Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Varèse: A Sketch of the Man and his Music”

Published in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. LII No. 2, April 1966. [continued]

…Asked about improvisation and aleatory music, he answered: “[It] is so accidental that I can’t see the necessity for a composer!”

…His lifelong struggle for the “liberation of sound” and for the recognition of “sound as living matter” led him to call his music “organized sound” and himself “a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities.” In a lecture given in 1936, he predicted:

“When new instruments will allow me to write music as I conceive it… the movement of sound-masses, of shifting planes, will be clearly perceived. When these sound-masses collide the phenomena of penetration or repulsion will seem to occur. Certain transmutations taking place on certain planes will seem to be projected onto other planes, moving at different speeds and at different angles… In the moving masses you will be conscious of their transmutations when they pass over different layers, when they penetrate certain opacities, or are dilated in certain rarefactions.”

As for how these sound-masses emerge and are organized, Varèse was fond of citing the phenomenon of crystallization as an analogy, explaining:

“There is an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded and split into different shapes or groups of sound constantly changing in shape, direction, and speed, attracted and repulsed by various forces. The form of the work is the consequence of this interaction.”

Clearly then, Varèse opened up new horizons not in the Fifties with his electronic works but in the Twenties with his works for conventional instruments, anticipating today’s new developments by over a quarter of a century.

Once during a lecture given towards the end of the last war, in speaking about the effects of the Thirty Years’ War on German music of that time, Varèse said: “I only hope that out of a similar inferno now raging in Europe will come a spiritual and esthetic Renaissance so much needed today. I dare believe it will. I look forward to a complete revision of values and a restoration of the things of quality to the now usurped high place that is rightfully theirs.” This has come to pass. And one of the “things of quality” restored to their rightful place is Varèse himself. His own “renaissance” came after the end of World War II.

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