classical” and “popular” post-war traditions, from Aphex Twin to Xenakis, and Penderecki to Pink Floyd. Frank Zappa described Varese as the “Idol of his youth”.

This broadness of appeal was evident at the South Bank Centre’s recent weekend festival of the complete works, Varese 360˚. Leather jostled with tweed and Gore-Tex in the Queen Elizabeth Hall’s crammed cloakroom for two sold-out concerts given by the London Sinfonietta, both directed by their co-founder and first music director, David Atherton. At a third concert, in the Royal Festival Hall, it was the stage that was most obviously stuffed to bursting point with the National Youth Orchestra swollen to 180 players (three tubas, nine flutes, nineteen percussionists) for the original and rarely re-visited version of Ameriques (1921), conducted by Paul Daniel.

It is difficult to hear mention of the NYO at the moment without being reminded that they are an orchestra whose players, unlike certain Venezuelan ensembles, are all of school age. It is worth being reminded of this fact because they are very, very good. Although Ameriques is often described as Varese’s “New World” Symphony, with its use of a siren and enhanced percussion intended to reflect the cityscapes of his newly adopted homeland, the old world still occupies a significant a part of its roving stylistic focus. The music requires a level of precision of colouring and timing that few orchestras possess. It was already a mark of the NYO’s ambition and skill that they performed the revised, reduced version successfully in the Albert Hall a few years ago. That they could pull off the UK’s first performance of the original version, in the much less forgiving acoustics of the Festival Hall, suggests skill of another order entirely, and they and Daniel are to be congratulated. The concert also included performances of Arcana and Nocturnal, Varese’s last work, which consists of a faintly nightmarish setting of lines from Anais Nin’s House of Incest.

With stage-smoke pumped up through the orchestra, and some rather lame lighting and video effects (including a recurring blackand- white video sequence of a scientist pouring a clear liquid from one container to another), it is clear that the organizers had sought to capitalize on Varese’s reputation as a kind of pioneering scientist of sound. And given the titles of some of his works – Ionisation, Hyperprism, Densite 21.5 – it is easy to see why. But in fact the composer’s interest in physics and chemistry always remained at the level of inspiration and mythology. He eschewed all quasi-mathematical systems such as serialism, which he thought limiting and reminded him, he said, of Beckmesser’s Tablatur. He understood the structure of his works in terms of the materials, forms and processes to be found in nature (“as a child, I was tremendously impressed by the qualities and character of the granite I found in Burgundy”), but the forms his music takes are not in reality so distant from those created by Debussy and Stravinsky: Varese combines the former’s smoothly-evolving continuities with the latter’s use of rhythmic cells to build blocks of sound. Far away from thematically driven “arguments” of nineteenth- century music, the almost meandering lines and “streams” of sound – whether pitched or un-pitched – recall the pre-tonal world of Guillaume de Machaut and Johannes Ockeghem.

In his use of instruments, Varese’s reputation as a experimental visionary is more justified. His career was pockmarked by frustration with existing forces and excitement at new possibilities. After an optimistic beginning with the choral work Ecuatorial – notable for its use of two of Leon Theremin’s electronic cellos and a bass chorus to chant verses from a sacred Mayan text – the 1930s and 40s were a particularly fallow period, broken only in 1936 by the wonderfully lithe four-minute Density 21.5 which Varese wrote for his friend George Barrere (21.5 is the atomic density of platinum, from which Barrere’s new flute was made). The silence – during which time Varese’s reputation as conductor and composer dwindled almost to nothing – was the result of his growing sense of the inadequacy of traditional instruments to meet his expressive demands, and of his futile efforts to promote research into the development of electronic instrumentation. But the anonymous gift of an Ampex tape recorder in 1953 got the sixty-eight-year-old composer working again, collecting the sound samples he would manipulate to form part of Deserts.

The resulting work, in which four instrumental passages alternate with three pre-recorded sections, received its first performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in December 1954, and was received with a degree of mistrust exceeding even that which greeted Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the same theatre four decades earlier. As one critic put it, “the audience were exceptionally patient: they only protested after a few minutes”. The implications for Varese were serious. Deserts was the first work broadcast in stereo on French radio, and its scandalized reception in the concert hall went out with it, to the left and to the right. The composer was not invited to work in France again.

Varese’s enthusiasm for electronic sound production was less focused on possibilities for generating new sounds than on the degree of control that could be obtained in performance. Instead of having a score interpreted by a player, the electronic instruments of which Varese could mostly only dream would, he imagined, simply execute the composer’s intentions. In this way, he thought electronic music could become more present to the audience because the act of composition would be, in a sense, live and unmediated.

This rather paradoxical-seeming position is easier to understand in the context of the difficulties Varese experienced in working with orchestras, particularly in the United States where for a time he did what he could to encourage the programming of contemporary music. But even when this proved successful, he often found the musicians unable or unwilling to play the score with the degree of professionalism they naturally brought to more traditional repertoire. “I no longer believe in concerts”, he said at one point, or in “the sweat of conductors and the flying storms of virtuosos’ dandruff”.

Things are different now: the London Sinfonietta is one of a now considerable number of ensembles who bring extremes of professionalism to the performance of contemporary music. Their two concerts in the QEH were a revelation. Ionisation, for forty mostly unpitched percussion instruments, is relatively well known and regularly performed. Yet this was the first time I’d been able to hear the piece’s simplicity, the economy with which the rhythms and sonority adapt and expand, crackling – as the composer might have it – with raw electricity. Hyperprism, which began the second concert, was a similar experience. It’s one of the composer’s most demanding scores, the woodwind and percussion assembling constellations of notes and fragmented lines into an extraordinarily coherent, whirring whole.

And yet, contra-Varese, the most remarkable feature both of these performances and of the weekend as a whole was the impression they gave of the exertions of the players, so hotly in pursuit of the precision which the composer despaired of achieving, feeding into the rampant energy of the music. There were no flying storms of dandruff, just plenty of sweat. And whether it came from John Tomlinson struggling to read his score before enacting the mystical rites of Ecuatorial, or the flautist Michael Cox chasing after the long, fugitive lines of Density 21.5, the most remarkable aspect of each concert was how alive it seemed; how much of that living quality would have been lost in recording. It might seem counter-intuitive to say it of twentieth-century music’s greatest futurist, but for this one, you really had to be there.

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