Chou Wen-Chung

Writings by Chou

Varèse: A Sketch of the Man and his Music

Excerpt from essay published in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. LII No. 2, April 1966

That Varèse’s beliefs transcended all boundaries, that he was a staunch champion for the individual, was further evinced by statements he made shortly after his arrival in the New World. Two years before he put his ideas into practice, he wrote the New York Times on March 20, 1919:

“ I should also like to propose a League of Nations in Art. It needs no covenants, no drafts, no high court of arbitration, no machinery to cause debate among politicians. It would exist solely in the mental attitude of the world… Only by a free exchange of art — music, literature, painting — can one people be interpreted by another… In art, as well as in politics, we have been jarred out of our traditional isolation. And the result will be good. The contact, the emulation, the competition will spur us to greater accomplishment… What a combination the freer mingling of national characteristics in art would give! What beauty and strength!’

Because of his interest in percussion and his acquaintance with Marinetti and Russolo, Varèse was referred to on occasion as a Futurist; but his ideas on the use of sounds and noises in music are entirely opposed to those of the Futurists. He once said: “The Futurists believed in reproducing sounds literally; I believe in the metamorphosis of sounds into music.” Again, because of his friendship with Duchamp, Picabia, and Tzara, Varèse was regarded on other occasions as a Dadaist. His answer was: “I was not interested in tearing-down but in finding new means… Unlike the Dadaists I was not an iconoclast.”

He called neo-Classicism “one of the most deplorable trends of music today … the impotent return to the formulas of the past.” As for the twelve-tone system, he once commented:

“It is important in the same way that Cubism is important in the history of fine art. Both came at a moment when the need for a strict discipline was felt in the two arts… Even if one disagrees with the premises of Schoenberg’s new method, one must admit that there was a pressing need for a discipline that would bring music back to its own domain, the domain of sound… But we must not forget that neither Cubism nor Schoenberg’s liberating system is supposed to limit art or to replace one academic formula with another… [They] are media and not finalities… Good works are not the result of favorable circumstances, new devices, exploitation of new formulas; they are produced often in spite of them.”

On the other hand, in the application of the system by Webern — one composer of our time he truly admired — he found “remarkable possibilities of expansion, new points of departure.”

…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.

By Chou Wen-chung

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