Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Ionisation: The Function of Timbre in Its Formal and Temporal Organization”

Originally published in Die Reihe, 1978; later published in Monograph, Institute for Studies in American Music, 1979.

Ionisation (1930), as we now recognize it, is the first and the most consummate work to explore the structural value of all non-pitch properties of sound without electronic means. It is also unique in Varèse's output. In Ionisation, more than in any other score, Varèse reveals to an extraordinary degree not only his concepts and techniques but also the profundity and imagination with which he crystallizes (to borrow one of his own favorite expressions) his ideas: in this case, hewn from raw sonic material that offers no definite pitch or known means for development and organization. To analyze Ionisation, then, is to pave the way for understanding all of Varèse's music.

Observations on the Basic Concepts

The first step in understanding Ionisation’s structure is to analyze Varèse's choice of instruments. Initially, these instruments can be classified into the following seven categories according to timbre:

  1. Metal
    Triangle, anvils, cowbells, hand cymbals, crash cymbal, suspended cymbal, gong, tam-tams, and rim shot (on tarole, snare drum, parade drum, and tenor drum).
  2. Membrane
    Bongos, snare drum without snare (Player 8), tenor drums, and bass drums.
  3. Snare
    Tarole, snare drum with snare (Player 9), and parade drum.
  4. Wood
    Claves, wood blocks, and slapstick
  5. Rattle-Scratcher (Multiple Bounce)
    Sleigh bells, castanets, tambourine, maracas, and guiros.
  6. Air-Friction (Varying Intensity)
    Sirens and string drum.
  7. Keyboard-Mallet (Tone Cluster)
    Glockenspiel with resonators, chimes, and piano.

All instruments in Ionisation are assigned one or more of the following functions: [1] generating germinal ideas, [2] defining textures, [3] linear elaborations, [4] verticalization of textures, [5] delineating phrases and sections, [6] “modulation” in timbre and register, and [7] providing special acoustic characteristics.

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