Via Kill Ugly Radio, it's a sneak peak of the tracks on an upcoming release of Frank Zappa's Jukebox. What other album includes music by Varèse, Webern and Stravinsky as well as Cecil Taylor, Howlin' Wolf, Eric Dolphy and Little Richard, among others?
To use up the monthly allotment of emusic downloads, I often do a random search of favorite works to find alternative performances. This time, along with Charlie Parker's Relaxin' at Camarillo (as played by Archie Shepp and Cedar Walton), I looked up Varèse's Ionisation.
I'm now playing through my new MP3s and it turns out, El Farouki's Ionisation isn't some new electronic realization of the work but an unrelated techno composition. Fortunately, the Rowan University Percussion Ensemble's version of Ionisation is what I was expecting.
As planned, I listened to the music of Edgard Varèse during the month of February. I have no great insights to report about the music. On the other hand, I now realize that I like to listen to his music but I'm not sure I actually like the music. I'm still intriguted by it, though. After I discovered John Adams had channeled Edgard Varèse in preparation for the opera Doctor Atomic, closer listening led me to the following comparison which still stands:
Having listened to the works of Varese for the last several weeks, in comparison, Doctor Atomic isn't dour, confrontational, confusing, overwhelming etc. It still has its challenges, though.
I've also been thinking through what work I would recommend to someone who hasn't heard this music before. Un Grand Sommeil Noir is beautiful but not representative. Maybe Ionisation since people expect percussion music to be strange in any case? Richard Friedman suggestsOctandre as a great short piece.
Several recent Varèse comments in the blogosphere:
Calimac thinks John Adams' The Flowering Tree has hints of Varèse in the choral parts.
The Sequenza21 thread about Starbucks asks if Varèse should be considered accessible. Maybe this concert was well-received but I'm dubious about this music being "accessible" although I'd be interested in hearing other data one way or the other.
Finally, Roger Bourland blogs about his, presumably mythical, discovery of a conversation between Edgard and his aspiring acolyte Frank Zappa, after the latter's recent death. Despite the connection between the two artists, what I don't understand is why is there no significant Varèse-ian school of music? Because of the radical nature of the musical ideas? The (possibly) abrasive personality? The professional and political climate of the time? Maybe American composers only accept French influence via Nadia Boulanger?
(If you are reading this from a feed reader, click here to see the "What's your favorite Varèse work" poll).
Darcy James Argue has an excellent post about an all-Varèse concert. Among other pieces, he likes the Manhattan School of Music performance of the percusion piece Ionisation, making an interesting generational comment:
Having grown up surrounded by hiphop, industrial, and electronica,
these kids find nothing unusual in the idea of a piece which is all
about sirens, noise and thunderous percussion.
It's hard to call the music of Varèse "normal," but here's hoping...
Also, in preparation for my February composer of the month, I bought two CDs at Amoeba today of Pierre Boulez conducting Varèse. And no, Boulez is not the composer du mois although I am reading The Cage/Boulez Correspondence.
One reason is the lack of composers who are able to create new music
which has all the needed, critical elements: memorable melodies,
engaging rhythm and pleasant harmonies and sonorities... But music has to be acceptable to our ears, not just to consist of loud meaningless sound effects.
I both agree and disagree with that last statement, especially with respect to live concerts. I don't need my music loud (any more) and I generally prefer a more intimate setting. But intimate need not mean "pleasant." What are meaningless sound effects to him could be compelling timbre to me. Having spent the last forty years stretching my ears by listening to a large and diverse body of recorded sound, for example this week, a Merzbow remix of Xenakis, the prospect of hearing a traditional orchestra playing traditional repetoire isn't enough to get me to pay for the experience (any more).
I suppose my interest in works by John Adams, Elliott Carter and Edgard Varèse doesn't qualify as traditional, either.
Finally, I have no informed opinion about performance practice per se but Mr. Talvi's oft-interesting post also includes this:
I don’t think that anyone should conduct or sing a sacred piece of
music unless they thoroughly understand the meaning and symbolism of
And as a tonic to tonight's pop-jazz, it's the crisp and weird percussion music of Edgard Varèse. Let's see -- five degrees of connection would be Cyndi Lauper to Miles Davis to Teo Macero to Edgard Varèse to Richard Strauss. Although apparently, Cyndi Lauper and Richard Strauss have already been linked, at least artistically. Regarding a performance of Strauss' Arabella:
only clear visual reference to a specific era was an inexplicable image from the
1980s — a group of Asian waiters break-dancing on stage while Milli
(the trilling Russian coloratura Olga Trifonova) sang dressed up like the pop
star Cyndi Lauper in the video "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
Back to Varèse, Paul Griffiths in the Penguin Companion to Classical Musicsuggests he was "an extreme radical in a radical generation" and kept pushing his modernist vision even while others were backing away.