Chou Wen-Chung

“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.

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.”

By Chou Wen-chung

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