Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Open Rather Than Bounded”


In conceiving his music as “sound set free” yet “organized,” Varèse had made original and fundamental contributions toward present-day concepts of rhythm, dynamics, timbre and form, not in his electronic works of the ’50’s but in his works for conventional instruments of the ’20’s and the early ’30’s. He thought of rhythm as “simultaneous interplay of unrelated elements that intervene at calculated, but not regular time lapses;”and yet rhythm was to him “the element of stability, the generator of form” (e.g., Ionisation, Nos. 11-12). His concept of “sound as living matter” not only brought about the use of a totally independent intensity for each individual tone but also that of a continually varying intensity within the duration of the tone (e.g., Intègrales, No. 7). He consistently explored the intrinsic values of the extreme instrumental registers and systematically employed the registral characteristic as an integral element of his sound-masses (e.g., Octandre, Nos. 2-3). In his use of percussion instruments, he added to the composer’s resources a profuse variety of new timbres and of modes of articulation and termination. He elevated the percussion instruments to a truly independent position by integrating their sound into his sound-masses according to their associative pitch registers as well as their vibratory and articulative characteristics (e.g., Arcana, Nos. 14, 16). His need for a “continuous flowing curve” led him to the use of sirens, theremins and martinots (e.g., Amériques, Ionisation, Ecuatorial) to produce “trajectories of sound” in the shape of a parabola, a hyperbola or a spiral. Such trajectories are often suggested by conventional instruments as well (e.g., Intégrales, Nos. 3-5). As for form, he compared it to the phenomenon of crystallization and regarded it as purely as “the consequence of the interaction of attractive and repulsive forces” evolved out of “an idea.” Thus, to him form was “a resultant — the result of a process,” rather than “a pattern to be followed, a mold to be filled” (e.g., Déserts).

But Varèse’s contribution extended beyond his ideas and his works. Among the most important composers of our century, he was by far the most aware of other composers and active in behalf of their music… In 1919, the New Symphony Orchestra was founded in New York for him, again with the express purpose of performing new music. But after a single pair of concerts in Carnegie Hall featuring Bartók’s Deux Images and Debussy’s Gigues, among other works, he was again frustrated … this time by the critics, performers and audience. Undaunted, two years later, Varese founded the International Composers Guild. During its six years of existence, the Guild presented fifty-six composers of fourteen nationalities, most of whom were introduced to this country for the first time… To read their names is to review the history of music of the first half-century; from Bartók to Ruggles, Chavez to Satie, Honegger to Szymanowsky, Kodaly to Vaughan Williams, Malipiero to Wellesz.

The Guild was the first organization of its kind and scope in this century. In six years of bitter struggle, it shook the musical world into an awareness of new music and created an atmosphere tolerable for serious composers.

Throughout his life, he was ever ready to fight for individual composers’ “right to make music with any sound and all sounds regardless of their ‘isms’ or schools.” In every respect then, Varèse’s influence was “open rather than bounded.”

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