Chou Wen-Chung

Writings by Chou

Varèse: Who Is He?

Excerpt from article published in Grand Street 63, Vol. 16, No. 3, 1998

I had brought with me, to his brownstone on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, the first movement of my orchestral work, Landscapes, in which, trying to allow an old Chinese melody to express its color and mood without relying on Western structural principles, I had kept a transparent sonority, rather than drenching it with contemporary compositional frosting.

After what seemed like an eternity, he said, “This is beautiful.” As I thanked him and prepared to leave, he said, “I’ll see you next Tuesday at 6:30.“ He had just accepted me as his student. Again I was anxious. I was very, very poor. I fumbled for the words, “But I don’t know your fee, sir.”

Varèse turned on me. Red in the face, his eyebrows moving up and down, he barked, “Who’s talking about money? I benefited from Debussy, Romain Rolland, Strauss, Busoni. I never paid a sou. All I ask is that you carry on the tradition.” Later, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “Perhaps some day you will give me a Chinese gong?”

But my greatest lesson came in 1950. I had just discovered some early Webern scores: Six Bagatelles for string quartet, Op. 9, and Five Pieces for orchestra, Op. 10. They overwhelmed me because I thought they showed an amazing affinity to some very refined types of Chinese zither (ch’in or qin) music, so I spent a lot of time experimenting with integrating the material. Varèse, never very patient, could usually smell something foul in music pretty quickly. This time he was patient and allowed my experiment to continue. Perhaps he thought I was genuinely groping toward something. Finally one day, with both of us at the piano, he turned to me ferociously and said, “Wen-chung, you want to be a composer? Then you have to have courage. Sometimes you have to burn your music! Sometimes you have to piss on it!” And he stood up, pointing to my score, saying, “Piss now!” and walked out.

Stunned, I crawled home. For days I didn’t know what to do. I was, at that time, also composing another piece, but was afraid to show it to Varèse. With no choice left, I brought it in the following week. Too scared to show it, I put the score on the piano lid and excused myself with the words, “Pardon, I have to go piss.” When I returned, he was hunched over the piano. Hearing me enter, he whirled around, saying, “This is you, Wen-chung.” The piece, Seven Poems of the T’ang Dynasty, was published in 1952 and, in memory of that extraordinary lesson, I dedicated it to Varèse’s wife, Louise, though it was meant for them both.

Varèse was obviously as tough on himself as he was on me. He was uncompromising in his beliefs. Throughout much of his career he was an outcast, ignored and denied. On both sides of the Atlantic he was publicly denounced, condemned as a social and artistic misfit. Few, except his friends, knew him, the man. As for me, I cannot remember ever having met a more innocent, genuine person, or one more naïve in worldly ways. He was gregariously childlike among friends; people of all ages and persuasions were drawn to his humanity, warmth, and sense of fun. At the dining table, he regaled us with never-repeated anecdotes and stories of his early years struggling to survive in Paris. He had known all the artists of the time, poets, painters, actors, and musicians.

Alone, he was often depressed, saddened by the lack of opportunity to realize his goals, shaken by the ridicule aimed at his music. While editing and completing Nocturnal after his death, I was struck by the connection between the words of the text and his mood: “dark, dark, dark… shadow of Death… crucifixion…” And the way in which the chorus is directed to sound like a mob: “harsh, snarling… growling… and barking.”

As for the roots of Varèse’s music, I feel that he was more steeped in Western European cultural heritage than either Schoenberg or Stravinsky. Schoenberg’s roots were in the nineteenth century, Stravinsky’s were more transplanted. Varèse’s studies of early music with Charles Bordes, his early career as conductor, his friendship and work with Debussy, Strauss, and Busoni made him a formidable musician, equally at home with Monteverdi, Schutz, Perotin, and Beethoven. …In spite of all that, in his own music his artistic honesty drove him to achieve a vision of the music of the future unmatched by others of his generation.

Varèse believed in “all discoveries, all adventure… the unknown.” …His fascination with hydrographs, sound waves, and spirals propelled him throughout his life in search of a dream: the music of the future that would become reality in his time. The quest for the unknown brought him to the United States when he was still in his early thirties… Bartók thus opened the floodgates on studies of non-Western music. If this “discovery” is one of two axes charting the development of music in our time, then research on the technology for broadening musical communication — Varèse’s form of discovery is the other. Thus the two composers were responsible for coordinating many of the changes in musical aesthetics that have taken place since their time.

Ionisation is not only the first serious composition for an all-percussion ensemble, it is a study of the structure, grammar, and expression of musical communication beyond the conventional realm of pitch. It is not without pitches, but without definite pitches, having associate and relative pitches that are not part of the Western European tradition. But it is much more than a work illustrating a novel theoretical concept. It is an exciting, vital masterpiece that has gripped audiences. Yet few musicians recognize the historic role of this piece. Varèse was a generation ahead of his time when he wrote it. Beyond pitches and other parameters, it is a composition fundamentally conceived for primarily non-Western instruments, organized with rhythms derived from the performance techniques of each such instrument. We have yet to find a more intercultural composition.

Not surprisingly, Varèse turned out to be a universal composer, despite his deep roots in France. After his arrival in the United States in 1915, he spent years introducing the significant European composers of the time to Americans. In the summer of 1948, invited to give a series of lectures at Columbia University, he consulted as many composers as possible to incorporate their views… He was extraordinarily willing to meet young composers and go to their concerts, so much so that I had to warn him not to take too much time away from his own work. But he enjoyed people, and his influence was certainly not limited to his scores and recordings.

Varèse composed only for himself, but who can blame him for being obsessed with the insults hurled at him and feeling the need to prove himself at every turn? The first performance of Déserts at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1954 was a tragic blow to him. Nevertheless, despite the magnitude of that scandal, it was only one in a long series of disappointments that had dogged his life. And it is a lesson in understanding Varèse. He belonged to no one, no country, culture, school, or trend. His legacy belongs to the world. Any assessment of his music and influence based on national and stylistic considerations does him a disservice.

It was August 31, 1965. I was asked to go to the Varèse house. Louise, alone, began to talk. They both felt that it was time to ask me if I would take care of his music, should anything happen to him. I immediately agreed. Then, as if on cue, Varèse came in. We confirmed it briefly, and sat around chatting a while. I left thinking that their prudence had been laudable and thought no more about it, feeling sure that nothing would happen to him for a long time to come.

By Chou Wen-chung

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