Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Open Rather Than Bounded”

Published in Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 5, No. 1, Fall-Winter 1966.

“Sound as living matter” and “musical space as open rather than bounded” are the central ideas of Varèse’s philosophy… These ideas, nurtured by a fertile imagination and generated by a vigorous sense of life, constitute the essence of [Varèse’s] music and also the strength behind his lifelong “fight for the liberation of sound” and “crusade for new instruments.” They were conceived early in his student days in Paris in the middle of the 1900. Thereafter, he continually made known his beliefs, particularly after his arrival in this country…

“What we want is an instrument that will give us a continuous sound at any pitch. The composer and the electrician will have to labor together to get it… Speed and synthesis are characteristics of our own epoch. We need twentieth century instruments to help us realize them in music … We need to make a new and simpler approach to music. The development of the art has been hampered by certain mechanical restrictions which no longer prevail… Just as the painter can obtain different intensity and graduation of colour, musicians can obtain different vibrations of sound, not necessarily conforming to the traditional half-tone and full tone, but varying, ultimately, from vibration to vibration… We are waiting for a new notation — a new Guido d’Arezzo — when music will move forward at a bound.”

Next to his quest for a new medium and a new notational system to liberate sound from any and all mechanical limitations, the growth and interaction of sound-masses in space through a continual process of expansion, projection, interaction, penetration, and transmutation represent the most significant part of his thinking, equally applicable to Poème èlectronique, Déserts, Intégrales, Ionisation or Density 21.5. Judging from these scores, it seems that a sound-mass refers to a body of sounds with certain specific attributes in interval content, register, contour, timbre, intensity, attack and decay. Sound-masses seem to emerge out of the expansion of an idea — “the basis of an internal structure” — into the sonic space. The sense of projection of sound-masses obviously depends on the source location of the emission as well as the independent movement of each sound-mass as opposed to the others. When such sound-masses collide, the interaction tends to bring about penetration, during which certain attributes of one sound-mass are transferred to another, thus causing transmutations to take place and changing the attributes of each sound-mass.

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