Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) is considered the father of electronic music and has been an avant-garde influence in unlikely places. Regarding the band Chicago’s fifth album released in 1972,
“A Hit by Varèse” may seem a puzzling title to those unfamiliar with the cutting-edge 20th-century French composer Edgard Varèse. But [Robert] Lamm had a specific allusion in mind when he wrote the song.
“I first heard about him through Frank Zappa, who made a reference to Varèse on, I think, the Freak Out! Album,” he says. “This was before Chicago had even recorded. Terry Kath, Lee, and I were sharing an apartment in Chicago, and we had these huge Voice of the Theatre speaker systems set up in one of the rooms.
‘Terry decided to find out who this Varèse guy was, so we went and got a couple of LPs of his music and just listened to them for hours. It really kind of set us free in terms of what was possible musically. And so what I was trying to say in “A Hit by Varèse” was “Wouldn’t it be great if music this free could actually be accepted on radio — not just by the programmers, but by the people listening?”
Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) was born in Paris and was conservatory trained, also studying medieval and renaissance music at the Schola Cantorum — which makes sense regarding his understanding of acoustics and music as spacial. He was in contact with Busoni in Berlin, introduced Debussy to Schoenberg’s music, and came to the US in 1915 as a conductor, pushing the envelope by presenting pieces by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Stravinsky. He had read Busoni on modern music and questioned the division of the octave into 12 tones, moving towards an interest in pitchless sounds. Varèse believed “in the legitimacy of any sound as a vehicle for musical expression” (Hitchcock 180).
He was perhaps the first composer to conceive of sounds as objects with sculptural, spatial configurations held together by rhythmic energy. The traditional idea of developmental process and variation plays virtually no role in his music, which is composed of planes and volumes. His starting points, perhaps included the experiments of the Futurists and certain “cubist” aspects of Le Sacre du printemps. (Salzman 134)
As early as 1916 he was quoted as insisting that there was a need for new instruments and machinery. He wanted something that could produce a continuous sound at any pitch. He also treated art as an arcane science, like alchemy. He tended therefore to provide his works with pseudo-scientific titles that evoke the mythology of science. Hampered by lack of funds to develop new instruments and research synthesized music (he was rejected by the Guggenheim Foundation), Varèse nevertheless explored volumes and densities of sound in his works. He conceptualized “organized sound,” pieces not relying on pitch or other traditional musical aspects, but acoustics. His greatest period of activity was the 1920s. A science fiction opera about attempts to contact extra-terrestrials does not survive.
Although neglected as a musician during most of his life, Varèse has been revered by John Cage, Frank Zappa, and Milton Babbitt.
Offrandes (1921) is a setting of two poems for soprano and small orchestra but exploits the entire range possible and stresses percussion.
Hyperprism (1922-1923) demands 17 percussion instruments and 9 melodic winds. The piece rejects thematism.
Octandre (1923) features a stringless chamber group — eight instruments — without percussion. (“Octandrous” flowers are ones with eight stamens.) The piece begins with an oboe solo and has unusual meters — really just rhythms instead of any metrical sense — and notes shadowed by semi-tones, sevenths, and compounds — no tonal evocations. The music unfolds freely with ostinato-like moments and some Stravinskyesque neo-primitive moments, but it is not expressive. It seems masked, gritty but distanced.
Ionisation (1929-1931) is entirely a percussion piece, asking for 13 players on 37 instruments. Piano, sirens, sleigh bells, glockenspiel, and chimes are included, so it’s not entirely pitchless, but it does explore the evocative possibilities of pitchlessness and without electronic sounds. The work even seems to have a vague sonata form, though without the forward motion.
Ecuatorial (1932-1934) was scored for Theremin — an early attempt at “electronic musical synthesis” (Salzman 136).
Density 21.5 (1936) is for solo flute, 21.5 being the density (grams per cubic centimeter) of the platinum of the flute. It was written for Georges Barrère, the French flautist, and exploits the extremes of the flute’s range while presenting various “shapes of sound.”
Poème électronique (1958) was commissioned and conceived of as a multimedia spacial piece, with 400 loudspeakers arranged in a pavillion at the Brussels Worlds Fair — a 360-degrees sound space. Electronic sounds such as buzzings, machine and radio sounds defamiliarize unto eerie ghostliness the questioning vocal sounds. Not much happens simultaneously. Varèse used the term “organized sound,” or “sound-masses,” or “moving bodies of sound in space” (qtd. in Hitchcock 180).
Heckman, Don. Liner Notes. Chicago V. Warner Music Group, 2002.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley. Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction. 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.
Morgan, Robert P., ed. Music and Society: Modern Times. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1993.
Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974.
Snyder, Jeff. “Edgard Varese — Father of Electronic Music.” Jeff Snyder’s Music Technology Page. http://csunix1.lvc.edu/~snyder/em/varese. 2004.