Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Edgard Varèse: Arcana, Intégrales, Déserts

The short description to this blog offers the simple premise that "music is organized sound."  This is outside of any subjective qualities like "beauty" that are often associated with "music."  Though this blogger has had this wonderful Naxos disc by the amazing Edgard Varese for quite a number of years, it was with blissful unawareness that the composer termed his music, from the 1920s onward, as "organized sound."

Moreover, Varese described himself as "a worker in rhythms, frequencies and intensities," which sounds very different from how most composers would be identified (if not self-identified.)  In fact, he elaborated that "a composer . . . is an organizer of disparate elements" and went on to suggest that "noise is any sound one doesn't like."

Now, in reading Partch's fascinating, if technically difficult (especially for a rank amateur) Genesis of a Music, it seems that, in many ways, he and Varese were not that far removed in spirit in terms of their fierce individualistic and rationalistic approaches to making music far different than the orthodoxy founded on equal temperament. 

A lack of understanding the depths and details of the musical process doesn't preclude this blogger from at least having the ability to discern that expanding the palette of musical resources beyond traditional form, or, certainly in Partch's case, instrumentation is a cornerstone to what innovators like Varese or Partch (or Cage, Cowell, Reich, Harrison, Ives, Crumb, Stockhausen, Xenakis and many others) have tried to do.

What these new approaches do force the listener to do (or try to) is recalibrate their listening away from the reliable structures of equal temperament to something more challenging, less certain (and safe) but, potentially, highly enriching and thrilling.  The "organized sound" found in the several works on this disc give a nice overview to the highly varied tones, sonorities, tonalities, rhythms, colorations and other elements of sound-as-music that Varese explored and exploited in his long, if not particularly prolific, career.

Four of the five works here, performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee, date from the 1920s, when the 40-ish French-born Varese, who'd moved to the U.S. in the mid-1910s and became a citizen in 1926, poured himself into the development of "organized sound" with acoustical instrumentation.  "Arcana," dating to 1925-27, "Octandre" from 1923, Offrandres (1921), and Intégrales (1924-25) show a breathtaking array of instrumental and vocal combinations, explorations into percussive elements, evocations of various manifestations of timbre, densities of sound masses, tinkering with form and other means to find new ways of expression.

For a variety of reasons dealing with professional disappointments of various kinds, Varese was far less productive from 1930 onward.  The remaining piece on this recording, however, shows what the composer was able to do with the advancing technology of electronics, specifically an Ampex tape recorder he received from an anonymous admirer in the early 1950s. 

"Déserts" from 1950-54, brings together fourteen wind instruments, piano, several percussionists and the two-track tape machine with an open format, in which the ensemble could either play the four movements, or sections, alone or add three electronic interludes.  While it has the same keening and yearning desire for novel expressiveness that characterized Varese's earlier works, "Déserts" also reflects the mighty changes that were underway after the Second World War and with the new directions championed by such figures as Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis and many others.  As noted by Peter Quinn in the liners, "Déserts" had about the same kind of reception accorded to Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" a little over four decades here--something highlighted here not long ago.

Someday, another recording of Varese's music, which includes "Arcana" and "Déserts" but also features the early "Amériques" and the late twenties/early thirties "Ionisation" and conducted by Perre Boulez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will be highlighted. 

It has been quite an adventure delving into modern "classical" music over the last quarter century, starting from the Kronos Quartet's version of George Crumb's spellbinding "Black Angels" back in 1990 to Cage's Indeterminacy and Reich's early work with edited tape and Riley's In C and Harrison's Koro Sutra and Cowell's phenomenal tone clusters and Stockhausen's wild experiments and Xenakis's computer-assisted composing, among others.  Not being musically educated may or may not be a handicap, depending on whether the goal is to enjoy or understand or both, but it has been enriching nonetheless to go on the journey and be open to various ways creative musicians have developed "organized sound."  Varese has proven to be one of the more interesting innovators this listener has found.

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