Edgard Varèse is a crucial figure in the history of 20th century music. His major works—Arcana, Intégrales, Density 21.5, Ionisation, Déserts, Octandre, Offrandes, and Poème Électronique—with their emphasis on timbre and rhythm, and their embrace of then-new technologies (he loved electronic music and instruments like the theremin and ondes Martenot), have been massively influential. Frank Zappa was an obsessive Varèse fan who had hoped to collaborate with the man, and John Zorn dedicated all seven CDs by his Moonchild ensemble to Varèse and Antonin Artaud.
The UK label Cherry Red has compiled three 1950s LPs of Varèse’s music into a three-CD box set. (Get it from Amazon.) The first disc includes Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Vol. 1, a four-track EP totaling 28 minutes of music, originally released on the EMS label in 1951. This has been combined, as it was on a 1977 album on Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroglu‘s Finnadar label, with the three-part Interpolations (from Déserts), tape pieces created in 1954 in the studios of the Groupe de Musique Concrète in Paris.
The first four pieces, “Intégrales,” “Density 21.5,” “Ionisation,” and “Octandre,” were performed by the New York Wind Ensemble and Juilliard Percussion Orchestra., and conducted by Frederic Waldman. “Density 21.5,” is a solo flute piece, and “Ionisation” is all percussion (including piano, but it sounds like it’s being played with hammers). A siren repeatedly wails in the latter piece, and there are a lot of militaristic barrages and clattering outbursts. The music on “Intégrales” and “Octandre” consists of a kind of call-and-response between the wind instruments and the percussion instruments. There are a lot of fanfare-like lines and shrill harmonies that verge on dissonance, while the percussion aims for an ominous and threatening sound, like storm clouds massing on the horizon. A lot of the time it sounds like the score to a horror movie, which isn’t surprising: avant-garde compositional techniques really gained a foothold in Hollywood, where their emotional power and utility as an accompaniment to striking visuals was recognized and exploited to the hilt.
One more track has been added to the first disc: the 1954 premiere of “Déserts,” performed by the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Hermann Scherchen, and with Pierre Henry serving as tape operator. At nearly 28 minutes, it’s a fascinating document not just of the music, but of its reception; the audience reaction, clearly audible throughout, ranges from applause and appreciative laughter to loud cries of dismay. At the end, we hear nearly two minutes of fervent applause mixed with loud booing.
The second and third discs gather the bulk of their material from Music of Edgar Varèse and A Sound Spectacular: Music of Edgar Varèse Vol. 2, albums conducted by Robert Craft and released in 1960 and 1962 respectively on Columbia Masterworks. The first of these featured re-recordings of the four pieces from the 1950 EP, and “Hyperprism,” another piece composed around the same time. These are fine, but the earlier recordings have a rawer quality that places them closer to Einstürzende Neubauten than, say, Gil Evans. (What can I tell you? The newer version of “Intégrales” sounds like Miles Davis‘s Sketches of Spain to me.) It also included “Poème Électronique,” a tape piece Varèse composed specifically to be played inside a pavilion, designed by Le Corbusier, at the 1958 Brussels Exhibition. The piece was heard through over 400 speakers placed all around the curving interior of the structure. Listening to its electronic swoops, zaps, pulses, and stutters, combined with the booms and gongs in headphone stereo is interesting—there are a lot of cool sounds and startling interjections, and they seem to fly here and there—but it must have been absolutely otherworldly inside the chamber it was designed to be heard in. This disc also includes a second version—the third one overall—of “Density 21.5,” performed by flute virtuoso Severino Gazzelloni (for whom Eric Dolphy named a track on his album Out to Lunch), and two more versions of “Ionisation,” the first of which, conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky in 1933, was the first recording of the piece.
The third disc begins with all the tracks from A Sound Spectacular. The first of these is a studio recording of “Déserts,” performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It lacks the explosive response of the Parisian audience, but the much cleaner mix gives the electronic elements a startling impact. They shriek and throb in an unearthly manner; at times they’re like the sounds of the human body combined with utterly mechanical tones. The piece falls short in one respect: it alternates between electronic passages and orchestral ones, probably due to technological limitations, rather than combining the two types of sounds into one epic battle for supremacy.
The disc continues with the two-part “Offrandes” suite, featuring a chamber orchestra and soprano vocalist Dona Precht, and two recordings of “Arcana.” The first, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, comes from A Sound Spectacular; the second was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Leonard Bernstein in 1958. In this case, the clarity of the studio gives the music the power it deserves. Its swelling, fanfare-like figures and ominous percussion come at the listener without mercy, building a mood of tension and even fear. In another example of Hollywood—or in this case, Australia—borrowing from avant-garde music, its sudden stabs and thunderous explosions are echoed quite strongly in composer (not the Queen guitarist) Brian May‘s soundtrack to The Road Warrior.
Edgard Varèse‘s importance is much greater than his relatively meager output would indicate. His ideas and his influence continue to permeate an incredible amount of modern music. But questions of historical impact are irrelevant when the music is this viscerally powerful.