Chou Wen-chung

Etude pour Espace (1947)

Orchestrated and arranged for spatialized live performance (2009) by Chou Wen-chung

Etude pour Espace (1947) was originally composed for chorus, two pianos and percussion. Its vocal score consists of “syllables of intensity” invented by Varèse, texts from The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen and Temblor de Cielo by Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, and a phrase by the 16th century mystic poet St. John of the Cross. While these poets lived in different times and different parts of the world, their poems share a sense of mysticism, surrealism, expressionism, and symbolism. In the few lines chosen by Varèse, there is a preponderance of highly evocative and dramatic words such as “a shout that spins the sun around,” “a tongue which mourns, mourns, mourns,” “white and radiant legend,” “nailing of the coffin,” and “dark night of amorous fire” that suggest sound, color, movement and implied emotion.

The “syllables of intensity” invented by Varèse provide a contrast to the English and Spanish text, and demonstrate his use of the human voice as another dimension of musical expression. They remind one of Native American language, alluding to the ancient heritage and landscape of the New World before Columbus which so fascinated Varèse with its implication of eternity and humanity. Varèse spent some time in Sante Fe, New Mexico and was inspired by Native American legends such as the One-All-Alone, the basis of the first in a series of works he later transformed into Déserts.

The tightly knit imageries and sounds interacting with each other in Etude, even in the abstract, remind one of the scoring in Déserts and the atmosphere of Nocturnal, a highly autobiographical work. They also remind me of the ending of Astronomer, an unfinished work for the stage about an astronomer who had the ability to communicate with the star Sirius. When the astronomer is besieged by fellow astronomers who accuse him of heresy-- an obvious reference to Varèse’s own artistic career, a shaft of light from Sirius extricates him from the threatening mob and transports him to the star. When Varèse was on his deathbed, the last words I heard him mumbling were “j’ai peur,” the very last words of the astronomer at the end of that projected piece.

Etude was originally planned as a study for Espace, which Varèse characterized as a “sound montage in space” to be simultaneously broadcast from various points of the world--“Voices in the sky, filling all space, crisscrossing, overlapping, penetrating each other, splitting up, superimposing, repulsing each other, colliding, crashing together” and then re-synthesized for the audience. Etude pour Espace was meant for a chorus and small orchestra, but when such an orchestra did not materialize, the instrumentation was reduced to two pianos and six percussion parts. Varèse was extremely unhappy after he conducted the score with two pianos. According to Louise, his wife, Varèse was furious and had nightmares about the work; “those damn pianos” he often exclaimed.

Etude bothered Varèse so much because he had been working on Espace over a very long period, gradually transforming the original ideas from his projected work The-One-All-Alone to Astronomer, and then to Espace. It was in the spring of 1949 when Varèse decided to convert Espace to Déserts, completing the score for wind ensemble, piano and percussion in 1953. The theme of isolation in all these works, made explicit in Nocturnal, characterized Varèse’s art and life. Presumably Varèse had incorporated all the surviving drafts and ideas originally for Espace into the score for Etude (1947), Déserts (score, 1953) and Poème électronique (1958). I collated the score for Déserts from his sketches under his supervision, but was not told of the origin of some of the old drafts.

After Varèse’s death, I reviewed the manuscript of Etude and considered the following: the cover bears the dedication “à Louise” and “à la memoire de mon grandpère Claude Cortot,” his love for Louise is well known, and he idolized his grandfather so that this perfunctory dedication must be taken seriously as it reflects how Varèse himself felt about Etude. The work was obviously important to Varèse as he had not produced a work for 11 years since Density 21.5 in 1936. On the other hand, one had to consider Varèse’s extreme displeasure with the pianos, the lack of existing material suggesting other possibilities, and the fact that the piano parts in some places appeared to be reductions of orchestral parts. In the end, I concluded that it would not be justified to publish the score as it was, or complete the work on his behalf as the editor would inevitably have to expand on the sketchy material. My opinion was submitted for review by Pierre Boulez and Gunther Schuller, and each independently concurred with my evaluation. Subsequent reviews did not alter the initial decision but there continued to be interest from performing groups, particularly Asko Ensemble.

Meanwhile my continued study of the choral text revealed that the frequent repetition of words create a sense of spatial movement of sound, and an emotional impact reminiscent of Déserts. There was a link between these two works, particularly in view of Varèse’s study of intersecting spirals of what he called “sound masses” in four dimensions during those years. As more sophisticated speaker systems became available, allowing control of the directional projection of sound from different sources, it became possible to suggest what Varèse envisioned. Only then did I feel it was justified to do an orchestration of the piano parts of Etude to demonstrate his vision of “sound as living matter.”

Some of Varèse’s ideas for Espace found their way into Poème électronique. When Varèse went to Eindhoven to work on Poème in 1958, he brought with him the original material for Etude as well as an adapted version with only the “syllables of intensity” to be considered for inclusion in this work. He also instructed me to prepare a separate score for percussion based on certain material from Déserts. It was decided not to include any of this material in this present version of Etude inasmuch as this is an orchestrated score of the original version and to do so would require compositional decisions beyond the task of an editor/orchestrator.

This orchestration of Etude is fundamentally based on Varèse’s orchestration of Déserts as the orchestral treatment in certain parts of Déserts appear to be particularly appropriate for this piece. And in creating a spatialized orchestrated version of Etude, I have taken a cue from the original presentation of Poème électronique at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, where a system of 425 loudspeakers distributed the music throughout the Philips Pavilion designed by Le Corbusier. According to Varèse, “For the first time, I heard my music literally projected into space.”

On the other hand, it must be recognized that the presence of live musicians in a concert hall creates a dichotomy of sound sources that must be reconciled. The goal of a spatialized performance of Etude was to enhance sonic phenomena as implied by the manuscript, rather than achieving dramatic interactions of sound masses as clearly suggested in the score of Déserts. One might say, perhaps this version of Etude suggests the surface of a lake in autumn with the wind creating ripples moving in various directions, while Déserts gives the impression of a lake in a wintry storm with waves tossing and rushing in different directions. In other words, the goal is textural rather than gestural.

Another interesting aspect of Etude is that instead of the usual emphasis on unrelenting dissonances, triadic sonorities emerge almost regularly with frequent superposing of minor thirds. The result is that there is often the sonority of diminished chords, including a middle section where material is built around the eleventh chord. All of this also points to certain pitches as tonal centers. Similarly, one’s attention is drawn to the use of microtones that enhance the flavor of the diminished triads in conjunction with the word “Christ.”

These unusual exposed pitch maneuverings reveal Varèse’s dedication to early vocal music. One is reminded that Etude was composed while Varèse was dedicated to conducting early vocal masterpieces in New York. As his assistant for his last chorus, I had the privilege of observing how delicately and knowledgeably he rehearsed his amateur chorus. The tonal characteristic of his choral writing and the intonation by the chorus of his syllables of intensity, along with the repetition of text and allusion to aspiration as well as desperation, give this piece its personal quality.

-Chou Wen-chung

The choral text of Etude is made up of verses from three different poems together with “syllables of intensity” invented by Varèse.

From The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen:
Christ bless the minstrels of defeat
There is a shout that spins the sun around
There is someone wounded who calls to be saved
There is a tongue which mourns in the scarred mouth
There is an eye which cannot be shut
But there is that white and radiant legend in the snow!
An ear which withers the expectant world
A star whose light fences a merciful world.
From Temblor de Cielo (Skyquake) by Vicente Huidobro:
Oyes clavar el ataud nocturno Hear the nailing of the nocturnal coffin
Oyes clavar el ataud del mar Hear the nailing of the coffin of the sea
Oyes clavar el ataud del cielo Hear the nailing of the coffin of the sky
From St. John of the Cross:
Oscura noche de fuego amoroso Dark night of amorous fire