So yeah, Edgar Varese was ahead of his time. After reading some lectures he gave, compiled and edited by Chou Wen-Chung, I couldn’t help by wonder how Varese would feel about the commonplace use of mechanical/electronic sounds/instruments across nearly every genre of music today. Pairing Edgar Varese with an ipad and some music app (Leaf Trombone comes to mind…) would be like letting a 4 year-old loose in a candy store with all the candy at a 4 year-old’s height. The fact that he was discussing science in music in the 1920s and 30s is astonishing!
The concept of sound in space, as much as Varese wants to claim it as a new concept (and, perhaps, it is in his more advanced definition of the concept), is not new nor is it modern. Monteverdi experimented heavily with sound across space and played with the varying degrees of echo and spatial delay in his brass choir compositions of the late 16th century. Certainly the technique has changed with Varese, but the concept has a four hundred year history.
I also just completed the 2nd chapter of Kyle Gann’s American Music in the Twentieth Century and I was surprised that a discussion of American music in the 1920s consisted more of discussion of a large handful of composers, many of whom weren’t American by birth or studied outside of America, and were notable for their achievements and lifeworks after the 1920s. I found myself picturing the American Five sitting around a table with the Russian Five and the French Six (something, admittedly, not possible given the respective time periods) and listening to these 16 strongly opinionated, nationalistic composers bicker like politicians about the state of music in the modern world. Gann is masterful at highlighting (exaggerating?) the whole “I’ve done it best, and you all suck” attitude that many American and other nationalistic composers had at the time.
While listening to some musical selections of the period, it struck me that much of the music feels very “dark” for a post-war, “Hey we won!” time period. Cowell’s The Banshee (1925) is not only dark, but wonderfully chilling. George Antheil’s Balet Mecanique (1924) is more upbeat, but still feels somber and melancholy at times. This work by Antheil feels like all the “crunchiest” parts of Stravinsky put together and fleshed out into a new work. That being said, I enjoyed this work more than I expected to.
I’ve also listened to Varese’s Poeme Electronique (1958) for the first time. This electronic piece of music (can we still call it music?) is unlike other Varese pieces I’ve heard in the amount of electronic sound effects that are used. The sound effects are very dated sounding – I’m sure in 1958 the effect was much different. In retrospect, this work feels less like music and sounds more like the FX track out of a 1950s sci-fi film or the soundtrack to the 1982 movie Tron. The instrumental music of Varese, of which I am slightly more familiar, is much more appealing as a musical work.